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State terror, terrorism, and the spiral of violence:

A Balkan perspective



Biljana Vankovska

Institute for Defence and Peace Studies, Faculty of Philosophy, Skopje, Macedonia

TFF associate

1. A Global Perspective and General Deliberations - and Concrete Repercussions

September 11th will surely go down in the annals of terrorism as a defining moment. Terrorism had long been recognised as a global, regional, and national security threat, but the developments of the last year have the potential to outline the future shape of the world community. September 11th gave momentum to two processes, the consequences of which are very difficult to control or foresee. The mass-scale terrorist attacks and the 'war on terrorism' are caught in the same vicious circle. They comprise a global spiral of violence. The crucial difference behind this 'post-modern' terrorism is that it involves major non-state and state powers: a powerful global network of terrorist cells, Al-Qaeda, and the only global super-power, the USA.

Unfortunately, the struggle between the 'elephants' brings heavy consequences to the 'ants' of the 'global village'. Certain parts of the 'village' possess their own historical and practical experiences with terrorism and state terror. For example, the Balkan experience confirms the well-known thesis that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. It seems that the global, regional, and national dimensions of terrorism propel each other, as their configurations are changed through mutual intercourse. Therefore, theoretical demarcation between several crucial notions, such as terrorism, terror, freedom fighters, guerrilla, rebels, etc. has immense utility in today's circumstances. The significance of such a demarcation goes beyond academic purposes, because the potential (mis)use of each of these categories has an immediate political consequence. On the other hand, it is also true that the politicians seldom follow scholars' advice or have time or understanding for their research findings. Unfortunately, in this era of serious terrorist threats, political understanding prevails over critical intellectual thinking.

The phenomenon of terrorism neither began on 11th September 2001 nor is Al-Qaeda its most dangerous proponent. The September 11th developments have been given an extraordinary significance for several reasons. First on the list is the death toll, although the number of casualties is not the highest in the world history of terrorism. The second factor is the way in which the terrorist attacks were undertaken. The third factor was shock at the vulnerability of the only super-power, which also contributed to the harshness of the response. Human lives were lost, yet the US tries only to regain its credibility and reputation as a mighty super-power capable of providing security for its citizens.

One year later, one can say that terrorism has not been diminished but instead intensified. A strike like the first strike was not repeated, but this can give a false impression. The sources of terrorism in the world are deeply entrenched. The causes of terrorism as well as of any other form of extremism are to be found in poverty, social injustice, and unequal distributions of resources and power on national, regional, and international levels.

During the last one-year period, the most dominant 'definition' of terrorism has been the one given by the US President. In the interpretation of Bush and the international media, terrorism is associated exclusively with the so-called non-state actors. In other words, state terrorism is out of the picture, or even worse - it is excused and justified:

"Because the US Government mobilizes for war in a tribalist manner, it is disabled from reflecting upon its own conduct, and is unwilling to take steps that might address those grievances that are just, and in accord with international law and morality. Worse than this, it is seduced by its own hyperbolic rhetoric about terrorism to throw its weight behind oppressive policies of great severity... To add Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Jaish-I-Mohammed to the 'terrorist underworld', as Bush did in the State of the Union address, is to associate terrorism exclusively with non-state actors when in fact violence against civilian population is engaged by both sides, and with greater ferocity by the states in question, whether Israel or India. The proper role for the US in these conflicts is to work toward a just solution that brings peace and accommodation, and not to confuse its response to 11 September with policies of support for a variety of state terrorisms."

The ongoing anti-terrorist campaign headed by President Bush centres on this very narrow definition of terrorism, which actually gives political and moral legitimacy to state terrorism. Some analysts make a case for the well-founded debate over the decade-long use of terrorism as a part of US foreign policy. Interestingly, the ground for this debate is the way terrorism is defined in the US. Namely, in a 1984 US document (US Army Operational Concept of Terrorism Counteraction) terrorism is defined as a "calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature... through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear." According to the American Heritage Dictionary, terrorism is the "use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." The US itself has a long history of using such methods in order to topple regimes or to impose others. In one recent example, adding to the 'humanitarian intervention' rationale, Madeline Albright repeatedly stated that the NATO campaign was not directed against the Yugoslav people but against the Milosevic regime. Even today many US analysts claim that Milosevic's fall was a direct consequence of the air-campaign. In the words of Douglas Lummis, a distinguished political scientist, "air bombardment is state terrorism. It is the terrorism of the rich. It has burned up and blasted apart more innocents in the past six decades than have all the anti-state terrorists who ever lived".

The 1999 NATO intervention in Yugoslavia has made a special impact on the global understanding and evolution of terrorism and state terror. The intervention itself sent a clear message all over the world. Unfortunately, that message did not address human rights protection - instead the message appealed to regimes that gravely violated part of their population's human rights, as well as various secessionist and terrorist groups. The message read: violence is a worthwhile political tool; the distinction between the 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter' (or, fighter for greater human rights) is a matter of discussion and interpretation; once a group legitimises itself as national-liberation and/or rebel army, it has pretty fair chances to get support through international intervention. Unfortunately, the message that was sent in the September 11th's aftermath is also very clear.

Denunciation of non-state terrorism has provided an endless arsenal for many governments in dealing with their own terrorists (such as Russian, Israeli or Chinese). In this 'securitizing' game, a terrorist threat is simply what governments define as such. The world-wide alliance in the war against terrorism is a rather false but obviously a dangerous one. Each of the allies has interests of its own, specific terrorist groups that threaten, and rather colourful 'counter-terrorism policy.' In their small security games, states agree on one crucial thing, that they are 'naturally' exempted from the list of the 'bad actors' and they take it for granted that in the war against terrorism the final end justifies the means. Furthermore, the decades of inconsistent US foreign policy created grounds for a distinction between 'good' and 'bad' terrorist groups, depending on their usefulness and loyalty to US strategic interests. In many ways Osama Bin Laden is an American product, which also applies to Saddam Hussein. In other words, the US has a long history of supporting certain terrorist groups which could have been used as proxies for achieving US national interests all over the world (Afghan mujahedins, UCK, Northern Alliance, etc.) but also terrorist states (such as Israel). Bush's cry that 'everybody who is not with us is against us' serves, among other things, as an alibi for internal political and ethnic purges and struggles. The September 11th attacks triggered a vicious cycle and counter-terrorism has become a name for the endless spiral of violence.

However, the ongoing 'war' is raising tension and impatience with some of the US allies within NATO. European powers (except the UK) are getting impatient to see some palpable result from 'our victory' and eventually the end of the anti-terrorist campaign. Instead they are facing a new 'referendum on loyalty' to USA. Since the very beginning the US has usurped the right to define the enemy, the goals of the campaign, and its means. It seems that Americans have discovered the useful function of the 'war on terror' regarding their allies. The war has transformed into an efficient means for disciplining NATO/EU (which happens approximately every other year) and also for diverting their attention from the previous fiasco. For example, a year later, several questions are still waiting to be answered: 1) What is going on with hunt for Usama Bin Laden? 2) Are there any reliable indicators to prove that Al-Qaeda suffered serious and irreparable damage? 3) Is there a functioning government in Afghanistan and does the population live better (particularly, the women)? 4) Did the American local allies turn into war criminals, massacring thousands of war prisoners before the eyes of the US troops? 5) Are Western citizens' rights and liberties in better or worse shape today? 6) Do the countries involved, such as Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, etc. like the war on terrorism - and why? 7) Are the Guantanamo prisoners under Geneva Conventions protection or not?

The US retaliation politics may look like an effective and decisive way to oppose the Al-Qaeda threat, especially in the eyes of the domestic public that becomes paranoid under daily announcements coming from their intelligence services. Despite the harsh stance and calls for the total defeat of terrorism, the world faces America's inability to be (or at least to pretend to be) an honest broker in any regional or local conflict all over the globe. The possibilities to use double standards and to preserve international credibility are more than minor. What is ethically justified in the US response to terrorists is now well exploited by others who are not ready to listen to the US double speech when urging for restraint and peaceful conflict resolution. The most illustrative case is, certainly, Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Overplaying the card of the global war against terror has a price and hits as a boomerang in US foreign policy attempts in other parts of the world. Thus, the war against terror not only propels the spiral of violence in a global scope, but also has a strong impact on regional spirals, especially in the zones that are heavily under the external influence of the US.

The war on terrorism, or in the words of President Bush 'the first war of the 21st century', has apparently introduced some novelties in the general understanding of peace and security in the world, and particularly about the so-called Western security community. First of all, it has changed the perceptions of war, security, and the superiority (relevance) of military power. Military experts and strategists have started thinking about the new security challenges and adequate responses. Indeed, the new millennium has begun in a most tragic and unexpected way. Sadly enough, very few consider if mankind, or its great powers, is wiser in handling the new security challenges and conflicts. It has become highly fashionable to speak about the so-called new security agenda and about the new non-military aspects of security. The events of September 11th proved that the agenda had become reality. But it is not so self-evident that the roots of the 'new agenda' had been embedded in the 'old world order', i.e. in the world which evolved around the philosophy of violence and domination, arrogance of the powerful versus the powerless, weak, and poor. Today's terrorism, however, has forms that threaten to destroy the whole world. It is a public secret that there is an illegal and very profitable business of trafficking radioactive materials, biological weapons, etc. Superiority has nothing to do with the military power any more.

The world seems to be facing an imposed and rather false dilemma: either opposition to terrorism or opposition to state terror. The question is usually simplified in several forms. Are we wholeheartedly for the international alliance against terrorism or not? Do we support civilised (Western?) values or not? Some go further and raise the question if we back the axis of good or evil. Of course, that is nothing but the old moralistic trap of 'either-or' thinking. Few dare explicitly say that there is no contradiction in being against both terrorism and the militaristic response to it. The democratic conscience of mankind calls for equal opposition to non-state and global state terrorism.

The current war against terrorism, especially in its US variant, resembles an unlimited war against undefined enemy. US leadership has declared an endless state of war in the country and also pressures its allies to follow their example. Some analysts warn against the somewhat Orwellian permanent war against a vaguely defined and ever-changing enemy. The state of war itself nurtures fear and justifies a regime's autocratic practices.

The ongoing 'war on terrorism', which obviously spills over in terms of its geographic scope and its goals, contributes to certain 'de-territorialising' of the conflict and global 'securitisation'. It seems that global security is what USA/NATO define as such, and for the sake of security one should employ all necessary means; while the threats should be met by all emergency means (or as Colin Powell put it, regardless whether "it is legally correct or not"). The US has defined terrorists and the terrorist threat in absolute terms. . This definition excludes any partial or compromise solution in ending the 'war'. Thus, the victory will have to be total, and 'peace and justice' only under US terms. The imposed global motto reads: what is good for the USA is good for everybody else in the world. In other words, it is about the principle of 'universality' that does not allow any other regional or national interests. Consciously or not, USA is involved in what looks like a mission impossible. They expect to defeat terrorism by military means, and if necessary by the reduction of democratic principles and human rights' standards, thus contributing to the destruction of the very values it is supposed to protect at all costs. Finally, nothing better could have happened to Osama Bin Laden but the 'war on terror,' whose military nature gives rise to further terrorism.



2. Balkan Contribution to Terrorism and to the War on Terrorism

More than a decade prior to September 11th, the Balkans, or the territory of former Yugoslavia, had been trapped into its own reality, mainly shaped by the conflict cycle and spiral of violence. The outer world was interested in this region rather than other way around. The former and post-Yugoslav societies have invented every possible way of justify the use of violence, from a perspective of its proponents, proclaimed (just) goals, means, etc. The ubiquity and diversity of 'terrorism' became a form of local folklore. The definitional game-playing was supposed to blur rather than to clarify the differences between terrorism and other forms of political violence; between government terrorism and resistance terrorism; between guerrilla warfare, crime and terrorism. One way or another, the central point was justification and legitimation of the use of violence against the anti-state terrorist groups or against the state terror proponents. For more than ten years, the dominant dilemma was state integrity vs. national self-determination, sovereignty vs. human rights, and collective vs. individual human rights.

Going further back into history of the region, one may point out that terrorism was an old phenomenon. The only difficulty is that every national history easily recognises others' terrorists, while at the same time highly praising one's own freedom fighters and martyrs. For example, in light of the current crisis in Macedonia, majority ethnic Macedonians would easily identify UCK fighters as terrorists, but very few would agree that a large part of VMRO history was as a terrorist organisation. Furthermore, the famous group of assassins from the late 19th and early 20th century "Gemidzii," to a certain extent resembles the modern Palestinian suicide-bombers. Macedonian assassins opted for terrorist actions and sacrificing their own lives in order to turn European public attention to the subjugated population in Macedonia. Since each nation's history contains similar examples, the well-known saying "one's terrorist is other's freedom fighter" illustrates the way terrorism has been perceived in the region. The Balkans has always had its own favourable conditions and causes for the rise of terrorist groups, and that problem has never been really tackled given the various perceptions and definitions terrorism. The most recent global 'war on terror', therefore, concerns the region in a very bizarre way. It is highly relevant only in two points. Firstly, the governments feel obliged to manifest their loyalty with the US, although their contributions to the 'global war' are mainly symbolic and sometimes ridiculous. Obviously, it has nothing to do with the awareness of the security threats and the need to respond to them, but is merely inspired by the awareness about the ultimate role of the US in the region. The second, more substantial point, concerns the new possibility to compare our terrorism with the global one, to take side with the 'good guys,' and to 'empirically' prove that our evil is as big as the global one. Certainly, in the post-September 11th period, state terrorism gets better standing, unlike the prior period that favoured the sub-state actors.

The global development image in the Balkans resembles the reflection from a broken mirror. Each puzzle of the post-Yugoslav reality gets a new arsenal for interpretation of the just and unjust wars of the previous decade, which would have practically no effect on the global 'war' but may keep the potential of reinforcing the future local debates on the local terrorism. Theoretical discourse and the difficulties in differentiation of terrorism from the other related phenomena (freedom fighters, rebels, criminal and Mafia gangs) have very down-to-earth repercussions for the Balkan reality. The use of double standards and double-speech by international factors, who are allegedly assisting in handling the local conflicts, unfortunately does not elevate the problems. The rather vague definition of 'evil' gives a very practical alibi for all those who have been overplaying the card of the struggle against terrorists and the freedom fighters.

During the Bosnian war, given the international perception of the Bosnians as the only victims, the international community and particularly the USA turned a blind eye to the concrete support of various Islamic states, groups and organisations. Even in the post-war reconstruction the Americans welcomed the donations and grants coming from sometime shadowy sources. For example, it is well known that the so-called "Train and Equip" programme of military reconstruction of the Federation's armed forces was financed by the generous donations of Islamic countries. A private US military company (MPRI) got an excellent business opportunity in implementing the programme, while the US administration could pursue its regional interests in providing 'just balance of military power' in Dayton Bosnia without spending a single US tax-payers' dollar. However, the post-September 11th developments changed perceptions and all alleged Bosnian connections with Al-Qaeda gained the highest importance. For the sake of the global 'war on terrorism' (i.e. US national security interests) the fragile rule of law principle in Bosnia was diminished. The suspects from Bosnia were transferred to Guantanamo with no respect for the legal procedure or the sovereignty of the internationally recognised state.

A more indicative example of state terror versus sub-state terrorism in the Balkans is the Third Yugoslavia case, the Serbia-Kosovo decade-long hostile interplay. As in many other deeply protracted intra-state conflicts, there was a blame-game between the state (belonging to the majority ethnic group) and the anti-state forces (i.e. minority group's opposition). Both deeply violent structures, actually, had fed and supported each other towards the 'final clash'. Harsher repression from Belgrade would provoke more decisive violent resistance and a wider recruitment base for UCK; and vice versa - bloodier and more frequent attacks from the UCK forces would provide solid legitimacy for state security forces and their actions. The international community's flirting with Milosevic did not help but deepened the crisis. While putting out the fire in Croatia and Bosnia, the internationals found Milosevic's role both dangerous and useful. He was the main negotiator and even signatory of the Dayton Accords in 1995, despite his horrendous records in Kosovo since 1989. Ibrahim Rugova was left in the lurch and with no arguments for the peaceful resistance to Belgrade regime. Milosevic's 'peace-maker' role in Dayton indirectly de-legitimised the only real peaceful actor in the region, Rugova. The armed resistance appeared to be the only way, so UCK capitalised on Dayton's omission to tackle the Kosovo conflict. The international community had never come with a consistent policy regarding the Kosovo conflict, and particularly, the armed resistance by the Albanians. At the beginning the UCK was ignored or downplayed, only to be later placed on the US list of terrorist organisations in the world. Only in early 1998 did they become rebels. During the 1999 NATO campaign they were promoted to freedom fighters, and thus became eligible for being US proxies in an eventual ground war against Yugoslavia. For that purpose, the former terrorist organisation was overtly equipped and trained by US and British special forces. In the Kosovo war aftermath the western allies understood that they had created a 'monster they were not able to control'. That structure soon multiplied into several other similar armed formations. It can be hardly said that the West had not been aware of the deep Mafia origin and support for the Kosovo struggle. Some facts reported in a US Congress documents about Al-Qaeda presence in Kosovo were very well-used by Milosevic for his defence in the Hague Tribunal.

The Macedonian perspective on terrorism and the ongoing global 'war' does not differ a lot from the others in the region. In a divided, conflict-driven society, there is no one perspective and evaluation. The attitude towards terrorism, and particularly identification of terrorists, depend on the actors that are tasked and their political goals. The problem of terrorism in the country is still interpreted through the prism of last year's still ongoing crisis. Practically, for a large part of the society, the story of terrorism is the story of the conflict, and vice versa - the conflict is about terrorism. The situation gained another dimension with the inconsistent meddling of the international community during the crisis (spring-summer 2001) and in the post-September 11th period. The dominant impression is that the USA and the international community (mainly identified with NATO) alter their definitions of terrorism in accordance to their geo-political and national security interests. Roughly said, there is no social consensus over the struggle against terrorism and the means for defeating it. Moreover the international community makes that consensus impossible. The Macedonian society experiences a deja vu effect of the Kosovo crisis. The outburst of violence in spring 2001 is seen partly as a result of the international missions' impotence to control violence and extremist groups among Kosovo Albanians, and to prevent spill-over effects in Macedonia.

Caught in the vicious circle of the intra-state conflict and the impact of the regional conflict, Macedonia proved to be unable to find a peaceful way of conflict resolution within the society and to cope with terrorist tendencies. Instead, it had been living in a kind of 'virtual reality' of the 'oasis of peace' in a normal country of transition. In terms of security policy, the country was trying to catch up with the modern security agenda defined in the West but, paradoxically enough, was never aware of the seeds of those security threats within its own society. The outbreak of violence in early 2001 came as a surprise to the domestic and international public, while the rhetoric and definition of the conflict parties changed greatly in the course of the several months long crisis. At the beginning of the crisis, NATO Gen-Sec. Robertson named Albanian groups 'toughs' who preferred bullets to ballots. With the escalation of the fights, the 'toughs' became rebels, and now there is a high likelihood that they will become part of governmental structures after the September parliamentary elections in the country. As in the Kosovo case, the US administration uses different lists to classify terrorist movements with only local ambitions from those forms of terrorism that affect the interests of the US (as Colin Powell puts it).



3. On Expanding Vicious Circle of Violence: Global and Balkan Considerations

The post-September 11th reality illustrates very well the old truth that security perceptions differ and also lead towards different security responses. For a year, terrorism has been defined as one of the most serious security threats in the 21st century. However, the 'war on terrorism' has not given satisfactory answers to the questions: security for whom, at what costs, and through what means? The very fact that the response to the September attacks on the USA was immediately called 'war' proves the main contradiction. Despite the enormous number of human victims caused by the terrorist attacks, it is important to avoid the temptation to cope with the threat through military means. Even 'higher' or 'more absolute' security for US citizens is grounded on more violence (in forms of direct, structural, and cultural forms) and fewer democratic rights and liberties. Violence breeds violence even when performed with a 'just cause'.

As the Third Yugoslavia case showed, deeply embedded structural violence and a culture of violence (i.e. public legitimation and justification of violent means) can erupt into forms of direct violence. The direct violence during the clash between the Serbian security forces and UCK (with great participation of NATO as well) produced new unjust forms of structural violence (in which oppressors and the victims only changed the roles). The old traumas and culture of violence have been 'enriched' with some fresh elements, which make the whole picture on peace and stability more blurred and uncertain.

The last decade also proved that terrorism and state terror are phenomena that feed each other and propel the spiral of violence. The tactics of the proponents of each 'strategy' is "the worse, the better". As Milosevic and UCK made a perfect match as the best enemies, nowadays the same is true for the tandem Bush-bin Laden (or Saddam Hussein). Each side's political and security agenda is perfectly well supported by the violence used by the other side. It seems that state terror increases the likeliness of emergence of terrorist groups, and vice versa. Hence, adequate response to terrorism is not to combat against it, which only intensifies and supports it. In order to overcome it one should go through it - or better, should address the real roots of the phenomenon. Quick fixes are not only inappropriate but also sometimes counter-productive. As terrorism was not born overnight, it cannot be cured swiftly. Terrorism with high death tolls makes state structures overreact, makes even the public of democratic countries cry out for retaliation and more blood as an only acceptable form of 'justice' for their losses. The harsh retaliation then serves as a self-evident 'justification' of the original violent resistance.

The post-September 11th events generated a weird 'competition' in terms of human losses and destruction. The US military response against bin Laden and Taliban regime resulted in three times as many Afghan victims than in the September attacks in New York and Washington. The statement of a women's organisation from Afghanistan on 11 September 2002 sadly testifies that the international efforts to 'liberate' Afghanistan from the regime that harboured bin Laden has ended as a legitimation of another state terror. The war on terror is far from being over, which is evidenced by everyday warnings issued by the CIA and FBI about possible new attacks on US targets, but also from the war drums directed against Iraq. Terrorism is indeed one of the most serious global concerns, but not in a straightforward way. The black and white picture of the world (the axis of good-doers versus the axis of evil-doers) is sadly indicative of serious harm on Western democracies: the fragility of democracy itself, but also another heavy hit on the international law and order. Since September 11th the world has become more interdependent and more vulnerable, not only in the traditional way, but unhappily also in terms of the effect of war and conflict on universal values, human rights, and democratic prospects. As Richard Falk put it rightly, the American understanding of the challenge of 11 September is in "its essence a geopolitical opera pitting good against evil".

Astonishingly enough, the post-September 11th Western world proved to be very similar to the Balkan countries it has been trying to pacify and democratise since 1991. The Balkan war and post-war experiences may be extremely useful for some Western countries faced with imagined and/or real security threats, overloaded with hysterical patriotism and collective paranoia. The Balkan experience can provide insight into what makes even mature democracies and their publics ready to give up democratic practices and citizens' rights for increased security, without calling for accountability and transparency in political leadership. The 'rally around the flag' is obviously not a Balkan phenomenon - it works well in the Bush's presidency as well. State terror in the West and in the Balkans differ to the degree that, in the West, it is a global phenomenon through foreign policy; while in the latter case, it is more regionally constrained and acts as internal policy tool. Global and local terrorist also resemble each other to a significant degree, coinciding in the tactics they employ. Violence and terror have maintained close affinities with traditional political struggle - like conventional war, they represent the conduct of politics 'by other means'. The only big difference between them consists of the concrete potential to harm and destroy.

The Balkan contribution to the global threat of terrorism has to be two-dimensional. First, societies have to address the roots of the phenomenon in their political and societal spheres, and only then to echo the US/NATO cries. The simple conclusion is that the 'karma' we are sharing indeed resembles sailing or sinking in the same boat.


© TFF & the author 2002  


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