What We Talk About When We Talk About Terror Attacks

When the most reliable news source on Islamist terror is an ISIS news agency and politicians fear of politicizing terror attacks, giving the advantage to extreme candidates like Trump, we need to sit and have a conversation.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Terrorism is political violence that uses language, symbols and imagery.
Terrorism is political violence that uses language, symbols and imagery.Credit: Dado Ruvic, illustration, Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Which is the most reliable news source on Islamist terror attacks around the world? The answer surprisingly is Amaq news agency, the Islamic State propaganda arm, masquerading as a news organization established two years ago.

Intelligence officials and other professional ISIS-watchers give Amaq top scores in attributing attacks carried out in the Middle East and the West to either networks operated from ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq or by so-called Islamic State “soldiers” – individuals acting on their own accord who, inspired by ISIS online, pledged allegiance over the phone to the Caliphate before carrying out their attacks.

Dahir Adan, who stabbed ten people on Saturday in a Minnesota mall, was quickly identified by Amaq as a “soldier.” Ahmad Khan Rahami, the man arrested on Monday on suspicion of having carried out the bombing in Manhattan on Saturday night, injuring 29, has yet to be adopted. But Amaq has not endorsed every lone-wolf attacker, seemingly doing so only when it had clear proof of a pledge of allegiance, which has only boosted its credibility.

Back in the olden days of terror, things were much murkier. Bombings and hijackings were carried out by non-existent outfits with names like “The Oppressed on Earth” and “Martyrs of the Sword” while the actual perpetrators often preferred not to take responsibility or used anonymous proxies. In other cases, many organizations took credit for attacks carried out by others or even for accidental explosions. Press releases issued from “headquarters” in Beirut or Baghdad were routinely treated with suitable derision and disbelief. That has changed now, and it's not just because ISIS’ new agency has embarked on the unusual policy of sticking to the facts. It’s because Western politicians and media have become completely lost at sea when talking about terrorism.

A case in point was the statement given by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Saturday. He said the Manhattan attack was “an intentional act” but that “we do not see a link to terrorism.” At the press conference he also said it was too early to say whether it was a bomb, which begs the question what else do you call an intentional explosion in a crowded neighborhood that wounded dozens of civilians other than a bomb and an act of terrorism? What was Mayor de Blasio trying to say? There could hardly be any question of what had happened there, especially as at that point police had already found a second explosive device there in a pressure cooker.

The next day New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was slightly more straightforward when he said the bombing was “obviously an act of terrorism” but “not linked at this stage to international terrorism.” So, he means obviously terrorism but not international terrorism “at this stage”? Was he referring to some nativist brand of political violence? De Blasio was still talking in riddles as well when he said that day again that “this was an intentional act, but we do not know the motivation.”

The next day the FBI put out Rahami’s name and he was soon apprehended.

Now, there is of course a degree of justification for de Blasio and Cuomo’s obfuscation. Politicians do have a duty not to jump to conclusions, to prevent panic and avoid the risk of innocent individuals and entire communities being targeted. But a lot more than that is of course happening here because at least one American politician didn’t hesitate to say that a bomb had gone off in New York and advocate “tough” measures. Donald Trump for once was actually being accurate. His opponent Hillary Clinton however outdid even de Blasio, though she had been briefed on events, and wouldn’t say anything about what actually happened, and instead waffled about praying for the victims and support for “our first responders.”

There is a fear of politicizing terror attacks which is paralyzing mainstream Western politicians and giving the advantage to extreme candidates like Trump and to the terrorists themselves. Of course, politicizing terror is a messy business. Just look at the response to the murder of 49 people at the Pulse night club in Orlando in June. What had the murderer Omar Mateen done? Depends who you ask. For some this singling out of a gay venue was a straight act of homophobic mass murder. For others it was just another example of the sort of mass shootings enabled by America’s permissive gun laws. Still others focused on Mateen's swearing allegiance to the Caliphate before opening fire.

In the wake of Orlando, facts and nuance meant little. Politicians and pundits pretty much interpreted Mateen’s action and motive to fit their convenient positions. Usually though it’s much more difficult to snugly fit a terror attack into an existing agenda. The same is true for most mainstream politicians in Europe who are still struggling to fit the wave of terror attacks in recent years on the continent into their vision of a borderless and prosperous European Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government in particular have a difficult time when a Muslim immigrant or refugee is suspected of carrying out an attack. After all, it was Merkel who opened the gates of Europe to the Syrian refugees last summer.

There are of course pragmatic and noble reasons to this desire not to label acts of terror too specifically. Barack Obama has come under fire in recent months for refusing to utter the words “Islamist terror” – his reasons though are perfectly sensible. Bringing Islam into it does indeed obscure the fact that the terrorists represent only a small proportion of Muslims, that there are many other interpretations of Islam than those of the “so-called” Islamic State and that ultimately it will have to be Muslims who defeat ISIS. But this reticence by mainstream politicians like Obama, Clinton and Merkel and much of the politically-influenced media to call terror what it is, has created a narrative vacuum. Into that vacuum have entered racist politicians like Trump, who have no regard for the truth, and the perpetrators themselves.

Terrorism is more than just “intentional acts.” It is political violence that uses language, symbols and imagery, which are often much more powerful and damaging in the long-term than the actual death toll. If we don’t want the terrorists and those who use their actions to justify racist policies to prevail, then those who oppose them have to find a way to talk about terrorism. 

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