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Terrorism: The Ally and Enemy of the West

For the West, today’s terrorists are tomorrow’s allies, and vice versa

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This is the second article in a two-part series

In a recent article I discussed the perplexing, disproportionate and sometimes-hypocritical official response to the Charile Hebdo attacks in France last month. I left out an important point that is so perplexing and hypocritical it warrants special attention here. I’m referring to the hypocrisy and double standard/double speak of condemning terrorists in one situation and country (i.e., France) while supporting the same terrorist groups in other situations and countries (i.e., Syria, Iraq, Libya, etc).

<figcaption>It's only terrorism when "they" do it</figcaption>
It's only terrorism when "they" do it

The men responsible for the Charlie Hebdo shootings have been linked to ISIS and al Qaeda and have been rightly condemned by the west for their affiliations to these terrorist groups. Yet, certain western states have actually supported these terrorist groups in other countries. It was reported by the BBC in 2013 that states such as France and the United States gave or planned to give arms and military support to the Free Syria Army, a so-called insurgency group openly linked to ISIS, in Syria. It should be recalled that both France and the US have strategic and geo-political interests in Syria and desire the downfall of the current regime. Similarly, during the 2011 ouster of Gaddafi in Libya NATO/the west and al Qaeda were on the same side, with both supporting the so-called insurgency. Wait, what? Is this the same al Qaeda—that pesky terrorist organization—that the US declared war on after 9/11; through it’s global war on terrorism? Perhaps for western governments “terrorists” are not so bad when they share or carry out “our interests.”

Interestingly, the White House recently de-listed the infamous Taliban from the “terrorist group” club when asked why it was okay for the US to negotiate with terrorists but not for other states. On January 28 the White House Deputy Press Secretary clumsily defended the US’ past hostage swaps with the Taliban and its condemnation of similar swaps planned between Jordan and ISIS/ISIL by claiming that ISIS is a terrorist group while the Taliban is an “armed insurgency.” Wait, again, what? Is this the same Taliban that the Bush administration adamantly and venomously denounced as “terrorists” and invaded Afghanistan 14 years ago to fight; the same Taliban the global war on terrorism was created for in the first place? Even the mainstream media journalist asking the question seems “shocked and awed” by the WH response. Rather than admit its double standard, the White House has rewritten history and demoted the Taliban from “terrorists” to ”rebel fighters.” But while the White House may have a, ummm, short memory span the rest of us have not forgotten the days when the Taliban was the “evil terrorist” du jour.

The terrorist label is becoming increasingly meaningless and malleable, changing with the geo-political winds and interests of the day; a lofty term to be used against “our enemies” until, of course, those enemies become our allies and friends (i.e., serve “our interests”). Simply put, it seems that “terrorism” is a convenient word, a political hot potato to be taken up when it suits state interests and abandoned when it does not. Indeed, given the current focus on the Paris attacks, it is interesting (and somewhat poignant) to note that the word “terrorism” (derived from the French word terror) is a modern political invention that first entered the English lexicon during the era of the French Revolution, giving government and imperial administrators a practical solution to the problem of how to differentiate legitimate (i.e., their own) from illegitimate (i.e., their enemies’) forms of political violence [1].

In the case of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, it is hypocritical to support ISIS terrorist violence and attacks in countries where the French have interests and then condemn people linked to the same terrorist groups when they carry out terrorism locally. Also, if western states lend military support and funding to terrorist groups like ISIS abroad, then they may even be indirectly responsible for acts of terror committed by these groups’ affiliates or devotees at home. Governments cannot have it both ways: they cannot condemn and support terrorism at the same time; they cannot condone or fund terrorism when it is carried out against their enemies and lament if it occurs at home.

The above echoes some other examples of western hypocrisy. We see western countries that have committed far greater mass atrocities than the Paris killings have the nerve to sanction and chastise other states over things those western countries either hypocritically engage in themselves or allow their allies to engage in. For instance, the sanctions against Iran for its alleged nuclear program when western countries have more nuclear weapons than any non-western nations combined, and have been the only ones to use them. Also, while Russia is being sanctioned—and was recently banned from the upcoming G7 meeting by German Chancellor Merkel—for annexation of Crimea, western states have no problem funding and allowing the continued and illegal annexations of Palestinian land by Israel. This suggests that in the world of US/western political hegemony you are only a “bad guy” when the bigger bad guy does not consider you an ally. To be sure we need only look at the bewildering praise and commemoration that was poured over the recently deceased king of Saudi Arabia—one of the most ruthless, archaic and religiously extreme rulers in the Middle East—by members of the US government.

Going back to Charlie Hebdo and the malleable meaning of terrorism, some media leaders were reluctant to label the Charlie Hebdo killers as terrorists, given the unclear meaning of the term. The head of BBC Arabic states that: “The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word [terrorism] and they can’t. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden.”

Overall, as I state in part one of this series, it seems that western media and officials are quick to label certain acts as terrorism while other similar acts do not always garner this designation. Media were quick to label the Charlie Hebdo attacks as terrorism while a bombing of the NCAAP in the US just one day before was not described in the media as terrorism and is currently only being described as “possible” domestic terrorism. It also appears that “terrorism” and “terrorist” are shifting terms, the definition and application of which seem to change depending on the political interests of certain states. This means that yesterday’s terrorists may become today’s allies and heroes and vice versa. Let us never forget that Nelson Mandela, for instance, spent 27 years in jail for terrorism long before he was honored and remembered as one of history’s greatest men. Oh nostalgie, quand tu nous tiens!


[1] Blain, M. (2007). On the genealogy of terrorism. In D. Staines (Ed.), Interrogating the war on terror: Interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 49-66). Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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