Chapter 10: The First Steps to Defeating Terrorism

The Effective Way to defeat Al Qa’ida :

Understand that terrorism is about revenge

Then end actions that result in more deaths and more people wanting revenge - principally military occupations; air strikes; and aid, political backing and arms sales to dictatorships and countries carrying out occupations

It may be comforting to believe that Al Qa’ida and similar groups want to kill us just because they’re crazy, evil, deranged or have an insane ideology. It’s also untrue though and as long as we continue to believe it without changing our governments’ actions we will continue to be at risk and will never end the flow of new recruits that these groups rely on to survive and continue attacking us.

The targeting of civilians by Al Qa’ida and similar groups is completely wrong and unjustifiable. However it’s not merely insane. They do have an extreme ideology but though their main motive is wrong it’s also straight-forward and exactly the same thing that motivated most American troops in Iraq: revenge.

Over 80% of U.S soldiers in Iraq polled by the American Zogby polling in 2006 cited Saddam’s involvement in September 11th as the main reason they were in Iraq with 77% believing it was also to stop him harbouring Al Qaeda in Iraq (1). Of course Saddam, though guilty of many other crimes, wasn’t involved in September 11th in any way and did not allow Al Qaeda to operate there, though anyone listening only to Bush administration speeches could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Bin Laden after 9-11 said “Every time they kill us, we kill them” (2). The Madrid bombers asked “Is it OK for you to kill our children, women, old people and youth in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine..? And is it forbidden to us to kill yours.” (3). Al Qa’ida in Europe said the July 7th bombings were revenge for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (4). In 2004 Bin Laden offered a truce to European countries if they withdrew their troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, saying “stop spilling our blood so we can stop spilling yours” (5).

In both cases those carrying out acts of “vengeance” are mostly torturing and killing people who were innocent of any involvement in the killings and torture they think they’re exacting revenge for.

Most of the people killed in September 11th had no involvement in US support for the corrupt dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, or US forces’ presence in Saudi, or the killing of Muslim civilians in Iraq by bombing and sanctions, or US military aid used by Israeli forces in the killing of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Even those who had were civilians.

The same goes for the Madrid bombings and the London bombings. The vast majority of Spaniards and many British citizens in opinion polls opposed their governments’ decision to send troops to Iraq – and even if they hadn’t, were civilians.

Of the many thousands of Afghan civilians killed in US and then NATO bombing campaigns in Afghanistan most supported neither the Taliban nor Al Qa’ida. Many of them didn’t even know where New York was never mind what the September 11th attacks were. An analysis by Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire found at least 3,100 Afghan civilians were killed by US and NATO bombing between the October 2001 invasion and 15th March 2003 (6). Tens of thousands more died due to the invasion making civilians flee in the middle of winter and due to bombing and the closure of the border with Pakistan during a famine, preventing aid getting into Afghanistan or refugees out of it (7)(9).

There have been many more killed since, including over 100 deaths of women and children confirmed by International Red Cross staff in a single day in May 2008 – and more refugees suffering in Afghanistan and Pakistan due to NATO and Pakistan army offensives. Arguing that this was unintentional is academic; nor has any special care been taken to avoid killing civilians. The judgement has been simply that air strikes impose maximum suffering on the enemy at minimum loss of our own troops’ lives. The cost in civilian lives isn’t even seriously considered (see chapter on atrocities by both sides and ‘Mistakes from Iraq to Af-Pak’ for more details and sources).

The men who tried to murder civilians at Glasgow airport in 2007 were Iraqis. There was a great deal of condemnation of trainee doctors – people who had sworn a Hippocratic oath not to harm their patients – trying to murder people. Yet if we consider the accounts of some Iraqi doctors of the targeting of civilians, ambulances and doctors’ clinics in coalition assaults on Iraqi cities its possible to see how some Iraqis might seek revenge, even if that revenge remains completely wrong and like the attacks it’s intended to ‘avenge’ attempts to kill innocent people.

For instance the Independent newspaper reported that during the November 2004 Coalition assault on Fallujah “Twenty Iraqi doctors and dozens of civilians were killed in a US air strike that hit a clinic in Fallujah, according to an Iraqi doctor who said he survived the strike. There are fears that heavy civilian casualties could be damaging for US-led forces. The US military said it had killed 71 insurgents, and that 10 American soldiers and two members of the Iraqi security forces fighting alongside the Americans had been killed. 

"In the early morning the US attacked the clinic, a place that we were using for treating the injured people in the city," Dr Sami al-Jumaili said, describing the air strike. "I really don't know if they want to tackle the insurgents or the innocent civilians from the city." 

Witnesses described dead bodies lying in the streets of the Jumhuriya district, with hungry street dogs crowding around them.  (10)

(For many more examples, including deliberate targeting of civilians by coalition forces in some cases, see the chapter on atrocities by both sides or this page and this page and sources for them)

A detailed study of a captured Iraqi “insurgent”’s motives by the CIA in 2005 found that one of his main motives was revenge for Coalition forces having “hurt” a member of his family. The CIA source would not reveal in what way the family member had been hurt (10a).

The same holds for Palestinian suicide bombers, whose main aim is also usually to take revenge for the killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces. For instance Wafa Idrees was one example of how an ordinary Palestinian became a suicide bomber. She began as a First Aid worker for the Red Crescent. John Pilger interviewed many people who knew her. In her work she saw pregnant women and wounded civilians die or lose their babies as Israeli soldiers routinely prevent them passing through checkpoints to get to hospital. She went to bring wounded civilians to hospital by ambulance – and she and her colleagues were fired on, often wounded, some of them killed by Israeli forces. She herself was shot and wounded twice and sometimes beaten by Israelis (11), (12).

She became the first Palestinian woman to become a suicide bomber. Her colleague Ahlam Nasser was still witnessing and experiencing what Wafa did under occupation by Israeli forces years later (13)

Many politicians have claimed that terrorist attacks can’t be linked to their foreign policies because the September 11th attacks took place before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who try this argument are either ignorant of history or hope to rely on the ignorance of others. The September 11th attacks (just like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) were seen by those who planned them as a way at striking at the most powerful ally of Israel’s government – whose military has been occupying Palestinian territory and killing Palestinians for decades (see this page and sources). They also targeted the US as an ally of the corrupt Saudi monarchy which tortures its own people and executes them without trial just as Saddam did (14); the US as an ally of the election rigging, torturing dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, where the main opposition party is banned from elections and opposition supporters beaten, tortured and killed (15) - (18); the US as the government whose forces killed Muslims, including tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq directly by bombing and many more by it’s indirect effects, from 1991 on and imposed sanctions which UN officials overseeing them said killed around 5,000 Iraqi children a month for over 10 years (19) - (23) . None of this makes revenge, still less revenge on innocent civilians, right – but plenty of Muslim deaths, including huge numbers of civilians, caused by the US government preceded 9-11. U.S foreign policy can’t justify September 11th as two wrongs can never make a right, but it did contribute to causing it. 9-11 was not Year Zero.

Hosni Mubarak has been President of Egypt for six terms. Independent observers found every one of his elections involved fraud and violence by police and Mubarak’s hired thugs against the opposition (see (15) - (18)). Yet Mubarak receives praise and financial aid from American governments. The main opposition party – the Muslim Brotherhood – is banned from standing for election and its members tortured – and then people wonder ‘why do Muslim countries have so many terrorists’? A big part of the answer is ‘Because our governments back dictatorships that don’t allow any peaceful way to reform in them’. By contrast President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has been democratically elected in elections international observers found free and fair twice – yet when he tried to change the constitution so he could run for President again American politicians shouted ‘dictator’.

To understand terrorists’ motives is not to support or appease them. Refusing to attempt to understand them will ensure that we’ll never end terrorist attacks. Calls to end the cycle of revenge may be seen as naïve by the supporters of a “tough response”, but what have the results of “tough responses” carried out by both sides been? ; Total failure; worse than failure – the loss of more lives and the strengthening of the extremists on all sides. This is as true for the global “war on terror” as it is for Israel Palestine. Al Qa’ida’s September 11th attacks were a gift to the opportunists on the right in Washington who were waiting for a new Pearl Harbour that would give let them put their plans into action; the US invasion of Iraq was as much a gift to Al Qa’ida. The alternative is that “More violence will cause more violence and this will be an endless spiral” as Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi put it in 2004 (24).

We can claim that using helicopter gunships or artillery or dropping bombs on refugee camps, villages, towns and cities is completely different – legitimate military action which targets combatants with any civilians killed being regrettable collateral damage – but the fact is that by using these methods we know as well as any suicide bomber that we’re going to kill civilians. We know that in every modern war about half the people killed by each side are civilians. We know this will make many of the survivors want revenge on us – including people who previously were not our enemies. We know that if those people come from countries with much weaker militaries than ours their response will be guerrilla warfare or terrorist attacks on our civilians. (see chapter on atrocities by both sides)

The most effective ways to fight terrorism are the simplest and easiest. : stop using our militaries to occupy foreign countries and kill civilians ; stop supporting dictatorships; stop backing Israel’s government in its occupation and settlement of the West Bank and the borders of Gaza. In short stop creating suffering abroad that creates a desire for revenge. These methods don’t require our governments to do anything except end some of their current policies which cost a great deal in money and lives.

In a study of suicide bombings the American Professor Robert Pape found that the vast majority of suicide bombers came from countries occupied by the forces of the target country or whose government received significant financial and military aid from the target country (usually the US or UK). He omitted to mention that the latter category receiving aid were all corrupt, torturing dictatorships – with the exception of Israel which is occupying Palestinian territory and killing Palestinians. Not one Al Qa’ida suicide bomber has come from Iran, an Islamic fundamentalist regime. Not one has come from Syria, an ‘Axis of Evil’ country. They’ve come from Iraq (since the invasion), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. So it’s neither ideological nor religious hatred of the US that is the key factor; military occupations and support for dictatorships are the key factor (25).

(Pakistan is currently a democracy but its military governments have all been backed by the US and British governments – including the Musharraf dictatorship from 1999 till June 2008 – and its offensives against Taliban forces on its North West border with Pakistan are dividing the country by killing civilians along with Taliban).

Pape’s solution is a weak one though. He suggests the US end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and return to the role of ‘off-shore balancer’ (26). Since this would involve continuing support for dictatorships such as the Saudi monarchy and President Mubarak in Egypt though, Pape’s own data suggests it will fail.

The common belief that all suicide bombers are Muslims or religious fanatics is also false. The first modern suicide bombers in Lebanon were Christian women recruited by Christian militias seeking revenge on Israeli forces for occupying their country and killing other Lebanese people. Later Hizbullah adopted the tactic too. Out of 41 suicide bombers in Israeli occupied Lebanon from 1982 to 1999 twenty-seven were Communists or Socialists, 3 Christians, 3 of unknown beliefs. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka include both Christians and Hindus and have used suicide bombings as part of a campaign for a separate Tamil state. In other words they are primarily nationalists (27), (28)

Professor Fawaz A. Gergez, who has interviewed former jihadists and studied them over decades, found in his book ‘The Far Enemy’ that political repression of radical Islamists through jail, torture and execution strengthens their movements, radicalises them and allows themselves to see themselves as victims of injustice and so as having a just cause. This gains them new recruits.

Gergez concludes that “As long as Muslim governments continue to violate the rights of their citizens and sanction abuse, they will continue to breed radicalism and militancy.” . No wonder that much of this radical Islamic violence has come to focus not only on their own dictators (“the near enemy” as Gergez put it) but also on the “far enemy” – the western governments who aid these dictatorships with money and with arms sales, training and political support (29).

Gergez, found that the majority of Muslims - and even of jihadists - condemned Al Qa'ida for targeting civilians. Even Zarqawi's former spiritual mentor Maqdisi condemned him - as did Sunni Iraqi clerics like Grand Imam Sheikh Tantawi and Egyptian and other jihadist groups. Sayed Fadllallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, has repeatedly condemned al Qaeda, 9-11 and any attacks on non-combatants or 'pre-emptive' attacks as being illegal under Sharia law. The majority even of Al Qaeda's ruling Shura council opposed the 9-11 attack plan (not because it targeted civilians but because they feared the reaction of the US government) but were over-ruled by Bin Laden, who only told them of it when it was too late for them to cancel it. Al Qaeda and other violent jihadist groups were withering away as organisations before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan gave them new recruits and supporters. There are also divisions between Islamists who use peaceful political methods - such as the Jordanian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoods - and violent jihadist groups. Violent jihadists in fact kill Islamic fundamentalists who attempt to get into government or opposition through elections, such as the Muslim Brotherhood parties, as 'traitors' as often as they kill moderate Muslims or non-Muslims (30).

So a wiser foreign policy that stopped relying on wars, occupations and propping up dictatorships could further isolate violent jihadists and especially Al Qaeda from the majority of Muslims instead of getting them new recruits.

Professor Mia Bloom in her book ‘Dying to Kill’ found no example of any government or military succeeding in reducing terrorist attacks by military force, ‘anti-terrorism’ laws, ‘counter-terrorism’ policing, jailing suspects without trial or torture. In every case from 18th century Jihadists in Asia fighting European colonial powers to Israel-Palestine, the Kurdish PKK in Turkey or the Hindu and Christian Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka these methods increased terrorist attacks – probably for the simple reason that they jailed, tortured and killed so many people that they created motives for violent revenge. The only method that actually worked was to make political concessions that allowed separatists or occupied people the chance of autonomy, democracy or independence by peaceful means through fair elections (31).

Critics may cite a few counter examples. The British campaign in Burma in the 1950s could be one – the Chinese campaign against independence movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, or the Russian one in Chechnya, or the US backed ‘counter insurgencies’ in South and Central America.

In the case of Burma there was an unusual factor. The Communist insurgents were almost all ethnic Chinese, a minority group in Burma. So they could not get the sympathy of other Burmese people so easily and were easily identified by the British.

In Chechnya, Tibet, Xinjiang and South America major world powers (Russia, China and the US respectively) used methods amounting to massacres bordering on genocide along with systematic torture – and even then took over a decade to crush resistance, replacing it with brutal client dictatorships or one party states. No one who claims to believe in democracy or human rights can suggest these methods without being a hypocrite whose claims to be a democrat deserve only contempt.

Russia’s campaign against Chechnyan separatists also resulted in several terrorist attacks each costing hundreds of lives, from bombings of tower blocks in Moscow (which may actually have been carried out by Russia’s FSB security services) to the Beslan school massacre (which was definitely perpetrated by Islamic terrorists including Chechens, but also carelessly handled by the Russian government). So even utter brutality that eventually succeeds is not guaranteed to prevent the greater power’s own civilians dying in terrorist attacks – indeed it’s actions in Chechnya probably helped create them.

A strategy of political negotiations and an end to both military occupations and support for corrupt, brutal dictatorships is not only a more moral way to end terrorism but a more effective way as well – and it doesn’t require our troops to go and die in foreign wars, or our taxpayers to pay for those wars or to pay to prop up dictators – or to create more terrorists in the process.

copyright©Duncan McFarlane2009


(1) = Zogby International 28 Feb 2006, ‘U.S. Troops in Iraq: 72% Say End War in 2006’, ; “While 85% said the U.S. mission is mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks,” 77% said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was “to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq.”

(2) = Guardian 12 Nov 2001 , ‘Bin Laden denies anthrax attacks’,

(3) = Guardian 12 Mar 2004, ‘The clues that point towards al-Qaida’,

(4) = Guardian Unlimited 17th July 2005 , 2.15p.m update ‘Al-Qaida in Europe claims responsibility for blasts’

(5) = Reuters / 15 Apr 2004 ‘Excerpts from 'Bin Laden' tape’,

(6) = Guardian 20 May 2002 ‘Forgotten victims’,

(7) = Independent 05 Dec 2001 Civilians abandon homes after hundreds are casualties of US air strikes on villages ,

(8) = = Independent 19 Oct 2001 Blair in row with aid group over claim that Taliban are looting food convoys,

(9) = = Guardian 3 Jan 2002 Refugees left in the cold at 'slaughterhouse' camp ,

(10) = The Independent 11 November 2004 ‘US claims militants are trapped as air strike hits clinic’,

(10a) = Washington Post 6 Feb 2005 ‘CIA Studies Provide Glimpse of Insurgents in Iraq’,

(11) = Pilger, John (2006) , ‘Freedom Next Time’ , Bantam, London, 2006 , pages 93-95

(12) = Observer 3 Feb 2002, ‘Hatred sown in a carer's heart' ’,,,4348774-102275,00.html

(13) = as (11) above

(14) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2009 , Saudi Arabia, The report states “Detainees, including children, are commonly the victims of systematic and multiple violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest and torture and ill-treatment in detention. Saudi judges routinely sentence defendants to thousands of lashes, often carried out in public. In 2008 the kingdom carried out 88 executions as of mid-November (compared to 150 over the equivalent period in 2007), including for drug offenses.”

(15) = Amnesty International World Report 2008 ‘Arab Republic of Egypt’,

(16) = BBC News 08 Sep 2005 ‘Egypt election counting under way’, (last sentence reads ‘The biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is excluded from the election.’)

(17) = Guardian 27 May 2005 ‘Egypt claims 83% yes vote for change’,

(18) = Guardian 26 May 2005 ‘Dissent quashed as Egypt votes on reform’,

(19) = Bennis, Phyllis & Moushabeck, Michel (1992) , ‘Beyond The Storm : A Gulf Crisis Reader’, 1991 Olive Branch Press and Canongate, Edinburgh 1992 , pages 326-355

(20) = Lee , Ian (1991) ‘Continuing Health Costs of the Gulf War’, Medical Educational Trust , London , 1991

(21) = Pilger , John (1998) Hidden Agendas Vintage , London , 1998, 29-30 ,52-53 ,614

(22) = BBC News 30 Sep 1998 ‘UN official blasts Iraq sanctions’,

(23) = Guardian 29 Nov 2001 ‘The Hostage Nation’ by Dennis Halliday & Hans Von Sponeck ,

(24) = Guardian 08 Apr 2004 ‘Battles rage from north to south’,

(25) = Pape, Robert (2005) ‘Dying to Win’, Gibson Square Books, 2006, hardcover edition, especially chapter 7 and pages 114-116, 125

(26) = Pape, Robert (2005) ‘Dying to Win’, Gibson Square Books, 2006, hardcover edition, chapter 12, especially pages 249-250

(27) = Bloom, Mia (2005) ‘Dying to Kill : The Allure of Suicide Terrorism’, Colombia University Press, New York, 2005 ; Chapter 3 & Ch6 , p122

(28) = Pape, Robert (2005) ‘Dying to Win’, Gibson Square Books, 2006, hardcover edition, chapter8, pages129-130, 141

(29) = Gerges, Fawaz A. (2005) ‘The Far Enemy: Why Jihad went Global’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & New York 2005, especially prologue, pages 9-10; especially Chapters 3, 5 & 6 and pages 235,238-245, 273, 250-252, 275-276

(30) =Gerges, Fawaz A. (2005) ‘The Far Enemy: Why Jihad went Global’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & New York 2005 , pages 237 & 261

(31) =Bloom, Mia (2005) ‘Dying to Kill : The Allure of Suicide Terrorism’, Colombia University Press, New York, 2005

copyright©Duncan McFarlane2009