Counter-Terrorism and Terrorism: A Cycle?

In order to examine and understand the connection between terrorism and counter-terrorism today, one must first become acquainted with the theories and perspective within critical terrorism studies – that is that there is such a thing as “traditional” terrorism studies, a discipline that is problematic in its state-centered-ness, and therefore is biased and has goals and ideologies wholly from the state perspective. The current war on terror has justified many pre-emptive wars such as the Iraq invasion, and measures that are extreme – such as Guantanamo Bay, a recession of civil liberties in America regarding privacy and in torture and therefore in human rights, and so on. Terrorism is a weaponized term that gives justification to the labeler, and delegitimizes those that are being labelled as such. Therefore, when counter-terrorist entities and state deem a certain group as a terrorist organisation- this immediately holds a level of de-legitimization of their grievances and therefore exempts any need to even listen to them, no less consider their grievances. The labelling of “Terrorism” as such provides an oversimplified notion of the barbaric “them” versus the civilized “us” that are under threat.

Following anthropologist Zulaika’s writings, it becomes clear counter-terrorist actors are often not rational. He argues counter-terrorism as a self-fulfilling prophecy, that makes terrorism seem a “Taboo” and mythologises the fearful barbaric “other”, the “terrorist”- and in fact, this is counter-productive to the goals of counter-terrorism as it provides more fear and therefore perceived power of the so-called terrorists. He terms this the “myth of the culture of terror.” He uses the word “myth” because it is not factual, and in this sense, is witchcraft-like, as counter-terrorist actors – intelligence agencies, military strategists, politicians, security agency, in other words, the security-military complex- give in to this fear more than certain facts. This can be seen with the Bush administration regarding the Iraq invasion, and similarly to Paul Bremer’s decisions in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. In other words, counter-terrorist actors act as if there is an inevitable up-coming attack, that is deemed bigger and worse and scarier, than all previous, and therefore all measures of security and defense and offense are necessary, but simultaneously, and paradoxically, this will in no means be sufficient to squander the opposition. Here “belief precedes knowledge”, as Zulaika wrote. In conclusion, using the idea of witchcraft and the notions attached to it highlights the irrationality that often corresponds to counter-terrorist thinking and actions.

Heath-Kelly’s “Can we Laugh Yet? Reading Post-9/11 Counterterrorism Policy as Magical Realism” (2012) uses the methodology of policy analysts as well as literary criticism to see the War on Terror as a text, one in the genre of magical realism. Here she argues the War on Terror is considered to be funny when examined as a magical realist text. By seeing the mainstream rhetoric on the War on Terror as laughable, it therefore allows one to engage with the fantasy/humour of counter-radicalisation policies. To believe in the rationality and support counter-radicalisation as it is today is to believe in “secure boundaries of rationalism” and also the witchcraft-like ideologies of terrorists. Laughter is derived from absurdity, and the War on Terror is funny because of the juxtaposition of its ridiculousness and its seriousness. Magical Realism is a literary style that focuses on the paradox of the modern rationalism beside the supernatural/absurdism, i.e. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. It actually encourages rebellion and resistance to monolithic structures. The space of laughter here is seen as the “third space”, which Heath-Kelly then goes on to say the War on Terror is a magical realist text, where we, the readers, are in the third-space and so we are part of the joke; we exist in the space in-between the real and supernatural. The solution put forth here is to recognise the humor, or else become a part of it and become an actor in this ridiculousness. UK’s “CONTEST” Prevent Strand/strategy is an example of this magical realism within the rhetoric on counterterrorism within the larger framework of the War On Terror – the juxtaposition is between the grim everyday reality with the magical extremist ideas; fear of terrorism as a threat to human life greatly exceeds the fear of disease, hunger, or accident. As long as the War on Terror claims the enemy, the supernatural, is inevitable, any means are justified to counter it.

            In chapters 8 and the Introduction of Joseba Zulaika’s book, “Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy”, he expands upon why terrorism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Counter-terrorism has become self-fulfilling and now promotes terrorism. Perhaps one of the most blatant examples is the war in Iraq, where Paul Bremer movements fueled the insurgency that later became AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) which later on evolved to eventually become ISIS. What are the blind spots in Counter-terrorism thinking that led to the self-fulfilling nature of the War on Terror? The crisis of knowledge and the lack of understanding and the ignorance of the terrorists themselves, their language, culture, and histories, is what Zulaika terms a “willful ignorance” of the grievances of terrorists.

CT (Counter-terrorism) thinking follows the “It is not if, but when”, and therefore, suddenly, the terrorist expert becomes the prophet. This is problematic as terrorist strategy relies on random attacks and therefore unpredictability. CT then becomes a knee-jerk like reaction, lacking logic, and consistently acting on a worst-case scenario possibility, as if it is happening already, or the only possibility is that it will happen and therefore the threshold for what is considered irrational to counter-terror the attack and terrorists drops massively. This is a catch-22, a time-loop, as the interface of both Terrorism and Counter-terrorism are both constructing a reality, an endless play on mirror images, as Zulaika writes.

The War on Terror has led to the Patriot Act being passed (lack of privacy laws, military operations allowed even more, etc.), it has legitimized preventative wars, it has turned neoconservative fantasies into policy priorities, and monopolized the American Dream by saying this is in jeopardy due to terrorism. Yet both the counter-terrorist and terrorist are playing, and this can be seen in the Iraq War and 9/11. Zulaika states that the question then becomes, “to what extent does counter-terrorism actually promote the very thing it purports to fight?” As terrorism cannot exist without counter-terrorism, counter-terrorism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Counter-terrorism thinking, “belief precedes knowledge”. For example, if you “know” Saddam Hussein is evil, a threat, then this justifies fabricating the necessary lies in order to eliminate the supposed threat for the alleged greater good. This desire not to know, and this blindness and inability to read the information at hand and to systematically manipulate the intelligence is almost like witchcraft.

The Paul Bremer vs. David Petraeus case showing this very well: as David Petraeus was against Bremer’s “de-Baathification” as a “de-Nazification” campaign and said to focus on the local leaders, local culture, which is the opposite of typical CT strategy (to “never negotiate with terrorists”). It was Petraeus’ methods that actually solved things and made things better. Meanwhile, Bremer acted against the recommendation of the military, the intelligence community and most likely from orders from Washington (we know he ignored Rumsfeld’s instructions), and this helped create the very thing it tries to abominate, acting under a “not if, but when” mentality- like waiting as CIA did for 9/11 to happen and so when it does happen it’s like a self-fulling prophecy. Azande, a witchcraft society that is an ethnic group in North Central Africa, hold norms in their society that are derived on the assumption that observations are beneath beliefs, and similarly, in CT culture, some things are unquestionably and are above and before observations. For example: notions of evil, terrorism, insurgency, war, this “oracular mentality” of “witchcraft societies”.

Richard Jackson’s “The Epistemological Crisis of Counterterrorism” (2014) examines what he calls the “bizarre” counter-terrorist practices, often from Western countries, that are costly, counter-productive, and that only make sense in the “paranoid logic” of the “new paradigm”. He lays out four characteristics of this epistemological crisis:

  1. rejection of previous knowledge about terrorism and the embrace of total uncertainty or “anti-knowledge” about any aspect of future terrorist threats
  2. extreme precautionary dogmatism in which the “unknown” is reflexively governed through preemptive action
  3. legitimization and institutionalization of imagination and fantasy as a necessary counterterrorist tool
  4. acceptance of a permanent ontological condition of “waiting for terror” in relation to the next attack (Zulaika and Douglass)


In other words, the epistemological crisis is constituted by three things:

  1. “The known (there will always be more terrorist attacks, and we are waiting – “it is not if but when” mentality)
  2. The unknown- we cannot know when the next inevitable attack will occur (justifies killing many for the sake of some; Guantanamo Bay detention centers, drone killing programme)
  3. The Moral Imperative: we have to do everything in our power to prevent the unknown but inevitable coming terrorist attack.

This can be seen in Rumsfeld’s speech of “war against the unknown”, given in 2002 at the National Defence University, which was also very similar to the speech given by UK Home Secretary David Blunkett in November 2002.

Rumsfeld once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This goes back to Zulaika’s argument that CT thinking is founded upon the “It is not if, but when”, acting upon the possibility of the worst-case scenario in all instances; a mere knee-jerk reaction. There is, in CT thinking, a “willful ignorance” of these actually known things:

  • foreign military intervention would lead to anti-American terrorism
  • invasion of Iraq would provoke more anti-western terrorism
  • Guantanamo Bay (torture and abuse) would provoke more terrorism
  • drone killing programme in Afghanistan and Pakistan show that this enrages local populations and inflates anti-Americanism and therefore more attacks.

Yet there is a willful ignorance of these things. Bin Laden’s speech largely not heard by the American or even the Western audience, seen as some sort of taboo to even listen to him. The “Prepare” strand of the UK’s Counter-terrorism initiative CONTEST works on the assumption that there is an impending attack, focusing on things like “pre-crime” and “Risky citizens”. The consequences of the epistemological crisis in counter-terrorist thinking is that it has become a form of a policy paradigm that justifies pre-emptive war, drone programs, control orders, torture, mass surveillance, and more, where the “security-industrial complex” is counter-intuitive politics of fear which benefits those in power, and is manipulated for electoral gain and to influence political projects and so on. The widespread idea that it is OK to kill many people for this deep rooted “Evil, and that the symptoms or signs become the root or cause of terrorism instead of understanding terrorist’s subjectivity, takes away for the chance of rational thinking in counter-terrorism and therefore is counter-intuitive to counter-terrorist thinking. Ultimately, it is harmful to human society and the progression of man.