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How to kill a terrorist

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

On May 23, 2013 in a wonderful speech, that is yet to be translated into action, President Obama declared an end to the Global War on Terror (GWOT) which the U.S. has been waging since the early days after 9/11. Yet, killing terrorists is still on his agenda and that of other leaders around the world, albeit in a more “moderate” fashion. So here are some preliminary thoughts which I believe should guide this policy of killing.

The golden rule for killing a terrorist, actually the two golden rules, are simple and direct. The first golden rule is: do not become a terrorist in the process. The second rule is: do not create two or more terrorists for every terrorist you kill.

Very simple!

Yet the record of the past twelve years tells us that those two rules have been broken again and again and again. Some of those fighting terrorism have become as bad, and sometimes worse, than the terrorists they are fighting. Consequently, a new generation of terrorism has been born out of the very war that was supposed to fight and end terrorism. Moreover radicalization in our region has reached new and unprecedented limits; which is in itself a threat to civil peace. So what I will do here is register some of the ways in which those two rules have been broken, as things to be avoided in future killings.

Before I start with the first rule, I need to define what I mean by a “terrorist.” The word has been used in so many ways that it lost its meaning. The connotations associated with it are numerous and contradicting. If you follow Fox news it means one thing; CNN something else; Al Arabyia another; Al-Jazeera a fourth meaning. And if you follow them all then you are lost and it really means nothing. I personally adopt the following definition of a terrorist: “someone who 1) uses violence against civilians for political ends but in a way that also instills fear in them; and 2) believes that his actions are justifiable and moral.” A lot can be said to undermine this definition, but for the purposes of this article it will do.

Signs of Becoming a Terrorist

The first golden rule is not to become a terrorist in the process of killing the terrorist. This sounds sensible enough and very few would openly dispute it. But, it is quite hard to apply. Nietzsche warned that: “he who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. For if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” President Obama warned of the same thing when he said: “we must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” The sad thing is that the war on terror has already defined many people in the United States and elsewhere, and that quite a few have actually become the monster they were fighting.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created new armies of terrorists that had never existed before, making the lives of the people of this region much more dangerous

Abdullah Hamidaddin

There are two signs to you becoming the terrorist you are fighting. If you say to yourself that it does not matter how many innocent people die for the sake of your own safety, then you are something akin to the terrorist. If you say to yourself that it does not matter how many basic human rights are violated, then you are becoming a terrorist. And if you say to yourself that it does not matter how many international norms and laws are broken for your security, then you are becoming a terrorist. Those three ideas shape the terrorist’s mindset. They underlie his crimes. And when you adopt them, when you think like the terrorist, then you are one, just in different clothing.

If you consider that the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq are a worthy cost for your security, then you are becoming a terrorist. There is no doubt in any sensible mind that going after those who perpetrated 9/11 was absolutely necessary and morally justifiable. But killing so many in the process was evil and unnecessary. It was terrorism at a mega scale. The tragic fact is that the terror, the deaths, the sufferings and the losses caused by President George W. Bush’s decisions are much more than those perpetrated by all members of al-Qaeda and its offshoots put together. If you consider that to be morally justifiable, then you are becoming a terrorist.

If you justify torture, then you are becoming a terrorist. The past few years have actually witnessed some debates on the morality of torturing individuals who are suspected to hold information that can save lives. As I read the arguments presented by those who support torture and compare them to the arguments used by terrorists to justify their crimes, I ask myself: Who is the terrorist here? Both arguments are very similar. They both boil down to legitimizing violations against non-combatants for a perceived greater good. Both arguments allow the perpetrator of the violation to determine what the phrase “greater good” means. Most crucially both arguments want to make such violations a universal principle. They both want them institutionalized. One in law, the other in religion.

Moreover, the cruelty articulated by both the terrorist and those justifying torture is also the same. Does the sensibility of a human being remain in a person who does not object to crushing the testicles of a suspect’s child?! This is exactly what deputy assistant to the Attorney General John Ashcroft, John Yoo accepts. He was also implicated in the torture memos which served as a guide to torture without being legally implicated. And where are your morals if you start defending “The Case for Torture” like Alan Dershowitz. Or if like him, you start suggesting that “torture warrants” be issued to legally - and monstrously – determine what kind of torture a suspect deserves. What’s the difference between the logic of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Yoo’s or Dershowitz’s?

Also, when you justify drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan then you are also becoming a terrorist. The logic of the terrorist is to disregard civilian life for the purpose of achieving a goal for “his” civilians. We see this same logic used to justify drone attacks. The terrorist cares less about international law, and we see this trait in those who authorize the use of drones.

GWOT Fires Back

Coming to the second golden rule; do not create two or more terrorists for every terrorist you kill.

Terrorism is a process which, according to a report for the U.S. congress on Combating Terrorism, includes: ideological outreach, acquisition of funding and support, recruitment, organization, indoctrination, training, planning, targeting, attack, exploitation of results. Looking into those components, one sees that the GWOT has effectively eradicated some of the threats and eliminated many members of the leadership rank in terrorist networks. However, at the same time it has accelerated the process of creating a new generation of terrorists.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created new armies of terrorists that had never existed before, making the lives of the people of this region much more dangerous. Part of the fears surrounding a sudden fall of the Assad regime in Syria is that terrorists will take over the country. That is how strong they are! And those terrorists are a direct outcome of the GWOT. That war created terrorists that never ever existed, enabled by new resources and opportunities. In Yemen, the drone attacks are delegitimizing the government, which is already weak and unable to control the country. Drones are also increasing sympathy for the terrorists, thus serving their “ideological outreach” program, the first step in the process of terrorism.

So, to kill the terrorist without creating more one need do what Obama suggested in his speech; that is to address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.” He went on to say: “for what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists. That has to be part of our strategy.” Wise words indeed, but so far they are just words. Since he said that, many drones have attacked Yemen, killed civilians, delegitimized President Hadi, further radicalized Yemen and fed extremism. Half of Yemen’s population sleeps hungry. The cost of those drones could have been a good start for minimizing the grievances of the Yemeni people.

Also, one needs to belittle the value of terrorism and control the response to terrorist threats. Today terrorism is being characterized as the threat of the century. Terrorism is in fact just another crime. It has been here for some time and will continue to exist. It is not even the worse kind of crime which exists in terms of human loss or suffering. It should never be elevated to a status which makes its perpetrators feel especially successful. The very fact that America went to war against terrorism was an important perpetuating factor in the life of the terrorist for many years to come. When Attorney General John Ashcroft says that “the terrorist enemy that threatens civilization today is unlike any we have ever known” he actually emboldens the existing terrorist, supports his ideological outreach, and creates the potential of creating much more. When “terrorists can cause us to become a closed and fearful society, they win.” And when they win, they can recruit more to their cause. When the terrorist sees that his existence made the American government shut down a whole city and close many of its embassies, he feels vindicated and those watching start wondering about the effectiveness of their tactics. Eric Hobsbawm tell us that “publicity is the secret weapon of terrorists” and we have not only given them publicity but we have also elevated the act of terrorism itself to a level which makes it aspirational for individual contenders of the United States or local governments.

Let’s fight terrorism. But let’s do it right.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.