The omnipotence of Al Qaeda and meaninglessness of "Terrorism"

By Glenn Greenwald
July 23, 2011
Salon.com

(updated below - Update II)

For much of the day yesterday, the featured headline on The New York Times online front page strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo; that led to definitive statements on the BBC and elsewhere that Muslims were the culprits. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin wrote a whole column based on the assertion that Muslims were responsible, one that, as James Fallows notes, remains at the Post with no corrections or updates. The morning statement issued by President Obama -- "It's a reminder that the entire international community holds a stake in preventing this kind of terror from occurring" and "we have to work cooperatively together both on intelligence and in terms of prevention of these kinds of horrible attacks" -- appeared to assume, though (to its credit) did not overtly state, that the perpetrator was an international terrorist group.

But now it turns out that the alleged perpetrator wasn't from an international Muslim extremist group at all, but was rather a right-wing Norwegian nationalist with a history of anti-Muslim commentary and an affection for Muslim-hating blogs such as Pam Geller's Atlas Shrugged, Daniel Pipes, and Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch. Despite that, The New York Times is still working hard to pin some form of blame, even ultimate blame, on Muslim radicals (h/t sysprog):

Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out Islamic terrorism as the cause of Friday's assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking Al Qaeda's brutality and multiple attacks.

"If it does turn out to be someone with more political motivations, it shows these groups are learning from what they see from Al Qaeda," said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Al Qaeda is always to blame, even when it isn't, even when it's allegedly the work of a Nordic, Muslim-hating, right-wing European nationalist. Of course, before Al Qaeda, nobody ever thought to detonate bombs in government buildings or go on indiscriminate, politically motivated shooting rampages. The NYT speculates that amonium nitrate fertilizer may have been used to make the bomb because the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, owned a farming-related business and thus could have access to that material; of course nobody would have ever thought of using that substance to make a massive bomb had it not been for Al Qaeda. So all this proves once again what a menacing threat radical Islam is.

Then there's this extraordinarily revealing passage from the NYT -- first noticed by Richard Silverstein -- explaining why the paper originally reported what it did:

Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.

There was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible.

In other words, now that we know the alleged perpetrator is not Muslim, we know -- by definition -- that Terrorists are not responsible; conversely, when we thought Muslims were responsible, that meant -- also by definition -- that it was an act of Terrorism. As Silverstein put it:

How's that again? Are the only terrorists in the world Muslim? If so, what do we call a right-wing nationalist capable of planting major bombs and mowing down scores of people for the sake of the greater glory of his cause? If even a liberal newspaper like the Times can't call this guy a terrorist, what does that say about the mindset of the western world?

What it says is what we've seen repeatedly: that Terrorism has no objective meaning and, at least in American political discourse, has come functionally to mean: violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes, no matter the cause or the target. Indeed, in many (though not all) media circles, discussion of the Oslo attack quickly morphed from this is Terrorism (when it was believed Muslims did it) to no, this isn't Terrorism, just extremism (once it became likely that Muslims didn't). As Maz Hussain -- whose lengthy Twitter commentary on this event yesterday was superb and well worth reading -- put it:

That Terrorism means nothing more than violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes has been proven repeatedly. When an airplane was flown into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, it was immediately proclaimed to be Terrorism, until it was revealed that the attacker was a white, non-Muslim, American anti-tax advocate with a series of domestic political grievances. The U.S. and its allies can, by definition, never commit Terrorism even when it is beyond question that the purpose of their violence is to terrorize civilian populations into submission. Conversely, Muslims who attack purely military targets -- even if the target is an invading army in their own countries -- are, by definition, Terrorists. That is why, as NYU's Remi Brulin has extensively documented, Terrorism is the most meaningless, and therefore the most manipulated, word in the English language. Yesterday provided yet another sterling example.

One last question: if, as preliminary evidence suggests, it turns out that Breivik was "inspired" by the extremist hatemongering rantings of Geller, Pipes and friends, will their groups be deemed Terrorist organizations such that any involvement with them could constitute the criminal offense of material support to Terrorism? Will those extremist polemicists inspiring Terrorist violence receive the Anwar Awlaki treatment of being put on an assassination hit list without due process? Will tall, blond, Nordic-looking males now receive extra scrutiny at airports and other locales, and will those having any involvement with those right-wing, Muslim-hating groups be secretly placed on no-fly lists? Or are those oppressive, extremist, lawless measures -- like the word Terrorism -- also reserved exclusively for Muslims?

UPDATE: The original version of the NYT article was even worse in this regard. As several people noted, here is what the article originally said (papers that carry NYT articles still have the original version):

Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out terrorism as the cause of Friday's assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking al-Qaida's signature brutality and multiple attacks.

"If it does turn out to be someone with more political motivations, it shows these groups are learning from what they see from al-Qaida," said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Thus: if it turns out that the perpetrators weren't Muslim (but rather "someone with more political motivations" -- whatever that means: it presumably rests on the inane notion that Islamic radicals are motivated by religion, not political grievances), then it means that Terrorism, by definition, would be "ruled out" (one might think that the more politically-motivated an act of violence is, the more deserving it is of the Terrorism label, but this just proves that the defining feature of the word Terrorism is Muslim violence). The final version of the NYT article inserted the word "Islamic" before "terrorism" ("even if the authorities ultimately ruled out Islamic terrorism as the cause"), but -- as demonstrated above -- still preserved the necessary inference that only Muslims can be Terrorists. Meanwhile, in the world of reality, of 294 Terrorist attacks attempted or executed on European soil in 2009 as counted by the EU, a grand total of one -- 1 out of 294 -- was perpetrated by "Islamists."

UPDATE II: This article expertly traces and sets forth exactly how the "Muslims-did-it" myth was manufactured and then disseminated yesterday to the worldwide media, which predictably repeated it with little skepticism. What makes the article so valuable is that it names names: it points to the incestuous, self-regarding network of self-proclaimed U.S. Terrorism and foreign policy "experts" -- what the article accurately describes as "almost always white men and very often with military or government backgrounds," in this instance driven by "a case of an elite fanboy wanting to be the first to pass on leaked gadget specs" -- who so often shape these media stories and are uncritically presented as experts, even though they're drowning in bias, nationalism, ignorance, and shallow credentialism.

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