When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When, apparently, he is ‘our’ terrorist.
Last week Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a professor at Tehran’s technical university, and deputy director of commerce at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, was blown up by a bomb attached to his car. He was the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be killed in the past two years, part of what appears to be a concerted assassination campaign against people deemed key to Teheran’s nuclear ambitions.
It is still unclear who carried out the attacks. Israel is high on the list of most informed observers. Last week the journal Foreign Policy carried a report about Mossad operatives posing as CIA agents to recruit fighters from the Pakistani jihadi group Jundallah for terrorist operations in Iran. Twenty four hours before Roshan’s murder, Israel’s military chief of staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz had told a parliamentary meeting that Iran should expect ‘continuing and growing pressure from the international community and things which take place in an unnatural manner.’
The identity of perpetrators may still be uncertain. What is without doubt, however, is the international response to the assassinations – or, rather, the lack of any response. Imagine if four US or British nuclear scientists had been assassinated in New York or London, and that Iran had been seen as the most likely suspect. There would, rightly, have been global outrage. There would have been political condemnations, UN resolutions, possibly the severing of diplomatic ties, certainly the talk of sanctions, perhaps even of military strikes.
In this case, however, the predominant noise has been the sound of quiet satisfaction at a job well done. In the West, condemnation has been, at best, muted. Hillary Clinton dissociated America from the ‘violence inside Iran’, but uttered not a word of condemnation of the violence, though her spokeswoman acknowledged that America did not support ‘any assassination or attack on an innocent person’. No word of censure has so far come from the United Nations Security Council. As a Reuters report put it, ‘Iran may be outraged at the killing of another nuclear scientist in broad daylight, but it lacks viable avenues for international condemnation or prosecution of what could be an attempt to sabotage its nuclear program.’ Many senior politicians have openly welcomed the assassinations. ‘On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead’, US Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum gloated recently. ‘I think that’s a wonderful thing.’
Contrast this with the outrage that greeted the alleged Iranian plot last October to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. America accused Iran’s Quds Forces of recruiting a failed used car salesman in Texas to hire Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the ambassador in a Washington restaurant. Serious doubts have been raised as to whether Iran had any involvement in a plot seemingly scripted more by Ricky Gervais than by al-Qaeda, and one in which, as US officials acknowledged, ‘no explosives were actually ever placed anywhere and no one was actually ever in any danger’. Nevertheless the US attorney general Eric Holder insisted that Iran would be ‘held to account’ over what he described as a ‘flagrant abuse of international law’ and suggested that ‘military action remains on the table’. Tom Kean, former chairman of the 9/11 Commission described the plot as ‘pretty close to an act of war’, pointing out that ‘You don’t go in somebody’s capital to blow somebody up’.
It would be easy to describe the contrast in responses as ‘hypocrisy’. But it goes much deeper, getting to the very heart of what we mean by ‘terrorism’ and by what the ‘war on terror’ has come to mean. Remi Brulin is a visiting fellow at New York University who has been tracking use of the word ‘terrorism’. It was in the 1980s that the word came properly into public discourse. Partly this was in response to the changing character of Palestinian violence over the previous decade, exemplified by the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. More important than the conflict in the Middle East, however, were the wars in Central America, set against the background of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan used the idea of ‘terrorism’ to justify, on the one hand, support for the military junta in El Salvador fighting the threat of the ‘terrorist’ FMLN guerilla movement and, on the other, to the rightwing Contra militias in Nicaragua trying to bring down the ‘terrorist’ Sandinista government.
The end of the Cold War transformed the discourse on terrorism. First, third world liberation struggles became degraded and fragmented, their violence driven less by political conviction than by nihilistic desire to sow terror. The emergence of the Islamist suicide bomber is an expression of this degradation of what used to be liberation struggles.
Second, in the absence of the ideological struggle against communism, the war on terror increasingly became the anchor of Western foreign policy. During the Cold War, right and wrong, good and evil, were expressed in ideological terms. Foreign interventions, the overthrow of democratic governments, the support for reactionary regimes - all were justified by the necessity to prevent the spread of communism. With the demise of the Soviet Union, what has come to be called ‘the war against terror’ took centre stage in such justifications. ‘Terrorism’ has come to be presented as self-evident, the use of unconscionable violence to undermine basic freedoms and liberties. But, as the response to the Iranian assassinations reveals, ‘terrorism’ remains a deeply politicized concept. Iran is a terrorist state. Saudi Arabia, despite probably sponsoring more terrorist groups, and despite being equally undemocratic and brutal, is a valued Western ally. The murder of an Iranian citizen is a justified act. Plotting to kill a Saudi official is international terrorism.
The consequences of such distortion were revealed once again with the revelation last week that British spies had helped to ‘rendition’ Libyan dissidents to Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Sami al-Saadi, the leader and religious leader respectively of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which has links to al-Qaeda, were abducted in the Far East and forcibly returned to Libya. Belhadj, a commander of the rebel forces in last year’s civil war, and now head of the Tripoli military council, claims that a joint CIA and MI6 operation, specifically set up to help Colonel Gaddafi round up his enemies, snatched him in Bangkok and flew him to Libya, where he was subject to years of torture by Gaddafi’s goons. A letter written in March 2004 apparently by Sir Mark Allen, former director of counter-terrorism at MI6, to Moussa Koussa, head of Gaddafi's intelligence agency, and discovered in Moussa Koussa’s office after the rebels entered Tripoli, passes on thanks for helping to arrange the-then prime minister Tony Blair's visit to Gaddafi. ‘I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [one of Belhadj's aliases]’, Allen writes, adding that ‘This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years.’ Sami al-Saadi similarly alleges that he and his family were abducted in Hong Kong as they were making their way to Britain, taken to Tripoli, where al-Saadi was thrown in prison and subject to torture.
Just as it is tempting to dismiss the failure to condemn the Iranian assassinations as ‘hypocrisy’, so it is tempting to dismiss such outrages as ‘maverick’ or ‘exceptional’ operations. And it would be wrong for the same reason. For what such renditions reveal is the very nature of the war on terror. Britain’s relationship with Gaddafi’s Libya was not fundamentally different, or fundamentally worse, than its current relationship with Saudi Arabia. There is no reason to assume that such operations are not happening now and will not continue to happen in the future. In fact there is considerable reason to insist that they are and they will. Terrorism, as the American lawyer and commentator Glenn Greenwald has put it, ‘is simultaneously the term that means nothing and justifies everything’. Everything, indeed, from extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo, from murder plots to torture.
The ‘war on terror’ is an idea that obscures and distorts struggles for freedom and liberty. In some cases those struggles are against despotic regimes such as those in Iran and Syria, and against terrorist groups, often sponsored by such regimes. But they are equally often against Western allies in the war on terror, whether they be Saudi Arabia or Israel, and against Western policies and interventions that, in the name of fighting terror, themselves destroy lives and shred basic freedoms. It is those struggles we need to support, against whoever they may be, not the war on terror defined in narrow terms of ‘Western interests’.