Conflicted Justifications : The Tension Between Legitimate Force and State Terrorism

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An essay which goes into the War on Terror in association with the standing definitions of state terrorism.

Submitted: January 21, 2013

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Submitted: January 21, 2013




Conflicted Justifications :

The Tension Between Legitimate Force and State Terrorism



Jonathan Paterson



November 29, 2012

Upon initial observation, the War on Terror, a Western expedition which began in 2001 following attacks on the World Trade Center, it would seem that such a campaign against hostile terror groups would be a solely positive affair. However, as Jonathan Barker surmises, “The War on Terror is given by several governments as reason for abandoning the prohibition against torture, increasing surveillance, expanding the use of secretly deployed special forces and lending support to repressive governments that are seen as allies against terrorism.”1 Certainly, The War on Terror has been used not only to bend certain rules and create new policies, but it has not represented its optimistic intentions: “International humanitarian law, also known as the laws of war, requires that all attacks be directed at military targets. Civilians are immune from deliberate attack.”2 Military actions in the Middle East, directed at non-combative targets, have been morally justified in a number of ways, either as legitimate force by state powers or for political, religious, or cultural means by various non-state actors. Nonetheless, actions perpetrated by sovereign state powers during the War on Terror have possibly catalyzed further terrorist aggression,3 but the question remains: has the definition of terror been adapted to better suit the masking of state terrorism? In the past, the United States of America had coined the terms “low intensity conflict” or “counter-insurgency,” which today would be interpreted as proxy state-terrorism.4 As such, one must be cautious of The War on Terror; historical evidence points to the possibility that such a campaign's actions may not be indicative of its originally stated goals. Traditionally, state violence or 'legitimate' response is contrasted with terrorism as a clear distinction between adhering to traditional rules of war and using unconventional methods against non-combative targets. However, hostillities perpetrated by state actors towards non-combatant targets in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen since the War on Terror have greatly challenged the defintions of state terrorism and morally justified violence.5

State terrorism is a subject seldom discussed in popular media, as the War on Terror has undoubtedly shifted the focus on non-state terror groups. However, many would argue that state terrorism is more morally rephresinble than non-state terrorism. As Igor Primoratz notes, “a state will be acting clandestinely, disclaiming any involvement and declaring its adherence to values and principles that rule it out,” while “non-state terrorism, on the other hand, need not to be secretive, need not to deceive the public about their involvement in terrorism.”6 To compound this view, military capabillites of state actors vastly outpower anything Islamic or otherwise radical terrorirst groups can achieve. As such, although the attacks on the World Trade Centers precipitating the War on Terror represent a large scale non-state terrorist attack, there is no doubt state actors can and have achieved similar violence with relative ease. In order to compare legitimate force with terrorism, it is important to consider the motivations of state violence. In many cases since the War on Terror, perceived threats of terrorist violence have been justification enough for actions which otherwise would be labelled unequivocally as state terrorism. However, the most telling of these examples is that of the Iraq invasion of 2003.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is one of the most controversial aspects of the War on Terror. The logic for this controversy is twofold: the reasonings behind the invasion of Iraq can hardly be called legitimate, and actions such as the Shock and Awe bombing of Baghdad can be tied into definitions of state terror. Justifications for the invasion ranged between Iraq harbouring Al Qaeda terrorist remnants and the possibility of nuclear, or otherwise dangerous weapons which could be used against the United States. However, as the dust settled, both figuratively and literally, it became clear these justifications were nothing but miscalculations at best.7 As for the Shock and Awe bombings of Baghdad, this tactic of an ultimate devastating force to quickly win a war ultimately did not end up accomplishing its goal.8 Although efforts may have been undertaken to minimize civilian casualities, it would have been impossible to do so in an urban environment such as Baghdad.9 Between the years of 2003 and 2005, Baghdad alone recorded half the civilian deaths accounted for in Iraq, US-led forces killed 37% of those civilian victims, 30% of whom died during the first phase of the attack.10 Despite these facts, coalition forces maintain their moral justification for such violence, thus further bending the definitions of state-terrorism. Although retaliation, even in the face of a perceived threat, is deemed to be moral justification enough for violence associated with state-terror, there are indeed other rationales that have been used to account for similar actions.

In the case of the 2011 military invention in Libya, similar instances of civilian casualities can be found which once again are either justified with some form of rationale, or deceptively hidden from the public eye. Human Rights Watch, an independent organization that monitors various human rights abuses, released a case study on the casualities surrounding this very military intervention. The Human Rights Watch concluded that as a result of NATO led air-strikes, at least 72 civilians lost their lives, and in many cases, NATO failed to provide adequate rationale behind labelling certain targets of these strikes as military in nature.11 The rationale behind these civilian casualties must then be analyzed, or as one Libyan would emotionally inquire, “I just need an answer from NATO: Why did you destroy my home and kill my family?”12 The United Nations on March 17, 2011 passed the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which effectively put a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized member states to protect civilians under threat of attack.13 However, air strikes which could have killed upwards of one hundred people cannot be legimately justified by responsibilities to protect those same people. Another interesting facet of the Libyan civil war in 2011 is the possible tie between American intelligence agencies and Libyan rebels. In May of 1991, a New York Times article made references to Khalifa Haftar and his supposed training and funding provided by the CIA.14 Haftar reappeared in 2011 as he was announced the chief military general to represent the Libyan rebels and their efforts against Moammar Gadhafi.15 Although speculation, in part due to the secretive nature of CIA operations, it is questionable that a man receiving training and funding under American guidance would later find himself in such a position. If there are still ties to the CIA and Khalifa Haftar, this situation is a direct parallel to the proxy state-terrorism used by the same intelligence agency in the 1980s.16 When faced with this possibility, the next step would be to identify American interests in supporting a non-state actor. As with the NATO air strikes, justification for these actions lied in the possibility of Gadhafi violating the rights of the Libyan people. However, to directly support Libyan rebel forces would have negative implications towards American interests, and so the use of covert operations becomes a real option. Although covert operations in some cases can be legitimately explained, it is without a doubt victims of the chaos and violence of the Libyan civil war would describe the events as nothing short of terrorism. Just as NATO air strikes brought a questionable light to the original involvement of the military intervention in Libya, the possible connection to rebel commanders and CIA funding cannot be explained in morally acceptable terms. Events in Pakistan and Yemen conducted by the United States share similar parallels, both in the secretive nature they were executed, and by the problematic nature of non-combatant victims.

One of the most relevant and controversial topics intertwined with the War on Terror is the use of drones; unmanned aircraft which carry out covert assassinations and are technically harmless to innocent bystanders. The main issue with drone strikes is that the United States has no legal authority to execute people, especially in foreign countries. However, the position of the United States can best be summarized in the following quotes: ”Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that, in accordance with international law, we have the authority to take action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces,” and “The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan.”17 Once again, al-Qaeda and the threat of future violence is used as justification not only to use these drones, but so that they may be used outside of areas with which they are currently at war. In the instance of Pakistan, the effects of drone-strikes are not only psychologically damaging, but there are indeed instances of non-combatant who had been fired upon as targets. Although groups like the Stanford International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic exist and have documented cases of civilian deaths associated with these attacks,18 the covert nature (a common theme among all of these scenarios) of these attacks mean that government bodies have power to officially admit or deny instances of civilian causalities. Not only does this grant state actors immense power and flexibility with their actions, but it creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust within the communities it is supposedly trying to protect. The following quotation provides a suitable context to establish the connection between drone strikes and the fear which follows:

David Rohde described both the fear the drones inspired among his captors, as well as among ordinary civilians: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.” Describing the experience of living under drones as ‘hell on earth’, Rohde explained that even in the areas where strikes were less frequent, the people living there still feared for their lives.19


Certainly, if innocent lives are being lost to unmanned aircraft which seemingly act as judge, jury, and executioner, levels of panic and fear are only natural reactions. These subtle yet deadly weapons will undoubtedly produce disruption in communities, and could also produce long term foreign disputes. As with areas in Pakistan, certain locations in Yemen have also been selected as ideal areas for drone strikes.

Although drone-strikes were designed for the tactical elimination of single targets, there have been over 100 strikes in the year of 2012 in Yemen, killing often more than two or three people.20 Alongside these disturbing numbers, the controversial killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son raise yet more issues with the use of these drones. The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki is important in relation with definitions of state-terror and the bending of laws and justices, because al-Awlaki and his son were both American citizens. Incidentally, al-Awlaki was invited to the American embassy in Yemen to be informed that his American passport had been revoked.21 Despite al-Awlaki not appearing at the embassy prior to his death, his involvement in the American legal system at that time raises questions as to why it would be legally acceptable to have him murdered. Another interesting facet of this particular attack is that the relatives of al-Awlaki are actively seeking legal damages against the American military for what they believe to be unjustified murders. Due to the young age of al-Awlaki's son and his American citizenship, the grounds for a legal victory would appear to be in favor of the relatives; however, because of the secretive nature of drone-strikes, the American military does not have to present facts that would establish them as the true accountable party.22 Indeed, these loopholes are similar to the justifications used for other unconventional methods of aggression which state actors have used since the War on Terror. Despite the fact that the suit against the American military may not succeed, at the very least additional awareness has been created which should serve to change policy regarding the use of drones in the future.

In a situation where state actors are perpetuating the aforementioned actions against non-combatant targets, the only certain eventuality is the effect of blowback. These “unintended, unforeseen and unwanted consequences of secret operations”23 will manifest through groups such as Iraq Body Count and Human Rights Watch, or in the form of lawsuits such as the case against the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. Although these consequences are inevitable, the use and masking of state-terror to achieve political goals seem to persist. To conclude, legimate uses of force and violence have been viewed in contrast with acts of terror, which includes the killing of non-combatant targets. However, since the advent of the War on Terror, instances of morally questionable attacks in Iraq and Libya, along with covert operations which instill fear in Pakistan and Yemen, have blurred the lines between state-terror and legitimate force, thus challenging the very defintions of terrorism itself. Under the pretense of terrorist threats, and the protection of freedoms and human rights, policies have been enacted which give state actors even more power to decide what they can justify as morally and legally acceptable. However, when the quest to protect human rights directly contradicts itself, and innocent civilians are living in a state of panic and fear, one must begin to question the intentions of such a campaign. On the other hand, non state actors will continue to both enjoy and exploit their newly ascribed statuses as threats to the 'civilized' world. In this way, there will always be some form of justification available for a state actor should it require such an approval. Finally, as for why some actions will inevitably always be labelled as terrorist, or likewise legitimate, Chomsky frames it quite succintly: “The reaction changes with the cast of characters.”24








"A Dossier of Civilian Casualties in Iraq." Iraq Body Count. (accessed November 21, 2012).

Barker, Jonathan. The No-Nonsense Guide To Global Terrorism. Oxford: New Internationalist, 2008.

British Broadcasting Corporation. "BBC News - Military sued over al-Awlaki Yemen drone death." BBC. (accessed November 26, 2012).

Business Insider. "Is General Khalifa Hifter The CIAs Man In Libya?." Featured Articles From The Business Insider. (accessed November 21, 2012).

George, Alexander, and Noam Chomsky. "International Terrorism: Image and Reality." In Western state terrorism. New York: Routledge, 1991. Chapter 2; See—02.htm

Lendman, Stephen. "Drones: Instruments of State Terror." Global Research. (accessed November 22, 2012).

Stanford International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic. "Living Under Drones." Living Under Drones. (accessed November 20, 2012).

Mann, Bonnie . "How America Justifies Its War: A Modern/Postmodern Aesthetics of Masculinity and Sovereignty." Hypatia 21 (2006): 147-163.

Martin, Patrick. "American media silent on CIA ties to Libya rebel commander." World Socialist Web Site. (accessed November 20, 2012).

McCutcheon, Richard. "Rethinking the War against Iraq." Anthropologica 48, no. 1 (2006): 11-28. (accessed November 28, 2012).

"NATO: Investigate Civilian Deaths in Libya." Human Rights Watch. (accessed November 20, 2012).

"Obama's Covert War in Yemen." Drone Strikes in Yemen. (accessed November 26, 2012).

Politico. "U.S. revoked Anwar Al-Awlaki's passport six months before death." (accessed November 26, 2012).

Sepp, Kalev . "From 'Shock and Awe' to 'Hearts and Minds': The Fall and Rise of US Counterinsurgency Capability in Iraq." Third World Quarterly 28 (2007): 217-230. (accessed December 20, 2012).

"Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATOs Air Campaign in Libya ." Human Rights Watch. (accessed December 2, 2012).

United Nations. "Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, Authorizing 'All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions." UN.ORG. (accessed November 22, 2012).


1 Jonathan Barker, The No-Nonsense Guide To Global Terrorism (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications, 2008), 89.

2Human Rights Watch, Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya, (May 2012).

3Barker, 62.

4Noam Chomsky, International Terrorism: Image and Reality, (July 2012).

5 See Richard McCutcheon, Rethinking the War Against Iraq, (July 2006) ;

Human Rights Watch, NATO: Investigate Civilian Deaths in Libya, (October, 2011) ;
Stephen Lendman, Drones: Instruments of State Terror, (September, 2012).

6Igor Primoratz, State Terrorism and Counterterrorism (Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, 2002), 12-13.

7Bonnie Mann, How America Justifies Its War: A Modern/Postmodern Aesthetics of Masculinity and Sovereignty (Hypatia, 2006), 147-163.

8Kalev Sepp, From ‘Shock and Awe’ to ‘Hearts and Minds’: the fall and rise of US counterinsurgency capability in Iraq (Third World Quarterly, 2007), 217 – 230.

9Ibid, 227.

10Iraq Body Count, A Dossier of Civilian Casualties in Iraq,

(July, 2005).

11Human Rights Watch, NATO: Investigate Civilian Deaths in Libya


13United Nations, Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya (March, 2011)

14Business Insider, Is General Khalifa Hifter The CIA's Man in Libya? rebel-army-qaddafi/4 (April, 2011)

15World Socialist Web Site, American Media Silent on CIA Ties to Libya Rebel Commander (March, 2011)

16Noam Chomsky, International Terrorism: Image and Reality, (July 2012).

17 Stephen Lendman, Drones: Instruments of State Terror, (September, 2012).

18Stanford International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic, Living Under Drones, (September, 2012).


20New America Foundation, Obama's Covert War in Yemen, (December, 2012).

21Politico, U.S. revoked Anwar Al-Awlaki's passport six months before death, before-150521.html (November, 2012).

22 British Broadcasting Corporation, Military sued over al-Awlaki Yemen drone death, (November , 2012).

23Barker, 87.

24Noam Chomsky, International Terrorism: Image and Reality, (July 2012).


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