As the killing of Osama Bin Laden is met with patriotic zeal, James Supple takes a look at what it’s going to take to fight the world’s biggest terrorist—the United States
FOR OBAMA and many others across America, the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was a moment to celebrate US power and a defeat for the “threat of terrorism”. But it is the United States that for decades has behaved as the world’s biggest terrorist, slaughtering people around to globe to further its own interests.
Bin Laden’s death was just another demonstration of how the US uses its overwhelming military power. US President Barack Obama praised what was an extra-judicial execution, carried out by flying secretly into the heart of another country to shoot dead an unarmed man. This, he said, was, “a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.”
Echoing the words of the Bush administration, Obama claimed al Qaeda is simply an evil organisation, “committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe.”
Yet the history of US power shows exactly why millions worldwide would want to strike back in anger. The war on Iraq left an estimated 1.2 million Iraqis dead between 2003 and 2008. This followed a decade of US-backed sanctions that caused the deaths of an estimated half a million children.
As many as 1000 civilians were killed last year alone in missile strikes inside Pakistan by US drone aircraft. A study by the New American Foundation revealed that the US carried out 16 separate strikes in an effort to kill one militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, at a cost of 300 deaths. It should come as no surprise that people want to fight the crimes of the US empire.
US backs terror
US state terrorism has been nowhere more vicious than in the Middle East, whose huge oil reserves have made it of key strategic importance to the major world powers. In fact it was actually US funding to spread wars in places like Afghanistan that created al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
The US began funding Islamic groups to fight the Russian-backed Afghan government in July 1979, helping push the Russians to invade the country. That war cost around one million lives, and created the warlords who still plague the country today. This was funded by the US and its allies Saudia Arabia and Pakistan.
Osama bin Laden’s own terrorist career began in the US operation to recruit Islamic fighters from across the Middle East for the war in Afghanistan. Bin Laden used his own inherited fortune to fund the recruitment and training of Arabs to fight in the war. The CIA denies that it ever directly funded Osama bin Laden. But US aid for the war against the Russians was channelled through the Pakistani military’s ISI, which developed links with a whole range of Islamic terrorist groups.
The US cynically used these radical Islamic groups to further its own foreign policy interests. US national security adviser at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, famously justified this by saying, “What was more important in the world view of history?… A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
But when figures like bin Laden turned on the US for its own role in propping up corrupt regimes in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, it denied responsibility and denounced them as simply “evil”. Foreign policy expert Chalmers Johnson famously described the 9/11 attacks as “blowback”, the result of the decades of barbarism and destruction US imperialism has unleashed across the world.
Socialists recognise that terrorism is a response to the oppression and state terrorism imposed by the world’s rulers. We want a society where such violence and oppression are a thing of the past. While we do not welcome violence, we recognise that in some situations, some violence is inevitable. For instance, if Egypt’s revolutionaries had refused to use violence to defend themselves against the regime’s thugs that tried to drive them out of Tahrir square, they would likely have doomed the revolution to defeat. There are even some wars, like national liberation wars, that are justified.
But socialists have always opposed the use of terrorist acts, such as assassination of government ministers or planting bombs against government and civilian targets. The attitude socialists should take to terrorism was a matter of fierce debate amongst Russian socialists in the late 19th and early 20th century.
They grew up in a country shaken by a terrorist movement, the Narodkniks, who made use of, “systematic terror, taking as its task the elimination of satrap after satrap, minister after minister, monarch after monarch” with the aim of toppling the repressive Tsarist dictatorship.
Hundreds of young intellectuals were sent to prison or executed at the height of the movement from the 1860s to 1880s for involvement in terrorist plots. Many came from similar backgrounds to the activists in the socialist movement. Those executed included the elder brother of Lenin, later the leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution of 1917.
“For us”, the Russian revolutionary socialist Leon Trotsky wrote, “a terrorist was not a character from a novel, but a living and familiar being.”
Trotsky condemned the hypocrisy of Russia’s rulers, who moralised about the terrorists’ contempt for human life, yet were, “the same people who, on other occasions… are ready to shove millions of people into the hell of war.” But he also explained how terrorism was a dead end as a form of political struggle.
Trotsky recognised that the murder of individual monarchs or government ministers could not dislodge the regime. He commented, “The capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The classes it serves will always find new people”.
Terrorism attaches much more importance to individual presidents or prime ministers than they actually have. It cannot obliterate the institutions, classes or social system responsible for oppression and war, of which individual leaders are simply representatives.
He showed that terrorism in fact has a strong affinity with reformism, since it also mistakenly holds that replacing one set of individual government ministers can fundamentally change an oppressive social system. Trotsky wrote that the more terrorism gains credibility as a way to struggle against oppression, the more, “it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who someday will come and accomplish his mission.”
Terrorism is an extreme case of “substitionalism”, where the acts of a small elite group of activists are held up as a substitute for the mass involvement of ordinary people as a way to change society. Such a route has also appealed to some misguided groups on the left in recent decades, as a short cut to building mass political struggles. A string of left-wing terrorist groups emerged in the West out of the disappointed hopes of Vietnam era radicals, from the Baader-Meinhoff gang in Germany to the Red Brigades in Italy and the Weathermen in the US.
Importantly, Trotsky argued that the results of a terrorist attack are almost always counter-productive. Terrorist attacks that target civilians are used by governments to promote a climate of fear where, “rational thought is engulfed by emotional blackmail”, as British socialist John Molyneux has written. This was very clear after 9/11, where the right wing in the US went on the offensive to claim that anyone who asked “why” the terrorist strikes had happened was apologising for them. The attacks allowed the Bush administration to rally a level of domestic support for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that would not have been possible without the cover of 9/11. Then US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice herself privately described the attacks as “opportunities” the US had to capitalise on.
The 9/11 attacks allowed the scapegoating and criminalisation of Muslim communities in countries like Australia and the US through new “anti-terror” laws. This shows how terrorism actually strengthens the repressive state institutions it is designed to weaken, by giving them the excuse to launch mass arrests, new draconian laws and efforts to silence dissent. As Trotsky noted, the only real outcome of terrorism is that “the police repression grows more savage and brazen”.
Fighting to win
Terrorism is a barrier to building the kind of mass movements that can stop wars, put an end to poverty and oppression, and ultimately create a different kind of world where these horrors no longer exist. But the need to do so is as urgent as ever.
In the Middle East, the US has been happy to turn a blind eye to the gunning down of protesters by regimes it supports. It said nothing when its ally Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to defend the US-backed government there in March. Obama continues to arm and back the US watchdog Israel, saying in May that “we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels… we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies.”
The Western bombing campaign against Libya is intensifying. Over 2700 bombs had been dropped by April—unsurprisingly, the number of civilian causalities is growing. Obama is talking about withdrawing us troops from Afghanistan in July—but a full US withdrawal is still far off, and until then civilian casualties will grow. They were at their highest since the war began last year according to the UN, with almost 2800 killed.
But there is an alternative. The wave of democratic revolutions across Middle East this year have shown the power of mass protest and workers’ strike waves to topple corrupt US-backed dictators and challenge imperialism. As veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk has commented these events prove, “the irrelevance of al Qaeda now politically and the irrelevance of bin Laden himself”.
The possibility now exists for Egyptian and Tunisian workers to take back control of their society from US interests and its junior partners in their own countries. Workers in the Arab world keep the oil flowing, keep the trains moving, keep the factories churning: they make the profits for imperialism and the Arab rulers. They have the power to challenge the economic basis of imperialism.
It’s this kind of political strategy that bring about fundamental change and can fight the real terror of the capitalist system.