War on Terrorism

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The "War on Terrorism" or "War on Terror" (in US foreign policy circles, the global war on terrorism or GWOT1 ) is a campaign by the United States and some of its allies to rid the world of terrorist groups and to end state sponsorship of terrorism. There is a de facto focus on stopping Islamist terrorism. Unlike earlier concepts and definitions of war—with defined nations, boundaries, and standing armies and navies—the War on Terrorism has largely been dominated by the use of special forces, intelligence, police work and diplomacy.

After Al Qaeda, an Islamic militant organization led by Osama bin Laden, launched the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington D.C., US President George W. Bush made the War on Terrorism a central part of his foreign and domestic policy. The US also portrays the invasion and occupation of Iraq as part of the War on Terrorism, although this stance is controversial.

Other incidents that have been cited as contributing to the focus on terrorism include the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the 1998 US embassy bombings, suicide bombings in Israel, and Lockerbie bombing. Major terrorist incidents which occurred after the September 11 attacks include the Bali nightclub bombing, the Madrid train bombings, and the London Underground bombings.


Conceptual challenges

Car bombing
Suicide bombing
Nuclear terrorism

The very phrase "War on Terrorism" is the subject of some debate and disagreement. First, there has always been considerable debate as to what constitutes terrorism; in addition, the notion of declaring war on an abstract concept is troubling to some (in the same vein as the war to end all wars, war on drugs, war on poverty, and the war on crime). The War on Terrorism, like the war on drugs, involves a mix of military and non-military forces

The War on Terrorism differs from WWI and WWII in that it does not appear to be a war between nation states, but is to all visible appearances, something akin to a world-wide civil war with non-nation actors simultaneously waging war on their own governments and on foreign governments as well.

There are difficulties inherent in labelling armed participants as "freedom-fighters," "terrorists," "insurgents," etc., due to the relative criteria required to meet such labels.

Even when the boundaries of an organization are clearly defined, there might not be a way to distinguish some organizations as terrorist or otherwise. For example, the militant Islamist group Hamas; although directly responsible for the murder of many Israelis, Hamas is also responsible for many of the charities and other social welfare programs in Palestine. Nevertheless, Israel, the US and the EU consider Hamas as a terrorist group.

Among those who accept the term "War on Terrorism" there are disagreements as to which actions, by which states, should be considered as part of the "war." For example, the Bush administration, despite considerable international and domestic disagreement, contends that the pre-emptive 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation is a crucial part of the War on Terrorism. Likewise, Russia has recently asserted that its ongoing struggles with Chechen insurgents and terrorists should be part of the international effort.

Only two months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Noam Chomsky argued that the United States is a leading terrorist state [1]. Specifically, Chomsky cited the Clinton administration for its role in what he called terrorism. Chomsky has long argued that some commonly accepted definitions of "terrorism" also apply to many of the actions undertaken by the U.S.[2]

Cognitive linguistics professor George Lakoff, founder of the progressive think tank the Rockridge Institute, has argued, with respect to the phrase "War on Terror", "Terror is a general state, and it's internal to a person. Terror is not the person we're fighting, the 'terrorist.' The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The 'war on terror' is not about stopping you from being afraid, it's about making you afraid." He adds "...terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It's not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem." Lakoff believes that the frame invoked by the phrase plays a key role in the political changes enacted by President Bush through the implication of the frame. [3]

Historical usage of the phrase

Time magazine used the phrase "War on Terrorism" for a 1977 cover story.
Time magazine used the phrase "War on Terrorism" for a 1977 cover story.

Legal land warfare is characterized by uniformed combatants, deliberate avoidance of damage to noncombatants, and care for prisoners and enemy wounded. Combatants who do not abide by the rules of land warfare are illegal combatants. Actions which deliberately target noncombatants, with the intent to inspire widespread fear, are terrorist by definition.

The phrase "War on Terrorism" was first widely used by the Western press to refer to the attempts by Russian and European governments, and eventually the U.S. government, to stop attacks by anarchists against international political leaders. (See, for example, New York Times, April 2, 1881). Many of the anarchists described themselves as "terrorists," and the term had a positive valence for them at the time. When Russian anarchist Vera Zasulich shot and wounded a Russian police commander who was known to torture suspects on 24 January 1878, for example, she threw down her weapon without killing him, announcing, "I am a terrorist, not a killer."[4]

The next time the phrase gained currency was its use to describe the efforts by the British colonial government to end a spate of Jewish terrorist attacks in the British Mandate of Palestine in the late 1940s. The British proclaimed a "War on Terrorism" and attempted to crack down on Irgun, Lehi, and anyone perceived to be cooperating with them. The Jewish attacks, Arab reprisals (while Jews considered their attacks themselves reprisals for what they saw as British complacency to Arab violence against Jews, and denial of Jewish rights), and the subsequent British crackdown hastened the British evacuation from Palestine.

A representative article from the period in (New York Times, August 5th, 1947, p. 16) reads:

"The Palestine Government today arrested the mayors of several Jewish cities and townships along Palestine's coast, including Tel Aviv, Nathanya, and Ramat Gan. No reason for the arrests was immediately given, but it was believed that they indicated a new attack in the British war on terrorism. The bodies of the two British sergeants executed by the Irgun Zvai Leumi last week were found hanged near Nathanya."

After the withdrawal of the British, the newly formed Israeli government began using the term "War on Terrorism" to refer to its efforts to crack down on Palestinian and Lebanese groups, both terrorist and otherwise, operating in Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East.

The phrase "War on Terrorism" was used frequently by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. In his 1986 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Reagan said:

"…the United States believes that the understandings reached by the seven industrial democracies at the Tokyo summit last May made a good start toward international accord in the war on terrorism."

Contemporary United States

The current "War on Terrorism" has been primarily an initiative of the United States. Daniel J. Gallington wrote:

Despite the antiterrorism rhetoric of the U.N. and the major world powers, and with the very significant exception of Great Britain and a few others, we are in a world war against radical Islam by ourselves. [5]

Soon after and in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, President George W. Bush announced his intention to begin a "War on Terrorism" a protracted struggle against terrorists and the states that aid them.

On September 18, 2001, the U.S. Congress authorized the president to

"use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." [6]

On September 20, 2001, the U.S. President George W. Bush presented his position in an address to a joint session of Congress and the American people:

"Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." [7]

On October 10, 2001, the U.S. President presented a list of 22 most-wanted terrorists. Then in the first such act since World War II, President Bush signed an executive order [8] on November 13, 2001 allowing military tribunals against any foreigners suspected of having connections to current or planned terrorist acts on the United States. U.S.-led military forces later invaded both Afghanistan (see U.S. invasion of Afghanistan) and, controversially, Iraq (see 2003 Iraq War) under the pretext of the War on Terrorism.

The US actions were influenced by a fear that subsequent attacks could involve nuclear or biological weapons. The 2001 anthrax attacks contributed to the level of anxiety, although the source of those attacks remains a mystery.

Several governments have provided aid in some aspect of the conflict; for example by making arrests of suspected terrorists and freezing bank accounts.

The USA has received limited military help from some (with the exception of the United Kingdom) usually small governments. In the United States, the War on Terrorism became the prism through which international relations were viewed, supplanting the Cold War and in some cases the war on drugs.

Many pre-existing disputes were re-cast in terms of the War on Terrorism, including Plan Colombia and the Colombian narco-terrorist insurgency; the United States' diplomatic and military disputes with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea; the conflict between Russia and Chechnya; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The largest campaign undertaken as part of the War on Terrorism has been the one in Afghanistan.

Objective and Strategies

In a January 3, 2005, editorial in the Toronto Star, Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow for counterterrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (US) writes "the strategic objective of the global war on terror is to completely isolate Al Qaeda's maximialist leadership and disempower local jihadist affiliates." [9]

The United States has based its counter-terrorist strategy on several steps:

  • Denial of safe havens in which terrorists can train and equip members.
  • Restriction of funding of terrorist organizations.
  • Degradation of terrorist networks by capturing or killing intermediate leaders.
  • Detention of suspected and known terrorists. See the section below for further details
  • Getting information, through various techniques, such as interrogation, from captured terrorists of other members of their organization, training sites, methods, and funding.
  • Expanding and improving efficiency of intelligence capabilities and foreign and domestic policing.

In doing so, the strategy is not very different from successful counter-guerrilla operations, such as in Malaysia in the 1950s. There is a fine distinction between guerrilla operations and terrorist operations.

Many guerrilla organizations, such as the Zionist armed group known as the Irgun in British-Mandated Palestine, and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) during the Algerian War of Independence, and Vietnam's National Liberation Front (NLF), included urban terrorism as part of their overall strategy.

Denial of safe havens involves a fairly large military force; however, as in Afghanistan in 2002, once the major safe haven areas are overrun, the large-scale forces can be withdrawn and special forces, such as U.S. Special Operations Forces or the British Special Air Service (SAS), operate more effectively.

In addition, the U.S. Army is involved in increasingly large civil affairs programs in Afghanistan to provide employment for Afghans and to reduce sympathy in the civilian population for parties the United States has designated as terrorist.

The U.S. strategy faces several obstacles:

  • Terrorist groups can continue to operate, albeit at a less-sophisticated scale.
  • The strengths of U.S. intelligence gathering are signal intelligence and photo intelligence gathering. Organizations that avoid use of cellular phones and radios and rely on couriers have a lower profile. On the other hand, such organizations also have a slower planning and reaction time.
  • Saudi-Arabia, one of the countries supporting terrorism both financially and by giving shelter to terrorists, is also a close ally of the U.S. and their greatest foreign source of oil, preventing the U.S. from taking actions against terrorism in Saudi-Arabia.
  • The major reason for the Islamic population to support terrorism is the feeling of helplessness of protecting the Islamic way of life against western influence and the (felt) oppression of the Islamic world by the Christians. While the War On Terror tries to decrease the influence of Islamic extremist, it further interferes with the Islamic culture (by the means of U.S. military presence in those countries or even invasion) and thereby increases support for Islamic terror.
  • Political opposition to U.S. policies inside countries in which terrorists operate, as in Pakistan, where Al-Qaida and the Taliban have supporters who share religious or ethnic affiliations.
  • Legal opposition to U.S. methods of detaining suspected terrorists.
  • The lack of a clear statement from the U.S. administration renouncing to use or support terrorism to shape policy.
  • A policy perceived by some as superficial, based in developing a simple military approach against terrorism, but not a political solution to the causes of terrorism.

On September 2, 2004, in response to the question of whether the "War on Terror" could be won, President Bush declared: "I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world." [10]

International support

On September 12, 2001, less than 24 hours after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., NATO declared the attacks to be an attack against all the 19 NATO member countries. This was the first time in NATO's history that NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an armed attack against one or more NATO member will be considered an attack against all.

In the following months, NATO took a wide range of measures to respond to the threat of terrorism. On November 22, 2002, the member states of the EAPC decided on a Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism which explicitly states that "EAPC States are committed to the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights, as well as the rule of law, in combating terrorism" [11].

At the same time, NATO and Russia intensified their cooperation.

The almost unlimited international support for the United States' and Britains' War on Terrorism cooled only after U.S. preparations to invade Iraq intensified in late 2002. Some governments, such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Poland and Australia joined the "coalition of the willing", unconditionally supporting a U.S.-led military action against Iraq. Other countries, including Germany, France, Pakistan, the Vatican and New Zealand opposed military actions that were not fully backed by a UN resolution. The war provoked the largest ever world-wide protests, and opinion polls show that the population of most countries opposed the war even when the governments supported it, and the reputation of the US was severely harmed. The abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, and the refusal to give prisoners at Guantanamo Bay the full rights to question their imprisonment aggravated this.

Military/diplomatic campaigns

Main article: War on Terrorism - Theaters of operation

The War on Terrorism is being pursued in the following theaters of operation:

U.S. domestic initiatives

A $40 billion emergency spending bill was quickly passed by the United States legislature, and an additional $20 billion bail-out of the airline industry was also passed.

Investigations have been started through many branches of many governments, pursuing tens of thousands of tips. Thousands of people have been detained, arrested, or questioned. Many of those targeted by the Bush administration have been secretly detained, and have been denied access to an attorney. Among those secretly detained are U.S. citizens.

For more information, see [[detentions following the September 11, 2001 attack]]. The Justice Department launched a Special Registration procedure for certain male non-citizens in the U.S., requiring them to register in person at offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Several laws were passed to increase the investigative powers of law enforcement agencies in the United States, notably the USA Patriot Act. Many civil liberties groups have alleged that these laws remove important restrictions on governmental authority, and are a dangerous encroachment on civil liberties, possible unconstitutional violations of the Fourth Amendment. No official legal challenges have been started as of 2004, but governing bodies in a number of communities have passed symbolic resolutions against the act.

In a speech on June 9, 2005, Bush claimed that the Patriot Act had been used to bring charges against more than 400 suspects, more than half of whom had been convicted. Meanwhile the American Civil Liberties Union quoted Justice Department figures that show that 7,000 people have complained of abuse of the act. The ACLU also maintains that many others don't know they've been subjected to a search because the law requires that searches be kept secret. [12]

The Bush administration began an unprecedented and sweeping initiative in early 2002 with the creation of the Information Awareness Office, designed to collect, index, and consolidate all available information on everyone in a central repository for perusal by the United States government.

Various government bureaucracies which handled security and military functions were reorganized. Most notably, the Department of Homeland Security was created to coordinate "homeland security" efforts in the largest reorganization of the U.S. federal government since the creation of the Pentagon. There was a proposal to create an Office of Strategic Influence for the purpose of coordinating propaganda efforts, but it was cancelled due to negative reactions. For the first time ever, the Bush administration implemented the Continuity of Operations Plan (or Continuity of Government) to create a shadow government to ensure the executive branch of the U.S. government would be able to continue in catastrophic circumstances.

Opposition and criticism

Main article: Criticisms of the War on Terrorism

Critics maintain that terrorist threats have been exaggerated; that terrorism has been exploited for other purposes; that it has resulted in human rights abuses; that it has decreased the personal freedom of US citizens; and that it has served as a pretext for restricting access to government information.

The notion of a war against terrorism has proven highly contentious, with critics charging that it has been exploited by the participating governments to pursue longstanding policy objectives, reduce civil liberties, and infringe on human rights. Some argue that the term war is not appropriate in this context (as in war on drugs), since they believe there is no tangible enemy, and that it is unlikely that international terrorism can be brought to an end by means of war. [13] Others note that "terrorism" is not an enemy, but rather a tactic; calling it a "War on Terror," they say, obscures the differences between, for example, anti-occupation insurgents and international jihadists.

Its supporters argue that a reduction in civil liberties is a necessary price to pay for greater protection against what they perceive as a heightened risk of terrorism. They also contend that some previous wars waged by America and its allies lasted many years but were ultimately successful.

Some say the 2003 invasion of Iraq is regarded as part of the "War on Terrorism", most notably but not exclusively because of Hussein's supposed WMD activities, and financial and logistical support for various Palestinian terrorist groups, including payments of approximately $25,000 (U.S.) to the families of successful suicide bombers. Others charge that because the inclusion of Iraq under Hussein appears to violate the criteria for terrorism, having given weight to charges that the U.S.-led War on Terrorism has, at least in part, self-serving ulterior motives.

Criticisms of the War on Terrorism:

  • Some cite the high civilian casualty rate in Afghanistan (see U.S. invasion of Afghanistan: War Casualties). Some 3,000+ Afghan civilians died in the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.
  • Amnesty International has described the secret worldwide network of detention facilities as the "gulag of our times". The organization claims that suspects are held indefinitely without charge and without access to lawyers and that they have been tortured and even killed.
  • Over 200 U.S soldiers died and more than 500 have been wounded in Afghanistan since the War on Terrorism began. In Afghanistan, aid workers, personnel of the new national army, and international observers have also died in the conflict.
  • The U.S budget surplus has turned into a huge deficit, leaving less for health insurance improvements and other domestic initiatives. Others argue that war is not a cost-effective way of ensuring security against stateless terrorists, and that intelligence and police efforts can also be effective.
  • Many argue that U.S. oil money indirectly benefits terrorists via states such as Saudi Arabia, and that the U.S.'s unwillingness to break its relationship with such states reflects ulterior motives in the war.
  • As in the Persian Gulf War, many have argued that the invasion of Afghanistan was intended primarily to stabilize and better control a region crucial to U.S. oil supplies. It is also argued that although the war on Iraq should not be considered part of the war on terror, the supporters of the war on Iraq presented terrorism as the main reason to invade that country. However, many have argued that the real reason for the invasion of Iraq was its oil reserves [14] (Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world)[15].
  • Many argue, from pacifist or other standpoints, that the violence of bombings and invasions will only provoke further hatred from the Muslim world, and that the poverty and desperation associated with war will furnish terrorist organizations with ample recruits. Pacifists also criticise suicide bombers, jihadists, and anyone else who attacks innocent civilians.
  • The ongoing War on Terrorism with clearly visible casualties but without any major victories on the side of the U.S. may further increase the support for terrorism.
  • While there have not yet been any permanent positive results from the War on Terror, it has been the reason on many occasions for permanently limiting personal freedom and civil rights.
  • With the War or Terrorism being the main aspect of the U.S. government's policy, many fear that it prevents acting on other important issues as health care, education, prevention of poverty and environmental protection.

Support for the War on Terrorism:

  • Supporters of the War On Terror assert that democracy in traditionally authoritarian countries has a transformative power that will add to peace and stability.
  • Supporters downplay civilian casualties by arguing that many who live near terrorist cells are likely to support them materially, although this would imply that western tax-payers should be considered legitimate targets by those opposing western military action.
  • Some argue that war could act as a deterrent against terrorists, demonstrating to potential recruits that they would face certain retribution. This argument may hold less water in reference to suicide terrorism, or when terrorists expect to become martyrs, but can be argued to deter such attacks by weakening the logistical base which provides martyrs with explosives and points them toward effective targets.
  • Some analysts argue that democracy in the Middle East will elevate Islamists, including radicals, who will use democratic institutions to gain power but then implement their autocratic agenda. Democracy can also lead to instabilty. In short, things may get worse before they get better, which may be bad news for the US. Many however believe that in the long run increased democratic governance or the break up of static autocracies will lead to a better outcome than the status quo even if the emerging governemnts initially oppose U.S. policies. Some furthermore argue that any type of somewhat democratic government would find more common ground with the U.S. than the existing ones even if rapproachment was gradual and difficult.

Interrogation methods

A Washington Post investigation, published on December 26, 2002, quotes anonymous CIA and other government officials who claim that U.S. military and CIA personnel employ physical coercion during their interrogation of suspects and that U.S. officials believe these practices are necessary and unavoidable in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks. They state that CIA is using "stress and duress" techniques at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, a base leased from Britain at Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean, and numerous other secret facilities worldwide. In May 2005, an official investigation report stated that U.S. soldiers tortured and murdered two Afghan civilians. The report concluded that there was probable cause to charge 27 officers and enlisted personnel with criminal offenses (see: Bagram torture and prisoner abuse).

The CIA reportedly transfers suspects, along with a list of questions, to foreign intelligence services of countries routinely criticized by the U.S. Department of State for torturing suspects, where they are alleged to be severely tortured with the assent and encouragement of the United States. These countries include Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Syria. One official stated, "We don't kick the shit out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the shit out of them." (See also "extraordinary rendition" and the articles on Maher Arar and N379P.)

Anonymous sources quoted in the Washington Post article have stated that those held in the CIA detention center "are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours, in black hoods or spray-painted goggles," and are duct-taped to stretchers for transport. The Post continues that, according to Americans with direct knowledge and others who have witnessed the treatment, suspects are often beaten up and confined in tiny rooms and are also blindfolded and handcuffed following arrest. Later, suspects are sometimes "held in awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights and loud noises". The Post article goes on to say that national security officials suggested that pain killers, on at least one occasion, were "used selectively" to treat a detainee that was shot in the groin during apprehension.

The United States State Department has previously described such interrogation tactics as "abusive tactics". The 1999 State Department Human Rights Country Report on Israel and the Occupied Territories [16] stated:

"However, a landmark decision by the High Court of Justice in September prohibited the use of a variety of abusive practices, including violent shaking, painful shackling in contorted positions, sleep deprivation for extended periods of time, and prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures."

National security officials interviewed for the investigation defended the use of such techniques as necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks. As one official put it, "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job."

The human rights organization Human Rights Watch called on the United States to respond to these reports by publicly denouncing the use of torture. In response to reports that some of the evidence that Colin Powell intended to present against Iraq to the United Nations was derived from torture, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Powell, asking him to use that speech as an opportunity to condemn any use of torture to gather intelligence. [17]

The techniques reported to be used are similar to techniques that have been used by the Soviet Union on captured CIA operatives, according to accounts by retired CIA agents. In addition, similar techniques were used by French security services in the Algerian War of Independence and in the suppression of the Secret Army Organization in the 1960s. Ethically, such techniques are seen by human rights advocates as deplorable, but some interrogators see them as necessary when information must be gained from a reluctant subject.

Further, most interrogation experts [18] and the U.S. Army's own interrogation manual [19] maintain that torture can generate false responses because suspects give interrogators false information in order to stop the pain. Likewise there are concerns that torture on a suspect implies a permanent separation from the legal process, making the pursuit of justice through law unlikely. [20]

Detentions at Guantanamo Bay

Many people captured in the military conflict in Afghanistan have been detained at a facility known as Camp X-ray at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and have been treated as "illegal combatants" rather than as prisoners of war.

Many persons state that the term "illegal combatant" has no meaning under international law and serves to justify denying these detainees rights granted to POWs under the Geneva convention. However, the U.S. position is that the detainees do not fall under any of the categories of combatants or noncombatants protected by the Geneva or Hague conventions (See Camp X-ray for further details.)

Military decorations

Since 2002, the United States military has authorized several new military awards and decorations to recognize those who serve in the War on Terrorism. Such awards include:

Further reading


Note 1: [21] [22]

Note 2: [23]

See also

External links

Official sites by governments and international organizations
General "war on terrorism" news
Primary legal documents
Specific articles
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