America's great terrorist mystery: When our allies and enemies engage in the same "evil"

From ISIL to the Saudis, our foreign policy -- and very sense of right and wrong -- can be very difficult to decode

Published October 24, 2014 3:09PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Mian Kursheed)
(AP/Reuters/Mian Kursheed)

It's really confusing, these days, to understand who is or is not a terrorist.

Sure, it seems easy. Al-Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIL) -- regardless of what relationship we believe the two groups have -- are terrorist groups, inflicting gruesome casualties on civilians. Both are dangerous precisely because in well-trained small groups, they have the ability to inflict massive casualties.

But many of the characteristics the press uses to demonize ISIL, most notably its practice of beheading people it executes, but also its ruthless policing of radical Islam, are also true of a chief American ally in the region, Saudi Arabia. While the Saudi beheadings might be excused as the Kingdom's preferred way of executing convicted criminals (arguably, it's as humane, though more spectacular, as the current American practice of carrying out death penalties using a cocktail of Do It Yourself chemicals that may take hours to work), they are executing people for sorcery and criticizing the regime, crimes that undermine the claim that such executions serve anything called justice. So it's primarily ISIL's non-state status that distinguishes the terrorist group from our key ally -- though with its aspirations to found a caliphate, it hopes to overcome that.

Then there's the fact that a Kurdish group that has been among the most effective counterweights to ISIL has been considered a terrorist group by the U.S.; Turkey's own fight against Kurds is one reason our NATO ally has been reluctant to fully support our fight against ISIL. Mind you, the U.S. has long found terrorist designations a matter of convenience, as when they took an Iranian group off the terrorist list after it became the darling of D.C.'s National Security set. For now, the U.S. gets around that Kurdish terrorist designation by treating different factions as unrelated, but it's possible the State Department might consider delisting the PKK.

Such delistings are the prerogative of the executive branch, as it decides which militias back our interests and which don't. But given that the FBI entices people to "join" listed -- as opposed to unlisted -- groups as part of stings that result in material support for terrorism charges, the potential confusion does raise legal concerns. If "terrorism" is a moving target, how do we prosecute people for trying to support such groups, especially if their ties to them are entirely fictional?

The question is no less confusing with regards to our "allies" in the region. The U.S. has long had difficulties getting Saudi ArabiaQatar and Kuwait to stop overlooking the funding of people we consider terrorists, and while the fight against ISIL has elicited new promises that they will crack down on terrorist financing, they've been making the same promises regularly since 9/11. Not only have some of these countries fostered the kind of radical Islam that gave rise to al-Qaida, but their geopolitical interests have often led them to oppose secular (though authoritarian) leaders.

Then there are the distinctions we make domestically. As the Council on Foreign Relations' Micah Zenko notes, often domestic attacks with the same impact as terrorist acts are not treated as such.  For example, when Federal Aviation Administration contractor Brian Howard set fire to a Chicago FAA control center, it disrupted flights throughout the Midwest for a day, the kind of havoc terrorists would love to cause. But he has not been labeled a terrorist (on Wednesday, the government asked for an extension before they have to indict him, so that may still happen).

Perhaps the most interesting domestic case not labeled terrorism involves Frazier Glenn Miller, a man with extensive ties to the Ku Klux Klan accused of killing three people in Kansas City on April 13 who he may have believed were Jewish. He is being prosecuted by Missouri (state terrorism charges often work differently); amended charges against him filed last week still don't mention terrorism. Even with Miller's ties to the Klan, terrorism charges would be unlikely, though they shouldn't be. That's because in 2012, federal prosecutors in the case against the Spokane, Washington, Martin Luther King day bomber, Kevin Harpham, pointed to Harpham's communications with Miller to call for an increased sentence against the failed bomber. Harpham's ties to other extremists -- to Miller -- made him a more dangerous criminal, the government argued. For years, the FBI has known Miller to participate in a network that had previously attempted to use a bomb in an act of terror.

Miller's alleged crimes may carry a death sentence, and Howard's may carry the kind of enhancement tied to air travel commonly associated with terrorism. We're just not, yet, using that word "terror" to describe their acts.

Which also means we're not using all the same tools we're using to police groups the government more readily calls terrorists, notably Muslims (though as a new blog makes clear, setting free minks from fur farms in the 1990s qualifies, too). That's not to say we should: The intense focus on Muslim communities, with a claim that any political violence in that community is necessarily "foreign" and therefore subject to more intense scrutiny, may serve as a distraction from people like Miller, who may have the means to do more damage. But it ought to raise questions about why we make these distinctions.

Writing for the New York Times, emeritus philosophy professor Tomis Kapitan provides some suggestions. For those who are labeled terrorists, "asking why they resort to terrorism is viewed as pointless, needlessly accommodating, or, at best, mere pathological curiosity." And for those who aren't (Kapitan treats larger issues, like state terrorism), it deflects attention. Mostly, though, it's about sowing fear -- fear of some, but not others.

Ultimately, then, the word "terrorism" is supposed to prevent us from asking why. Why people engage in violence, why some violence is sanctioned (or at least treated as a ordinary crime) but other violence is not. Which, given the turmoil surrounding our fight against ISIL that necessarily confuses the underlying question, is why we ought to be asking why.

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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