Is America bringing lessons of ‘war on terror’ home? - analysis

In the wake of the violent protests in Washington on January 6, there have been calls to round up “domestic terrorists” and put down an “insurrection.”

Protesters climb the wall of the US Capitol, January 6, 2021.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Protesters climb the wall of the US Capitol, January 6, 2021.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Some Americans have traveled a path to radicalization that reminds CIA officials of the indoctrination of Islamist militants,” according to a recent article in The Washington Post.
Matt Duss, a foreign-policy adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders, on Monday said: “In considering the factors that led to the January 6 attempt to impose regime change here in the US, we should think about a national security discourse that for years has told Americans they have the right to impose regime change abroad.”
These discussions, looking at the US through the lens it has long viewed countries such as Iraq, may represent a turning point in US discourse and domestic policy.
In the wake of the violent protests in Washington on January 6 in which a mob sought to prevent elected officials from finalizing the process of affirming Joe Biden as president, there have been calls to round up “domestic terrorists” and put down an “insurrection.” That US counterinsurgency strategy, largely considered a failure abroad, might now see the American far Right as radicalized insurgents, bringing the war on terror full circle.
For some in the US who increasingly have seen militarized local police forces, complete with their own MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected light tactical vehicles) and Humvees, America has already begun to resemble the countries it has invaded – and in some cases occupied. During the riots in Washington, many commentators put forth the refrain that “this looks like Iraq or a Third World country.”
After the attack in Washington, the supporters of conspiracy theories such as QAnon could be treated like ISIS, and the full US national security state may be unleashed, Nicholas Grossman recently wrote.
“A giant federal apparatus built to fight al-Qaeda will shift some capacity to fighting you, especially the white nationalist and anti-government militias in your orbit,” he wrote.
David Frum connected the current crisis to the era of the war on terrorism.
“For many years after that – until as recently as the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo – conservative commentators wondered: ‘Where were the moderate imams who would deliver an unequivocal condemnation of terrorism with no buts, no what-abouts, no blame-shifting?’” he recently wrote.
Frum wonders where the “moderate Republican imams” of the American Right are now.
Many US elected officials argue that the protests on January 6 included “domestic terrorists.” It was a “domestic terrorist attack,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal said. Sen. Tina Smith argued the same thing.
The events were a “violent domestic terrorist insurgence at the US Capitol,” CNN’s Josh Campbell said.
Those who conspired with “domestic terrorists” should be expelled from office, Hillary Clinton said.
Increasingly in the US, there are calls to define elements of the American pro-Trump Right as “domestic terrorists.” That could enable the federal government to take laws and methods usually employed against foreign terrorists and use them domestically.
For now, this is more of a rhetorical talking point; it’s not clear if federal or local prosecutors will seek to bring “terrorism” charges against the rioters.
The discussion brings to mind the changing use of the term “terrorist” and definitions associated with it. There was a time when terrorism was relatively narrowly defined. The FBI definition calls it the “unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
This is relatively vague. The use has designated many groups as foreign terrorist organizations. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently sanctioned the Houthis in Yemen under this guideline and also labeled Cuba a sponsor of terrorism.
Other countries have taken a cue from the US as to how to use accusations of “terrorism” broadly and sometimes against political opponents. In Turkey, the ruling AKP Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled people “terrorist” for being journalists, for writing critical tweets, for protesting, for being anti-war, for paintings and drawings, or for just thinking differently than the ruling party.
Convictions for “terrorism” run a gamut in Turkey and are almost always used to silence political opponents, with usually no evidence of actual “terrorist” attacks. Turkey has deposed 60 mayors from the opposition HDP Party and is seeking to label the party as “terrorists.”
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump’s administration was very close to Turkey and enabled its authoritarian crackdowns. It was Turkey that fed members of the US administration stories about a “deep state” that they claimed opposed Trump, much as they claimed it opposed Erdogan.
Under the guise of fighting the “deep state,” Ankara invented various lists of “enemies,” such as the imaginary “FETO terrorist group.” Turkey blamed the group for organizing a coup attempt in 2016. That coup attempt was real, but evidence of a “terrorist” group being behind it was an illusion. It was a coup attempt made up of elements of the military.
America’s “war on terror” rhetoric, combined with the kind of methods Turkey has used, now cast a shadow over US domestic politics in the upcoming months and era. Tough talk about “domestic terrorists” and demands to round up large numbers of people caught on film during the riots in Washington, along with claims that the far Right is being radicalized like al-Qaeda, create a toxic mix.
The US experience abroad has generally shown that counterterror strategy is good at targeted killings but largely failed to end insurgencies. The US is now negotiating with the Taliban. To defeat ISIS, Washington worked by, with and through Iraqi security forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces. These forces were what defeated ISIS, not US airstrikes. America has failed to defeat groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
If the US conception is that it will use a counterterror strategy against US “domestic terrorists,” there is little evidence the methods of the 20-year war on terrorism will be successful. The US politicians and commentators using this rhetoric, some of whom supported the invasion of Iraq, don’t seem to have considered what it means to apply an Iraqi model to the US.
If they actually believe US “domestic terrorists” are being radicalized, then they could apply the “root causes” logic discussed abroad, looking at grievances, disenfranchisement, humiliation and poverty as elements of what drives terrorism. It is not clear if this has sunk in when America discusses bringing the language of the war on terror home.