Who are the Global Terrorists? by Noam Chomsky

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After the atrocities of 11 September, the victim declared a “war on terrorism,” targeting not just
the suspected perpetrators, but the country in which they were located, and others charged with
terrorism worldwide. President Bush pledged to “rid the world of evildoers” and “not let evil
stand,” echoing Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of the “evil scourge of terrorism” in 1985 –
specifically, state-supported international terrorism, which had been declared to be the core issue
of US foreign policy as his administration came into office.NOTE{_New York Times_, Oct. 18,
1985.} The focal points of the first war on terror were the Middle East and Central America, where
Honduras was the major base for US operations. The military component of the re-declared war
is led by Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Reagan’s special representative to the Middle East;
the diplomatic efforts at the UN by John Negroponte, Reagan’s Ambassador to Honduras.
Planning is largely in the hands of other leading figures of the Reagan-Bush (I) administrations.
The condemnations of terrorism are sound, but leave some questions unanswered. The first is:
What do we mean by “terrorism”? Second: What is the proper response to the crime? Whatever
the answer, it must at least satisfy a moral truism: If we propose some principle that is to be
applied to antagonists, then we must agree — in fact, strenuously insist — that the principle apply
to us as well. Those who do not rise even to this minimal level of integrity plainly cannot be taken
seriously when they speak of right and wrong, good and evil.
The problem of definition is held to be vexing and complex. There are, however, proposals that
seem straightforward, for example, in US Army manuals, which define terrorism as “the
calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or
ideological in nature…through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” NOTE{_US Army
Operational Concept for Terrorism Counteraction_ (TRADOC Pamphlet No. 525-37), 1984.} That
definition carries additional authority because of the timing: it was offered as the Reagan
administration was intensifying its war on terrorism. The world has changed little enough so that
these recent precedents should be instructive, even apart from the continuity of leadership from
the first war on terrorism to its recent reincarnation.
The first war received strong endorsement. The UN General Assembly condemned international
terrorism two months after Reagan’s denunciation, again in much stronger and more explicit
terms in 1987. NOTE{GA Res. 40/61, 9 Dec. 1985; Res. 42/159, 7 Dec. 1987.} Support was not
unanimous, however. The 1987 resolution passed 153-2, Honduras abstaining. Explaining their
negative vote, the US and Israel identified the fatal flaw: the statement that “nothing in the
present resolution could in any way prejudice the right to self-determination, freedom, and
independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of people forcibly deprived of
that right…, particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign occupation…” That
was understood to apply to the struggle of the African National Congress against the Apartheid
regime of South Africa (a US ally, while the ANC was officially labelled a “terrorist organization”);
and to the Israeli military occupation, then in its 20th year, sustained by US military and
diplomatic support in virtual international isolation. Presumably because of US opposition, the UN
resolution against terrorism was ignored. NOTE{See my _Necessary Illusions_ (Boston: South
End, 1989), chap. 4; my essay in Alex George, ed., _Western State Terrorism_ (Cambridge:
Polity/Blackwell, 1991).}
Reagan’s 1985 condemnation referred specifically to terrorism in the Middle East, selected as the
lead story of 1985 in an AP poll. But for Secretary of State George Shultz, the administration
moderate, the most “alarming” manifestation of “state-sponsored terrorism,” a plague spread by
“depraved opponents of civilization itself” in “a return to barbarism in the modern age,” was
frighteningly close to home. There is “a cancer, right here in our land mass,” Shultz informed
Congress, threatening to conquer the hemisphere in a “revolution without borders,” a interesting
fabrication exposed at once but regularly reiterated with appropriate shudders. NOTE{Shultz,
“Terrorism: The Challenge to the Democracies,” June 24, 1984 (State Dept. Current Policy No.
589); “Terrorism and the Modern World,” Oct. 25, 1984 (State Department Current Policy No.
629). Shultz’s congressional testimony, 1986, 1983, the former part of a major campaign to gain
more funding for the contras; see Jack Spence and Eldon Kenworthy in Thomas Walker, ed.,
_Reagan versus the Sandinistas_ (Boulder, London: Westview, 1987).}
So severe was the threat that on Law Day (1 May) 1985, the President announced an embargo
“in response to the emergency situation created by the Nicaraguan Government’s aggressive
activities in Central America.” He also declared a national emergency, renewed annually,
because “the policies and actions of the Government of Nicaragua constitute an unusual and
extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
“The terrorists — and the other states that aid and abet them — serve as grim reminders that
democracy is fragile and needs to be guarded with vigilance,” Shultz warned. We must “cut [the
Nicaraguan cancer] out,” and not by gentle means: “Negotiations are a euphemism for
capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table,” Shultz declared,
condemning those who advocate “utopian, legalistic means like outside mediation, the United
Nations, and the World Court, while ignoring the power element of the equation.” The US was
exercising “the power element of the equation” with mercenary forces based in Honduras, under
Negroponte’s supervision, and successfully blocking the “utopian, legalistic means” pursued by
the World Court and the Latin American Contadora nations — as Washington continued to do until
its terrorist wars were won. NOTE{Shultz, “Moral Principles and Strategic Interests,” April 14,
1986 (State Department, Current Policy No. 820).}
Reagan’s condemnation of the “evil scourge” was issued at a meeting in Washington with Israeli
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who arrived to join in the call to extirpate the evil shortly after he
had sent his bombers to attack Tunis, killing 75 people with smart bombs that tore them to shreds
among other atrocities recorded by the prominent Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk on the
scene. Washington cooperated by failing to warn its ally Tunisia that the bombers were on the
way. Shultz informed Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir that Washington “had considerable
sympathy for the Israeli action,” but drew back when the Security Council unanimously
denounced the bombing as an “act of armed aggression” (US abstaining).NOTE{_NYT_, Oct. 17,
18; Kapeliouk, _Yediot Ahronot_, Nov. 15, 1985. Foreknowledge, _Los Angeles Times_, Oct. 3;
Geoffrey Jansen, _Middle East International_, Oct 11, 1985. Bernard Gwertzman, _NYT_, Oct. 2,
7, 1985.}
A second candidate for most extreme act of Mideast international terrorism in the peak year of
1985 is a car-bombing in Beirut on March 8 that killed 80 people and wounded 256. The bomb
was placed outside a Mosque, timed to explode when worshippers left. “About 250 girls and
women in flowing black chadors, pouring out of Friday prayers at the Imam Rida Mosque, took
the brunt of the blast,” Nora Boustany reported. The bomb also “burned babies in their beds,”
killed children “as they walked home from the mosque,” and “devastated the main street of the
densely populated” West Beirut suburb. The target was a Shi’ite leader accused of complicity in
terrorism, but he escaped. The crime was organized by the CIA and its Saudi clients with the
assistance of British intelligence. NOTE{Boustany, _Washington Post Weekly_, March 14, 1988;
Bob Woodward, _Veil_ (Simon & Schuster, 1987, 396f.).}
The only other competitor for the prize is the “Iron Fist” operations that Peres directed in March in
occupied Lebanon, reaching new depths of “calculated brutality and arbitrary murder,” a Western
diplomat familiar with the area observed, as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) shelled villages, carted
off the male population, killed dozens of villagers in addition to many massacred by the IDF’s
paramilitary associates, shelled hospitals and took patients away for “interrogation,” along with
numerous other atrocities. NOTE{_Guardian_, March 6, 1985. For details and sources, see my
“Middle East Terrorism and the American Ideological System,” in _Pirates and Emperors_ (New
York: Claremont 1986; Montreal: Black Rose, 1988), reprinted in Edward Said and Christopher
Hitchens, eds., _Blaming the Victims_ (London: Verso, 1988).} The IDF high command described
the targets as “terrorist villagers.” The operations against them must continue, the military
correspondent of the _Jerusalem Post_ (Hirsh Goodman) added, because the IDF must
“maintain order and security” in occupied Lebanon despite “the price the inhabitants will have to
Like Israel’s invasion of Lebanon 3 years earlier, leaving some 18,000 killed, these actions and
others in Lebanon were not undertaken in self-defense but rather for political ends, as recognized
at once in Israel. The same was true, almost entirely, of those that followed, up to Peres’s
murderous invasion of 1996. But all relied crucially on US military and diplomatic support.
Accordingly, they too do not enter the annals of international terrorism.
In brief, there was nothing odd about the proclamations of the leading co-conspirators in Mideast
international terrorism, which therefore passed without comment at the peak moment of horror at
the “return to barbarism.”
The well-remembered prize-winner for 1985 is the hijacking of the _Achille Lauro_ and brutal
murder of a passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, doubtless a vile terrrorist act, and surely not justified by
the claim that it was in retaliation for the far worse Tunis atrocities and a pre-emptive effort to
deter others. Adopting moral truisms, the same holds of our own acts of retaliation or preemption.
Evidently, we have to qualify the definition of “terrorism” given in official sources: the term applies
only to terrorism against _us_, not the terrorism we carry out against _them_. The practice is
conventional, even among the most extreme mass murderers: the Nazis were protecting the
population from terrorist partisans directed from abroad, while the Japanese were laboring
selflessly to create an “earthly paradise” as they fought off the “Chinese bandits” terrorizing the
peaceful people of Manchuria and their legitimate government. Exceptions would be hard to find.
The same convention applies to the war to exterminate the Nicaraguan cancer. On Law Day
1984, President Reagan proclaimed that without law there can be only “chaos and disorder.” The
day before, he had announced that the US would disregard the proceedings of the International
Court of Justice, which went on to condemn his administration for its “unlawful use of force,”
ordering it to terminate these international terrorist crimes and pay substantial reparations to
Nicaragua (June 1986). The Court decision was dismissed with contempt, as was a subsequent
Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law (vetoed by the US)
and repeated General Assembly resolutions (US and Israel opposed, in one case joined by El
As the Court decision was announced, Congress substantially increased funding for the
mercenary forces engaged in “the unlawful use of force.” Shortly after, the US command directed
them to attack “soft targets” — undefended civilian targets — and to avoid combat with the
Nicaraguan army, as they could do, thanks to US control of the skies and the sophisticated
communication equipment provided to the terrorist forces. The tactic was considered reasonable
by prominent commentators as long as it satisfied “the test of cost-benefit analysis,” an analysis
of “the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will
emerge at the other end” — “democracy” as Western elites understand the term, an interpretation
illustrated graphically in the region. NOTE{For details, see my _Culture of Terrorism_ (Boston:
South End, 1988), 77f.}
State Department Legal Advisor Abraham Sofaer explained why the US was entitled to reject ICJ
jurisdiction. In earlier years, most members of the UN “were aligned with the United States and
shared its views regarding world order.” But since decolonization a “majority often opposes the
United States on important international questions.” Accordingly, we must “reserve to ourselves
the power to determine” how we will act and which matters fall “essentially within the domestic
jurisdiction of the United States, as determined by the United States” — in this case, the terrorist
acts against Nicaragua condemned by the Court and the Security Council. For similar reasons,
since the 1960s the US has been far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions on a wide
range of issues, Britain second, France a distant third.NOTE{Sofaer, _The United States and the
World Court_ (State Dept. Current Policy 769), Dec. 1985.}
Washington waged its “war on terrorism” by creating an international terror network of
unprecedented scale, and employing it worldwide, with lethal and long-lasting effects. In Central
America, terror guided and supported by the US reached its most extreme levels in countries
where the state security forces themselves were the immediate agents of international terrorism.
The effects were reviewed in a 1994 conference organized by Salvadoran Jesuits, whose
experiences had been particularly gruesome. NOTE{Juan Hern ndez Pico, _Env¡o_ (Universidad
Centroamericana, Managua), March 1994.} The conference report takes particular note of the
effects of the residual “culture of terror…in domesticating the expectations of the majority vis-a-vis
alternatives different to those of the powerful,” an important observation on the efficacy of state
terror that generalizes broadly. In Latin America, the 11 September atrocities were harshly
condemned, but commonly with the observation that they are nothing new. They may be
described as “Armageddon,” the research journal of the Jesuit university in Managua observed,
but Nicaragua has “lived its own Armageddon in excruciating slow motion” under US assault “and
is now submerged in its dismal aftermath,” and others fared far worse under the vast plague of
state terror that swept through the continent from the early 1960s, much of it traceable to
Washington. NOTE{_Env¡o_, Oct. 2001. For a judicious review of the aftermath, see Thomas
Walker and Ariel Armony, eds., _Repression, Resistance, and Democratic Transition in Central
America_ (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 2000).}
It is hardly surprising that Washington’s call for support in its war of revenge for 11 Sept. had little
resonance in Latin America. An international Gallup poll found that support for military force
rather than extradition ranged from 2% (Mexico) to 11% (Venezuela and Colombia).
Condemnations of the 11 Sept. terror were regularly accompanied by recollections of their own
suffering, for example, the death of perhaps thousands of poor people (Western crimes, therefore
unexamined) when George Bush I bombed the barrio Chorillo in Panama in December 1989 in
Operation Just Cause, undertaken to kidnap a disobedient thug who was sentenced to life
imprisonment in Florida for crimes mostly committed while he was on the CIA payroll.
NOTE{_Env¡o_, Oct. 2001; Panamanian journalist Ricardo Stevens, NACLA _Report on the
Americas_, Nov/Dec 2001.}
The record continues to the present without essential change, apart from modification of pretexts
and tactics. The list of leading recipients of US arms yields ample evidence, familiar to those
acquainted with international human rights reports.
It therefore comes as no surprise that President Bush informed Afghans that bombing will
continue until they hand over people the US suspects of terrorism (rebuffing requests for
evidence and tentative offers of negotiation). Or, when new war aims were added after three
weeks of bombing, that Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the British Defense Staff, warned
Afghans that US-UK attacks will continue “until the people of the country themselves recognize
that this is going to go on until they get the leadership changed.” NOTE {Patrick Tyler and
Elisabeth Bumiller, _NYT_, Oct. 12; Michael Gordon, _NYT_, Oct. 28, 2001; both p. 1.} In other
words, the US and UK will persist in “the calculated use of violence to attain goals that are
political… in nature…”: international terrorism in the technical sense, but excluded from the canon
by the standard convention. The rationale is essentially that of the US-Israel international terrorist
operations in Lebanon. Admiral Boyce is virtually repeating the words of the eminent Israeli
statesman Abba Eban, as Reagan declared the first war on terrorism. Replying to Prime Minister
Menachem Begin’s account of atrocities in Lebanon committed under the Labor government in
the style “of regimes which neither Mr. Begin nor I would dare to mention by name,” Eban
acknowledged the accuracy of the account, but added the standard justification: “there was a
rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that affected populations would exert pressure for the
cessation of hostilities.” NOTE{_Jerusalem Post_, Aug. 16, 1981.}
These concepts are conventional, as is the resort to terrorism when deemed appropriate.
Furthermore, its success is openly celebrated. The devastation caused by US terror operations in
Nicaragua was described quite frankly, leaving Americans “United in Joy” at their successful
outcome, the press proclaimed. The massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians in 1965,
mostly landless peasants, was greeted with unconstrained euphoria, along with praise for
Washington for concealing its own critical role, which might have embarrassed the “Indonesian
moderates” who had cleansed their society in a “staggering mass slaughter” (_New York Times_)
that the CIA compared to the crimes of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. NOTE{For extensive review, see
my _Necessary Illusions_ and _Deterring Democracy_ (London: Verso, 1991) (Nicaragua); _Year
501_ (Boston: South End, 1993) (Indonesia).} There are many other examples. One might
wonder why Osama bin Laden’s disgraceful exultation over the atrocities of 11 Sept. occasioned
indignant surprise. But that would be an error, based on failure to distinguish their terror, which is
evil, from ours, which is noble, the operative principle throughout history.
If we keep to official definitions, it is a serious error to describe terrorism as the weapon of the
weak. Like most weapons, it is wielded to far greater effect by the strong. But then it is not terror;
rather, “counterterror,” or “low intensity warfare,” or “self-defense”; and if successful, “rational”
and “pragmatic,” and an occasion to be “united in joy.”
Let us turn to the question of proper response to the crime, bearing in mind the governing moral
truism. If, for example, Admiral Boyce’s dictum is legitimate, then victims of Western state
terrorism are entitled to act accordingly. That conclusion is, properly, regarded as outrageous.
Therefore the principle is outrageous when applied to official enemies, even more so when we
recognize that the actions were undertaken with the expectation that they would place huge
numbers of people at grave risk. No knowledgeable authority seriously questioned the UN
estimate that “7.5 million Afghans will need food over the winter — 2.5 million more than on Sept.
11,” NOTE{Elisabeth Bumiller and Elizabeth Becker, _NYT_, Oct. 17, 2001.} a 50% increase as a
result of the threat of bombing, then the actuality, with a toll that will never be investigated if
history is any guide.
A different proposal, put forth by the Vatican among others, was spelled out by military historian
Michael Howard: “a police operation conducted under the auspices of the United
Nations…against a criminal conspiracy whose members should be hunted down and brought
before an international court, where they would receive a fair trial and, if found guilty, be awarded
an appropriate sentence.” NOTE{_Foreign Affairs_, Jan/Feb 2002; talk of Oct. 30. See Tania
Branigan, _Guardian_, Oct. 31, 2001.} Though never contemplated, the proposal seems
reasonable. If so, then it would be reasonable if applied to Western state terrorism, something
that could also never be contemplated, though for opposite reasons.
The war in Afghanistan has commonly been described as a “just war,” indeed evidently so. There
have been some attempts to frame a concept of “just war” that might support the judgment. We
may therefore ask how these proposals fare when evaluated in terms of the same moral truism. I
have yet to see one that does not instantly collapse: application of the proposed concept to
Western state terrorism would be considered unthinkable, if not despicable. For example, we
might ask how the proposals would apply to the one case that is uncontroversial in the light of the
judgments of the highest international authorities, Washington’s war against Nicaragua;
uncontroversial, that is, among those who have some commitment to international law and treaty
obligations. It is an instructive experiment.
Similar questions arise in connection with other aspects of the wars on terrorism. There has been
debate over whether the US-UK war in Afghanistan was authorized by ambiguous Security
Council resolutions, but it is beside the point. The US surely could have obtained clear and
unambiguous authorization, not for attractive reasons (consider why Russia and China eagerly
joined the coalition, hardly obscure). But that course was rejected, presumably because it would
suggest that there is some higher authority to which the US should defer, a condition that a state
with overwhelming power is not likely to accept. There is even a name for that stance in the
literature of diplomacy and international relations: establishing “credibility,” a standard official
justification for the resort to violence, the bombing of Serbia, to mention a recent example. The
refusal to consider negotiated transfer of the suspected perpetrators presumably had the same
The moral truism applies to such matters as well. The US refuses to extradite terrorists even
when their guilt has been well established. One current case involves Emmanuel Constant, the
leader of the Haitian paramilitary forces that were responsible for thousands of brutal killings in
the early 1990s under the military junta, which Washington officially opposed but tacitly
supported, publicly undermining the OAS embargo and secretly authorizing oil shipments.
Constant was sentenced in absentia by a Haitian court. The elected government has repeatedly
called on the US to extradite him, again on September 30, 2001, while Taliban initiatives to
negotiate transfer of bin Laden were being dismissed with contempt. Haiti’s request was again
ignored, probably because of concerns about what Constant might reveal about ties to the US
government during the period of the terror. Do we therefore conclude that Haiti has the right to
use force to compel his extradition, following as best it can Washington’s model in Afghanistan?
The very idea is outrageous, yielding another prima facie violation of the moral truism.
It is all too easy to add illustrations. NOTE{For a sample, see George, _op. cit._. Exceptions are
rare, and the reactions they elicit are not without interest.} Consider Cuba, probably the main
target of international terrorism since 1959, remarkable in scale and character, some of it
exposed in declassified documents on Kennedy’s Operation Mongoose and continuing to the late
1990s. Cold War pretexts were ritually offered as long as that was possible, but internally the
story was the one commonly unearthed on inquiry. It was recounted in secret by Arthur
Schlesinger, reporting the conclusions of JFK’s Latin American mission to the incoming
President: the Cuban threat is “the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own
hands,” which might stimulate the “poor and underprivileged” in other countries, who “are now
demanding opportunities for a decent living” — the “virus” or “rotten apple” effect, as it is called in
high places The Cold War connection was that “the Soviet Union hovers in the wings, flourishing
large development loans and presenting itself as the model for achieving modernization in a
single generation.” NOTE{_FRUS_, 1961-63, vol. XII, American Republics, 13f., 33.}
True, these exploits of international terrorism — which were quite serious — are excluded by the
standard convention. But suppose we keep to the official definition. In accord with the theories of
“just war” and proper response, how has Cuba been entitled to react?
It is fair enough to denounce international terrorism as a plague spread by “depraved opponents
of civilization itself.” The commitment to “drive the evil from the world” can even be taken
seriously, if it satisfies moral truisms — not, it would seem, an entirely unreasonable thought.

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