How The US Government Fuels Terrorism All Over The World

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If a family member of yours was murdered, I think it is safe to say you would be very upset, and would want to see the murderer punished and justice to be served.

Depending on the circumstances, you might even take justice into your own hands – pursuing and getting revenge on the perpetrator yourself. In most cases, however, you would likely leave it up to the justice system. But what if the murderer were rich and powerful, and could easily pull the right strings and use their influence to prevent justice from being served?

I’d venture to guess that in this case, you would be beyond pissed. Someone was evil enough to murder your family member, and then they were able to use their power in a massive perversion of justice in order to get away with it. You would almost certainly desire revenge, and would likely take it at any chance you got. There’s really nothing odd at all about this psychological predilection, and I take it that it would hold true for a large segment of humanity.

It’s only natural to hate those who harm you and your loved ones. In fact, even if your family member were a bad person – perhaps an evil person himself – most still would not take kindly to their murder.

Nothing I’ve said thus far is particularly controversial, or even informative. People generally would accept it at its face. And yet somehow, as soon as the word “terrorism” becomes involved, the majority of people throw this obvious logic out the window!


Since September 11th, 2001, the United States government has been leading what has since been dubbed the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Let’s put aside for the moment the extreme ambiguity in what this actually means. For most people, terrorism is defined at the “I know it when I see it” level.

I’ve previously discussed the propagandistic use of the term “terrorism.” In this post, I’m more interested in exploring the question of whether the actions of the US government and her allies are successfully fighting this ambiguous enemy. The very clear, undeniable answer is that American government policies are doing far more to fuel terrorism than to stop it.


The United States Helped Create Al-Qaeda

It’s amazing how short the political memory of most Americans is. It was less than forty years ago that the US was actively funding and arming the mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan. Ever since 9/11, the US government has vehemently denied this.

However, reputable sources have confirmed that this is true. For instance, in 1999, The Guardian reported:

“American officials estimate that, from 1985 to 1992, 12,500 foreigners were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps the CIA helped to set up.

Since the fall of the Soviet puppet government in 1992, another 2,500 are believed to have passed through the camps. They are now run by an assortment of Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist.”

Similarly, a 2004 article from the BBC states:

“During the anti-Soviet jihad Bin Laden and his fighters received American and Saudi funding. Some analysts believe Bin Laden himself had security training from the CIA.”

Robin Cook, ex-Home Secretary in the UK, had this to say in an op-ed he penned for The Guardian after the London bombings:

“Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden’s organisation would turn its attention to the west.”

Former Director of the CIA Robert Gates, in his memoirs From the Shadows, claims that the US began funding the mujahedeen in 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion. And Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under President Carter, confirmed in an interview that they knowingly worked to aid these Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan.

All this is not to say that the funding and aid wasn’t justified at the time, given the relevant geopolitical concerns. The intent was to draw the Soviet Union into their own version of Vietnam. Arguably a decent strategy. Nevertheless, we must accept the history and understand the consequences, or blowback, from the actions of the US government.

There’s quite a bit more to the story than that, but this should suffice for now. For more info on the implications of this sordid history (for instance, that this relationship with bin Laden and al-Qaeda continued throughout the 90s), see this, this, and this.

While al-Qaeda is the most high profile of the Islamic fundamentalist organizations that were largely incubated by western funds and support years ago, it is not the only one. Off and on since the 50s, the US government has been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. And in order to counterbalance the secular PLO, the Israeli government was formerly a major backer of Hamas.

Were it not for American aid (as well as aid from America’s Gulf allies), it is plausible that there would be no substantial Islamic fundamentalist terror movement, and quite probably no September 11th.


More Wars, More Terrorism

It was the United States that helped initially spawn the militant Islamist movement in the 1980s. And early on, the ire of these movements was not immediately directed at the US. What really got the Islamists angry was the many years of militarism by America in Muslim countries.

The US military has been heavily involved in the Middle East since far back in the 20th century, but it has been rapidly accelerating. Since 1980, the US has bombed 14 predominately Muslim countries:

“Let’s tick them off: Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.”

And as Glenn Greenwald notes, Syria marks the seventh predominately Muslim country that the US has bombed since Obama came to power:

“When Obama began bombing targets inside Syria in September, I noted that it was the seventh predominantly Muslim country that had been bombed by the U.S. during his presidency (that did not count Obama’s bombing of the Muslim minority in the Philippines). I also previously noted that this new bombing campaign meant that Obama had become the fourth consecutive U.S. President to order bombs dropped on Iraq. Standing alone, those are both amazingly revealing facts. American violence is so ongoing and continuous that we barely notice it any more.”

It is surely true that the immense death and destruction caused by these many military campaigns are major recruiting tools for terrorists. If your house were destroyed, your family members and friends were killed, and your country occupied, surely you would harbor ill will towards those directly responsible.


Hate America's Army

By far, the most influential of all these military adventures in terms of its effects on the Islamic terrorist movement was the war in Iraq that began in 2003. You may recall the allegations that Saddam Hussein was allied with and supporting al-Qaeda, one of the major justifications for going to war in the first place. In fact, a Pentagon study released in 2008, which involved combing through 600,000 documents seized in Iraq, found no evidence that Saddam had dealings with al-Qaeda. Same with the September 11th commission. Given the claims from top Bush administration officials that the evidence linking Saddam to al-Qaeda was “bulletproof” and “overwhelming,” it is clear that they simply lied.

You may also recall that soon after the invasion of Iraq, Islamic terrorism became almost synonymous with the country. Despite no evidence of al-Qaeda presence beforehand, the new al-Qaeda in Iraq became a force to be reckoned with. In fact, a study by Mother Jones in 2007 concluded:

“Our study shows that the Iraq War has generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third.”

Since that study only includes attacks that had at least one casualty and were confirmed to be from a known jihadist organization, it likely understates the results. A National Intelligence Estimate, reflecting the combined opinion of all US intelligence agencies, also concluded that the Iraq war substantially increased terrorism. Basically, Iraq became a training grounds for jihadists from all over the world, who were able to then take their skills and use them back in their home countries – or anywhere else.

Much of the same can be said about the war in Afghanistan, though to a lesser degree. If current tactics were working, there wouldn’t be continued violence and terrorist attacks there after more than a dozen years…but alas, more terrorists are being created than killed. This should be unsurprising in Afghanistan, where the US Army is capturing, beating, killing, and torturing the wrong people and creating enemies on behalf of disreputable Afghan cronies.

While there were many new militant Islamists created as a consequence of America’s wars, quite a few have received massive financial and military support over the past few years. You may recall the western attack against Libya that toppled Muammar Gadhafi in 2011. The war was sold to Americans as a humanitarian intervention; Gadhafi is such a horrible person, so we must support the democracy-loving rebels! Of course, those rebels were primarily – you guessed it – al-Qaeda. And what happens when you support Muslim extremists and give them weapons? Well, you end up with a US-backed general becoming a major player in ISIS! The Libya that America and her allies destroyed is now a safe haven for all sorts of jihadist organizations, and instability and terrorism have proliferated throughout Africa as a result.

If you are generous, you could argue that the US government simply didn’t know who it was arming. Were that true, it would mean that our intelligence services are so incredibly incompetent that anyone could see that they ought to be disbanded immediately. But for better or for worse, we know that America and her allies knowingly supported Islamic terrorists. The Libyan rebel leader even admitted that his fighters had links to al-Qaeda:

“Mr al-Hasidi insisted his fighters “are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists,” but added that the “members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader”.”

This is certainly the conclusion that the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi came to:

“The Citizen’s Commission on Benghazi’s interim report, in a paragraph titled “Changing sides in the War on Terror,” alleges “the U.S. was fully aware of and facilitating the delivery of weapons to the Al Qaeda-dominated rebel militias throughout the 2011 rebellion.”

The report asserted the jihadist agenda of AQIM, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and other Islamic terror groups represented among the rebel forces was well known to U.S. officials responsible for Libya policy.

“The rebels made no secret of their Al Qaeda affiliation, openly flying and speaking in front of the black flag of Islamic jihad, according to author John Rosenthal and multiple media reports,” the interim report said. “And yet, the White House and senior Congressional members deliberately and knowingly pursued a policy that provided material support to terrorist organizations in order to topple a ruler who had been working closely with the West actively to suppress Al Qaeda.””

Leaked recordings also verify this account.

But that’s not all! It turns out that the Libyan terrorists that the west had been financing were starting to migrate over to Syria to fight with the (also) terrorist rebels, aided by the CIA, specifically on behalf of the US government.

Ahhh yes, and then we get to Syria. Here’s where things get really sketchy. For the sake of brevity, I cannot provide a full treatment of the ways in which the US has been backing fundamentalist Islamic terrorists in Syria, but I can at least provide a brief outline.

Obama has been, and continues to arm what the US government has been calling “moderate” rebels in Syria. This is a complete farce; everyone and their mother knows that the only substantial rebel forces fighting against Assad’s government have been Islamic fundamentalists such as ISIS. This had been widely reported in the media, even as far back as 2013:

“The New York Times, (and here and here) , Wall Street JournalUSA TodayCNNMcClatchy (and here), APTimeReutersBBC, the Independent, the TelegraphAgence France-PresseAsia Times, and the Star (and here) confirm that  supporting the rebels means supporting Al Qaeda and two other terrorist groups.

Indeed, the New York Times has reported that virtually all of the rebel fighters are Al Qaeda terrorists.”

So far, the United States has given $400 million in aid to the Syrian opposition (aka, the terrorists). Just the other day, the Pentagon declared its intention to train, fund, and arm an additional 15,000 “carefully vetted” Syrian rebels to fight against Assad. Despite the fact that previous groups of “moderates” who’ve received US training have joined the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. Hey, maybe this time it will work out differently, right?

What about ISIS, the new bad guys in the Middle East who just about everyone can agree are about as evil as it gets? Turns out they owe quite a bit to the United States as well.

The geopolitical situation in the Middle East right now is very convoluted, and any sensible country would have no part in that mess. In Syria, the dictator Assad is a longtime enemy of the US. But the only credible fighting force against his government are the maniacal terrorists of ISIS and al-Qaeda. In some twisted sense, this means that the US government’s “best interest” could involve letting the slaughter that is going on in Syria continue for as long as possible.

This means that there is, at the very least, some sort of “unholy alliance” between the US and ISIS. I must be very careful here to distinguish between what is speculation, and what is heavily substantiated.

I strongly suggest you read this piece from Nafeez Ahmed, which details how the West both directly and indirectly promoted the success of ISIS, from securing passage for militants to cross into Syria to helping train them in camps along the Syria-Jordan border. For our purposes, I intend to focus primarily on how the US and her Gulf allies have been funding radical Islamic terror. As Ahmed states:

“…the role of the Gulf states – namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan (as well as NATO member Turkey) – in officially and unofficially financing and coordinating the most virulent elements amongst Syria’s rebels under the tutelage of US military intelligence is no secret.”

But for those who somehow find this too difficult to believe, Vice President Joe Biden admitted that they had been funding ISIS all along. Speaking about Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, Biden said:

“They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad—except that the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

And the Daily Beast reports that ISIS has been getting funding from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar – all American allies. Daniel Lazare provides some additional details:

“After years of hemming and hawing, the Obama administration has finally come clean about its goals in Syria.  In the battle to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, it is siding with Al Qaeda. This has become evident ever since Jisr Ash-Shughur, a small town in the northeastern part of the country, fell on April 25 to a Saudi and Turkish-backed coalition consisting of the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham, and an array of smaller, more “moderate” factions as well.

Al Nusra, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, is Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate. Ahrar al Sham, which is heavily favored by Qatar, is also linked with Al Qaeda and has also cooperated with ISIS. The other groups, which sport such monikers as the Coastal Division and the Sukur Al Ghab Brigades, are part of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and are supposedly as anti-terrorist as they are anti-Assad.  Yet they nonetheless “piggybacked” on the offensive, to use The Wall Street Journal’s term, doing everything they could to further the Al-Nusra-led advance.”

The funding of Islamic extremism by America and her Gulf allies is nothing new. In fact, it has been going on for decades. For example:

“…in Pakistan, where the aid program (known as Operation Cyclone) was organized, the Reagan administration was supporting a brutal dictator known as Zia-ul-Haq, an Islamic extremist who had come to a power in a coup in 1978, overthrowing a secular government. Zia carried out an Islamization project in Pakistan, with the building of hundreds of madrassas that preached intolerant variants of Islam and declaring judicial decisions must be based on Sharia law. The Reagan administration funded Zia’s government with $5 billion ($2 billion of which was military aid), as well as a further $3 billion to fund the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The stalwart US ally, Saudi Arabia, agreed to fund the mujahideen dollar for dollar for whatever the United States spent.”

And Wahhabism, one of the more extreme forms of Islam (the extremist subset of the already extreme Salafist movement) that tends to breed the most terrorists, is largely centered in and funded by Saudi Arabia:

“It would be troublesome but perhaps acceptable for the House of Saud to promote the intolerant and extremist Wahhabi creed just domestically. But, unfortunately, for decades the Saudis have also lavishly financed its propagation abroad. Exact numbers are not known, but it is thought that more than $100 billion have been spent on exporting fanatical Wahhabism to various much poorer Muslim nations worldwide over the past three decades. It might well be twice that number. By comparison, the Soviets spent about $7 billion spreading communism worldwide in the 70 years from 1921 and 1991.

The money goes to constructing and operating mosques and madrassas that preach radical Wahhabism. The money also goes to training imams; media outreach and publishing; distribution of Wahhabi textbooks, and endowments to universities and cultural centers.”

Secret cables from WikiLeaks confirm these claims, as well as implicate other Gulf states in the funding of fundamentalist Islam and terrorism. Remember, these are US “allies.” These are the countries that are supposed to be “on our side” in the “War on Terror.” Much of this is implicitly backed by the CIA. For a timeline of American/CIA flirtations with extremist Islam, see this.

Jihad me at hello

Given this history, it is hard not to ask the obvious question: is the United States really trying to fight against Islamic terror, or is it trying to foster it? Here we get more into the realm of speculation, but the facts as presented thus far strongly suggest this is the case. Despite government rhetoric, there are some who believe that the United States is intentionally supporting ISIS as a part of its Middle East strategy to counter Syria and Iran. In other words, the US could be the main driver of the success of ISIS, the despicable organization that is beheading journalists, slaughtering children, eating human hearts, and burning people alive in cages.

It’s hard to stomach, and difficult to prove for certain. But when mainstream, establishment publications like Foreign Affairs are actively endorsing the idea of supporting al-Qaeda (in this case, to curb the rise of ISIS, a very convoluted strategy), it is absolutely worth asking the question.

It seems like this is in fact what many Iraqis, including senior military figures, believe: the United States is deliberately supporting ISIS in order to oust Assad in Syria, and perhaps to gain some leverage over the weak Iraqi government as well. Of course, the mainstream media has dismissed this all as some crackpot conspiracy theory. And perhaps it is. But this is the view of Iraqi intelligence, which has noted that many US airdrops have been finding their way into ISIS’s hands. Perhaps that is why Iraq shot down two British planes that were allegedly carrying weapons for ISIS.

Whether these Iraqi accusations are true or not, it is certainly clear that the mess we face in the Middle East right now is largely the fault of the United States and the rest of the West. And where it isn’t directly the fault of the US, it is most certainly exacerbated by the US policy of “watching the world burn.” Any way you spin it, American involvement in the Middle East has been a huge driver of radical Islamic terrorism. And given the sprawling infrastructure of American military bases all across the Middle East, it is likely that these self-destructive policies will continue for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: Newly declassified Defense Intelligence Agency documents show that the United States and the Western world have intentionally supported radical Islamists with the goal of forming a “Salafist principality in Eastern Syria” in order to counter Assad’s government. These documents were dated August 2012, long before ISIS became a household name.

This is no longer speculation. The United States, the Gulf states, Turkey, and other western nations specifically foresaw the rise of ISIS and deliberately supported it anyways. For more information and analysis, see this.


Drone Warfare And Torture – Losing Hearts And Minds

It’s not just America’s Mideast wars and occupations that are creating terrorists – specific tactics are also fueling this rise in terrorism. Two of them specifically come to mind: drone strikes and torture.

For the purpose of this article, we can mostly ignore the human rights implications and clear violation of international (and even American) law that these tactics involve. While these issues are certainly important – a lack of due process, the profligate use of cruel and unusual punishment, etc. – we are primarily concerned here with their practical impact. Of course, blatantly disregarding peoples’ human rights as well as international law does tend to have a practical impact…

Drone Strikes

I’ve tried to explain to several people that even when drone strikes do hit their target, they tend to create more terrorists than they kill. I struggle to understand why people don’t seem to understand this.

Perhaps most Americans believe that “targeted killings” actually succeed in hitting their desired target and no one else. The government and its propagandistic media do everything in their power to facilitate this perception. It is standard practice to have unknown drone victims reported as “militants”. Of course, the reality is that the vast majority of drone victims are innocent civilians, including many women and children.

In fact, only 12% of the victims of US drone strikes in Pakistan have been identified as militants. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

“…out of the 2,379 known victims of drone strikes between June 2004 and October 2014, 704 have been identified. Only 295 of these were reported to be members of some kind of armed group.”

Drone strikes kill far more people than are actually targeted, despite official government rhetoric. And each of these victims is another reason to be pissed off at the United States.

“A new analysis of the data available to the public about drone strikes, conducted by the human-rights group Reprieve, indicates that even when operators target specific individuals – the most focused effort of what Barack Obama calls “targeted killing” – they kill vastly more people than their targets, often needing to strike multiple times. Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of 24 November.”


terrorists hate us for our freedom

If your family and friends were being murdered out of nowhere, you would (unless you are a complete pacifist, but very few people are) want to fight back against whoever did this. If you are an American reading this, think back to how you felt immediately after September 11th. And now consider that practically the entire justification for the Global War on Terror (including multiple real wars, thousands of deaths at the hands of drones, torture, overthrowing governments, and massively intrusive domestic surveillance) stems from this single event, resulting in the death of 3000 civilians. Many Americans continue to justify an incredibly aggressive foreign policy simply based on the very little terrorism that Americans are victims of. And most of those who use 9/11 as a justification for war don’t even know anyone who died in that attack!

I also want to bring up Israel, a country that I believe has vastly more justification for military aggressiveness. Israelis have actually had to deal with significant and persistent terrorist threats. Israelis continue to live in fear of rocket attacks. And in the minds of many Israelis, this provides sufficient justification for Israel’s wars and assassination attempts. What these Israelis fail to see is that – regardless of whether it is justified or not – launching counterstrikes only exacerbates the problem. It’s very easy to understand why Palestinians tend to hate Israel, even if Israel isn’t acting out of line.

The use of drones is simply a gold mine for terrorist recruiting. It’s not just the civilian deaths; the ever present threat of drone strikes is enough to cause psychological damage to those who live underneath them. According to a report by Living Under Drones:

“Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.”

Drone strikes also alienate potential allies against terrorist organizations. From the same report:

“Drone strikes have also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani rel­ations. One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.”

Ordinary Pakistanis are highly unlikely to help out the US in her counterterrorism efforts. Not only that, but these drone strikes potentially destabilize the government of Pakistan. Either their government can vigorously oppose drone strikes to appease their citizens and maintain stability (but then the US loses an ally), or they can help the US and find far more serious domestic opposition. Neither is particularly beneficial if the goal is to prevent terrorism.

Drones kill children

This is all well and good, but is there any empirical evidence that the use of drone strikes increases terrorism? This is difficult to measure, but limited evidence suggests that this is likely the case.

Using propaganda output as a proxy for terrorist activity, research has shown that the use of drone strikes has not been able to diminish this output. While the creation and dissemination of propaganda may not be the best metric, unlike many others, it is at least objective and quantifiable.

A study from the National Bureau of Economics Research found that civilian casualties in Afghanistan significantly increased terrorism because of “revenge” effects.

“In Afghanistan we find strong evidence that local exposure to civilian casualties caused by international forces leads to increased insurgent violence over the long-run, what we term the ‘revenge’ effect. Matching districts with similar past trends in violence shows that counterinsurgent-generated civilian casualties from a typical incident are responsible for 1 additional violent incident in an average sized district in the following 6 weeks and lead to increased violence over the next 6 months.”

This is not the least bit surprising, given our discussion up to this point. But the most damning evidence of all is documented by Andrew Cockburn, and is in reference to the strategy of targeting “high value individuals” (HVI) in a terrorist organization. The same strategy was employed in the 1990s against drug cartels, with the same counterproductive effect – more and cheaper drugs.

“Hitting HVIs did not reduce attacks and save American lives; it increased them. Each killing quickly prompted mayhem. Within three kilometers of the target’s base of operation, attacks over the following 30 days shot up by 40%. Within a radius of five kilometers, a typical area of operations for an insurgent cell, they were still up 20%. Summarizing his findings for Odierno, Rivolo [a Pentagon analyst] added an emphatic punch line: “Conclusion: HVI Strategy, our principal strategy in Iraq, is counter-productive and needs to be re-evaluated.””

In short: drone strikes, at least in part due to being a humanitarian disaster, are a major aspect of terrorist recruitment.


Neoconservative pundits like to say that torture, or “enhanced interrogation” as it is euphemistically called, helps save American lives by preventing terrorist attacks. Many Americans instinctively agree with this assessment, perhaps in part due to how torture is portrayed in popular media like Zero-Dark Thirty. The reality is the opposite.

In fact, leading experts, including Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, top military interrogators, counter-terrorism experts, top intelligence agents and officials (including an FBI agent who interrogated al-Qaeda prisoners), and the Senate Armed Services Committee agree that torture is ineffective at stopping terror attacks and increases risk of terrorism.

Torture is physical therapy

While that proves nothing on its own, it should make you give pause before writing the government a blank check to torture whoever they want for “national security” reasons, but this is exactly what many Americans have done. Perhaps people should put more thought into allowing their government to waterboard, rectally feed/hydrate, sleep deprive, expose to cold and loud music, hold in stress positions for up to 180 straight hours, sexually abuse and humiliate, and threaten to abuse and rape family members of prisoners held without charge, many whom are later found to be innocent of any crime. Particularly when, as stated in the Senate’s own torture report, this did not stop a single attack on America or her allies.

Torture is completely unjustified for many reasons, both moral and practical. Torture can be and has been effective in a handful of individual cases, but it is unreliable and unpredictable (for more, read “Is Coercive Interrogation of Terrorist Suspects Effective? A Response to Bagaric and Clarke” by Philip Rumney). Since it is impossible to know when torture might actually be effective, it is bad policy. People often justify torture in “ticking time bomb” scenarios, where a terrorist attack is going to be happening imminently and authorities may be able to get information that can stop the attack from a captive. Besides the fact that those who argue in favor of torture can’t point to a single situation where this would have been this case, it fails on theoretical grounds. As Rumney argues:

“…one of the ironies of the entire debate surrounding coercive interrogation is that its use in the context of the paradigmatic “ticking bomb” terrorist may also be where it is of the least utility. Where a decision to use coercion is made in order to avoid an imminent catastrophe, the suspect, assuming he or she possesses relevant knowledge and is prepared to divulge information, could easily give false or misleading information simply to stop the infliction of pain. Once found to be false, there may be little time for the authorities to gain truthful information.”

Duh. Does nobody else think about these things? But even that ignores the very important problem of knowing whether or not you are even torturing the right people with the right information, a very important consideration when it comes to whether the use of torture tends to increase or decrease terrorism. Rumney describes the problem well:

“…in the midst of conflicts with terrorists and insurgents, attempts to control the use of coercion fail and the techniques escalate, as do the range of persons subjected to those techniques. This is directly linked to the issue of effectiveness because intelligence gathering requires the use of interrogation techniques that produce reliable information, along with the accurate identification of those who possess relevant knowledge. The problem of slippage also creates difficulties in terms of predictability as non-coercive interrogation is cast aside to be replaced by a range of coercive techniques that have not been proven to be more effective. Indeed, as the earlier analysis suggests, such techniques might actually have a range of predictable consequences that hinder, rather than assist, intelligence gathering.”

In other words, when torture is allowed, it begins to replace non-coercive methods of intelligence gathering. It starts to develop a kind of “mission creep,” which means that more innocent people (or even “guilty” people who don’t have the necessary information) will be tortured. If they didn’t hate America before, how do you think they’ll feel after being tortured without cause?

Indeed, without due process or even basic evidentiary requirements, it becomes likely that innocent people become victims of a “legalized” system of torture, like the one we have in the United States. Rumney again:

“It has become increasingly apparent that many individuals detained by the United States as part of the “war on terror” have no connection to terrorism and do not possess the specific knowledge that is being sought. This is a result of a range of factors including the selling of supposed “terrorists” to United States forces and the poor quality assessment of individuals when they are first screened by inexperienced military intelligence officers. Indeed, early internal intelligence assessments at Guantanamo Bay suggested that fifty-nine detainees (nearly 10% of the total number of detainees at the camp) did not meet screening criteria for deciding which prisoners should have been sent to Guantanamo Bay. A report in the Los Angeles Times claimed that an operational commander at Guantanamo Bay had gone to Afghanistan and complained “that too many ‘Mickey Mouse’ detainees were being sent to the already crowded facility.””

We’ve spent a lot of time thus far discussing why torture is ineffective. But it isn’t merely ineffective – it is counterproductive and weakens America’s position in the “war on terror.”

Think Progress has a short report (I highly recommend looking at it if you’re interested in this stuff) outlining just a few of the reasons why torture is counterproductive:

  • Enhanced Interrogations Recruits Terrorists
  • Enhanced Interrogations Puts American Soldiers At Risk
  • Enhanced Interrogations Ruin Credibility Of Intelligence Agencies
  • Enhanced Interrogations Strain Alliances
  • Interrogations Ruined America’s Moral Authority
  • Enhanced Interrogations Makes Terrorists Unprosecutable

I’m not going to discuss each of these points, since most of them don’t require too much straining to understand. What I specifically want to focus on is how torture breeds more terrorists and makes it more difficult to fight against already existing ones.

Two political scientists have found that countries that used torture suffered from more terrorist attacks and were more likely to lose wars. It is theoretically plausible that the causation could run in the other direction (ie, that terrorist attacks cause countries to use torture), but their statistical methods make that conclusion unlikely. These researchers write:

“They hypothesize that abuse of the subset of rights known as physical integrity rights fuels terrorism by making it more difficult for government authorities to collect intelligence on terrorists and by undermining domestic and international support for their counterterrorism efforts. They test this hypothesis using a data set that includes measures of both domestic and transnational terrorist attacks and find that respect for physical integrity rights is consistently associated with fewer terrorist attacks. This suggests that those interested in curtailing terrorism should press governments to more carefully respect physical integrity rights.”

Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been used as recruiting tools by terrorists, and have driven hundreds (probably thousands) of people to join terrorist organizations (see here, here, and here).

Not only have new terrorists been created because of the United States’ use of torture, but the information gleaned from torture has also caused problems including false leads and terror alerts with serious consequences, including “evidence” linking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to al-Qaeda. To the extent that this information helped influence the decision to invade Iraq, torture has created innumerable new terrorists.



Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the US has a well-documented history of supporting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists when it suits her geopolitical aims. Not only that, but the specific behaviors and tactical responses to terrorism have created legions of new America-hating, violent terrorists.

Even so, America continues to arm and support terrorists in the Middle East, and continues to use the same tactics that have proven so counterproductive. Meanwhile, the Western world continues to marginalize its Muslim population. In fact, it was the UK’s MI5 that turned ISIS’s “Jihadi John” from a nonviolent, normal guy who opposed the 9/11 attack to the violent terrorist he ultimately became.

I did 9/11

All of this inevitably leads one to wonder – why? Why would our government continue to pursue such terrible policies? I don’t have a surefire answer to this question. Perhaps members of the government are simply incompetent. Maybe the neoconservative movement is so hell-bent on world domination that they don’t even consider the moral or pragmatic consequences of their actions. Or perhaps there is a connection running through America’s initial support for al-Qaeda, 9/11, Saudi Arabia, and the current support for Islamic terror.

Regardless of the reasons, however, it is clear that there is a divide between rhetoric and reality. And for our part, we need to spread the word about the failures of the “war on terror” so that hopefully, someday soon, this needless bloodshed can be stopped.


  1. Fantastic article. Good research and great references. Thank you for you efforts.

  2. 1) Encryption
    NSA and GCHQ justify their surveillance by telling us that terrorists use encryption, but the terrorists who attacked paris and killed hundreds of people recently coordinated the attack via unencrypted SMS.

    2) Border security
    What about airport security that claims to protect people from terrorists by searching people aggresively and banning small animals from boarding airplanes? Could a strong airport security have prevented 9/11 attack in 2011? Maybe, but I’m not sure anymore.

    • The encryption issue is beyond absurd. How people can take the intelligence community’s claims seriously is beyond me.

  3. Either, USA governments don’t care about reducing terrorism, or they fuel terrorism by falsely charging innocent people for terrorism and torturing them on purpose.


  1. […] “The rebels made no secret of their Al Qaeda affiliation, openly flying and speaking in front of the black flag of Islamic jihad, according to author John Rosenthal and multiple media reports,” the interim report said. “And yet, the White House and senior Congressional members deliberately and knowingly pursued a policy that provided material support to terrorist organizations in order to topple a ruler who had been working closely with the West actively to suppress Al Qaeda.”” – Government Denies Knowledge […]

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