Terrorism and Democracy: Imperialism's Final Frontier

Capitalism’s latest theme is the struggle to defend democracy against terrorism. But what is this democracy? It exploits labour power, impoverishes the proletariat by progressively eroding its health, its pensions and its standard of living through the intensification of the working day and the lowering of its purchasing power. It guarantees only more unemployment and uncertain conditions in the future. This democracy is a ferocious military predator on the international scene in order to acquire strategic raw materials. It uses terrorism when it coincides with its own interests and opposes it only when it no longer suits it.

This democracy poses as the bulwark of economic liberalism, demanding the overthrow of barriers to its capital and goods whilst it practices protectionism within its own market. This is the democracy which bleats about unfair competition from those countries which have much lower labour costs, without unionisation and labour protection, and then uses those very same conditions by switching its own production and capital investment to them. This democracy which, through the IMF, imposes on poorer countries, all sorts of virtuous policies like privatisation, balanced budgets and restrictions on the workers, simultaneously operates with huge budget deficits which go way beyond anything seen in the global economy previously. A democracy which permits itself the luxury, in the name of anti-terrorism, of carrying out the most odious and violent actions against the civilian population of the countries which it invades, allowing its own armies to carry out every act of violence, torture, ethnic cleansing and terrorism, without having to answer to international criminal tribunals, because American [and British - CWO] soldiers are only answerable to their own civilian or military courts of law. This is the same democracy which, in not signing the [in any case, very weak] Kyoto treaty, massively contributes to the pollution of the world, because it does not want taxes which weaken the competitiveness of its own companies. This is the democracy which, in pursuit of its own interests is taking its contradictions onto an international stage, making the world a scene of wars and unending barbarism.

Preventative wars are being waged in the name of this democracy, creating tens of thousands of civilian victims abroad, whilst at home 50 million of its citizens remain below the poverty line. It is in the name of this democracy that prisoners are tortured before it is even known whether they belong to a hostile force or are simply citizens caught up in the net of military repression. And in this democracy a profit has to be made immediately and at all costs. Economic objectives are achieved through barbaric tragedies of war, enacted in an orgy of blood and death.

The special lie about exporting democracy (which democracy and whose?) through the horrible concept of the preventative war against terrorism has not just served the American government to justify the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also useful in the present imperialist phase in all those political and economic situations in any international market involving the USA’s most important strategic interests.

The planning, and then the execution, of such an attitude of ferocious aggression stems, in the first place, from growing economic crisis of the USA. In the second half of the ’90’s, but especially this decade, the American economy has gone through an extraordinarily deep and widespread crisis.

Having lost out to the challenge from Europe and Japan in previous decades, and more recently China, it is up to its neck in debt, so that if the debt owed by families and firms is added up it reaches a figure of more than 300% of GNP. Ever more dependent for its energy needs on international oil (70%) and requiring $3bn per day to satisfy the need to finance its economic and productive apparatus, in which the military seems to have an insatiable appetite, America’s solution is to use force everywhere its vital interests are concerned.

Most significantly there is the oil market, which has been literally devastated by military incursions made by the USA. Then there is the continuing need to impose the dominant role of the dollar on international finance markets, to play at will with interest rates to allow the flow of capital towards American financial centres (1), and, finally, to force its allies and enemies alike to agree to all sorts of decisions whilst remaining happy with the justifications adopted, however crude and unbelievable.

It all started with 9/11, which was for the Bush government the primary cause of its entire response, the mother of all its legitimisation, the axis around which the struggle against international terrorism turned. The first armed action was the war in Afghanistan, already planned well before the 11th September, the second was taken against Saddam Hussein, who had no links of any kind with international terrorism or Al Qa’eda. From that tragic moment every act of opposition to the military ferocity of American imperialism has been labelled as terrorism. The responsibility for this is clearly down to the American government and the majority of its intelligence services.

The equation was that terrorism equals absolute evil. If all opposition to Washington’s strategic objectives is seen as terrorism, it then follows that it is right to combat it and annihilate it with all means possible, legal or not, in a kind of illusion of military omnipotence behind which hides the enormous weakness of an economic and social system in free fall. The corollary of this, true at all times and particularly for the present war in Iraq, is that there is no opposition to the war, to the puppet government which exists thanks to the military presence of the occupation forces, but only terrorists who must be exterminated everywhere, by any the means, with torture and thousands of civilian deaths as inevitable collateral effects. Imperialism’s ferocity utilises terrorism to justify its own barbarity without granting room or legitimacy to any form of opposition. This does not mean that terrorism does not exist, that it is not to be denounced, nor that it should not be fought in the appropriate fashion. On the other hand, those who feel the need, in the name of any ideology, to defend, to politically support or to morally justify groups and organisations which, for their own ends, kill civilians, young and old, women and children, do they not make of their own work an inhuman massacre of innocents? And when this happens, terrorism creates, in the long term, exactly the opposite of what it wants to achieve in terms of support for its strategy. But it is not a question of this, it is that those who deliberately confuse the concepts of terrorism with those of national liberation struggles, of civil war or of revolution, in order to discredit all social movements by burdening them with the negative definition of terrorism. Thus, we will begin by defining what we mean by terrorism and legitimate defence against an invading army, leaving aside for the moment the ideological and programmatic content of the concept of defence. It is also necessary to confirm how acts of terrorism can be part of the clash between occupiers and occupied, and, finally, that state terrorism exists though it is never called that, but only because it is produced by a regular army, and, above all, hidden by the media’s sophisticated news management.

For a distinction between terrorism and guerrilla war

In order to move from a high level of abstraction, we will shift the question to the real and well-defined context of the war in Iraq. Every day, for two and a half years, we have witnessed the same story where the terrorists kill civilians and are against the legitimate government and the democratisation process. There is no sign of the opposition or of guerrilla war. And it is bourgeois international law, although in terms congenial to it, that is clearly providing the terms for the reportage, and is also present in the articles of the UN and other international organisations. In this case we would like to take into consideration the definitions provided by the Istituto Studi Ricerche Informazioni Difesa [ISTRID, the Defence Information Research Institution], which is an institute of the Italian government, and cannot be dismissed as a coven of subversives. As regards the definition of terrorism, they say: “Terrorism does not exist as a doctrine or political programme, but only as a ‘violent mode of action’”, used by individuals, organised groups and sometimes by the armed forces. This type of violent action, with its specific characteristic of targeting innocent civilians, is always to be considered as a criminal act, no matter what the status of the perpetrators.

As concerns the definition of a guerrilla war, they stress that: with regard to the conflict underway, none of the armed actions in Iraqi territory aimed at the occupying (UK/US) armed forces or those of the collaborating countries can be considered as terrorist, but as acts of guerrilla war, even if they are carried out in a criminal fashion. And this is obviously also true for terrorist operations carried out by a “regular” armed forces against the civilian population in a territory occupied following an act of war and of an enemy state. It seems that actions carried out by the occupiers against the civil population should be classified as terrorist (at least according to the definitions that even the US remembered earlier), if the attacks against the lives and property of civilians (killings at road-blocks, bombardments, destruction, looting, detaining people, etc.). Every other consideration is irrelevant, unless it continually comes up against the false framework in which the problem is posed. Why on earth should the civilian population be the object of the infamy of terrorism, so that defenceless citizens, men and women, are caught in death’s gunsights? There are numerous responses, so let us list the most important.

  1. as “propaganda by the deed” to incite social strata to struggle or else to terrorise them, intimidate them, thus inducing their acquiescence;
  2. to garner support for institutions, either already in existence or yet to be founded, attributing the responsibility for terrorist acts and massacres to the political enemy;
  3. to terrorise the population into abandoning territory to be militarily occupied;
  4. for ethnic cleansing;
  5. to force guerrillas into the open or to repress some form of opposition by the bombardment of villages and cities;
  6. as an instrument of reprisal against a criminal population or one suspected of aiding guerrillas.

It is clear to the point of being obvious that, if one accepts this formal definition of terrorism, then it applies to all the actions targeting the civilian population, and that these can be used both by the occupying forces and those who are undergoing occupation. One can be a terrorist tout court, or use terrorist tactics whether one belongs to a regular or guerrilla force. But there is a considerable difference, as, for any guerrilla and /or nationalist movement, possible acts of terror against civilians (journalists supporting the regime, or those considered to be such, people belonging to the puppet regime, civilians who want to enrol in the police or army) are seen as acts of struggle against the occupation’s symbols and instruments. This contrasts with actions of an imperialist force. The massacre of thousands of civilians in the laying siege to, and destruction of, entire cities, ethnic or religious cleansing, the torture of prisoners, the summary executions, the calculated demolition of civilian habitations with their inhabitants still inside with the aim of cutting the ground from beneath the feet of the opposition, are very different things in terms of ferocity and intensity, and are much more serious.

Another consideration is that, when there exists an enormous disproportion between the occupying power and the guerrillas, the weapon of assassination, of irregular actions is often the only one available for the latter, whereas action against civilians is deliberately chosen by the former. The scandalous thing is that - still remaining with the bourgeois definition of terrorism - imperialism is the greatest expression of terrorism, which, in its turn, produces a defensive terrorism, in an unending spiral of violence and barbarism. They are the two sides of the same capitalist coin. That the USA is now throwing out accusations of terrorism against those who are its principal victims is worth an entry in the encyclopaedia of paradox. American responsibility became tragically famous in the Vietnam War, with the killing of millions of civilians, entire villages napalmed, the use of chemical weapons and of torture of prisoners. The tragic burden of deaths and malformed births from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs are still occurring today in Japan. And so on ... to Nassiriya, Guantànamo and Abu Ghraib, in a terrifying array of massacres and torture. In a recent interview, McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary and a powerful man in all later administrations, declared that: “If we’d lost the [Second World] War, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals”. They won the war, no condemnation fell on the American government, war crimes and state terrorism continued, and it is the same US government which makes daily use of them.

Taking advantage of terrorism and answering it

As well as using the term “terrorism” to discredit every type of response to their occupation, US imperialism, amongst others, took advantage of the emergence or growth of organisations, which it only now called terrorist. The US used them a lot in the past, for overt and covert operations. It armed, financed, and, very often, politically defended and justified them. When it later abandoned them or found itself up against them, it declared holy war on them, in a game that is as tragic as it is grotesque. This happened in the Cold War against the fake communism of the Soviet Empire and continued in the period after. Imperialist interests have always been the same. The combatants have changed as has the seriousness of the economic crisis. First, it was the struggle against the evil empire which provided the mystification for the US’s pursuit of its strategic interests through ambiguous allies, who it did not advertise. Then the war against terrorism for democracy became the screen behind which it hid its economic difficulties and consequent military aggressiveness. Before and after the Cold War ended the imperialist balance changed together as did its protagonists and the areas and sources of raw materials of primary strategic interest, but not the need for capital accumulation, other than to intensify it.

The most striking example is its relations with Islamic terrorism, with al Qa’eda, Bin Laden and the Taliban. At the time of the war in Afghanistan against the pro-Soviet government in Kabul, the American government armed and financed Massoud and friends’ fundamentalist Mujaheddin movement, in whose ranks Bin Laden was active. The type of war that they fought against the governments of Kharmal and then Najibullah was marked by attacks on both military and civilian targets. About a million Afghans fled to Pakistan and the neighbouring countries. The attacks against the civilian population were intended to conquer abandoned territory, to geographically extend the new sovereignty by gradually taking zones and areas away from the official government, and imposing the Sharia as the source of law. This type of fundamentalism and terrorism at the time of Cold War against Soviet imperialism was useful for American interests in central Asia. Once the USSR had collapsed and the possibility of laying hands on the Caspian Sea’s oil deposits opened up, through the construction and control over a series of gas and oil pipelines, it was necessary to give Afghanistan a degree of social stability which the government of Massoud and Rabbani had been unable to provide. The Washington government thus turned to an even more ferocious fundamentalist and terrorist force, the Taliban. Arms and finances reached the Taliban army through the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, but the providers were the American government and Unocal, the oil company with the biggest interest in the construction of the pipelines. But the Taliban was also unable to deliver the goods. The partial control of the territory (only 60%) by mullah Omar, Massoud’s presence in the Panshir Valley, from where he waged civil war, and the pressure from Unocal for the American government to do something, pushed the White House into distancing itself from the Taliban. It now looked up the old Mujaheddin as allies to fight the new government, and accused the various Bin Ladens, mullah Omars and the entire Taliban movement of fundamentalism and terrorism, despite the fact that it had helped them gain power. This u-turn occured, we stress, before 11th September.

US’s relations with Osama Bin Laden have varied. The association between the American government and the Saudi oilman proceeded in a symbiotic way until the Gulf War. Then Osama, and Al Qa’eda, which already existed, but until then had operated as terrorists within the Mujaheddin movement under the control of the USA, began to distance themselves from their ally. They regarded the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia as an insult to the Islamic religion and, above all, to Osama’s and his family’s oil interests. From then on, Osama and Al Qa’eda’s terrorist practice was no longer in favour of the US, but against it and its attempt to control the most important oil area on the planet. This terrorism remains what it always was, but world public opinion regards it as such only now, when it no longer serves American interests and has turned against the US.

The historical archives are full of such examples. Terrorism, in the official use of the term by those who use it when it suits them, is such, above all, when, provoked in the very act of its birth as a social phenomenon responding to an invasion or the manoeuvres of some imperialism or other, it goes against the interests of the aggressor. Whoever defends themselves is a terrorist, not because of their methods of struggle, but because they stand up against the designs of imperialism. None of the various American governments have called the death squads which operated in Nicaragua and Honduras in the ’80’s “terrorist”. They have made sure that they haven’t applied the term “terrorist state” in their dealings with Latin American dictatorships or Israel. On the other hand, they have accused all the organisations which have dared to respond to their aggression or that of their allies of the moment of such behaviour. On the most recent list of organisations which are given this notorious label we find, in the Middle East alone, Islamic Jihad, the Lebanese Hizbollah, Hamas and similar smaller national liberation organisations.

Jihad was born after the Six Day War as a response to the occupation of Palestinian territory by the Israeli state. Its reactionary fundamentalist ideological framework is like all the bourgeois political forms which have wanted to fully exploit the religious sentiments of the masses who are among the most dispossessed in the area. It remains a fact that such an organisation was born and developed in a nationalist fashion after the mini-imperialist aggression of Israel, supported by American mega-imperialism.

The Hezbollah story is similar. This Lebanese fundamentalist formation saw the light of day as a response to the 1982 invasion of Lebanese Galilee by Israel, once again supported by America, despite Sharon’s moral responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

It is no different for Hamas. If such organisations use terrorism as a part of the struggle against the aggressor, it doesn’t alter the fact that they are the product of imperialism itself, and not the other way around; it is not that Israel and America are forced to calm unpredictable international situations, but rather that they repress them after having provoked them. They are the response to imperialism’s aggression, and not the reverse.

The falsification of roles and definitions reached its peak with the question of Iraq. Having fought a ferocious oil war with the aim of seizing the energy of the potential world number two producer, shamelessly based on lies so inconsistent as to be ridiculous, having invented two puppet governments, including the present one, which sprung from managed elections, having massacred at least a hundred thousand civilians, the USA has labelled as terrorism, from the very first, all the internal opposition, from Shi’ite fundamentalism to Sunni secularists, as if the existence of any opposition to imperialist arrogance was impossible. In this situation of falsifications, a shadowy example is the fact that Allawi, the leader of the second puppet government and a CIA agent, was the head of a network of operatives who sowed terror among the population, putting bombs in markets and public places to foment a situation of tension with the aim of creating conditions for a popular revolt against the Mesopotamian satrap, Saddam Hussein.

Imperialism and terrorism, two faces of capitalist barbarism

It is part of the natural order of things that an act of imperialist aggression gives birth to its opposite: an antagonist shaped by the political and ideological forces in the history of the invaded nation. These in turn depend on the strength and cohesion of the indigenous bourgeoisie and the level of class struggle. Both imperialist aggressor and the opposition can turn to terrorism without giving up their role or the pursuit of their aims. Recent history teaches us that the practice of terrorism is not the exclusive prerogative of small groups, of fundamentalist organisations, of partisan movements or of nationalist guerrillas, but is also used by states and regular armies of occupation. However, such terrorism has nothing to do with the class struggle or revolutionary movements, or rather, this type of violence has nothing to do with working class and revolutionary objectives, except where we are its victims. We have already fully explained how terrorism is outside the class struggle on several occasions. Terrorism in the current definition of an attack on the civilian population, on the unarmed and weakest, is a practice which is completely within bourgeois ideology, no matter what is its frame of reference: either as a bourgeois aggressor which has gone on the offensive, or that of a national bourgeoisie defending itself. An authentic revolutionary movement must above all settle accounts with the invading army. All revolutionary movement, even if newly formed, have to work against imperialist aggression. At the same time, they must settle accounts with their own bourgeoisie, its nationalist aims and its methods of struggle, including terrorism. Class violence must not be confused with bourgeois barbarity. The latter is violence which expresses itself against everyone and everything, against the civilian population, against the proletariat itself if it dares to raise its head. It is synonymous with decimation and retaliation, all to impose bourgeois political power and safeguard its economic interests. Class violence, on the other hand, is born within the proletariat, and acquires strength and credibility in all sectors of the population. Such violence aims to make the proletariat the dominant political force in society, even against other social strata, such as the proletarianised petit bourgeois which can be assimilated within the proletariat. They do not immediately adhere to the revolutionary strategy and programme but have to be won over to it. Barbaric actions, like the televising of cutting the throats of journalists, or of civilians who work for foreign companies - workers who, in order to survive, are forced to undergo exploitation by foreign capital - might have the immediate result of raising morale among a narrow circle of fanatics, but would alienate from the class struggle wide layers of the population, including considerable parts of the proletariat itself. They are also repugnant practices even if we make allowances for the environment in which they grew up.

The other aspect putting terrorism, no matter what its ideological justification, outside the practice of class struggle is that it is always bourgeois organisations with a nationalist agenda which carry it out. In the Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi experiences, all the nationalist organisations which fight against imperialist occupation sometimes use terrorist practices, not against the enemy, for then they would not be such, but against part of their own population, because they live in a capitalist economic and political context. The ideology which animates them is more than backward and religiously oppressive. It is also socially aware with a tendency to punish the working class in any confrontation. If, against such a background of a conflict between an aggressive imperialism and bourgeois forces which defend themselves, there was a class initiative which had both the objective of confronting the imperialist presence and settling accounts with the bourgeoisie, then it would be the target of the fire from both the capitalist sides. The imperialist power would turn itself on the proletarian rising because it would regard that as being even more dangerous than the nationalist bourgeoisie. What would be at stake would no longer just be the need to repress a partisan movement but rather an example of class struggle which could unleash a domino effect in the area. This would have as its outcome not just repelling imperialist aggression, but would question its very economic basis: capitalism. The various bourgeois factions would behave in the same way, as they would be deprived of that military aid and social support without which they could not fight the occupying army. The cannon fodder for the construction of the nationalist army in the immediate future would slip out of their hands, and, in the longer term, they would lose the basis of consent for their political power. It would be for this reason that it would see a fledgling proletarian movement, like imperialism, as a mortal enemy to attack and annihilate by any means, even before turning their weapons on the foreign foe. In this case, they would not hesitate to use terrorism. Ferocious massacres and ethnic cleansing, bloodletting and decimation of the population which supports a proletarian movement even if not directly participating in it would be the order of the day. The history of class struggle shows us that proletarian violence is never terrorism, even if the class struggle is the target of ferocious terrorist actions from both imperialism and its local bourgeois agents.

Fabio Damen

(1) There are numerous articles in Prometeo (and Revolutionary Perspectives and Internationalist Communist Review) on the close relationship between the control of oil deposits and wells and the protection of the dollar’s hegemony in international exchange.