Cross-border terrorism: a mess made by the West

How 'humanitarian intervention' made a world in which stateless terror could flourish.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Over the past decade, a new player has emerged in world affairs – the cross-border terrorist.

Unlike the national liberation movements of old, like the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) or the Irish Republican Army (IRA), cross-border terror groups do not confine themselves territorially or ideologically to a particular region. Instead, in the words of one foreign policy expert, they are ‘explicitly global in orientation’, happy to ‘move funds, men and material from one location to another’ (1).

Consider al-Qaeda, the best known of the new breed of terrorists, and increasingly a kind of brand name used by an assortment of Islamic terror groups. Al-Qaeda has become infamous for its sporadic attacks, for moving its bases from failed state to failed state, for its networks of individuals distributed around the globe – whether in south London, south Florida or south Asia. Al-Qaeda has been severely weakened by the post-9/11 war on terror (or ‘effectively defeated’, according to one US official (2)), but recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and other unstable parts suggest that disparate elements are keen to keep on bombing.

In Central Asia, the Middle East, the horn of Africa and the Balkans, there are small Islamic fundamentalist groups who, as Pentagon spokesmen put it in the days after 9/11, ‘respect no borders, no boundaries and no state institutions’ (3). From the remains of al-Qaeda along the Afghan/Pakistan border to al-Wa’d in Egypt to Jemaah Islamiah in south-east Asia (whose members are currently on trial for the Bali nightclub bombing of October 2002), cross-border terror groups loom large in the Western mind, as a new and dangerous threat to world peace.

How did these borderless outfits emerge? Why has there been a shift from state-based terrorism to stateless terrorism? For all the scrabbling about for a solution ‘over there’, the answers to these questions lie less in the caves of Afghanistan and the slums of the Middle East than in the broader shifts in international relations in the post-Cold War period. To understand the emergence of cross-border terrorism it is necessary to examine Western intervention in the third world over the past 15 years, and its corrosive impact on world affairs.

The new terrorism

What exactly is different about today’s terrorist? Strictly speaking, the national liberation movements that came to prominence in the 1960s, 70s and 80s could be described as ‘cross-border’.

They crossed state boundaries to launch attacks, to seek refuge and to smuggle arms. The IRA got weapons from Libya and launched attacks across Britain; it also launched a one-off attack in Germany and plotted an assault on British forces in Gibraltar. Palestinian ‘terrorists’ crossed into Israeli territory, or what they considered Palestinian territory, and sought refuge in states like Egypt and Syria. They hijacked aeroplanes across the world, took hostage Israeli contestants at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and infamously hijacked an Italian cruise ship in 1985.

Yet such groups were tied – politically and organisationally – to a particular territory. They had limited aims defined in relation to that territory and a membership drawn almost exclusively from that territory. The PLO sought to win back parts of Palestine from Israeli rule; the IRA sought an end to Britain’s partition of Ireland; the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) wanted autonomy in south-eastern Turkey; Basque separatists concentrated their campaign in northern Spain. Even when such groups, like the Palestinians, carried out international operations, these were aimed at highlighting and furthering their specifically local, national goals.

These groups had state-based aims; their political aspirations and actions were moulded by notions of sovereignty and territory. Fundamentally, their aim was to create a sovereign nation state. As international experts Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev put it, they pursued largely ‘irredentist aims’ and built up their memberships ‘from a specific population – even if they sought the sponsorship of a foreign patron for arms and logistical support’ (4).

Today’s cross-border groups have no such attachment to territory. They view territory expediently, as a base from which they can organise their campaigns and plot their attacks. The new breed of Islamic terror groups are, according to Takeyh and Gvosdev, ‘explicitly global’ – in the sense that they have broadly anti-Western views rather than locally defined objectives, and their members hail from different states rather than from a distinct community with distinct interests. For these ‘global’ terrorists, territory is merely a place from which they can plot.

Consider Egyptian group al-Wa’d. In 2001, the trial in Egypt of al-Wa’d member Madji Hasan Idris revealed the extent to which new terror outfits flout borders in the execution of their dirty work: ‘Al-Wa’d would send young Egyptian recruits to camps in Kosovo or Pakistan and then dispatch them to serve in the Philippines, Kashmir or wherever else they were needed after their training and indoctrination were complete…. Couriers provided cash advances, aeroplane tickets and passports to facilitate operations.’ (5)

Takeyh and Gvosdev go so far as to compare such groups to international business organisations. They argue that both ‘the multinational corporation and the new transnational terrorist network utilise global economic, transportation and communication systems’ for their operations (6). But while multinationals ‘seek out states that offer political stability’, terror groups are drawn to ‘failing or failed states…where the breakdown of authority gives them the ability to conduct their operations without risk or significant interference’ (7).

So where the armed groups of old sought to build or remake nation states, today’s cross-border terrorists feed off the demise of state authority. Where national liberation movements sought to redraw state boundaries, cross-border groups think nothing of moving from one failed state to another. Where yesterday’s violent groups focused their energies on achieving limited local aims, even as they carried out international operations, today’s talk about ‘spreading jihad’ around the globe.

In this, the emergence of cross-border terror reflects much about our changed world. Many try to understand the sporadic attacks of the 1990s and today through examining the inner workings of Islamic fundamentalism and the societies that give rise to it – and no doubt there is much to learn from this specific approach. Yet there is a tendency to overlook the broader question of what created the conditions for these new methods, allowing a shift from state-based terrorism to something ‘explicitly global’.

It was Western intervention in the third world, specifically the ‘humanitarian intervention’ of the post-Cold War period, that encouraged the emergence of today’s cross-border terrorists. By undermining state authority and notions of sovereignty, humanitarian intervention created the space for the rise of non-state actors. And by internationalising local conflicts, Western intervention did much to encourage the flouting of traditional borders and the movement of armed groups between territories.

Where the postwar world, organised around principles of sovereign equality, gave rise to armed groups with territorial aims, the ‘humanitarian’ period, with its deep suspicion of state authority, has given rise to stateless terror networks. For all the international handwringing over al-Qaeda and co, cross-border terror is in many ways a mess made by the West.

Humanitarianism and the end of sovereignty

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s precipitated a crisis among Western elites. The collapse of the Soviet Union, initially celebrated as a victory, quickly gave rise to a profound sense of uncertainty. The West had lost the ‘Evil Empire’, the enemy against which it had defined itself for 40 years. Western powers had asserted their global role in negative terms, as standing up to the alleged threats from behind the Iron Curtain, and were now left without that international focus.

Humanitarian intervention emerged in response to Western uncertainties. In their search for some kind of self-justification, for a sense of moral purpose, Western elites turned to the international arena. They projected their domestic problems on to the world stage, seeking a boost to their domestic standing by intervening selflessly, and in the name of ‘humanitarianism’, around the world.

Even the first Gulf War of 1991, the USA’s attempt to assert its power in the aftermath of the Cold War, was heralded as an attempt to protect the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 1993, US forces launched an invasion of Somalia called ‘Operation Restore Hope’, to protect Somalis from warlords and poverty. Later in the decade, then US president Bill Clinton and UK prime minister Tony Blair launched their Kosovo war, an attempt to protect a beleaguered people (the Kosovans) from a brutal dictator (Slobodan Milosevic). More recently, American and British officials have argued that their invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 are in the humanitarian interests of the local peoples.

There was little that was humanitarian in these ‘humanitarian wars’. Thousands died, old divisions were intensified, and new divisions created. But humanitarian intervention was largely staged for a domestic audience, rather than being driven by a newfound concern for people around the world. In essence, humanitarian action became an attempt to invest Western elites with some moral vision that was lacking in the domestic sphere.

Yet humanitarian intervention contained some hidden dangers for the West. At the same time as humanitarian action tried to give some legitimacy to the domestic political order, it powerfully destabilised the world order. As humanitarian intervention managed to temporarily offset political crises at home, it undermined the very institutions that had cohered the international order in the postwar period. At the heart of the new humanitarianism there was a distinct hostility to the sovereign nation state – which for almost 50 years had been the building block of international affairs.

In justifying their humanitarian role – the right of the ‘international community’ to ride into any nation where people were downtrodden – Western elites actively undermined sovereign state authority. Indeed, during the humanitarian period, sovereignty became a dirty word – increasingly seen as an outdated idea that tyrants hid behind in order to escape international judgement, rather than a political principle worth defending.

In the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton, the king of the humanitarian age, made clear his disdain for the idea of non-intervention in sovereign states’ affairs. His deputy secretary of state and chief foreign policy adviser, Strobe Talbott, outlined the Clintonian approach to world affairs: ‘Nationhood as we know it will be obsolete. All states will recognise a single global authority…. A phrase that was briefly fashionable in the mid-twentieth century – citizen of the world – will have assumed real meaning by the end of the twentieth century.’ (8)

In 1995, Jos Ayala-Lasso, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, claimed that ‘the mission of the United Nations to uphold human dignity and human rights globally transcends national borders’ (9). At the end of the 1990s, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was more interested in individual welfare than state integrity. ‘State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined by the forces of globalisation and international cooperation’, he claimed. ‘Meanwhile, individual sovereignty has been enhanced by a renewed consciousness of the right of every individual to control his or her own destiny.’ (10)

In short, notions of state sovereignty had been superseded by the principle of each individual person’s sovereignty – thus legitimising Western intervention in the name of protecting vulnerable individuals from out-of-control states. As Annan explained: ‘This developing international norm in favour of intervention to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter is an evolution that we should welcome.’ (11)

More recently, on 14 July 2003, Tony Blair called for intervention in other states’ affairs to be formalised as an international principle of law. In a statement to the Progressive Governance Summit in Surrey, England, Blair called for new international rules to govern the West’s responsibility to assist failing states: ‘Where a population is suffering serious harm as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.’ (12)

Such explicit disdain for sovereign statehood is a significant shift. From the founding of the United Nations and the publication of the UN Charter in 1945, international relations had been organised around the principle of formal sovereign equality between nation states. The UN Charter upheld that states should have equal legal and political rights, regardless of their economic wealth or military power. Of course, wars still took place; Western powers overrode states’ supposed ‘sovereign equality’ everywhere from Aden to Korea to Vietnam. Yet the UN Charter sought to instil some order into world affairs in the aftermath of the Second World War, by codifying international political principles.

The ‘humanitarians’ changed all that. They talk about protecting vulnerable individuals from tyrannical states, a laudable-sounding aim. Yet by eroding national sovereignty, humanitarian intervention laid the ground for some dangerous shifts in the 1990s – away from international relations based around states and state actors, towards something more unpredictable and volatile. When, as one American newspaper put it in the 1990s, ‘Few borders [are] sacred to new UN’ (13), the stage was set for a decade where traditional state authority held increasingly less sway in world affairs. And as the state was degraded, non-state actors emerged.

The rise of non-state actors

Some Western commentators and academics recognised inherent dangers for the West in undermining sovereignty. In the late 1990s, Uri Ra’anen of the American Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy argued that, ‘You don’t throw away a very useful tool like national sovereignty unless you have a better one to put in its place. You had better have a clear, coherent and sensible system’ (14).

But perhaps those who watched the undermining of national sovereignty with most alarm were the leaders of fragile third world states, who recognised sovereignty as one of the few means through which they could assert control – particularly over groups that sought to challenge their authority. In 1997, a group of African leaders called on the UN to ‘seriously reconsider’ its move away from upholding sovereign equality. In 1999, former Indian foreign minister SK Singh said, ‘I can see why people are pushing for human rights over sovereign rights…but this all needs more thinking through. For this to work, I think the world needs to be a little more equal than it is today’ (15).

For some third world states, there was a real concern that they might end up on the receiving end of humanitarian warfare, as Iraq, Somalia and Serbia had. But they also feared that, in a world where sovereignty counted for little, they might lose the one thing granted them by the old sovereign norms – an element of authority. With little by way of political legitimacy or central authority, third world states could at least fall back on national sovereignty as a means of maintaining control over territory. The dawn of humanitarianism threatened to rob them of this last vestige of legitimacy.

By attacking the centrality of sovereignty, the West detached politics from national interests. It held that there was a higher form of political life, over and above the distinct interests of individual nation states, which all must recognise. By creating a distinction between the political good and the national interest, Western intervention undermined the traditional capacity of state authority in world affairs. It created the conditions for the rise of non-state actors – for those, like cross-border terrorists, who actively feed off the collapse of state authority. Western intervention – from Iraq to the Balkans to Kosovo to Iraq again – created vacuums, in to which armed groups tentatively moved, like parasites on the weaknesses of their undermined governments.

An early example of this was Iraq – the first state to be invaded in the post-Cold War period. Following the Gulf War of 1991, northern Iraq was taken out of Saddam’s control and turned into a UN ‘safe haven’, where Iraq’s beleaguered Kurdish community could exercise limited self-rule. This had two effects: it undermined Saddam’s control over the region, making northern Iraq a less governed, and generally less governable, place; and it transformed the north into a draw for lawless types, keen to organise operations without state interference.

It was not long before northern Iraq became, less a safe haven for Kurds, than a haven for outlaws, who opportunistically moved into the vacuum left by the West’s intervention. As Muzaffer Baca, vice-president of a Turkish humanitarian relief organisation, has described it: ‘There [has been] no effective control of the central authorities or international institutions. Northern Iraq is a haven for drugs and arms smugglers…. The instability creates an atmosphere in which terror and terrorist organisations can flourish.’ (16)

In the 10 years after it was taken out of Ba’ath Party control, northern Iraq became a haven for some of America’s most wanted ‘global’ terrorists. The Kurdish Islamic group Ansar al-Islam, said to have links with al-Qaeda, built up its strength in this stateless territory in the 1990s. It even managed to take control of a small part of the northern territory, in which it operated relatively freely – something it could only have dreamt of doing under Iraqi rule. During the most recent Iraq war, US forces fought and killed most of Ansar al-Islam’s 600 members (17).

According to US secretary of state Colin Powell, al-Qaeda itself has had a presence in northern Iraq for some years. Some claim that al-Qaeda contacts used northern Iraq as ‘refuelling’ territory over the past 10 years, a place where they could take refuge among sympathetic groups like Ansar al-Islam. Powell claims that al-Qaeda members who fled Afghanistan during America’s bombardment in 2001 and 2002 moved to northern Iraq, describing it as a ‘good’ place for their kind to go (18).

For US officials, this pointed to a ‘sinister nexus between Iraq and al-Qaeda’ (19). In fact, it suggested that undermining state authority over a region makes that region a ‘good’ place for stateless terrorists. It was Western intervention, the removal of the north from Iraqi state control, that created this free-for-all territory for terrorists. In the run-up to the most recent war, Washington expressed its concern about ‘the increasingly complicated patchwork of forces in northern Iraq’ – overlooking its responsibility for having created this lawless territory in the first place, by undermining state structures over the preceding decade.

The rise of non-state players following the demise of state authority occurred in many of the West’s ‘humanitarian’ targets of the 1990s. Consider the Balkans, the watershed in the development of the West’s anti-sovereignty intervention. In the early 1990s, after Western intervention in the Balkans had encouraged secession among various regional players and the eventual rupture of the Yugoslav state, there was the rise of armed Islamic groups that fought against Serb forces on the Bosnian Muslim side. Some of these managed to take over towns and villages and to act with relative impunity, becoming, in the words of one writer, ‘something like the law in a lawless land’. As one report described it, in the war-torn and postwar Balkans, a ‘culture of lawlessness, abetted by a failed state, [took] root’, creating ripe conditions for terrorist activity, as well as ‘human trafficking, arms smuggling [and] narcotics distribution’ (20).

The Balkans also shows how creating new ‘nations’ in the humanitarian period further undermined traditional state sovereignty. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are less independent nation states than the unstable creations of Western intervention. Bosnia-Herzegovina has a UN High Representative (currently the British Lord Paddy Ashdown), who, as a recent report put it, has ‘unlimited authority…to overrule all of the democratic institutions of a sovereign member state of the United Nations’ (21). Even in the creation of new nations, Western intervention fundamentally undermined notions of state independence and integrity – and not surprisingly, parts of the Balkans remain unstable, fertile ground for non-state players who exploit the weaknesses of these newly created ‘states’.

In Afghanistan in 2001, the West’s routing of the Taliban created the space for the re-emergence of Afghanistan’s old Mujihadeen warlords. Currently, Kabul is the only part of Afghanistan with any semblance of law and authority – the rest of the state has effectively become bandit territory (22). In Iraq take two, there has been the rise of small armed groups (some of whom allegedly have links with al-Qaeda), seeking to fill the vacuum left by Britain and America’s routing of the Ba’athist regime (23).

Yet in the humanitarian period, it was not only acts of intervention that destabilised states. Some argued that humanitarianism as a de facto organising principle in international affairs was enough to provoke instability in the third world. Writer Paul Goble argued that the West’s new humanitarian order, with its powerful prejudice against state sovereignty, created a world with an in-built potential for anti-state action.

‘International intervention both as a prospect and a reality can further undermine the state institutions on which the defence of rights depend’, wrote Goble, as armed groups exploit the humanitarian agenda by challenging their states ‘in ways intended to draw in…international forces…’ (24). A world order based on a deep suspicion of state sovereignty has helped to create fertile ground for new clashes, no longer constrained by sovereign norms.

In theory and in practice, humanitarian intervention destabilised the postwar order. But it did more than create the conditions for the emergence of non-state actors – it actively encouraged their movement across borders. Alongside undermining the state, Western intervention internationalised local conflicts, allowing the movement of groups and interests between territories. Humanitarianism created the space for non-state actors and encouraged the rise of cross-border movement. And nowhere did this double impact of Western intervention have more deadly consequences than in the Balkans.

Internationalisation and the lessons of Bosnia

It is well documented that the USA played a major role in creating the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan, which first gave rise to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and other groups. US forces financed and armed the Islamic Mujihadeen in the 1980s, as they fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. What is less widely known is the West’s role in allowing the movement of Islamic militants in the early to mid-1990s, from the Middle East and Central Asia into Europe. If Western intervention in Afghanistan created the Mujihadeen, Western intervention in the Balkans globalised it.

America backed the Mujihadeen in the 1980s, after Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in 1979. These Islamic fighters were trained by Britain’s SAS, and are reported to have received £2billion worth of aid in munitions. US officials have estimated that between 1985 and 1992, 12,500 foreigners were trained in bomb-making, sabotage, urban guerrilla warfare and other military tactics in Afghan camps that the CIA helped to set up. Indeed, bin Laden’s Office of Services, set up as a Mujihadeen body that recruited fighters from abroad, received financial support from the USA.

When the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989, and Afghanistan’s conflicts came to an end (temporarily) in 1992, the Mujihadeen ceased being so useful to the USA. As one commentator wrote, bin Laden was one of thousands of Arabs left stranded in Afghanistan ‘with a taste for fighting but no cause’ (25). In his new book Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Observer journalist Jason Burke describes how Mujihadeen forces were in disarray in 1992, after the end of the Afghan venture. Burke claims that it was in 1996, when bin Laden moved back to the now Taliban-ruled Afghanistan from Sudan, that al-Qaeda and others formed themselves into something approaching a ‘terrorist structure’ (26).

What happened to Mujihadeen forces between the end of the Afghan conflict in 1992 and bin Laden’s move back to Afghanistan in 1996? Were these the ‘wilderness years’? On the contrary: in the early 1990s, many Mujihadeen moved to fight on the Muslim side in Bosnia – with Western backing. It was through this process that Islamic terrorists became ‘globalised’, transformed from small groups with a local mission in Afghanistan into small groups with a borderless mission to ‘spread jihad’.

The Yugoslav tragedy is understood by many to have been caused by too little Western intervention offered too late in the conflict. In fact, Western intervention in the Balkans exacerbated tensions and sustained hostilities. By recognising the claims of separatist republics and groups in 1990/1991, Western elites – specifically the American, British, French and German – undermined government structures in Yugoslavia, increased insecurities, inflamed conflict and heightened ethnic tensions. By offering logistical support to various sides during the war, Western intervention sustained the conflict into the mid-1990s.

Outside intervention in the Balkans internationalised local tensions. German recognition of the Croat and Slovene republics in 1991, Russian backing of the Serbs, American recognition of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and its support for the Bosnian Muslim side – all of this transformed Yugoslavia’s internal political differences into heated international issues, paving the way for all-out war. Western meddling ruptured Yugoslavia’s internal structures, while ensuring that external pressures were increasingly brought to bear on the region. As part of this destabilising process, the USA permitted the movement of Islamic forces from the Middle East to fight alongside Muslims in Bosnia.

As part of the Dutch inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre, when Bosnian Muslims were killed in a UN-designated ‘safe area’ in July 1995, Professor Cees Wiebes of Amsterdam University compiled a report entitled Intelligence and the War in Bosnia, published in April 2002. In it he details the ‘secret alliance between the Pentagon and radical Islamist groups from the Middle East designed to assist the Bosnian Muslims’. Wiebes describes how, from 1992 to 1995, the Pentagon, in association with Turkey, Iran and ‘a range of radical Islamist groups, including Afghan Mujihadeen and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah’, organised the movement of an ‘enormous volume of weapons’ and eventually ‘Mujihadeen fighters’ into Bosnia (27).

Starting in 1992, up to 4000 Mujihadeen volunteers from the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa moved to Bosnia to fight Serbian and Croatian nationalists on behalf of Bosnian Muslims. Some of the Afghan veterans who went to Bosnia had been trained by, and were still associated with, bin Laden’s network.

A US military analyst referred to the Mujihadeen in Bosnia as ‘pretty good fighters and certainly ruthless’ (28), while some were outraged by what they described as the Mujihadeens’ ‘non-European’ methods, including, in some instances, decapitating their victims after they had been killed. Yet for all the Mujihadeens’ questionable methods, Richard Holbrooke, the USA’s former chief Balkans negotiator, has said: ‘I think the [Bosnian] Muslims wouldn’t have survived without this help.’ (29)

Under the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace accord, which imposed a settlement on the Former Yugoslavia’s warring factions, the foreign Mujihadeen units were required to disband and leave the Balkans. Yet many remain – up to 500, according to one report – and they continue to organise and train in the less stable parts of Bosnia. Less than two years ago, as America launched its post-9/11 war in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, the Los Angeles Times reported that ‘scores of Bin Laden associates may be attempting to flee Afghanistan…seeking refuge among militant sympathisers in Bosnia’ (30).

By the end of the 1990s, US officials were increasingly concerned about the Mujihadeens’ presence in the Balkans. In 2000, the State Department under the Clinton administration prepared a report claiming that ‘hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists who became Bosnian citizens after battling Serbian and Croatian forces present a potential terrorist threat to Europe and the United States’ (31).

One year before the 11 September attacks, the State Department was fretting that ‘the extremists [in Bosnia] include hardcore terrorists, some with ties to bin Laden’, and that Bosnia-Herzegovina had become a ‘staging area and safe haven for terrorists’ (32). Clinton officials upped the pressure on the Sarajevo government to expel the Islamists. But it is one thing to unleash such forces into Europe, to create a ‘safe haven for terrorists’ through intervention; it is quite another to rein those forces back in again.

For all the Clinton officials’ concern about Islamist extremists in the Balkans, they continued to allow the growth and movement of Mujihadeen forces in Europe through the 1990s. In the late 1990s, in the run-up to Clinton and Blair’s Kosovo war of 1999, the USA backed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against Serbia. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post in 1998, the KLA had been ‘provided with financial and military support from Islamic countries’, and had been ‘bolstered by hundreds of Mujihadeen…[some of whom] were trained in Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan’.

Indeed, the Kosovo and Macedonia crises of the past five years show the broader destabilising effects of making humanitarian intervention into an organising principle of international affairs. In 1997/1998, the KLA upped their violent attacks against Serb forces. Yet their aim was not so much to take on Serbia and win sovereign independence. Rather, their goal was to make an international issue out of their local concerns, in order to provoke Western intervention and a Western-imposed settlement. This is a far cry from the past, when liberation armies fought for their own sovereign state. Today – in a world organised around suspicion of state authority, where sovereignty is held in disregard – ‘liberation’ groups launch attacks in order to provoke further intervention.

The Clinton administration, and now the Bush administration, saw the biggest problem with the remaining Mujihadeen in the Balkans in the fact that Islamic terrorists have got a ‘foothold’ in Europe. That is true – and it was granted them by the USA. But for America, there has been a bigger problem with their backing of Mujihadeen forces in Europe. During this process, US forces helped to transform Islamic groups, to broaden their scope, to further globalise their ‘mission’ (such as they have one). American support for the Mujihadeen in Bosnia made a specifically Central Asian phenomenon – where fighters from different nations descended on Afghanistan to take on the Soviets – into something broader.

After Bosnia, from 1995 onwards, roving Islamic involvement in clashes around the Middle East and Central Asia has become a recurring feature, as former Mujihadeen forces – created in Afghanistan and emboldened in Bosnia – seek further outlets for their ‘jihadist mission’. Some of those fighting against Russia in the Chechen conflict are ‘foreign mercenaries…from Arab states’ (33); journalist Jason Burke describes the fighters that he spent time with in Afghanistan in 2001 as being from ‘Yemen, Egypt, the Sudan and Algeria and a dozen other countries, as well as from Pakistan and Afghanistan’ (34); even in the most recent Iraq war, ‘Arab volunteers’ from Algeria, Egypt, Afghanistan and Kosovo moved into to fight against the Americans and British (35).

This phenomenon of cross-border movement, of armed Islamic groups flouting state boundaries in the execution of their mission, is a Western creation – from Afghanistan at the close of the Cold War through to the Balkans in the humanitarian era. It is also largely after Bosnia that some Islamic elements started their sporadic attacks on Western targets in the South (and on one occasion in the West), attacks that have come to dominate Western foreign policy thinking in recent years.

Through the process of weakening state authority and internationalising conflicts, Western intervention has given rise to a new kind of terrorist – terrorists who, as Pentagon officials put it, ‘respect no borders, no boundaries and no state institutions’, who feed off the absence of state authority and move across territories in the execution of their ‘global’ campaigns. In this, the Balkans experience shows the dual dangers of undermining state sovereignty, and making local tensions into an international focus.

Opposing Western intervention

Today, Western officials wring their hands over the nihilistic terrorists who don’t do things the civilised way. Yet such terror networks are the product of the West’s undermining of its own postwar international framework. Yesterday’s national liberation movements – with their aspirations to win territory or to reshape existing states in the interests of a distinct community – mirrored a world organised around principles of sovereign equality and state authority. Today’s nihilistic terror networks hold a mirror to the West’s self-destructive assault on state sovereignty and the integrity of borders in the post-Cold War world.

Over the past 15 years, Western intervention has encouraged the emergence of terrorism in the third world – but not in the way understood by today’s anti-war critics. During the recent Iraq war, many who were critical of America and Britain called for a UN intervention rather than a war, for continued weapons inspections instead of shock and awe. They argued that gung-ho Americanism would antagonise people in Iraq, and beyond, and potentially cause them to turn to terrorism. The irony is that, by supporting UN intervention or some other form of non-American meddling in Iraq, the self-same anti-war critics showed their support for the very anti-sovereignty trends that have destabilised the third world and given rise to terror.

The old world order organised around nation states was far from perfect. For all the UN’s claims of ‘sovereign equality’, it was an order that allowed imperialist powers to dominate the globe and which divided people along bogus national and ethnic lines. It would, of course, be far preferable to move towards internationalism, to recognise that people around the world have common interests, often distinct from those of the nation states they happen to live in.

Yet the ‘internationalism’ of today’s Western elites is even worse than the nation-state structures of old. It has removed the building blocks of international affairs, without putting anything in their place. It has given rise to new limitless forms of ‘selfless’ Western intervention, which has left parts of the third world as voids. And it has encouraged the emergence of nihilistic terrorists, not constrained by any traditional or rational ambitions, whose only aim is to cause chaos.

Calling for Western intervention to combat these terrorists is like saying you should fight fire with petrol. It was Western meddling that created a world in which such terrorism can flourish. Those who want to see an end to terror, and some peace in the third world, would do well to start by opposing Western intervention – in all its guises.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Do terrorist networks need a home? (.pdf 70.6 KB), Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev, Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002

(2) Al-Qaeda in disarray?, Jim Stewart, CBS News, 13 March 2003

(3) Do terrorist networks need a home? (.pdf 70.6 KB), Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev, Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002

(4) Do terrorist networks need a home? (.pdf 70.6 KB), Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev, Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002

(5) Do terrorist networks need a home? (.pdf 70.6 KB), Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev, Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002

(6) Do terrorist networks need a home? (.pdf 70.6 KB), Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev, Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002

(7) Do terrorist networks need a home? (.pdf 70.6 KB), Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev, Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002

(8) Quoted in Time, 20 July 1992

(9) See Cultural Diversity Conference, Australia, 6 May 1995

(10) International action to uphold human rights requires a new understanding of state and individual sovereignty, Kofi Annan, Financial Times, 31 December 1999

(11) International action to uphold human rights requires a new understanding of state and individual sovereignty, Kofi Annan, Financial Times, 31 December 1999

(12) World leaders reject Blair’s move over military action, Ben Russell, Independent, 15 July 2003

(13) Few borders sacred to new UN, Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, 29 September 1999

(14) Few borders sacred to new UN, Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, 29 September 1999

(15) Few borders sacred to new UN, Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, 29 September 1999

(16) War would threaten Iraq’s Kurds and Shias, Muzaffer Baca, AlertNet, 29 November 2002

(17) Raid on Ansar Al-Islam indicates strong al-Qaeda ties, leadership on the tun to Iran, Fox News, 1 April 2003

(18) See Powell doesn’t wow, by Brendan O’Neill

(19) See Powell doesn’t wow, by Brendan O’Neill

(20) Do terrorist networks need a home? (.pdf 70.6 KB), Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev, Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002

(21) Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina: Travails of the European Raj (.pdf 80.0 KB), Gerald Knaus and Felix Martin, Journal of Democracy, July 2003, Volume 14, Number 3

(22) See When nation-building destroys, by Brendan O’Neill

(23) See Unravelling Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill

(24) UN: analysis from Washington – sovereignty, globalism, rights, Paul Goble, Radio Free Europe, 22 September 1999

(25) Inside the mind of a terrorist, James Buchan, Observer, 16 September 2001

(26) What is al-Qaeda?, Jason Burke, Observer, 13 July 2003

(27) America used Islamists to arm the Bosnian Muslims, Richard J Aldrich, Guardian, 22 April 2002

(28) Terrorists use Bosnia as base and sanctuary, Craig Pyes, Josh Meyer and William C Rempel, Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2001

(29) Terrorists use Bosnia as base and sanctuary, Craig Pyes, Josh Meyer and William C Rempel, Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2001

(30) Terrorists use Bosnia as base and sanctuary, Craig Pyes, Josh Meyer and William C Rempel, Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2001

(31) Terrorists use Bosnia as base and sanctuary, Craig Pyes, Josh Meyer and William C Rempel, Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2001

(32) Terrorists use Bosnia as base and sanctuary, Craig Pyes, Josh Meyer and William C Rempel, Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2001

(33) See Chechnya continues to bleed, South Asia Analysis Group, 30 December 2002

(34) What is al-Qaeda?, Jason Burke, Observer, 13 July 2003

(35) Islamic militants prepare for Iraq fight, Frank Gardner, BBC News, 31 March 2003

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