The Reciprocal Signalling Cascade Between State and Non-State Terrorists

An excerpt from a discussion paper for the Pugwash Conference, Seoul, Korea October 2004. (In the section leading up to this discussion, it is argued that terrorism is primarily a function of states, who have the overwhelming means to conduct terrorist activities).

I propose that a reciprocal relationship exists between State and non-State actors in maintaining the justification of the massive terrorist methods by the State. Specifically, I propose that massive State terrorism is dependent on the relatively small scale terrorism perpetrated by non-State actors. This State-directed terrorism provides the impetus for recruitment to small-scale non-State terrorist organizations (thus stimulating their operations, and then the response by the State).

I would like to consider, then, how this reciprocal signalling system can serve as a framework to understand “the War on Terrorism” and restrict my analysis to the US case given the focus of this workshop.

I propose that the inductive signal in the “terrorist context” originates with State policy. As has been discussed in detail since the events in New York City on September 11, 2001, an apparent long term geopolitical goal of the US appears to be control of the resources in Eurasia. This goal was laid out in considerable detail by former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1997 in his book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives1. Brzezinski points out the massive subterranean wealth of Eurasia, most of which remains undeveloped, as well as the presence of the largest populations of the world. In his opinion, control of the exploitation of these resources relies on the control of specific subregions within Eurasia, specifically a number of the independent states of the former Soviet Union and, especially, Afghanistan.

I propose that the initial signal originates in a series of State-organized events in 1979 which led directly to the “War on Terror.” As articulated in Brzezinski’s analysis described above, the initial “signal” is a desire for access to and control of resources in a major part of Asia and mechanistically involved the destabilization of the principal US adversary, the USSR. As Brzezinski has articulated, the tools for this destabilization included the organization of an irregular fighting force meant to draw the Soviet Union into a protracted war (Russia’s “Vietnam” as Brzezinski suggested to President Carter2) in Afghanistan (note that this strategy was not reactive to the Soviet invasion but proactive in drawing the Soviet to invade). This force of Muslim “fundamentalists” became highly trained to operate with the most sophisticated weaponry supplied by various means from the US. For example, the US-manufactured mobile “Stinger” missile system was central to this operation, effectively neutralizing the most important Soviet weapon in the region, their Hinds helicopter gunship3.

Overall, this operation became the most highly funded CIA operation ever organized. As is well known, this trained group came to dominate Afghanistan. Importantly, while the leaders of the group supposedly responsible for the 9-11 attacks were not among these US-trained fighters, this region remained a centre for terrorist activities directed towards the US.

Thus, the organization and training of these terrorist groups had the benefit initially of destabilizing the Soviet Union and subsequently providing the basis upon which the US later invaded Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as developing forward military bases in previously inaccessible regions). Borrowing from John McMurtry’s analysis of the 9-11 wars4 where he posits the question of “who benefits” from the events of 9-11, we observe that the principal beneficiaries of the terrorist activities originating in this region and initially organized by the US were US administrations (Reagan and Bush Jr.). For the latter administration (the subject of this workshop), the “security state” agenda articulated prior to the 2000 Presidential election was in fact implemented. Close examination of this agenda supports the notion that some sort of precipitating event (a “new Pearl Harbor”) was considered as a mechanism for rapid implementation of this domestic and foreign policy scheme.

Turning then to the basis of the misnamed “War On Terrorism,” the tactical aspects were outlined in a number of reports originating at the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Principal among these is “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”5. In the principal conclusion on page IV it states the US should “REPOSITION U.S. FORCES to respond to 21st century strategic realities by shifting permanently-based forces to Southeast Europe and Southeast Asia, and by changing naval deployment patterns to reflect growing U.S. strategic concerns in East Asia.”

Repositioning these forces has taken place with the introduction of a number of features also outlined directly in this report. For example, the authors wish to: “DEVELOP AND DEPLOY GLOBAL MISSILE DEFENSES to defend the American homeland and American allies, and to provide a secure basis for U.S. power projection around the world.”

The point here is not to detail the list of policy initiatives which have arisen following the installation of the authors of this report into the administration of the US government, but rather to discuss how terrorism by non-state actors propelled these initiatives forward, providing a basis for a massive State terrorist response. Indeed, the very same document suggests that: “the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

Such a catalyzing event occurred in New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001, a year after the release of the PNAC report. The results of the horrific attacks in New York were i) a massive violent response which directly terrorized the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq, ii) the death of more than 10 times as many civilians as died in New York, and iii) maintenance of both of these countries in a state of chaos, where viable security and a functioning government are not possible. Furthermore, these events propelled an otherwise unlikely massive budget increase for the US military and facilitated the introduction of “security” legislation (The Patriot Act) that, under normal circumstances, would never have been seriously considered in the US Congress in the absence of these events.

While justifying terrorist activities against the people of Afghanistan was a relatively straightforward task following the events of September 11, 2001, justifying US terrorist activities (i.e. war) against Iraq was the immediate preoccupation of the Bush administration6. This effort represents the sort of reciprocal signal generated from the attacks in New York — producing conditions in which the people of the US felt directly threatened. The well-documented shift of public belief that Iraq was intimately involved in the events of September 11, 2001, despite evidence to the contrary and now totally discredited, also strongly supports the Goering “patriotism” doctrine, in which he discussed (off the record) at the Nuremburg trials how States could garner the support of the population for any action by making the population feel threatened. The routine announcement of terrorist alerts in the US serves as one of the many obvious mechanisms of terrorizing the population by the State — many more examples exist.

Despite the public predictions of the invaders being welcomed as liberators, more sober analysis suggested that the illegal occupation of Iraq, privatization of its assets, and ongoing terrorization of its population would be met with internal Iraqi resistance (the ‘insurgency’). These events create the condition of maintaining the terrorist activities (occupation) by the State (US) since the insurgency can be presented as terrorist activities against the “Iraqi liberators” and are easily portrayed as such given the methods available to the insurgents. To counter these terrorists, harsher methods by the State actors can now be employed which further terrorizes the population under occupation. One of these is the traditional tactic used by US-trained military and paramilitary forces in Latin America during the 1980s in which individuals are incarcerated without charge, communication, or medical or legal access. They are tortured for a period of time and then released back into the population. As summarized by Jim Lobe7 and revealed in, for example, the Guardian8, this system of incarceration currently detains and abuses thousands individuals who often return to their communities. This system has the two-fold effect of terrorizing the population into which these tortured prisoners are released as well as providing the impetus for retaliation following the incarceration.

Would State actors (terrorists) actually promote small-scale terrorist activities in order to provide a “signal” for the massive State reciprocal response? An agency charged with this role has been revealed in the US. As was reported by William Arkin9, John Pilger10 and discussed by the Federation of American Scientists The Proactive Preemptive Operations Group (P2OG) has the mandate to conduct the “War on Terror” with “off the book” operations which will incite small terrorist groups into action. Further supporting the notion that States actors attempt to incite small-scale terrorist activities, John Pilger also reports that Bush advisor Condoleezza Rice asked members of the National Security Council to “to think about ‘how do you capitalise on these opportunities?’” (referring to the September 11, 2001 attacks).

Thus, I return to the model in which State actors, conducting large-scale terrorist activities, depend on the presence of a certain level of terrorism performed on a significantly small scale (“recreational” or “retail” terrorism). The State then produces a response which is amplified by orders of magnitude (“wholesale” terrorism) through State actions. It answers in the affirmative the question posed by the PNAC “Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?” I propose that the so called “War on Terrorism” is shaping the century along the lines of an oppressive security state. I suggest further that this “shaping” i) includes framing the limits of “terrorism” discourse and ii) that the State benefits from low levels of terrorist activities which, once amplified through its media system, justifies “wholesale” terrorist activities of the State but suppresses any notion that these actions are terrorist in nature.


1 Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1997) The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives. Basic Books. ^

2 Brzezinski, Zbigniew “The CIA’s Intervention in Afghanistan” in Le Nouvel Observateur (15-21 July 1998). ^

3 Johnson, C. “The Largest Covert Operation in CIA History” at the Center of History and New Media, George Mason University ·  ^

4 McMurtry, J. “Understanding 9-11 and the 9-11 Wars.” ^

5 “Project for the New American Century Report: Rebuilding America Defenses” at ·  ^

6 For example see Woodward, Bob (2004) Plan of Attack. Simon & Schuster. ^

7 Lobe, J. (2004) “Human Dignity, Crazy Mike and Indian Country” at ·  ^

8,6903,1237589,00.html ·  ^

9 Arkin, W., “The Secret War” in Los Angeles Times (27 October 2002) . ^

10 Pilger, J., “America’s Bid for Global Dominance,” in The New Statesman (December 12, 2002). ^

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