Hisham A. Hellyer on "the War on Terror"
"You cannot rely on the West"

Western states have fought against terrorism not only in Afghanistan, but also in Syria and Iraq – leaving behind people who were once their partners in fear and poverty. Hisham A. Hellyer talks in interview about the "war on terror" and the role played by the West 20 years on. Interview by Andrea Backhaus

Twenty years ago, U.S. troops marched into Afghanistan to crush the Taliban. The Islamists gave refuge to the terrorist militia al-Qaida, which attacked the United States in September 2001. Now the Taliban are celebrating their victory in Afghanistan. Why did the Americans withdraw so surprisingly?

H.A. Hellyer: The hasty withdrawal was not a surprise. Many apparently believed that the political leaders of the United States, Germany or Britain would sincerely care for the people who would be left behind in Afghanistan after their troops were withdrawn. But that assumption was questionable. President Emmanuel Macron made this very clear: when the U.S. troops began to withdraw, he said that we had to prevent refugees from Afghanistan from coming to Europe. Surely he would not have said that if these people were white Christians. Hungarian President Viktor Orban was even worse. It's not that all Western politicians are monsters. But irrespective of rhetoric, their priorities were never going to be about the people of Afghanistan.

It seems as if the western states had no strategy for their withdrawal.

Hellyer: I'm afraid it was worse than that: the United States had a strategy, but Washington was less concerned about what the consequences might be. In the United States, there was increasing pressure on policymakers to get the soldiers out of Afghanistan. Many Americans, citizens and politicians alike, have long since ceased to be interested in long-term commitments in Afghanistan. As soon as the Americans recognised that the U.S. domestic audience was no longer interested, and there wasn’t a realised strategic U.S. interest in remaining, their time in Afghanistan was inevitably going to end.

After the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the then U.S. President George W. Bush announced that the West, above all the USA, was in a war on terror. What is the legacy of this "war on terror" in the Arab world?

A soldier stands guard at the entrance of the Nineveh base for liberation operations in Makhmur, about 280 kilometres north of the capital Baghdad, on 11 February 2016 (photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)
False premise: the U.S. invasion of Iraq was illegal and based on false assumptions. Iraq was attacked because the Saddam Hussein regime allegedly had weapons of mass destruction – a claim that turned out to be untenable. The Iraqis first had to live under a brutal regime for decades, then endure the American occupation for years. It should not be forgotten that neither the Shias nor the Sunnis in Iraq are a uniform group, and that most of the Kurds are Sunnis. The consequences of the invasion will no doubt be felt by all Iraqis for a long time to come

Hellyer: There are 22 countries in the Arab world. All of these countries fight in different ways against groups that they perceive threaten their security. The West has done a lot of damage in some of these countries over the past 20 years. In Iraq, for example, many people suffered immensely because of the war on terror.

In 2003, U.S. troops invaded Iraq. They overthrew the dictator Saddam Hussein and established an electoral system that gave Shias a majority; To this day, Sunnis have been excluded from many key positions. Many Iraqis say the occupation tore the society apart.

Hellyer: The U.S. invasion was illegal and based on false assumptions. Iraq was attacked because the Saddam Hussein regime allegedly had weapons of mass destruction – a claim that turned out to be untenable. That should not have happened. The Iraqis first had to live under a brutal regime for decades, then endure the American occupation for years. It should not be forgotten that neither the Shias nor the Sunnis in Iraq are a uniform group, and that most of the Kurds are Sunnis. People perceive political developments very differently. The consequences of the invasion will be felt by all people in Iraq for a long time. However, one should not underestimate the ability of Iraqis to move past the rifts and destruction of the past; they have accomplished so much against very difficult odds, and I would put my faith in that.

Some Iraqis fought with militias against the American occupiers, while others radicalised and later joined groups like al-Qaida and IS. Can one say that instead of fighting terrorism, Western intervention actually precipitated the rise of terrorist groups?

Hellyer: The reasons individuals become radicalised are many and varied. Even people who have never experienced torture and oppression join terrorist groups because they share their ideology, for example. Conversely, perceived or real oppression does not per se lead to people becoming terrorists. A minority of Iraqis and Syrians may be receptive to radical propaganda for particular reasons, which will naturally vary. And Germans or French may be receptive for another set of reasons, as the success of IS recruitment among a few European men and women has shown. But it should be noted: the U.S. invasion of Iraq did not create al-Qaida, the group existed before 2003. Nevertheless, events such as Western occupation do make it easier for terrorist groups to construct a narrative that is then used to recruit people.

Flowers and tributes to the victims and injured adorn the Place de la Bourse following terrorist attacks on March 23, 2016 in Brussels, Belgium (photo: Getty Images/C. Furlong)
No recipe for radicalisation: individuals become radicalised for a wide variety of reasons. Even people who have never experienced torture and oppression join terrorist groups because they share their ideology, for example. Conversely, perceived or real oppression does not per se lead to people becoming terrorists. Nevertheless, events such as Western occupation do make it easier for terrorist groups to construct a narrative that is then used to recruit people. Terrorist groups spread the myth that the West wants to fight all Muslims and Islam itself, and that every real Muslim must join them in order to defend Islam

Which narrative is that?

Hellyer: The idea that one is in a "war on terror" can easily be manipulated by actors who use it to justify their own actions. Terrorist groups spread the myth that the West wants to fight all Muslims and Islam itself, and that every real Muslim must join them in order to defend Islam.

Around ten years later, an international coalition led by the USA fought alongside local partners again in Iraq and northern Syria, this time against IS. Can terrorism ever be fought militarily?

Hellyer: There are Islamist terrorist groups all over the world. Al-Qaida, IS and other non-state groups use violence to achieve their political goals. They exist in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, the USA, basically everywhere. The threat is real. But measures to contain this threat should not be couched within the label of the "war on terror". The term is misleading and also counterproductive for policy-making.

To what extent?

Hellyer: Counter-terrorism requires a complete response; yes, there will be "hard" measures in terms of military or police activity; but these must always be carried out in accordance with proper legal standards, whether we engage domestically or abroad. And we have a responsibility to engage with our communities and societies to ensure it is clear we are all fighting such threats together, instead of problematising the members of a minority en masse, like "the Muslims".

The term "war on terror" is also problematic for another reason. There are rulers who use state terror to act against their own people and who are ignored in this categorisation – on the contrary, they use the label of "war on terror" to justify their own oppression and repression, which can then feed into, iornically, the recruitment strategies of non-state terrorist actors.

For example?

Hellyer: The Assad regime poses a far greater threat to the people of Syria than any non-state terrorist group in the country. Bashar al-Assad uses the war on terror paradigm in a disastrous and unfortunately very effective way. He denigrates any criticism of his rule as terror and cruelly punishes innocent civilians.

People search for survivors under rubble in Aleppo, Syria (photo: picture-alliance)
Free pass for a brutal dictator? When it became clear to the most crucial decision-makers in the West that not many Syrian refugees would enter their countries, that IS was territorially pushed back, and that Assad was getting support from elsewhere – meaning that his rule would by, default, continue – they lost the political will to prioritise Syria

Assad has had his critics tortured and killed for years. Why wasn't his regime the main enemy of the West, rather than Islamist terrorist groups?

Hellyer: The "war on terror" construct has led western leaders to make the fight against non-state terrorist groups a priority. In the end, Western leaders prioritised the end of IS in Syria and the containment of refugee flows. The barbarism of IS was undeniable, yet it only committed a small proportion of the murders. The Assad regime, on the other hand, was and is responsible for significantly more death and destruction in Syria. Nevertheless, the West failed to develop a successful strategy for preventing Assad's regime from taking savage action against its own people.

Many Kurds in northern Syria fought against IS on behalf of the West and lost their homes, their relatives and their health. They hardly get any help from the West today: the international community is neither donating enough money to rebuild cities like Raqqa, nor is it helping the Kurds to find a solution for the IS fighters they have imprisoned. Why does the West repeatedly fail its partners?

Hellyer: When it came to the Syria mission, the American and European leaders were concerned with two things. On the one hand, they wanted to stem the flow of refugees from Syria to their countries. And, on the other, they wanted to contain non-state terrorist groups. When it became clear to the most crucial decision-makers that not many Syrian refugees would enter the country, that IS was territorially pushed back, and that Assad was getting support from elsewhere – meaning that his rule would by, default, continue – they lost the political will to prioritise Syria. There was simply no longer any political will for ongoing involvement in Syria.

What are the consequences for the people who stay behind after such an operation?

Hellyer: The consequences for people are very dire. The Kurds in northeast Syria are furious. They now know: you cannot rely on the West. The West made promises and many people have relied on them. Merely from a moral standpoint, such a foreign policy approach is wrong and it also makes the future credibility of such promises to allies less certain.

Western states have also committed war crimes in the name of war on terror. For example, the USA used so-called waterboarding as an interrogation tactic, a torture method in which drowning is simulated. At Guantanamo Bay, people were illegally detained and ill-treated despite having no proven affiliation with Islamist groups. British and American drones also repeatedly hit innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Have these crimes been sufficiently addressed?

Supporters of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement rally in front of the British Embassy ahead of an April 22 vote in the British House of Commons on whether or not to declare that a genocide is underway in Xinjiang province and Chinas treatment of the Uyghur Muslims on April 16, 2021 in Washington, DC (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The autocrats' favourite catch-all: many regimes use the "war on terror" narrative to strengthen their own power and to silence critics. The Chinese government, for example, is cracking down on the Uighurs because they are supposedly terrorists. This drastic crackdown on dissidents has not just existed since the 9/11 attacks. But since the U.S., the most powerful nation in the world, started using these terms, autocrats have felt empowered.

Hellyer: There have been some trials, but it is often hardly possible to get evidence from the respective countries and to prove their crimes to those in authority. It is difficult to initiate legal proceedings when high-ranking leaders are involved in criminal activity. George W. Bush did not have to answer for his actions, nor did the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who supported Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Have these interventions by western states further destabilised the Arab world?

Hellyer: The interest-driven, often unethical approach of Western states has certainly had a negative impact on the region. However, there are other factors that pose far greater problems for the Middle East today, most notably the lack of good governance. In many countries, the ruling elite are unwilling either to let their citizens participate in the political process, or to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms. The fact that there are no truly pluralistic, democratic governments in the Arab world will have dire consequences for the people in the long term. Climate change is also going to present countries with ever greater challenges; in Iraq and Syria, for example, there are increasingly severe droughts and growing water scarcity. There are few high-performing economies in the region that can support the people and offer the very many young people in the region prospects. And the regimes themselves are destabilising the region enormously.

To what extent?

Hellyer: Many regimes use the "war on terror" narrative to strengthen their own power and to silence critics. Regimes elsewhere in the world are also engaged in such activities: the Chinese government, for example, is cracking down on the Uighurs because they are supposedly terrorists. This drastic crackdown on dissidents has not just existed since the 9/11 attacks. But since the U.S., the most powerful nation in the world, started using these terms, autocrats have felt empowered. According to the motto: look here, even the West says "war on terror", and we can use that narrative to attack all kinds of dissent.

What can the international community do to stabilise the Arab world?

Hellyer: If the West wants to insist more on the protection of human rights, even in autocratic countries, as Joe Biden has announced, that is positive. But the past few years have shown that such promises do not mean that such concerns around human rights will be overwhelmingly consequential – realpolitik concerns will override that, which is how so many autocratic regimes in the region rely on good ties with different Western states. The West still has influence in the Middle East today, but is also not as important as many believe. Much of what happens in the region is beyond the control of any single Western leader and instead requires a multilateral effort.

 

Where do you see that, for example?

Hellyer: In Tunisia, the EU has done a lot to support democratic change. Democracy is now in a precarious state since President Kais Saied dismissed the head of government in July and suspended the work of parliament. That is not the West’s fault, it’s an internal Tunisian matter. Western leaders could have been more attentive to some developments. But in this case it is the inner dynamics that are more important.

So it's not always the West's fault?

Hellyer: The mistakes that Western leaders made in the region during the "war on terror" should be identified and their crimes prosecuted. But we also need to recognise the impact of those national and domestic political forces. Many observers say: everything that has gone wrong in the Middle East in the past 20 years can be blamed on the western states and their illegal machinations after September 11th. This is wrong. This overestimates the power of the West and underestimates the importance of seeing how domestic political forces in the region have contributed to the difficult situation. It isn’t about letting the West off the hook; most certainly not. It’s about ensuring that, analytically, we don’t let anyone off the hook.

Interview conducted by Andrea Backhaus

© Qantara.de 2021

Political scientist and Middle East expert Dr H.A. Hellyer is a Cambridge University academic, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a fellow at the Carnegie think tank in Washington DC. In his work, Hellyer, among other things, focuses on questions of security and religion in the West and in the Arab world.

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