Terrorism: a weapon and a justification for war

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On 28th June 1914, the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria, nephew of the emperor Franz-Joseph and inspector-general of the Austro-Hungarian army, was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist. For Austria, the opportunity was too good to be missed. The Austrians had already laid hands on Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, their imperialist appetites whetted by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The assassination provided Austria with the perfect pretext to attack Serbia, which it suspected of encouraging the nationalities under Austrian rule in their desires for independence. The declaration of war followed without the slightest negotiation. What ensued is common knowledge: Russia rushed to Serbia’s rescue, fearing to see Austria dominate the Balkans; Germany gave its support to its Austro-Hungarian ally; France in turn supported Russia, while Britain followed; in total, the war that resulted left almost ten million dead, six million mutilated, and Europe in ruins, not to mention the consequences of the war such as the 1918 flu epidemic, which caused more deaths than the war itself.

On 11th September 2001, the 3,000 deaths in the Twin Towers provided the USA with the pretext for their invasion of Afghanistan, along with the installation of military bases in the three bordering ex-Soviet republics. They were also a pretext for preparing a war aimed at eliminating the government of Saddam Hussein, to be followed by a long-term occupation of Iraq itself. Today’s historical conditions mean that for the moment the consequences of 11th September have been less bloody than the 1914-18 war. Nonetheless, this extension of the USA’s direct military presence is heavy with menace for the future.

Despite the similarities between these two events – in each case, a great imperialist power has used a terrorist attack to justify its own warmongering – terrorism in 2001 has nothing to do with that of 1914.

On the one hand, Gavrilo Princip’s act had its roots in the traditions of the 19th century struggle of populist and terrorist organisations against Tsarist absolutism, which expressed the impatience of a petty bourgeoisie unable to understand that history is made by classes, not by individuals. At the same time, this attack prefigured what was to become a characteristic of terrorism during the 20th century: its use by nationalist movements, and the manipulation of the latter by the bourgeoisie of the great powers. In some cases, these nationalist movements were too weak, or arrived too late on the stage of history, to make a place for themselves in a capitalist world already shared out among the great historical nations: the ETA in Spain is a typical example, since an independent Basque state would be completely non-viable. In other cases, terrorist groups have been a part of a wider movement leading to the creation of a national state: we can cite the example of the Irgun, a Jewish terrorist movement which fought the British in Palestine before and after World War II, and carried out both attacks on “military” targets such as the British army HQ at the King David hotel, and massacres among the civilian population, such as the slaughter wreaked on the Arab villagers of Deir Yassine. We should remember that Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister awarded the Nobel peace prize following the signature of the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt, was one of the Irgun’s leaders.

In some ways, the example of the IRA and Sinn Fein in Ireland[i] summarises what terrorism was to become during the 20th century. Following the crushing of the 1916 Easter Rising, one of the executed Irish leaders was none other than James Connolly, a great figure of the Irish workers’ movement. His death marked the end of an epoch, which had in reality already closed with the outbreak of World War I, an epoch where the workers’ movement could still, in certain cases, support struggles for national independence. In the new period of decadent capitalism that was just opening, such support could only turn against the proletariat.[ii] It was the fate of Roger Casement that symbolised what nationalist and terrorist movements were to become in decadence: arrested (and later shot) by the British as soon as he landed from a German submarine, with the mission to accompany a shipload of German weapons to arm the Easter Rising.

The career paths of Menachem Begin – Prime Minister of Israel – and Gerry Adams – not yet prime minister, but nonetheless a respectable politician received in Downing Street and the White House – are also indicative of the fact that, for the bourgeoisie, there is no firm line of demarcation between terrorism and respectability. The only difference between the statesman and the terrorist leader is that the latter is still in a position of weakness, his only weapons being the terrorist outrage, whereas the latter disposes of all the weaponry of a modern state. Throughout the 20th century, especially during the period of “decolonisation” after World War II, there are numerous examples of terrorist groups (or nationalists using terrorist methods) being transmogrified into the armed forces of a new state: the members of the Irgun absorbed into the new Israeli armed forces, the FLN in Algeria, the Vietminh in Vietnam, Yasser Arafat’s PLO in Palestine, etc.

This kind of armed struggle is also choice ground for the intervention of the bourgeois state, in its own inter-imperialist conflicts. This got going on a large scale during World War II, when the “democratic” bourgeoisie made extensive use of resistance movements against German occupying forces, particularly in France, Greece, and Yugoslavia, while the German Nazi bourgeoisie – though with a good deal less success – tried to use certain independence movements in the British Empire (notably in India). During the Cold War, with the intensification of the confrontation between Russia and the USA, nationalist formations ceased to be mere terrorist groups, and were transformed into veritable armies: this was the case in the Vietnam war, with hundreds of thousands of fighters in the field and millions of deaths, and in Afghanistan where – let us remember – the Taliban and their predecessors in the struggle against the Russian occupation were trained and armed by the United States.

Terrorism – the struggle of an armed minority – thus became a terrain for the interventions and manoeuvres of the great powers. This is obviously the case in the armed confrontations in the so-called “Third World” countries, but it is no less true of the shady dealings that go on within the great powers themselves. Because terrorist action must by definition be prepared in secret, it offers “a choice terrain for the underhand dealings of the police and the state, and in general for the most unexpected manipulations and intrigues”.[iii] A striking example of this kind of manipulation, combining misguided idealists (who even imagined themselves to be acting in the interests of the working class), gangsterism, and the secret services of the great powers, is the kidnapping of Aldo Moro by a Red Brigades commando (which acted with military efficiency), and his assassination on 9th May 1978 after the Italian government refused to negotiate his liberation. Aldo Moro in fact represented a fraction of the Italian bourgeoisie that favoured the Italian Communist Party’s inclusion in the government majority, an option vigorously opposed by the United States. The Red Brigades were equally opposed to Aldo Moro’s “historic compromise” between the Christian Democrats and the CP, and thus were openly playing the same game as the American state. When we consider that the Red Brigades were heavily infiltrated both by the Italian secret service and by the Gladio network,[iv] it is clear that terrorism was already a weapon in imperialist conflicts by the end of the 1970s.[v]

Terrorism: a weapon and a justification for imperialist war

During the 1980s, the proliferation of terrorist attacks (like the ones in Paris in 1986) carried out by groups of fanatics remote controlled by Iran, introduced a new phenomenon. These were no longer, as at the beginning of the 20th century, armed actions executed by minority groups aimed at the formation or the national independence of a state: states themselves were now organising and using terrorism as a weapon of war against other states.

The fact that terrorism has become directly a state weapon of war marks a qualitative evolution in the nature of imperialism. The fact that these attacks were controlled by Iran (or by Syria or Libya in other cases, such as the destruction of the Pan Am jet over Lockerbie) is also a significant example of a phenomenon that was to spread with the collapse of the blocs after 1989 and the disappearance of the discipline that had previously been imposed by the bloc leaders: third rate regional powers like Iran tried to throw off the tutelage of the US and Russian blocs. Terrorism had become the poor man’s nuclear bomb.

More recently, the two major military powers – Russia and America – have used terrorism to justify their own military interventions. The media have revealed that the bomb attacks in Moscow in the summer of 1999 used explosives reserved for the military, and that Vladimir Putin – head of the FSB (ex-KGB) at the time – was probably behind them. These attacks provided the pretext for the invasion of Chechnya by Russian troops. After the latest attack, and the seizure of 700 hostages in a Moscow theatre, both the Russian and the international press have raised the question of how it was possible for a group of fifty heavily armed men to enter a public space in a town where a Chechen can be routinely stopped and checked several times a day.

One hypothesis put forward by the 16th November edition of Le Monde is that either the commando was directly infiltrated by the Russian secret service, or that the latter knew what was being planned and did nothing to stop it, in order to justify an intensification of the war in Chechnya. According to some sources, secret service agents had informed their superiors months in advance of the preparation of the Moscow attack by the Movsar Baraev group, but the information “got lost as always in the meanders of the higher ranks”. And yet it is hard to imagine this kind of information being “lost”. The 29th October issue of Moskovski Komsomolets quotes an anonymous FSB informer to the effect that the Chechen commando had long since been infiltrated by the Russian secret service, which directly controlled four of its members.

The commando was led by the Baraev clan, whose henchmen have already distinguished themselves in the Chechen war. Its previous leader (assassinated two years ago), and uncle to the hostage-takers’ commander, despite his appearance as a radical defender of Islam, nonetheless had close ties to the Kremlin. His troops were the only ones to be spared during the bombardments and killings carried out by the Russian army. He made possible the massacre of the main Chechen nationalist military leaders surrounded in Grozny, by sending them straight into an ambush prepared by the Russians.

As for the 11th September, even if the US state was not directly behind it, the idea that the secret services of the world’s greatest power were caught unawares like some vulgar banana republic, is simply not credible. It seems clear enough that the American state let the events take place, sacrificing the Twin Towers and 3,000 lives.[vi] They were the price that US imperialism was ready to pay to reassert its world leadership by unleashing “Operation Unlimited Justice” on Afghanistan. This deliberate policy of letting events take their course in order to justify military intervention is not something new.

It was already used in December 1941 during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor[vii] in order to justify US entry into World War II, and more recently when Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990, in order to justify the Gulf War fought under American control.[viii]

The method of using already planned terrorist attacks to justify the extension of an imperialist influence via a military (or police) intervention, seems to be catching on. The information available seems to suggest that the Australian government was aware of the threat of an attack in Indonesia and did nothing about it, even encouraging its citizens to continue travelling to Bali. What is certain, is that Australia has seized on the opportunity of the 12th October attack to increase its influence in Indonesia, both on its own behalf and on that of its US ally.[ix]9

But this policy of “letting things happen” is no longer, as in 1941, simply a matter of letting the enemy attack first, according to the classic laws of wars between states.

This is no longer a war between rival states, with its rules, its flags, its preparations, its uniformed troops, its battlefields and its armies, that serve as a pretext for the massive intervention of the great powers. Today, the great powers use blind terrorist attacks by kamikaze fanatics, aimed directly at the civilian population, to justify the unleashing of imperialist barbarism.

The world’s small states – Iran, Libya, or others in the Middle East – are no longer alone in their use and manipulation of terrorism. It has become a weapon in the arsenal of the planet’s great powers.

The ideology of fear and death

It is indicative of capitalist society’s increasing ideological disintegration, that those who carried out the attacks in Moscow, New York, and Bali (whatever the motives of those behind them) were not moved by ideologies with even a semblance of progressive rationality, such as the creation of new national states. On the contrary, they draw on ideologies that were already outdated and hopelessly reactionary in the 19th century: mystical and religious obscurantism. Capitalism’s decomposition is summed up in the fact that, for part of today’s youth, the best hope that life can offer is not life, nor even struggle in the service of a great cause, but death in the shadow of feudal obscurantism, and in the service of cynical operators whose very existence they do not even suspect.

In the developed countries, the terrorism for which they themselves bear the prime responsibility serves the bourgeois state as a means of propaganda towards its own population, in an effort to convince the latter that in a world of horrors like the 11th September, the only solution is to seek protection in the state. The situation in Venezuela shows what we can expect if the working class lets itself be drawn onto a terrain that is not its own through support for this or that fraction of the ruling class. The Chavez government came to power with wide support among the working class and the poor, having succeeded in making them believe that its national-populist and anti-American programme could protect them against the increasingly intolerable effects of the crisis. Today, the poor masses and the working class are divided, under the control of the forces of the ruling class: either behind Chavez and his military clique, or enrolled in a trade union “general strike” which even includes the judiciary, and which is viewed with a friendly eye by the bosses! Nor is this danger limited to capitalism’s periphery as we can see from the monster demonstration in Paris on 1st May 2002, where the “citizens” were invited to take the side of one bourgeois clique against another (the “other” being that caricature bogey-man Le Pen).

If the world working class fails to reassert its own class independence, in the struggle first for its own interests and then for the revolutionary overthrow of this rotting society, then we can expect nothing else but the generalisation of confrontations between bourgeois cliques and states, using even the most barbaric methods – including in particular the daily use of the weapon of terror.

Arthur, 23rd December 2002


iIRA: Irish Republican Army. Sinn Fein (“We Ourselves” in Gaelic) was founded in 1907 by Arthur Griffith, one of the main Irish leaders when the Irish Republic (Eire) gained its independence from Britain in the early 1920s. Today, it forms the IRA’s political wing, in much the same way as Herri Batasuna with the ETA.

We might say that the Irish “national revolution” is typical of the opening of the period of decadence, in the sense that it never succeeded in creating anything but an amputated state (deprived of the six Ulster counties), essentially under the sway of Britain.

iiThe ambiguity of Connolly’s attitude can be seen in an article published in his paper Irish Worker at the beginning of the war, where on the one hand he considered that any Irish worker would be justified in signing up in the German army if this would hasten Ireland’s liberation from the British yoke, while hoping at the same time that “Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord” (quoted in FSL Lyons, Ireland since the famine).

iiiSee International Review n°15, “Resolution on terrorism, terror, and class violence”, point 5.

ivGladio was a network of fighters and weapons caches created by NATO with the aim of forming resistance groups in the event of a Russian invasion of Europe.

vWe should also remember the bomb attack on Bologna station, with some 90 dead, attributed to the Red Brigades but in fact carried out by the Italian secret service, as well as the terrorist methods used by the French secret service when it mined the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in harbour in New Zealand during the 1980s.

viSee, on this subject, “The ‘anti-terrorist’ war sows terror and barbarism”, and “Pearl Harbor 1941, Twin Towers 2001, the machiavellianism of the bourgeoisie” in International Review n°108.

viiSee the article on Pearl Harbor cited above.

viiiSee our articles on the Gulf War published in International Review n°63 and 66.

ixFor a more detailed analysis, see the article on “How Australian imperialism benefits from the Bali massacre”, published in World Revolution n°259

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