Grasping the Motives for Terror
The Paris terror attacks – particularly the methodical shooting of
unarmed civilians – have shocked the world and generated new tough
talk from policymakers. But the West cannot ignore how some of its
violent policy prescriptions over the past 35 years have contributed
to the crisis, writes James Paul.
By James Paul
November 16, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Consortiumnews"
- As we mourn the many killed in Paris by the terror attacks of Nov.
13, we may be tempted to react mainly with anger and outrage and to
rally around the Western governments in their “war” against the
Islamic jihadists. But if we want to live in a world free of terror,
we must do more than react blindly in support of widened Western
military campaigns, air strikes, drone attacks, secret operations,
assassinations, destabilization campaigns, secret prisons and all
the apparatus of official violence.
We must ask honestly and fairly: what is the
Western responsibility for these horrible attacks on our cities and
our people? Can there be, in our governments’ actions over the
years, causes that would motivate and set in motion such horror? And
what might be an alternative?
There is, of course, a considerable responsibility
that even Western security experts acknowledge. And unless we do
something to bring those policies to an end, we can expect more
terror and more suffering, both here and in the war-torn lands of
the Middle East (and beyond). The history is clear.
First of all, we should consider the many wars of
Israel, supported by Washington and other Western governments, wars
that have caused great suffering and aroused enormous anger in the
region. Then, there are the decades of warfare in Afghanistan, where
Washington and its partners funded and armed Islamic fundamentalists
(the “mujahedeen”) beginning in 1979. The war to control Afghanistan
has raged almost continuously ever since.
Another brutal conflict, the Iran-Iraq War of
1980-88, was notorious for its wholesale violence. Saddam Hussein,
the Iraqi dictator who was then a friend of Washington, began the
hostilities and fought Iran with a hefty flow of arms and military
intelligence from Western suppliers. Ninety U.S. Air Force target
specialists worked inside the Iraqi defense headquarters to help
with aerial targeting, including chemical weapon attacks on Iranian
cities. The war left at least a half-million dead and vast
In 2003, the U.S. (in partnership with the United
Kingdom) attacked Iraq, seeking regime change from the former ally
Saddam Hussein. Washington stayed for eight years until 2011,
creating fiendish Islamic militias as part of a vicious
counter-insurgency program created by much-admired U.S. General
David Petraeus and later turned into doctrine at the Harvard Kennedy
There was round-the-clock bombing, huge prison
camps, torture and ongoing military operations throughout the
country, leading to a tremendous loss of life among Iraqis (more
than a million perished) and complete destabilization of the
In 2011, the U.S. and various allies, intervened
again, this time in Libya, using air strikes and special operations
forces to produce another “regime change.” The CIA and its Persian
Gulf friends armed Islamic militias opposed to the Gaddafi
government, while U.S. and allied air forces bombed the capital and
other cities, overthrowing the government and creating internal
violence and political chaos that continues down to the present.
In short order, Washington again intervened in
Syria – in yet another “regime change” project. A peaceful Arab
Spring protest was transformed by the Western powers and their
regional allies as they armed and financed rebel groups (including
Islamic groups). Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other
regional allies had a hand in the conflict.
Four years later, the country is now in chaos and
torn by a terrible civil war with hundreds of thousands of
casualties, four million refugees and most cities in ruins. From the
chaos of Iraq and Syria has emerged Daesh (also known as Islamic
State, ISIS and ISIL), an Islamic movement that has seized territory
and won adherents against the West.
Western governments justified their many military
operations on the basis of supposed “moral” arguments. Today, as
internal documents come to light, we can see that the leaders’
motivations were hardly innocent (control of an oil-rich region
loomed large) and arguments they presented to the public were
In spite of claims to moral leadership, Western
countries disregarded the cost of these conflicts to the people in
the region. During the sanctions phase of the Iraq conflict
(1990-2003), for example, more than half a million children died
according to the UN. When asked on U.S. national television about
this death toll, Madeleine, who would soon become Secretary of
State, said that to achieve U.S. goals the price in children’s
deaths was “worth it.”
Climate change has worsened the effects of war in
the region, as drought has ravaged the countryside, shrunk the food
supply and depopulated rural areas. Syria was particularly hard hit,
accelerating the shift to civil war as unemployed young men were
recruited with foreign money into armed rebel militias.
Thousands of foreign fighters, mostly jihadis,
came from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones as well as Saudi
Arabia. Previously a secular society with ethnic and religious
diversity, Syria was transformed into an inferno of religious
Millions of Syrian refugees now live in camps. In
Turkey alone there are more than two million with a million more in
Lebanon. Incredibly, in mid-year, the rich Western countries failed
to fund adequately the UN’s Syrian refugee assistance program,
forcing cuts in food and medical allowances and leaving millions of
people utterly desperate.
Many were ready to risk death to find their way to
survival in the European Union. These anguished and traumatized
people are prime recruitment targets for terrorist groups.
Recruitment also takes place among disaffected Muslim youth in the
Western countries themselves.
Such facts are well-known to the top-level Western
policymakers, but the same policies continue, irrespective of the
costs. There are two famous official assessments that connect the
dots. They came from Sir David Omand, Security and Intelligence
Coordinator in the British Cabinet Office, and separately from Eliza
Manningham-Buller the head of MI5, the British secret security
The MI5 chief wrote a secret memorandum to Prime
Minister Tony Blair and she later said in public testimony that
British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq had “radicalized a whole
generation of young people” of Islamic background and greatly
increased the threat of terrorism within the UK.
The terror attack in the London underground of
July 7, 2005, which killed 77 people, was soon to show the accuracy
of the predictions of the intelligence chiefs. Though the Prime
Minister had approved a doubling of the budget (and a doubling of
personnel) of the British counter-terrorism program, such measures
were not able protect the people of London riding innocently on the
Manningham-Buller also spoke within the government
against the use of torture, arguing that it, too, would lead to
public outrage in the Middle East and provide a source of terror
recruitment – as well it did.
The French government, like its British
counterpart, has taken a hard line in these events at home and in
the Middle East, coordinating its policy closely with Washington.
The Paris authorities have largely ignored their large Muslim
population, consequently France is increasingly vulnerable to terror
cells in the underprivileged and resentful Muslim neighborhoods.
France was one of the first countries to join
airstrikes against Libya in 2011 and, as the former colonial power
in Syria, it has been closely involved in clandestine operations and
regime change maneuvers in the Syria conflict. France began bombing
Daesh targets in Iraq in late 2014 and it widened its bombing to
eastern Syria in September 2015. At least one of the Nov. 13
terrorists shouted that the attack was a reprisal for France’s role
The assault was the second major terror operation
in France this year (the massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo
took place in January). Confronted with these attacks, the French
government is keen to show its determination and to prove its
As it intensifies its attacks on the enemy, it has
not recognized the threat of its own making. In the wake of the
terror attacks, the government has announced intensified bombings
against Daesh in Syria and tough new security rules at home.
President Hollande has decreed a State of Emergency and closed the
borders. These are desperate measures that are unlikely to succeed.
Nor will the U.S. be safe.
The evidence is clear. Decades of violent Western
policies in the Middle East have caused state collapse, political
chaos, civil war and immense human suffering. These policies must
change if the terror threat is to decline and the peoples of the
region are to enjoy a decent life again.
We can and must reject utterly the terrorist
attacks, but we must also reject the Western violence to which they
respond. As the chickens come home to roost, Western publics must
wake up and demand a peaceful policy path, if they are to avoid more
suffering themselves and live in harmony with their neighbors.
Author of Syria
Paul was executive director of Global Policy Forum, a think tank
that monitors the UN. He also wrote “The
Crisis of Regime Change Refugees.”]