Ending Blowback Terrorism

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also a Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

NEW YORK – Terrorist attacks on civilians, whether the downing over Sinai of a Russian aircraft killing 224 civilian passengers, the horrific Paris massacre claiming 129 innocent lives, or the tragic bombing in Ankara that killed 102 peace activists, are crimes against humanity. Their perpetrators – in this case, the Islamic State (ISIS) – must be stopped. Success will require a clear understanding of the roots of this ruthless network of jihadists.

Painful as it is to admit, the West, especially the United States, bears significant responsibility for creating the conditions in which ISIS has flourished. Only a change in US and European foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East can reduce the risk of further terrorism.

The recent attacks should be understood as “blowback terrorism”: a dreadful unintended result of repeated US and European covert and overt military actions throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia that aimed to overthrow governments and install regimes compliant with Western interests. These operations have not only destabilized the targeted regions, causing great suffering; they have also put populations in the US, the European Union, Russia, and the Middle East at significant risk of terror.

The public has never really been told the true history of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Starting in 1979, the CIA mobilized, recruited, trained, and armed Sunni young men to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The CIA recruited widely from Muslim populations (including in Europe) to form the Mujahideen, a multinational Sunni fighting force mobilized to oust the Soviet infidel from Afghanistan.

Bin Laden, from a wealthy Saudi family, was brought in to help lead and co-finance the operation. This was typical of CIA operations: relying on improvised funding through a wealthy Saudi family and proceeds from local smuggling and the narcotics trade.

By promoting the core vision of a jihad to defend the lands of Islam (Dar al-Islam) from outsiders, the CIA produced a hardened fighting force of thousands of young men displaced from their homes and stoked for battle. It is this initial fighting force – and the ideology that motivated it – that today still forms the basis of the Sunni jihadist insurgencies, including ISIS. While the jihadists’ original target was the Soviet Union, today the “infidel” includes the US, Europe (notably France and the United Kingdom), and Russia.

At the end of the 1980s, with the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, some elements of the Mujahideen morphed into Al Qaeda, Arabic for “the base,” which referred to the military facilities and training grounds in Afghanistan built for the Mujahideen by bin Laden and the CIA. After the Soviet withdrawal, the term Al Qaeda shifted meaning from the specific military base to the organizational base of jihadist activities.

Blowback against the US began in 1990 with the first Gulf War, when the US created and expanded its military bases in the Dar al-Islam, most notably in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s founding and holiest sites. This expanded US military presence was anathema to the core jihadist ideology that the CIA had done so much to foster.

America’s unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003 unleashed the demons. Not only was the war itself launched on the basis of CIA lies; it also aimed to create a Shia-led regime subservient to the US and anathema to the Sunni jihadists and the many more Sunni Iraqis who were ready to take up arms. More recently, the US, France, and the UK toppled Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, and the US worked with the Egyptian generals who ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. In Syria, following President Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of peaceful public protests in 2011, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional allies helped to foment a military insurgency that has pushed the country into a downward spiral of chaos and violence.

Such operations have failed – repeatedly and frequently disastrously – to produce legitimate governments or even rudimentary stability. On the contrary, by upending established, albeit authoritarian, governments in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and destabilizing Sudan and other parts of Africa deemed hostile to the West, they have done much to fuel chaos, bloodshed, and civil war. It is this turmoil that has enabled ISIS to capture and defend territory in Syria, Iraq, and parts of North Africa.

Three steps are needed to defeat ISIS and other violent jihadists. First, US President Barack Obama should pull the plug on CIA covert operations. The use of the CIA as a secret army of destabilization has a long, tragic history of failure, all hidden from public view under the agency’s cloak of secrecy. Ending CIA-caused mayhem would go far to staunch the instability, violence, and anti-Western hatred that fuels today’s terrorism.

Second, the US, Russia, and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council should immediately stop their infighting and establish a framework for Syrian peace. They have a shared and urgent stake in confronting ISIS; all are victims of the terror. Moreover, military action against ISIS can succeed only with the legitimacy and backing of the UN Security Council.

The UN framework should include an immediate end to the insurgency against Assad that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have pursued; a Syrian cease-fire; a UN-mandated military force to confront ISIS; and a political transition in Syria dictated not by the US, but by a UN consensus to support a non-violent political reconstruction.

Finally, the long-term solution to regional instability lies in sustainable development. The entire Middle East is beset not only by wars but also by deepening development failures: intensifying fresh water stress, desertification, high youth unemployment, poor educational systems, and other serious blockages.

More wars – especially CIA-backed, Western-led wars – will solve nothing. By contrast, a surge of investment in education, health, renewable energy, agriculture, and infrastructure, financed both from within the region and globally, is the real key to building a more stable future for the Middle East and the world.


Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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