What is terrorism and who is the terrorist?

A former CIA officer said terrorism has become the most misunderstood and at the same time abused expression in the world today and for the US and Europe the label terrorism is essentially political. Iran has particularly been on the receiving end of the politics of terrorism, even in the current negotiations over a peaceful settlement to the controversy relating to the Iranian nuclear program.

“As the alleged threat of nuclear weapons has receded it has been replaced by expressed concerns that Iran should not be trusted because it is a “terrorism sponsor,” a false dichotomy that conflates Tehran’s support for Palestinian resistance movements with actual terrorism,” wrote Philip Giraldi in a paper delivered to the 2nd International Congress on 17000 Iranian Terror Victims.

In reality, far from being a terrorism supporter Iran has been subjected to state sponsored terrorism initiated by the United States and Israel frequently using proxies to include the Mujahedin e Khalq and Jundullah, to include bombings, assassinations, sabotage and constant threats of military action.

What comes below is the full text of Giraldi’s paper:

The twenty-first century might well be called the century of the terrorist. Terrorism is constantly in the news in one form or another and American newspapers have been reporting that “terrorism trend lines are ‘worse than at any other point in history.’” But what is terrorism? It has frequently been pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not an actual physical adversary, but it is less often noted that a simple definition of what constitutes terrorism is hardly universally accepted, while the designation itself is essentially political. The glib assertion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter fails to capture the distinction’s consequences as the terror label itself increasingly comes with a number of legal and practical liabilities attached. Describing an organization as terroristic in order to discredit it has itself become a tactic, and one that sometimes has only limited connections to what the group in question actually believes or does.

The bone of contention in defining terrorism is where to draw the line in terms of the use of violence in furtherance of a political objective. In practice, it is generally accepted that state players who employ violence do so within a social framework that confers legitimacy, while non-state players who use political violence are ipso facto terrorists, or at least susceptible to being tagged with that label, which confers upon them both illegitimacy and a particularly abhorrent criminality. But some on the receiving end of such a Manichean distinction object, noting that the laws defining terror are themselves drawn up by the governments and international organizations, which inevitably give themselves immunity in terms of their own potential liability. They would argue that established regimes will inevitably conspire to label their enemies terrorists to marginalize both resistance movements and internal dissent in such a way as to diminish the credibility of the groups that are so targeted. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently been doing precisely that regarding the growing opposition to his increasingly authoritarian policies, and one might reasonably argue that the government use of violence is often in practice indistinguishable from the actions of non-state players.

Some common dictionary definitions of terrorism include engaging in “the systematic use of terror,” surely an indication of the inscrutability of an issue when the word must be used to define itself. The United Nations has been unsuccessfully negotiating a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism since 2002 that would define terror as causing death or serious injury or destroying or damaging public or private property “to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” The United States Federal criminal code uses similar language, as does the Patriot Act, with the key elements being the use of violence or physical destruction to “intimidate or coerce” a civilian population or to challenge the authority of an existing government.

There exists some common ground in that everyone can understand that if you decide to kill civilians in support of a political objective it is something that might plausibly be labeled terrorism. But it is not that simple in practice. If you are a Muslim American who is appalled by U.S. foreign policy, most specifically its apparent penchant for invading Islamic countries in a bid to change their regimes, and you make the mistake of saying something to that effect on the phone or writing about your concerns in an email, there is a good chance that what you write or say will be discovered by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will come after you. You will in short order find yourself with a new friend who is a Muslim just like you and who shares your frustration with American foreign policy. At a certain point he will reveal his affiliation with a certain overseas group that is interested in obtaining revenge for all the Muslims who have been killed or injured by the United States. He will suggest that doing something about the problem would be neither sinful nor really wrong and will hint that he has access to the weapons or bombs that could be used for a revenge attack. The gullible American Muslim takes the bait.  The bomb or gun is a dud and the new friend turns out to be an FBI informant.  Another “terrorist” is arrested and sent to jail for twenty years.

Americans who are not Muslim should be concerned by the repeated arrests and prosecutions of so-called terrorists, first of all because the process reveals that our private communications, whether by phone or electronically, are no longer very private to the listeners and viewers at the NSA. And secondly because the law enforcement use of a planted informant to encourage and enable someone to commit a crime used to be illegal and was referred to as “entrapment.” It is not so any more, at least not in terrorism cases, most of which are entrapments.

And most of the terrorism cases prosecuted in the United States do not related to actual terror but rather to what is described as “material support.”  It is interesting to read what exactly the United States Code states regarding the potential offense, all described in considerable detail in 18 USC § 2339A – “Providing Material Support To Terrorists (a) Offense.— Whoever provides material support or resources or conceals or disguises the nature, location, source, or ownership of material support or resources, knowing or intending that they are to be used in preparation for, or in carrying out, a violation of section [38 sections and acts are cited] or in preparation for, or in carrying out, the concealment of an escape from the commission of any such violation, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life. A violation of this section may be prosecuted in any Federal judicial district in which the underlying offense was committed, or in any other Federal judicial district as provided by law.”

The statute then goes on to elaborate on what the language actually means, providing the “(b) Definitions: As used in this section(1) the term ‘material support or resources’ means any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safehouses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel (1 or more individuals who may be or include oneself), and transportation, except medicine or religious materials;… (3) the term ‘expert advice or assistance’ means advice or assistance derived from scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge.”

Some of the emphasized definitions (my emphasis) are notably vague, which is the intention, insuring that when an FBI agent takes his case to a prosecutor and the prosecutor decides to go to trial there will be more than sufficient evidence to make a case and obtain a conviction. “Intangibles,” “service,” “expert advice or assistance” and “specialized knowledge” lack specificity and , at least in the United States, are intended to demonstrate to the public that the government is doing its job in dealing with the terrorist threat.

At an international level, governments are equally aware of what can be accomplished by invoking the word “terrorism” and also benefit from the knowledge that they don’t have to be too specific. The diplomacy-averse United States government frequently hides behind the label, as it publicly refuses to negotiate with groups so-designated, even though it does so on a small scale occasionally. One might note that it thereby avoids having to confront the possible legitimacy of what the terrorist groups represent. And it also justifies a uniformly violent first response, which can invariably and to a certain extent plausibly be described as self-defense.

Fourteen years ago the “global war on terror” was employed to justify wholesale American intervention in predominantly Muslim countries. A number of European countries, including France and Britain, have followed the example of the two U.S. Patriot Acts by introducing antiterrorism legislation that provides special police and intelligence service authorities that limit normal legal protections in terrorism cases. The broadly written laws have largely rendered the police immune from either regulation or prosecution, and governments in the West have generally been reluctant to allow any third-party inquiries into the related behavior of military and security forces even when acting extraterritorially. In the United States the State Secret Privilege, originally intended to prohibit the exposure of classified information in court, has been used to completely derail judicial proceedings relating to offenses committed by the government in terrorism cases, abandoning completely the principle that a party can use the court system to obtain redress against government abuse.

And critics of the essentially hypocritical double standard used in defining what constitutes a terrorist act certainly have a point. One might reasonably argue that the use of drones, in which “signature” targets are killed because they match a profile, fits comfortably within the definition of terrorism. During 2003-4, American Army and Marine forces in Fallujah sometimes shelled and bombed targets in the city indiscriminately and were certainly responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. The Israeli Defense Forces killed thousands of civilians in two incursions into Gaza as well as in several attacks on Lebanon. There was neither an actual threat nor a declaration of war to justify the use of armed force in either case, and independent observers noted that many of the civilian casualties could have been avoided, normally a defining factor that makes an incident terror. Both Israel and the United States turned the tables on the situation through their access to the mainstream media by referring to their opponents and victims as themselves “terrorists.” In spite of several inquiries and the existence of an International Criminal Court, there has been no accountability for the deaths because it was two governments that carried out the killing.

Amidst a world seemingly obsessed with terrorism it was also inevitable that something like an anti-terrorism industry would grow dramatically. Every American and European television and radio network has its own stable of pundits who pontificate on every violent incident and there are also the well compensated international freelancers who describe themselves as experts to include Evan Kohlmann and Steve Emerson in the U.S. Emerson recently had to apologize after claiming falsely that Birmingham England had a number of no-go areas controlled by local Muslim extremists.

And it should be no surprise that lawyers have also gotten into the game. In 1996 the U.S. Congress passed the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which allows victims of terrorism to file civil suits in federal and state courts against sponsors or supporters of terrorism. Once a group or individual is labeled as terrorist or providing assistance to terrorists there are a number of options that can be pursued through recourse to the courts. This aspect of the burgeoning anti-terrorism industry appears to be in some ways linked to the increasing employment of Lawfare, which uses the legal system to wage war by alternative means, making it possible to obtain a favorable judgment and damages from the assets of a recognized terrorist organization. Such litigation benefits from the favorable legislation in the United States that makes terrorism a worldwide crime potentially subject to U.S. judicial review.

Recent court cases have involved both states that allegedly sponsor terrorism or actual organizations that are now parts of governments that either currently or at one time were perceived to be terrorists. Not surprisingly, many of the groups targeted are enemies of Israel and it is the Israeli Lawfare center Shurat HaDin that is most active in pursuing such litigation. In a recent case in New York City, the Palestinian Authority was successfully sued by a Shurat HaDin assisted group of Israelis and Americans over terrorist attacks that took place in Israel in 2002-4. If the appeal fails, the Palestinian Authority will be required to pay $1 billion in damages and will be bankrupted, with negative consequences for the United States and the other nations that have been seeking to create a viable government on the West Bank.

Beyond groups and individuals, the U.S. Department of State identifies four countries as state sponsors of terrorism, making them prime targets for sanctions and other legal action. They are Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Iran. Cuba is an anomaly in that it has not threatened anyone in decades but it remains on the list due to the deep passions within America’s politically powerful Cuban Lobby. Sudan likewise should not be designated at all as even the U.S. government admits that it is cooperative on terrorism issues. Syria is on the list because it harbors or cooperates with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. All three groups consider themselves resistance movements against the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine but Tel Aviv regards all three as terrorists. It is a viewpoint embraced by the United States on its Foreign Terrorist Organization list compiled by the Department of State, but not necessarily shared by some governments in Europe.

One might reasonably conclude that all designations of state sponsorship of terrorism are essentially political. Iran is regarded as a state sponsor of terror even though it has not actually supported any terrorist attacks and even though it has actually been the victim of terrorism carried out by groups assisted by the United States and Israel. Israel regards Iran as its enemy and is engaged in an active though secret war against it.

Since 2003 attacks inside Iran by the Israeli supported terrorist group Jundullah have focused on the Iranian military and police but have also included the killing or wounding of hundreds of civilians using bombings and by gunfire. One particularly horrific bombing took place in a mosque and in another incident 16 Iranian border police were executed. The full name of the group is in translation the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran. It is located in Baluchistan and claims to be fighting for the equal rights of Sunni Muslims living in Iran, but that vaguely defined objective is more than somewhat deceptive as it is an al-Qaeda affiliate. Israel has a particularly close relationship with the group, having used it for operations and intelligence gathering. During the George W. Bush administration, Israeli case officers from Mossad were discovered using U.S. passports while pretending to be American Central Intelligence Agency officers when meeting with the organization’s leaders. It is also believed that Jundullah has met with American officials independently, though the U.S. government denies it, suggesting that both Israel and the United States have been working directly with a group that they know to be linked to al-Qaeda.

And there is also the assassinations of Iranian scientists and technicians by the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK) acting under Israeli and possibly United States direction. At least six men involved in the Iranian nuclear program have been killed in shootings and bombings since 2010, all ordered by Mossad but apparently at least in most cases carried out by MEK. Israel and the United States are, in fact, the only nations that currently engage extensively and sometimes even openly in targeted killing of presumed enemies, though Tel Aviv is far more active in that respect than Washington. Israeli operatives use actual assassination frequently, referred to in Hebrew (in translation) as “focused foiling,” to distinguish it from “mowing the lawn” which is its policy of creating terror through indiscriminate shelling or bombing of a civilian population. One Israeli source notes that “targeted assassinations have become the most significant and frequent form of Israeli military attack.” Hundreds of alleged adversaries of Israel have been eliminated in that fashion to include at least 239 Palestinians.

Both Washington and Tel Aviv have also been active in their support of separatist Kurds, Azeris and Ahwazi Arabs employing violence against the Iranian regime, normally in the form of bombings or attacks on the police, though the incidents also routinely produced collateral damage on civilians. This assistance was provided without any consideration of the issue of eventual control of the surrogates as the groups being supported did not share either Israeli or American aspirations for a future reorganization of the Near East, opening a new Pandora’s box in a volatile region. As non-Persians make up 40% of the Iranian population, the attempt to use separatists to attack the central government became also an underhanded attempt to bring about regime change by threatening the cohesiveness of the Iranian state, a dangerous undertaking with possible consequences both demonstrated and experienced more recently in Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State was able to rise up based on the power vacuum resulting from loss of central state control.

In part Tehran has been singled out by Israel and the United States because it, like Syria, supports the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. That means that inclusion on the several United States government terrorism lists frequently reflects a strong desire to see a group or country singled out for punishment for reasons other than as a response to its actual behavior. This predilection is being exploited currently in the case of Iran to support a pro-Israel narrative suggesting that Iran cannot be trusted to negotiate or deal honestly over its nuclear program because it is linked to “terrorism.”

Terrorism has therefore become a major preoccupation of the United States government. In addition to the main terrorism lists maintained by the Departments of Treasury and State, there are also thousands of individuals and groups considered to be terroristic or criminal, compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice on its Special Designated Nationals List. Individuals and organizations on the list have their assets blocked and are subject to other punitive action as ordered by the White House. But in spite of the impression of a relentless bureaucracy functioning as if on autopilot, in reality, the United States terrorism list is so subjectively generated that it can sometimes be altered to reflect changing political sentiments. The case of MEK is a notable example of how the politics of terrorism plays out when a group has powerful supporters and the money required to pursue both legal and propagandistic expedients.

MEK has been on the State Department roster of foreign terrorist organizations since the list was established in 1997.  Its inclusion derives from its having killed six Americans in the 1970s and from its record of violence both inside and outside Iran since that time.  The group was driven out of Iran, denied refuge in France, and eventually armed and given a military base by Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein.  Saddam used the group to carry out terrorist acts inside Iran and after the fall of the Baathist regime the United States army protected it and provided it with a safe haven called Camp Ashraf, intending to employ it against the Iranian government.

MEK is widely regarded as a cult and was and is headed by a husband and wife team Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. Its members are required to be celibate and there are reports that they are subjected to extensive brainwashing, physical torture, severe beatings even unto death, and prolonged solitary confinement if they question the leadership.  One scholar who has studied them describes their beliefs as a “weird combination of Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism.” Like many other terrorist groups MEK had a political wing that operates openly referred to as the National Council of Resistance, which was based in Paris, and another front organization called Executive Action which operated out of Washington.

The United States military and CIA have in the past recruited MEK agents to enter into Iran and report on nuclear facilities and to engage in other intelligence collection.  Other MEK agents, recruited and trained by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, have more recently been engaged in the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientists and officials.  The group appears to have ample financial resources and it is generally believed that at least some of the money comes directly from Mossad.  MEK has been able to place full page ads in major American newspapers and was also known to pay hefty speaker’s fees to major political figures who were willing to speak publicly on its behalf.  The group claimed to want regime change in Iran to restore democracy to the country, an odd assertion as it itself has no internal democracy.

Because MEK is a resource being used by Israel in its clandestine war against Iran, it is perhaps inevitable that many friends of Israel in the United States campaigned vigorously to have the group removed from the terrorism list.  Indeed, neoconservatives at their various think tanks and publications as well as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby all have support delisting the group. MEK’s friends argue that the group has not killed anyone since 1999, though the recent assassinations in Iran employing MEK members belie that assertion as do FBI reports revealing terrorist planning as late as 2004. Many speakers defending MEK have after the fact admitted that they did not know much about the group, most particularly in regard to its cult status, though they insist that their support was based on the fact that the organization was no longer lethal. And, of course, the handsome speaking fees they received.

The well-connected friends of MEK included well known neoconservatives like John Bolton and James Woolsey.  And there was also the paid supporting cast including former head of the Democratic Party Howard Dean; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; ex-CIA Director Michael Hayden; former Generals Anthony Zinni, Peter Pace, and Hugh Shelton; former Congressman Lee Hamilton; ex-Attorney General Michael Mukasey; former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge; former National Security Adviser Jim Jones, ex-Senator Robert Torricelli, former FBI Director Louis Freeh; and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.  Current United States representatives Dana Rohrbacher and Brad Sherman also openly supported MEK and joined ninety-six other congressmen in calling for the lifting of the terrorism label.

Lee Hamilton praised MEK for providing useful intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz, but some of the information that he cited was believed to be fabricated, produced by Mossad.  Hamilton subsequently admitted that he was paid a “substantial amount” to speak and conceded that he might have been fooled by the group’s claiming democratic credentials. “You always can be misled,” he said.  Ethically challenged former Senator and current lobbyist Robert Torricelli was a whole lot less introspective, stating that he was “personally offended” by the group being listed as terrorist, noting that it could have been “used” against Iran.

In August 2011 Representative Ted Poe of Texas struck a similar note, referring to MEK as “freedom fighters,” the only “real” opposition to the government in Tehran.  Retired Air Force Lt. General Thomas McInerney advocated delisting the group so it could undertake “provocative actions” against Iran, which he described as killing Iranians if and when they kill Americans. John Pike, head of the Global Security think tank in Washington observed that MEK was useful to policymakers in Washing, noting that “They could never overthrow the current Iranian government but they might cause a lot of damage.” So the objective for some MEK supporters clearly seemed to consist of giving a pass to a terrorist group and even encouraging it to undertake violent action, as long as it is “our” terrorist group attacking people that the Washington punditry perceived to be the bad guys.

And that’s where the self-evident hypocrisy comes in. Given the history of MEK as a terrorist organization and the deliberately broad wording of the relevant United States Statute it would seem that speaking on behalf of the group undeniably amounts to material support of terrorism.  So one has to ask why is it that the numerous prominent MEK advocates were not arrested, charged and prosecuted? Can it be that the richly compensated MEK spokesmen were too important to arrest?  Or is it just a fool’s game with the usual Washington crowd queuing up for a bad cause because they were both lining their pockets and thinking they were helping Israel?  In any event it was a poor bargain for everyone but MEK and Israel.

And it should surprise no one that the intricacies of who is or is not a terrorist supporter aside, the MEK cheerleaders eventually won. The group was recently removed from the terrorist list by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton due to the nearly constant pressure from Congress and the media, indicating once again that there is no coherency to the “terrorist” label.

So what terrorism actually consists of very much depends on one’s perspective, rendering the word itself largely meaningless. But those who are listed as terrorists experience real consequences even accepting that the designation is both selectively applied and politicized. The United States and Israel in particular use the terrorism label to demonize opponents, drum up fear, and generate popular support for security policies that might otherwise be unpalatable. They also justify their own behavior by asserting that they occupy the moral high ground in the defense of the world against terror while in reality the actual victims of terrorism include Iran and other nations like Syria that have had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of an essentially fraudulent and unending global war that has produced little or no security for anyone.

Philip M. Giraldi is the Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest, which advocates a U.S. foreign policy for the Middle East that is both honorable and decent and which respects the long suppressed interests of the Palestinian people. Giraldi has an A.B. in Ancient History with honors from the University of Chicago and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval and Early Modern History from University College London. He served in United States Army intelligence for three years during the Vietnam War and went on to work as a counterterrorism specialist for the Central Intelligence Agency for seventeen years, living and working in Europe and the Middle East.

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