New Internationalist

The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Terrorism

Jonathan Barker scrutinizes the war on terror and its fateful consequences for political participation and real democracy with his book The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Terrorism. Chapter 1 and the foreword are available on our website and you can also view all of the weekly No-Nonsense guide blogs.

The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Terrorism
by Jonathan Barker

When I began writing the first edition of the No-Nonsense Sense Guide to Global Terrorism in 2002, I was working under the long shadow of the attacks on New York and Washington DC of September 11, 2001. Since then much has changed about terrorism and counterterrorism. In order to combat the propagandistic use of the term ‘terrorism’, some writers have adopted the phrase ‘one-sided violence against civilians for political purposes.’

Although there have been ups and downs in the number of incidents of one-sided violence against civilians in different places during the decade since 2001, the trend has clearly been downward. In particular the amount of state terrorism or one-sided violence against civilians carried out by governments has sharply decreased, but non-state violence against civilians for political reasons has also decreased over the past decade. What has increased, on the other hand, is the investment and activity of counterterrorism. Every aspect of counterterrorism has grown enormously: research centers, journals, books, training facilities, technology to collect information, and police and military units dedicated to counterterrorist operations.

There has also been a huge effort to improve the coordination among counterterrorist forces in different countries. In addition, governments have continued to give security and counterterrorism a central place in their public relations and their efforts to maintain and increase popular support. The massive investment and extensive redeployment of government energies raises important questions. 

Counterterrorism experts are confident they give good advice and that extensive measures can work, but we must wonder whether all these changes have had much effect. Has all this investment and activity reduced the amount of terrorism? Experts can point to a few examples of plots that were broken up and they can note the fall of in terrorist events, but broader political and economic changes are probably the more basic reasons for the decline in terrorism. But the question that interests me more at the moment is this: What has been the wider social and political effects of this huge emphasis on security as a major goal of government? I can offer a few thoughts on this question, but I hope this blog will stimulate others to contribute their own impressions.

Presenting security and counterterrorism as a high priority of government activity fits very well with the neoliberal ideology of many powerful governments. It puts defense and policing at the top of government priorities and takes attention away from the tasks of promoting equality, supporting education, and furthering public political participation, and combating environmental degradation and climate warming.

The spurt of hiring in the security-related private sector and in government has meant that many bright young people have had their talents turned toward gathering, sorting and interpreting electronic communications; creating and deploying new technologies of violence; and working on how to educate the public against terrorism. The direction in which their talents are used represents a huge opportunity cost in work not done on other fronts. Moreover, the shift is self-reinforcing. A new sector and a new slant to the military industrial complex creates a powerful lobby group for continuing attention to counterterrorism activities.

The size and scope of this new apparatus is astonishing. Its epicenter, as one would expect, is the United States. The Washington Post newspaper on 19 July 2010 published a detailed report on the size and scope of the new security apparatus that is still being constructed in the US. Here are some of the new realities that the Washington Post uncovered:

* 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.

* 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built in and around Washington, DC since September 2001 – about 17 million square feet of space, the equivalent of almost three Pentagons.

* 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 US cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* 50,000 intelligence reports are published each year by analysts of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying.

The Washington Post emphasized issues of redundancy and lack of coordination. It also noted the ‘vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.’ The apparatus is compiling a list of thousands of US citizens thought by a police officer or another citizen to have acted suspiciously along with photos, videos, and  other data. New equipment and software, much of it tested in Iraq and Afghanistan, is used to gather and record information. Although the Post stresses the domestic presence of the new surveillance system, much of its activity is deployed in the rest of the world, often in conjunction with the security institutions of other governments.

In the No-Nonsense Guide to Global Terrorism I noticed the already evident suppression of political activism and protest under the banner of counterterrorism. The new methods of controlling and limiting public action are now regularly on display at the meetings of the advanced industrial countries. The G20 meeting in Toronto last June is a case in point. A security bill of almost $1 billion and an arrest docket of some 1,000 people made Torontonians wonder what kind of country and city they were living in.

The now usual techniques of preemptive arrests, omnipresent security cameras, overwhelming police numbers, special security barriers, kettling demonstrators, and violent arrest methods were employed. The overall effect was to create a climate of militarized readiness for violent attacks on people and property that precluded anything like debate about the policies that the world leaders were preparing. The ill-managed police operation has stimulated much discussion and several court cases about police violence, but the issues of G20 policies have been almost totally ignored despite a large demonstration by groups advocating very different policies.

Although central governments may take the lead in the new counterterrorist agenda, provincial and local governments are deeply affected by the new direction of action. Through funding programs, requests for information, and the deployment of new technologies local police forces have become part of a process of growth that has taken on a life of its own.

One could write more, for example about the creation by the US military of a new central command for Africa, AFRICOM, and its extensive efforts to knit relationships with African military and police forces. Its aim is to change them in the direction of more effective counterterrorist capacities of the sort that the US would like to see. But I will stop here in the hope of seeing how others may contribute to this discussion. 

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