What causes terrorism? This look at American drone and air strikes considers a different kind of terrorism that may soon come to haunt us.
One of the topics we have frequently looked at here at the End of History is the concept and definition of terrorism, one of the great plagues of our day and age. As stated in previous posts, there is no universal definition for the term. This allows laws and enforcement against terrorism to vary across the world. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, as the old saying goes.
Increasingly this vagueness of definition is allowing authoritarian rulers to assign the label of “terrorist” to any political opposition that threatens them. President Sisi in Egypt, Assad in Syria, and President Xi Jinping of China have all adopted this strategy in recent years and they are a small sampling of a much wider trend among global leaders and politicians today. If a leader wants to unite public and global opinion against his enemies, he merely needs to give his enemies the label of “terrorist.”
It would seem that a more effective measure of defining terrorism should be found on the basis of the victims who suffer at the hands of terrorist activity. Politicians and leaders can use terrorism as an abstract term to manipulate perspectives and opinion toward their agendas and policies but the victims of terrorism certainly offer us a more concrete example of political atrocities that lead to human suffering and death.
Is Boko Haram a terrorist group or an insurgent group? Ask their victims. Ask the family members who have lost loved ones, either by murder or kidnapping, at the hands of these psychopaths. Is Hamas a terrorist group or a political organization? Ask the victims. The complete answer to the question, what is terrorism, might not be found here but at least part of it should be considered.
A Different Kind of Terrorism
If we were to look to the victims and their families to assist in defining terrorism we might be surprised who shows up on the list of terrorist activity around the world today. It is not only small groups and organizations but also major powers like the United States.
Last month the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan found that the Afghanistan government and their American allies killed more civilians in the first quarter of 2019 than the Taliban did. In the first quarter of this year, the US and Afghanistan were responsible for 53% of civilian deaths in the country. Women and children made up half of these victims. This followed a report earlier in the year that concluded 2018 was the hardest year for civilians in Afghanistan since the US began fighting there in 2001. Almost 32,000 non-combatants have been killed in the fighting in Afghanistan, and more than 3,800 last year alone.
For the families of these victims the deaths of their loved ones, accidental or not, certainly feels like terrorism and it is occurring more frequently – not less.
And this is not only a phenomenon in Afghanistan. As the US has become more active in airstrikes and drone warfare from Somalia to Syria to North Africa, the rising toll of accidental civilian deaths is taking a larger and larger toll. These civilian victims and their families are feeling the effects of terrorism and it is not from a homegrown extremist group. It is from the world’s leading superpower operating in the air over their homes.
At the beginning of this month, the Pentagon released a report revealing the US had accidentally killed 120 civilians in its fighting throughout 2018. This included the fighting in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. As bad as this is, the Pentagon’s numbers are dwarfed by those of other watchdog groups who are tracking the number of civilian deaths killed by American bombings in these same places. In other words, many more civilians are being killed by US air strikes than what the Pentagon is owning up to.
As the US campaign in Iraq and Syria slowed down in 2018, the watchdog group Airwars recorded more than 800 civilians killed in US air strikes in this area alone. That is more than six times the total recorded civilian deaths in the Pentagon’s report. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and New America identified a total of civilian deaths by US airstrikes at 1,224 in 2018.
The discrepancy between the Pentagon’s numbers and those of the outside observer organizations is based upon the method by which the deaths are tracked. US policy is to count any “military-aged male” as a terrorist target in its air and drone strikes.
As Nicholas Grossman states in this excellent account of the flaws in US policy in this area, “Essentially, this assumes that any man (or boy) in the vicinity of a known terrorist who appears to be between the ages of 14 and 60 is also a terrorist.” Grossman goes on to explain that contrary to a lot of media reports today, this is not unique to the Trump administration. This practice and these numbers of civilian deaths are a continuing trend of the Obama administration.
What Causes Terrorism?
How do these victims fight back? The seeds of terrorism are cultivated in a perceived atmosphere of injustice, disenfranchisement, and oppression. This is one of the few common denominators that stretch across the various cultures and nationalities where we see terrorism active today.
In the end, it probably does not matter if the US airstrikes and resulting civilian deaths are deemed as terrorist activity or not. What does matter is that these strikes and their victims are not taking shape in a vacuum. There are consequences and effects on these causes being unleashed today.
It is very likely that future US fights and wars will be against the victims (they’ll be called terrorists by then) stirred up by the accidental deaths of American airstrikes today.