Defining what a terrorist is and isn’t is a major dilemma. What one may consider terrorism, another may consider resistance. So where does one draw the line? Reese Erlich tackles that topic in his latest book “Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire.” Erlich is a veteran journalist who has covered U.S. foreign policy for decades. He has freelanced for National Public Radio, Radio Deutsche Welle, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio, and writes for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News.
Drawing on firsthand interviews and original research, Erlich argues that yesterday’s terrorist is often today’s national leader and that today’s freedom fighter may become tomorrow’s terrorist. By branding all of American’s opponents as “terrorists,” it makes it more difficult to look beyond the individual or the political group and understand what they are really all about. I caught up with Erlich recently and here’s what he had to say.
What is your definition of terrorist and what is this term often misconstrued, misused, or inaccurately portrayed in the American mainstream media?
In the popular sense, it is anybody who uses violence you don’t like. So therefore al Qaida, Hamas, or Hezbollah are all terrorists whereas the Muhajahdeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Contras in Nicaragua were freedom fighters. In my view, terrorism is the use of violence against civilians for political ends. Governments, insurgent groups, and individuals can commit terrorism. They are trying to impact political events by using violence against civilians.
Let’s use the example of the resistance in World War II. They sometimes blew up Nazi soldiers; sometimes civilians were killed inadvertently. But nobody would call them terrorists today because they were aiming at overthrowing the Nazi occupation in Europe and were not intentionally trying to kill civilians. I think we should use that same criteria when evaluating any insurgent group.
You write that government policies can also be acts of terrorism. How do governments commit acts of terrorism and how do you distinguish acts of terrorism versus acting in self-defense or protecting American foreign policy or national security interests?
In the book, I wrote that the CIA hired Saudi and Lebanese agents to try and kill Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah in Beirut in 1985. They planted a bomb, it went off, and 80-plus people were killed and many more were injured. Fadlallah escaped alive and uninjured, but many civilians died. The agents who did that on behalf of the CIA knew that civilians were going to be killed. So the deaths of many dozens of people was OK in their thinking if they could get one alleged terrorist.
Israeli officials do the same thing when they drop 500-pound bombs on apartment buildings in Gaza. They know that a lot of civilians were going to be killed. They make up stories about phoning people in advance, do Robocalls, and drop leaflets. They know perfectly well that civilians are going to do die but they figure it is worth it. They think if they can get this one Hamas leader, so what if a bunch of Palestinians die? Maybe they won’t support Hamas now. That’s terrorism.
What is the difference between how the western world views terrorism vs. its adversaries say North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Cuba, etc?
I think you have to make a distinction among different people. If you look at the communist countries, historically and today, by and large they don’t engage in terrorism. I wouldn’t say they’ve never engaged in a terrorist act, and they certainly engage in violent acts. According to Marxist theory, you alienate potential supporters by intentionally killing civilians. You should be going after military and political targets.
So many of the left-wing insurgent groups intentionally target military, corporate, and political leaders in a battle for power. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with them. But they are not terrorists.
If you look at Pakistan, India, or Egypt, on the other hand and depending on the government and the time frame we’re looking at, they sometimes did engage in terrorist tactics. Certainly military and intelligence sources associated with them have engaged in terrorist tactics. The 2008 Mumbai bombing was clearly a terrorist attack. It was designed to intimidate the Indian government by wreaking havoc among civilians and has been linked to the ISI intelligence service in Pakistan. Some of these U.S. allies engage in serious terrorist actions.
What is the difference between resistance and terrorism? How and why do these terms get confused?
The U.S. government vilifies anybody who takes up arms against the U.S. or its allies Everybody automatically becomes a terrorist. Some groups really are attacking civilians, like al Qaida. Others may have used terrorist tactics, but they are seen in their countries as legitimate national liberation groups, such as Columbian Marxist guerrillas (FARC), Hamas, Hezbollah, and the PLO for that matter. All of them have taken up arms and the U.S. condemns them as terrorists.
I have very sharp differences with Hezbollah and Hamas. They are, at the core, right-wing fundamentalist Muslim groups that want to come to power in their respective countries. I would never vote for them. But they are not mainly trying to kill civilians in order to seize power. They have certainly used violence and killed Israeli civilians and engaged in terrorist tactics, but they are viewed by their own people as national liberation groups.
In the case of Hezbollah, they are seen as the only group that is capable of militarily defending Lebanon against continued Israeli attacks. They have a lot of support among Lebanese Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze.
Hamas won the 2006 elections fair and square in the Palestinian Authority, a little detail the U.S. and Israel like to forget about. So it does no good to simply vilify them as terrorists. You have to deal with them politically. What do they stand for? Why not sit down and negotiate with them?
In your book, you meet with individuals that many western foreign leaders/governments consider to be terrorists. For instance, you talk with Hamas leader Khalid Meshal. The U.S. considers Meshal and especially Hamas a terrorist organization. How is Meshal and Hamas misportrayed by American government elites and or the mainstream media?
I spend a fair amount of time going into Hamas in the book. It began as a distinctly rightwing fundamentalist group that was tolerated by Israel because Israeli authorities wanted to split the Palestinians at the time, and they saw the PLO as the main danger. But Hamas has evolved and developed a sizeable base of support, as reflected in the elections. But then they faced the problem of “How do you actually govern?”
A lot of their fundamentalist ideology didn’t work because the Palestinians, at their core, are secular. They aren’t interested in a fundamentalist government running them like in Iran or Saudi Arabia. The U.S. and Israel at that time should have acknowleged the changes in Hamas. It wasn’t the Hamas of 20 years ago. There could have been some major breakthroughs.
All you have to do is look at the history of the PLO. I remember when Yasser Arafat was the “chief terrorist,” when Israeli leaders called him another “Hitler.” The PLO began advocating a two-state solution in the early 1980s. But the U.S. and Israeli refused to negotiate with the PLO “terrorists.” Then boom, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin comes into power and is willing to negotiate. Suddenly, they acknowledge what the PLO had been saying for 10 years. They sat down and negotiated the Oslo Accords. The same thing eventually is going to happen with Hamas.
Suddenly some Israeli politician is going to make a 180-degree turn and realize that Hamas isn’t the horrible group they have been vilifying, and Hamas is willing to negotiate a two-state solution. Meshal made that clear to me, to former president Jimmy Carter, and numerous other people — contrary to all the propaganda in the United States. Under certain circumstances Hamas would accept a two-state solution and agree to a long-term ceasefire with Israel.
Recently, some militant members of Hamas killed settlers in Hebron. Were those acts of terrorism and how do you respond to that incident? How can we view that incident accurately and appropriately?
This is where I disagree with Hamas. They see all of these things as acts of resistance. I don’t. I think there is a distinction between waging a guerrilla war against soldiers and political leaders and simply killing people because they are Israelis. Sometimes Hamas makes that distinction and sometimes it doesn’t.
But what about the argument that the settlers are akin to Israel’s reserve army because they are given weapons to use and what not?
I’ve been in Hebron. Some of these folks are armed occupiers and are no different from the military. I think that is true. I think if you went to other places like Ariel or other settlements, basically you have secular people who are looking for cheap housing and the Israeli government provides cheap mortgages for expanding suburbs. So I think Hamas should make that distinction.
CNN anchor Octavia Nasr was recently fired for expressing sympathy or remorse over the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah. How and or why is he and Hezbollah misportrayed in the American media and based on your experiences what is the truth of Fadlallah and/or Hezbollah?
In Lebanon, Fadlallah was considered a moderate on many issues. In the book I quote Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt, who has gone to war with Hezbollah at various times. Hesaid Fadllalah was quite moderate in many of his policies. He is not Hezbollah’s spiritual advisor. He never was. He saw himself as a Muslim cleric who was trying to unite Muslims of all different political and religious tendencies. On domestic issues, he was in favor of women’s rights and democracy in Lebanon. He issued a fatwa against smoking and upheld science against superstition. Nasr was simply reflecting the widespread sentiment in much of the Arab world.
What other examples of terrorism stands out that Americans do not hear about or receive false information? What do Americans need to unlearn when it comes to terrorism and terrorist organizations?
There is a whole dirty war, basically death squads promoted by the United States around the world. They are called Special Operations. They engage in terrorist tactics. Imagine for a moment that an enemy of the U.S. decided to come into U.S. territory with undercover agents, to kidnap, torture, and imprison American citizens that it considered dangerous. Can you imagine the outrage inside the U.S.? But the U.S. does that. It was done very widely under George W. Bush, but it continues under Barack Obama. The Obama Administration defends it. Look at the most recent court decision not allowing any court hearing for people who were tortured by the U.S. or sent to countries to be tortured. I think that is an important story that needs to be told.
What do people need to unlearn? I think as a practical matter, stop calling people or groups “terrorists.” Just accurately describe what they are doing and what they believe. Then let people decide whether they like them or not. Just stop throwing around the epithet ‘terrorist.’