It’s only terrorism when they do it to us


In my first blog post, I take two recent assassinations that the US has reacted to very differently. One was branded a “terrorist attack”, but the other, despite being analogous in many regards, hasn’t. It appears that condemnation and application of the ‘terrorist’ label depends on whether the event happens to advance US interests.


The politically powerful of the world have repeatedly demonstrated their double standards in how they use the word ‘terrorism’. The self-interested juggling of the term at the hands of politicians has effectively stripped it of any objective validity to the point where the word means no more than ‘those harmful to my political interests’.

Consequently, those who very much deserve the ‘terrorist’ label, but at the same time are complimentary to some policy goal of the powerful are spared the name.

Among most recent examples of such hypocrisy is the stance of Western governments – headed by the US – towards the anti-Assad militants in Syria. Not only have they failed to acknowledge and condemn their clearly criminal and, at times, ‘terrorist’ conduct, but have also directly (as well as indirectly) facilitated and supported it.

The ‘Free Syrian Army’ and other armed elements

The armed Syrian opposition has  an important role to play in the Syrian civil war.  It is to defeat the regular Syrian Army and in effect depose the Assad regime. The FSA, arguably the most spoken-of armed rebel faction, despite being often cast as noble freedom warriors by Western media, certainly don’t fit the ‘White Hat’ profile so often attributed to them.  Human Rights Watch reported abuses committed by the anti-government militia included:

“…kidnapping, detention, and torture of security force members, government supporters, and people identified as members of pro-government militias, called shabeeha. Human Rights Watch has also received reports of executions by armed opposition groups of security force members and civilians.”

This UN report describes, among other incidents, FSA fighters trying to force a prisoner to carry out a suicide bombing mission, a ransom kidnapping and subsequent murder of a civilian government supporter’s parents or kidnapping and detention of Iranian civilians.

Some elements of the FSA have reportedly tried killing journalists.

Syria’s other armed groups have also perpetrated numerous bombing attacks (including ‘suicide bombings‘ and the use of IEDs) targeting regime officials that have killed and injured civilians.

It is common knowledge that such conduct has for years been uncontroversially considered not only criminal, but also ‘terrorist’ in Western political discourse. Such actions by the West’s enemies would almost certainly prompt strong condemnation, a word or two to express disgust and perhaps a few to say how those behind the attacks hate peace; but most importantly lead to the naming of the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’.

The failed test of consistency

And indeed, when on 18th June this year, a Yemeni military commander Maj. Gen. Salem Ali al-Qatan was assassinated in a suicide bombing, the USSD’s (US State Department) spokeswoman Ms. Nuland had this to say about the attack (emphasis mine):

 “The United States condemns in strongest terms today’s terrorist attack against Major General Salem Ali al-Qatan, Southern Regional Commander of the Yemeni Central Security Forces. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends as well as our sympathies to those who were wounded in this cowardly attack.”

So here we have an assassination targeting the security forces of a close US ally – Yemen. The American response is made clear by the spokeswoman: the event was a “cowardly terrorist attack” which the US condemns in strongest terms.

What will be the US reaction to an analogous attack, that happened exactly a month later, but this time targeted not the West but Syrian government and military officials?

On 18th July 2012, the Free Syrian Army (alongside Liwa al Islam) claimed responsibility for assassinating several top military and defence officials in the Damascus bombing of the National Security Headquarters. Note that the event, initially reported as a suicide bombing, bears close resemblance to the Yemeni “terrorist attack” strongly condemned by Ms. Nuland.

How did US State Department react to this event? I consulted a Press Briefing dated 18 July 2012 – the date of the bombing. Speaking fresh after the event, the Director of the US State Department Press Office Partick Ventrell said in the  opening statement (again, my emphasis):

“Before we get started, I just wanted to go ahead and say at the top that we note reports that the Syrian defense minister and other regime officials were killed in an attack today in Damascus. The United States does not welcome further bloodshed in Syria. We note, however, that these men were key architects of the Assad regime’s assault on the Syrian people.”

When prompted by the journalist to define the deaths that have resulted as a good or bad thing, Mr Ventrell failed to specify. After a brief to-and-fro with a journalist, he reiterated: “We want a peaceful solution, Matt. We’re focused on ending the bloodshed. It is the Assad regime, however, that, in slaughtering its own people, has created these chaotic conditions. ” 

The reaction of the US to the Damascus bombing is evidently weak and apologetic. The man speaking on behalf of USSD provides a justification for the act and refuses to specify whether the attack was a positive or negative development. The only part of the remarks that can be considered to be negative – and quite remotely so – are Ventrell’s assurances that “The United States does not welcome further bloodshed in Syria”. No condemnation, no sign of disgust or moral distancing; but most importantly, no use of the ‘terrorist’ label.

Quite a stark contrast with the US response to the assassination of an army general in Yemen, where the attack was not only branded as “terrorist”, but also deemed “cowardly” and condemned “in strongest terms”.

Western support for the armed Syrian opposition (including the FSA)

The US support for the armed Syrian opposition doesn’t end at linguistic kindness. The administration has declared on numerous occasions it supplies them with communications equipment and training as well as logistical and propagandistic support. There are reports suggesting the actual support is much more far-reaching, including engagement of CIA operatives.

US ally, Turkey, has reportedly set up a secret base on its territory, from which it co-ordinates distribution of military and communications aid to anti-Assad militias. US allies – Qatar and Saudi-Arabia, as well as the US itself are also said to have a role in the running of the facility.

The Gulf allies of the US in the region were reported as paying the armed militias wages and supplying them with arms. The Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s comment on the latter practice was rather dispassionate: “We made a decision not to provide lethal assistance at this point. I know others have made their own decisions”.

A curiously neutral stance by a member of an administration that has so many times called for a “peaceful resolution” in Syria and declared its commitment to “end the bloodshed”.

The West (headed by the US) have clear intentions in regards to Syria – they want to depose the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and are determined  to facilitate that development. It is perhaps for this reason we can see such hypocritical disparity between the US reactions to the two ‘terrorist’ events.

The rule seems to be that for an event to be classed as ‘terrorist’ it has got to be perpetrated by US enemies or hurt US interests. It’s only terrorism when they do it to us.

How valid is the ‘terrorist’ label?

It appears that those who fall under the US’s own definition of ‘terrorism’ escape the name (and the moral condemnation that comes with it) when they happen to advance their political interests.

The Free Syrian Army, most prominent of Syria’s armed opposition factions, despite committing acts that amount to ‘terrorism’ has escaped any such labelling or condemnation. Quite the opposite – it’s a beneficiary to wide-ranging, direct and indirect support from the US and its allies.

What does that tell us about the validity of the ‘terrorist’ label, used eagerly when the West is the target, but generously spared when the victims happen to be our enemies?