“Terrorist, plain and simple”? The misleading strategy behind the terrorist tag

This article was originally published on Comment Middle East on 6 October 2016.

In early September, Hillary Clinton expressed a resolute stance against “bad actors” in the Middle East, whilst affirming her support for the Iran nuclear agreement. A leading candidate in the race for the 2016 U.S presidential elections, Mrs Clinton declared: “It’s time to eliminate the false distinction that some still make between the supposed political and military wings. If you’re part of Hezbollah, you’re part of a terrorist organization, plain and simple.”

The reality, however, is not at all simple, yet the strategy behind her rhetoric is plain to see. The technique of blanket labeling organisations “terrorists” is calculatingly reductive and diverts attention away from the group in question’s complex political roots and grievances. Applied to multifaceted groups such as Hezbollah, the “terrorist” tag has a clear aim — to depoliticize the problem and justify an aggressive, often militarized response.

Once referred to as the “A-Team of Terrorists”, but seen by many in Lebanon and abroad as a “national resistance organisation” to Israeli occupation, the Shi’ite movement of Hezbollah proves a particularly divisive case. From accusations of assassinations and bombings to a flight hijacking, Hezbollah and its affiliates have undeniably undertaken and been involved in numerous terrorist activities.

Nevertheless, to disregard such a group’s political and social influence, and indeed popularity, would be misleading. Hezbollah has played a continuously active role in Lebanon’s political arena as either one of the largest single blocs or in coalition since 1992. Undoubtedly to gain political support as well as fulfil charitable commitments, Hezbollah is also a key provider of social services, particularly in southern Lebanon. Terror is by no means the group’s main tool in achieving its goals.

Few terms are more loaded and laden with social and political connotations than “terrorist”, and defining the likes of Hezbollah as such can obstruct understanding. Terrorism should be acknowledged as a strategy — a means to achieving an outcome by creating fear — but not a defining characteristic of multifaceted groups like Hezbollah.

Terrorism is distinguished from other acts of political violence by setting out to achieve its aims not through the act itself, but through the response to its act. The tactic has been effectively exhibited over centuries and for many causes, such as during la Terreur in the French Revolution and by Irish revolutionaries which led to Irish independence in 1921. The desired provocation could be their opponent ceding to their demands, or quite the opposite — conflict escalation.

Hezbollah’s military wing, however, appears to be primarily designed for conventional military conflict, rather than executing acts of terror. Its past successes against Israel and current ones fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria would not be possible if they were based on acts of terror. Instead it has been made possible through a force that is estimated at 5,000 fighters in Syria alone, and 100,000 rockets and missiles, including anti-aircraft weapons. Like many militant groups operating in the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah depends on a strategy and military force that can protect and win territory above all through its own physical impact, not the psychological impact of terrorism.

There is once again a clear sense of ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. As is the case with Hezbollah’s “terrorist, plain and simple” tag, there is a clear effort to deceptively and definitively reduce the organisation to the most incriminating aspects of the group’s past. Blacklisting groups as “terrorist organisations” is a convenient way to depoliticize the group and thereby not recognize any socio-political roots and grievances. Middle Eastern governments and their European and U.S allies are experts at it. Individuals and groups recently accused of “terrorism” range from al- Jazeera journalists in Egypt, to Kurdish separatists in Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party was ousted in a coup after Egypt’s first ever democratic elections.

The “terrorist” tag goes far beyond simply diverting us away from a group’s political and social grievances. It instantaneously demonizes groups, instilling an image of a horde of fundamentalist sociopaths with the one aim of spreading their ‘pure evil’. The label does nothing but generate more fear, and knowingly so. The fear created among states’ own populations serves to justify illiberal and invasive ‘counter-terrorism’ measures at home, and is easily moulded into support for a heavyhanded, aggressive military response abroad. Since the turn of the millennium, ‘fighting terrorism’ has been used to legitimize invasions, wars, indiscriminate bombings through drone and airstrikes, sweeping government surveillance and much, much more.

Among the world’s favorite users of the “terrorist” tag is Hezbollah’s adversary Israel. In the country’s continued efforts to protect its citizens and secure territories, Israel’s military weight far exceeds its diplomatic standing in the region. The prevalent concept that terrorists should face “zero tolerance” and not be negotiated with is very useful in justifying an aggressive and violent response where a diplomatic one might not prove quite so effective. Recent examples include the devastating 2014 bombardment of Gaza and preparations in June 2015 for a future aerial and ground offensive in southern Lebanon.

The War On Terror has seen and created an unprecedented level of political violence in the Middle East with many foreign and local actors taking military action in other countries. Because of this involvement and the mounting casualties, it is of paramount importance that we understand the nature of the various state, pseudo-state and non-state actors operating militarily in the region. Ignorance, willful in this case, only creates rash and often counterproductive action. Branding groups as “terrorists, plain and simple” has only served to legitimize aggressive action, adding fuel to the fire and leading us further away from socio-political understanding and resolving these issues. Terrorism is designed to create fear. Let’s not generate more of it. Let’s use language that helps us effectively analyse and discourage political violence.

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