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. A number of well-connected journalists, including Ron Ben-Yishai and Richard Silverstein, claim that their sources in the Israeli military confirm it as a Mossad operation, though none has so far provided any proof. Silverstein and others, including Juan Cole, speculate that it may have been a joint operation between Mossad and MEK, or Mujahedin-e Khalq, a Marxist Islamist group that has been fighting the Teheran regime and which in the past has claimed to have provided Washington with information about Iran’s nuclear programme. 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 the assassination, Israel’s military chief of staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz 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 it. 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 hell to pay. 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 the case of the assassination of Iranian scientists, however, all we have heard is the sound of quiet satisfaction at a job well done. Hillary Clinton dissociated America from the ‘violence inside Iran’, but uttered not a word of condemnation of that violence. No word of censure has come from the United Nations, nor is it likely to. 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, in America and elsewhere, 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,” though ‘it is at present seeking instead to work through diplomatic and financial means to further isolate Iran’. 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 these 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 the 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, a change 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 concept of ‘terrorism’ to justify support for, on the one hand, the military junta in El Salvador fighting the threat of the ‘terrorist’ FMLN guerilla movement and, on the other, 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 increasingly degraded and fragmented, their violence driven less by political conviction than by a 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 fight against terrorism became more and more important as 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 justification. ‘Terrorism’ has come to be presented as self-evident, the unconscionable use of 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 ‘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, and 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 reasons.  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 to, or fundamentally worse than, its current relationship to 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 a notion that obscures and distorts the real 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’.

UPDATE@zackbeauchamp has pointed out to me on Twitter that I was wrong about there being no condemnation of Roshan’s assassination from the US state Department. My apologies for missing that.


  1. There is something paradoxical about wanting to wage a ‘war on terror.’ It’s something like fighting fire with firewood. I want to know: has ‘terror’ been operationally defined by the US administration? If we agree that it has something to do with the careless and at times reckless disregard for human life, especially civilian – and perhaps most of all children’s lives, then the US administration are themselves guilty – they have plenty of blood on their hands. To avoid accusations of hypocrisy, will they wage this ‘war’ against themselves? If they care about these things for valid ethical reasons, it seems to me that they should lead by example. The fact that they are not, suggests that they do not care about ‘terror’ in the humanitarian sense, only in the economic and political one.

    I would like to see a country’s administration act in ways that are morally justifiable and consistent with the values of its people (not just economic self-interest). Denouncing the Iranian attack would be a strong reflection of what ought to involve agreed-upon international values – it seems to me that these kinds of actions might give the US a bit more respect in the eyes of the international community.

  2. Gabriel Andrade

    Ok, this is the old dilemma: terrorists vs, freedom fighters. I agree that the “war on terror” is a dangerous concept, and that America has been extremely hypocritical in this regard. But, a bit of utilitarianism and consequentialist thinking might be useful here: are more lives saved by America taking a tougher stand on Saudi Arabia and other despotic allies? Couldn’t it be a temporary strategy to counter regimes that are more dangerous for the time being? Was Churchill wrong for being softer on Stalin than on Hitler?
    As for assassinations, would you consider Operation Valkyrie a terrorist plan? Maybe, if Hitler had been assassinated, millions of lives would have been spared. Of course, it was a much more critical situation than Iran’s current situation…

    • This, Gabriel, is where we differ. My starting point is not ‘Will American policy save more lives by supporting reactionary regimes?’ but ‘How do we best support those fighting for their freedoms wherever they may be?’. It’s the old trouble with consequentialism – you have to decide which consequences matter before you can decide how best to achieve them. I am not opposed to violence – I am no pacifist – or even assassination. What I am opposed to is the use of the war on terror to subvert struggles for freedom and liberty.

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