By Kenan Malik from his blog Pandaemonium.
By next Monday William Hague and Phillip Hammond could be behind bars. In December, the Court of Appeal ruled that the foreign and defence secretaries had by February 20th to produce before the court a Pakistani rice merchant, Yunus Rahmatullah; if they did not, then the court would ‘be moved to commit you to prison for your contempt in not obeying the said writ’.
Hague and Hammond will not, of course, be sent down. But the Rahmatullah case does reveal, yet again, the lawlessness of the war on terror. The story begins in February 2004, when Rahmatullah and Amanatullah Ali, a fellow merchant, disappeared on a business trip to Iran. They were held incommunicado for nearly a year before their families learned that they had been seized by British forces in Iraq and then turned over to the Americans who had renditioned them to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. There they have been held for the past eight years beyond the rule of law and in conditions far worse than those at Guantánamo Bay. No charges have been filed against them, and both the British and American governments have refused to provide any hearing or account for their continued detention.
Last year, the human rights organization Reprieve sought a writ of habeas corpus in the British courts on behalf of Rahmatullah. A similar writ was placed before US courts on behalf of Amanatullah Ali. The British government argued that habeas corpus did not apply because British forces no longer held the prisoner. The American government claimed that habeas corpus did not apply because American courts had no authority over the Bagram base, as it was in a war zone, forgetting to add that the base is used by America to prosecute that war and that the men had been deliberately flown into that war zone by US forces. In December, however, the British Court of Appeal granted the writ and demanded that Hague and Hammmond produce Rahmatullah.
The Rahmatullah case is the latest in a series of revelations which expose the ugly underbelly of the war on terror. Last month it was revealed that British spies had helped rendition Libyan dissidents to Colonel Gadaffi. Earlier this month President Assad released from prison Abu Musab al-Suri, the alleged ‘mastermind’ of the 7/7 bombings. What was he doing in Assad’s jail in the first place? He had been renditioned there by British and American forces. Last week details emerged of a secret British detention centre in Iraq, codenamed H1, deliberately designed to be beyond the law.
When Barack Obama came to power in 2009, many expected a transformation in the war on terror. Obama promised to close down Guantánamo Bay, revise Bush’s tactics and ensure that US policy conformed to national law and human rights. So taken was the world by Obama’s promises that in 2009, barely having got his feet under the Oval Office desk, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet, over the past four years, not only has he failed to close down Guantánamo but he has extended Bush’s assault on rights and liberties. In December, Obama signed off on the National Defense Authorization Act which allows forindefinite military detention. He has maintained the policy of extraordinary rendition (a euphemism for kidnapping) and of secret prisons across the globe. He has intensified the use of drones, and of their use in a programme of extra-judicial killings, including of US citizens, such as the Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla, who was killed by a drone in Yemen last September. He has also endorsed the right of the government to strip citizens of legal protections based on its sole discretion. He has introduced warrantless searches of everything from business documents to library records.
George Bush, Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, insisted on being able to eavesdrop on anyone, or to detain them, purely on his authority without judicial warrant. Obama has asserted his right not merely to eavesdrop or detain but ‘even to kill citizens without due process’. As the former CIA chiefMichael Hayden recently observed about the al-Awlaki assassination, ‘We needed a court order to eavesdrop on him but we didn’t need a court order to kill him.’ But perhaps it is not so surprising. For, as Michael A Cohen wrote inForeign Policy, for all his liberal credentials, and all his disparaging of Bush’s tactics, before he came to power ‘Obama’s loudest public pledge when it came to terrorism was not to do less, but rather more’. In his first major foreign policy speech in July 2008, Obama insisted that ‘We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights.’ And perhaps, as I wrote at the time, Obama’s Peace Prize was fitting given the sordid history of the award.
What has changed in the Obama years is not so much US policy as liberal opinion. A poll in the Washington Post last week showed broad support for Obama’s war. Seventy per cent of Americans approve of Obama’s decision to keep open Guantánamo Bay. More than four in five endorse the use of drones and almost two in three find acceptable the extra-judicial killings of US citizens. These are extraordinary numbers for such a controversial policy. As Michael Hayden observed of the US programme of assassinations, ‘Right now,there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.’
Even more striking has been the support for these policies among liberals. Fifty-eight per cent of Democrats now endorse assassinations of US citizens. Even among those who define themselves as liberals, 55 per cent support such killings. As for the decision to maintain Guantánamo Bay, 67 per cent of moderate or conservative Democrats and 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats support it.
Obama strode to power promising ‘Change you can believe in’. But that change has come not to policy, but to perception. The major impact of Obama’s presidency has been to make legitimate that which had previously been seen, and not just by liberals, as scandalous. Take attitudes to Guantánamo Bay. As the US Advocacy Centre for Equality and Democracy shows, until Obama came to power, support for the prison had steadily fallenover the previous decade. In 2003, when memories of 9/11 were still raw, 65 per cent of Americans supported its use. By 2006 that figure had fallen to 57 per cent. In June 2009, shortly after Obama had entered the White House, more Americans thought it should be closed down than wanted it kept open: 48 per cent wanted rid of it, 40 per cent supported its continued use. Today, 70 per cent want to keep it. In other words, after nearly four years of the Obama presidency, more people support Guantánamo than they did even in the aftermath of 9/11. This is not so much ‘change you can believe in’ as ‘change in what you believe’.
Neither William Hague nor Phillip Hammond will find themselves locked up next Monday. Both Yunus Rahmatullah and Amanatullah Ali almost certainly will – as they have been for the past eight years. What, in the midst of a network of secret prisons, a programme of worldwide abduction, and a policy of extra-judicial assassinations, has really been renditioned in the war on terror is the sense of justice.
When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When, apparently, he is ‘our’ terrorist.
Last week Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a professor at Tehran’s technical university, and deputy director of commerce at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, was blown up by a bomb attached to his car. He was the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be killed in the past two years, part of what appears to be a concerted assassination campaign against people deemed key to Teheran’s nuclear ambitions.
It is still unclear who carried out the attacks. Israel is high on the list of most informed observers. Last week the journal Foreign Policy carried a report about Mossad operatives posing as CIA agents to recruit fighters from the Pakistani jihadi group Jundallah for terrorist operations in Iran. Twenty four hours before Roshan’s murder, Israel’s military chief of staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz had told a parliamentary meeting that Iran should expect ‘continuing and growing pressure from the international community and things which take place in an unnatural manner.’
The identity of perpetrators may still be uncertain. What is without doubt, however, is the international response to the assassinations – or, rather, the lack of any response. Imagine if four US or British nuclear scientists had been assassinated in New York or London, and that Iran had been seen as the most likely suspect. There would, rightly, have been global outrage. There would have been political condemnations, UN resolutions, possibly the severing of diplomatic ties, certainly the talk of sanctions, perhaps even of military strikes.
In this case, however, the predominant noise has been the sound of quiet satisfaction at a job well done. In the West, condemnation has been, at best, muted. Hillary Clinton dissociated America from the ‘violence inside Iran’, but uttered not a word of condemnation of the violence, though her spokeswoman acknowledged that America did not support ‘any assassination or attack on an innocent person’. No word of censure has so far come from the United Nations Security Council. As a Reuters report put it, ‘Iran may be outraged at the killing of another nuclear scientist in broad daylight, but it lacks viable avenues for international condemnation or prosecution of what could be an attempt to sabotage its nuclear program.’ Many senior politicians have openly welcomed the assassinations. ‘On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead’, US Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorumgloated recently. ‘I think that’s a wonderful thing.’
Contrast this with the outrage that greeted the alleged Iranian plot last October to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. America accused Iran’s Quds Forces of recruiting a failed used car salesman in Texas to hire Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the ambassador in a Washington restaurant. Serious doubts have been raised as to whether Iran had any involvement in a plot seemingly scripted more by Ricky Gervais than by al-Qaeda, and one in which, as US officials acknowledged, ‘no explosives were actually ever placed anywhere and no one was actually ever in any danger’. Nevertheless the US attorney general Eric Holder insisted that Iran would be ‘held to account’ over what he described as a ‘flagrant abuse of international law’ and suggested that ‘military action remains on the table’. Tom Kean, former chairman of the 9/11 Commission described the plot as ‘pretty close to an act of war’, pointing out that ‘You don’t go in somebody’s capital to blow somebody up’.
It would be easy to describe the contrast in responses as ‘hypocrisy’. But it goes much deeper, getting to the very heart of what we mean by ‘terrorism’ and by what the ‘war on terror’ has come to mean. Remi Brulinis a visiting fellow at New York University who has been tracking use of the word ‘terrorism’. It was in the 1980s that the word came properly into public discourse. Partly this was in response to the changing character of Palestinian violence over the previous decade, exemplified by the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. More important than the conflict in the Middle East, however, were the wars in Central America, set against the background of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan used the idea of ‘terrorism’ to justify, on the one hand, support for the military junta in El Salvador fighting the threat of the ‘terrorist’ FMLN guerilla movement and, on the other, to the rightwing Contra militias in Nicaragua trying to bring down the ‘terrorist’ Sandinista government.
The end of the Cold War transformed the discourse on terrorism. First, third world liberation struggles became degraded and fragmented, their violence driven less by political conviction than by nihilistic desire to sow terror. The emergence of the Islamist suicide bomber is an expression of this degradation of what used to be liberation struggles.
Second, in the absence of the ideological struggle against communism, the war on terror increasingly became the anchor of Western foreign policy. During the Cold War, right and wrong, good and evil, were expressed in ideological terms. Foreign interventions, the overthrow of democratic governments, the support for reactionary regimes – all were justified by the necessity to prevent the spread of communism. With the demise of the Soviet Union, what has come to be called ‘the war against terror’ took centre stage in such justifications. ‘Terrorism’ has come to be presented as self-evident, the use of unconscionable violence to undermine basic freedoms and liberties. But, as the response to the Iranian assassinations reveals, ‘terrorism’ remains a deeply politicized concept. Iran is a terrorist state. Saudi Arabia, despite probably sponsoring more terrorist groups, and despite being equally undemocratic and brutal, is a valued Western ally. The murder of an Iranian citizen is a justified act. Plotting to kill a Saudi official is international terrorism.
The consequences of such distortion were revealed once again with the revelation last week that British spies had helped to ‘rendition’ Libyan dissidents to Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Sami al-Saadi, the leader and religious leader respectively of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which has links to al-Qaeda, were abducted in the Far East and forcibly returned to Libya. Belhadj, a commander of the rebel forces in last year’s civil war, and now head of the Tripoli military council, claims that a joint CIA and MI6 operation, specifically set up to help Colonel Gaddafi round up his enemies, snatched him in Bangkok and flew him to Libya, where he was subject to years of torture by Gaddafi’s goons.A letter written in March 2004 apparently by Sir Mark Allen, former director of counter-terrorism at MI6, to Moussa Koussa, head of Gaddafi’s intelligence agency, and discovered in Moussa Koussa’s office after the rebels entered Tripoli, passes on thanks for helping to arrange the-then prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to Gaddafi. ‘I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [one of Belhadj’s aliases]’, Allen writes, adding that ‘This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years.’ Sami al-Saadi similarly alleges that he and his family were abducted in Hong Kong as they were making their way to Britain, taken to Tripoli, where al-Saadi was thrown in prison and subject to torture.
Just as it is tempting to dismiss the failure to condemn the Iranian assassinations as ‘hypocrisy’, so it is tempting to dismiss such outrages as ‘maverick’ or ‘exceptional’ operations. And it would be wrong for the same reason. For what such renditions reveal is the very nature of the war on terror. Britain’s relationship with Gaddafi’s Libya was not fundamentally different, or fundamentally worse, than its current relationship with Saudi Arabia. There is no reason to assume that such operations are not happening now and will not continue to happen in the future. In fact there is considerable reason to insist that they are and they will. Terrorism, as the American lawyer and commentator Glenn Greenwald has put it, ‘is simultaneously the term that means nothing andjustifies everything’. Everything, indeed, from extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo, from murder plots to torture.
The ‘war on terror’ is an idea that obscures and distorts struggles for freedom and liberty. In some cases those struggles are against despotic regimes such as those in Iran and Syria, and against terrorist groups, often sponsored by such regimes. But they are equally often against Western allies in the war on terror, whether they be Saudi Arabia or Israel, and against Western policies and interventions that, in the name of fighting terror, themselves destroy lives and shred basic freedoms. It is those struggles we need to support, against whoever they may be, not the war on terror defined in narrow terms of ‘Western interests’.