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[casi] Is the United States a "Terrorist Magnet"?

Is the United States a "Terrorist Magnet"?

M. Shahid Alam*

Is it possible that a single metaphor, one that has
dropped from the lips of a serving American general,
can offer some forbidden insights into the dynamics of
America's relations with the Islamic world?

On July 28, 2003, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez,
commander of US ground forces in Iraq, while talking
to CNN, blamed the "multi-faceted conflict" Americans
face in Iraq on "terrorists," "former regime
leadership," "criminals" and "hired assassins." Then
he volunteered an explanation that I think, perhaps
unintentionally, was daring in its clarity. "[There]
is what I would call a terrorist magnet where America,
being present here in Iraq, creates a target of
opportunity if you will." Is it really necessary to
pick bones with the General's description of the Iraqi
resistance as "terrorist activity"? The Iraqis have
not attacked any American civilians, inside Iraq or
elsewhere; they have only targeted American troops.
Nor are they not attacking just any American troops.
They are attacking only those who have invaded and
occupied their country. Why then does the General call
the Iraqi guerrillas terrorists, criminals and hired
assassins? Perhaps, this is another semantic ploy we
have borrowed from the Israelis. The Palestinians are
terrorists even when they attack Israeli tanks and
armor, even when their only weapons are stones.

It is all the more stunning, after this dissimulation,
when General Sanchez offers his theory of "a terrorist
magnet." It claims that the presence of American
troops inside Iraq has become a "magnet" for
"terrorist activity." It is the presence of American
troops in Iraq that is the source, the cause of this
"terrorist activity." Moreover, this is natural. What
else would you expect if you placed a "magnet" among
iron filings? The iron filings would all be drawn
towards and stick to the magnet. This theory of "a
terrorist magnet" is disconcertingly heretical.
Although no one seems to have noticed, it undermines
two key arguments the Bush administration has used,
both ex ante and ex post, to sell the war on
terrorism. First, the war on terrorism has been based
on the premise that the terrorist attacks by Arab
extremists are an ontological phenomenon. It is in the
nature of the attackers, a nature instilled by their
societies and in particular by their religion, to
attack America. They fear America's virtues: its
freedom, prosperity, and the rights it grants to
women. The terrorist attacks are motivated by the
ontological rage of an inferior and flawed
civilization--Islam--against the superior, dynamic,
Christian civilization of the West. It is a thesis
that has been advanced assiduously by Jewish and
Christian Zionists. And it is this thesis that
President Bush embraced when he declared war against
the attackers of 9-11.

The theory General Sanchez offers contradicts this. It
substitutes a Newtonian explanation for the
ontological postulate favored by the Bush
administration and much of the American media. The
Iraqi resistance is not rooted in Iraqi nature, or in
Sunni Iraqi nature, or Baa'thi Sunni Iraqi nature. The
Iraqis have not sneaked into the United States to
attack American troops. As the Iraqis see it, the
American troops are being attacked because they are in
the wrong place (Iraq), doing the wrong thing
(illegally occupying Iraq), for the wrong reasons
(capturing Iraqi oil and deepening Israeli hegemony
over the Arabs). The theory of a terrorist magnet
would seem to run afoul of a second rationale for the
US war against Iraq. In the first weeks after the
official end of the war, when it appeared that no WMDs
were to be found--and there was a risk that the
earlier claims about WMDs would be seen as weapons of
mass deception--we invented a new buzz word:
Liberation. The WMDs were not the only reason for
invading Iraq. We went in to liberate the Iraqis from
Saddam's tyranny. Conveniently forgotten was our
support for this tyranny before the First Gulf War,
our betrayal of the Kurdish resistance and Iraqi
uprising, and the deaths and suffering we had
inflicted on the Iraqis over thirteen years of
bombings and sanctions.

Why then have the liberators become "a terrorist
magnet"? Admittedly, the armed resistance is not
national yet; it is confined mostly to Iraq's Sunni
Arab population. But if the Iraqis leading the armed
resistance are "former regime leadership," "criminals"
and "hired assassins," they could not hide among an
Iraqi population well-disposed to their American
liberators. However, to this date, no Iraqi has yet
betrayed members of the Iraqi resistance.

If the toll of American dead and wounded continues to
mount, this will raise more troubling questions. Why
had we not seen this going in? Why had we not foreseen
that 150,000 Americans deposited amidst a hostile
population--a population that we had bombed and
besieged for thirteen years--would become a magnet for
"terrorists"? It is true that Muslims have a poor
record of resisting local tyrannies, even when they
are proxies for foreign powers; but we should have
known that they have unexceptionably resisted foreign
occupations. We should have known that Mujahideen
("terrorists" for their enemies) from all corners of
the world would soon be entering Iraq to fight the
foreign occupation, as they had done in Afghanistan,
Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Palestine.

So, if ordinary young Americans are dying today in
Iraq--and many more recover from war wounds--that is
not because the administration, the neoconservative
ideologues, and the media could not have foreseen
this. They did, but chose to ignore these concerns. In
their calculus, the lives of a few ordinary Americans
were expendable, compared to the great prizes before
them. Arab oil had to be secured; and the Arab world
had to be made safe for Israeli hegemony.

The thesis of a terrorist magnet raises a broader
question, one that is at the heart of America's
relations with the Islamic world. General Sanchez's
remark--about Americana troops in Iraq serving as
"terrorist magnets"--has drawn few comments from the
media. The Newtonian connection he drew between an
American action (insertion of troops into Iraq) and
the reaction (Iraqi resistance) was perhaps too
obvious to deny. And who would dare impugn the
patriotism of the General commanding our forces in
Iraq? Perhaps, that is why his remarks were quickly
laid to rest.

However, no one in America's mainstream media, much
less a general or a politician, will dare to make a
similar connection between America's foreign policies
towards the Islamic world and the anti-American forces
that now proliferate in that region. The American
political establishment promotes the ideology that the
United States can do no wrong in its dealings with
foreign countries. The United States is not only the
most powerful country that has ever existed; it is
also the most benevolent. As a result, it is heretical
to suggest that 9-11 may have been a blowback from our
policies towards the Middle East. To suggest such a
connection is not to justify 9-11. Yet most Americans
are unwilling to separate the morality and causality
of 9-11. Until we learn to do so there can be no
rational discourse on the etiology of the growing
conflicts between the United States and the Islamic
world. And if that does not happen soon, the
civilizational war which the Zionists--Christian and
Jewish--and some Islamic extremists so avidly project
may become a frightening reality.

* M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at
Northeastern University. His last book, Poverty from
the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave in
2000. Visit his webpage at He is a
contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair's The Politics
of Anti-Semitism. Alam may be reached at

 M. Shahid Alam

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