How the US "War on Terror" succeeded in teaching states how to kill

How the US "War on Terror" succeeded in teaching states how to kill
State terrorism has been the greatest purveyor of violence thanks to the War on Terror's handbook these past two decades. If we are to create a safer and peaceful world, that handbook - and its tactics - must be confronted, writes Mobashra Tazamal.
7 min read
01 Oct, 2021
President George W. Bush addressing a joint session of US Congress to lay out plans for the war against terrorism, on 20 September 2001. [Getty Images]

September marked twenty years since the beginning of the War on Terror (WoT), an amorphous borderless and timeless war instigated in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush. In a speech addressing Congress and the nation nine days after the deadly attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, Bush inaugurated this campaign to fight “terrorism” around the globe.

20 years later with millions killed, tens of millions displaced, and trillions spent, the war rages on as western states continue embarking on violent missions masked as “counter-terrorism” operations. Using the potential threat of violence as a pretence for actual violence has been a hallmark of state-led campaigns in the 21st century.

Bush’s campaign to rid the world of terrorism by dropping bombs killing hundreds of thousands of individuals was justified through a racist logic; primarily that Islam and Muslims are tied to violence. Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism, is encoded into the War on Terror. The underlying belief, which runs through the national security sector, is that Muslims are predisposed to violence and that their faith, Islam, encourages them to engage in it.

"Using the potential threat of violence as a pretence for actual violence has been a hallmark of state-led campaigns in the 21st century"

One of the many devastating long-term consequences of the WoT has been the criminalization and dehumanization of Muslims around the world. For the past twenty years, the media, academia, politicians, and many others with a platform have promoted the false and dangerous claim that Islam and Muslims are uniquely tied to or predisposed to violence. In the eyes of the western public, Muslims are no longer individuals, rather they are seen as a threatening monolith, and to neutralize this “threat,” any and all measures are justified. This explains why Guantanamo has existed for nearly two decades, why there’s been zero accountability from international bodies as US drone strikes killed children and entire wedding parties year after year, and why Muslim women’s freedom of expression continues to be trampled upon by several western states. It’s all framed under the argument that Muslims are a threat.

Today, authorities around the globe have adopted the War on Terror handbook, appropriating its discourse of undefined terms such as “extremists'' and “terrorists,” and instituting this loaded terminology to suit their personal needs. The global impact of this war is not limited to the millions dead and displaced as a result of western-led bombs and boots on the ground, but also involves its book of terminology and arguments that have sustained its presence for two decades. It’s this playbook that has given leaders and rulers around the globe the tools needed to repress, torture, imprison, and even kill dissidents, all in the name of “fighting terrorism.”


In China, there is a full-blown genocide taking place as Beijing targets Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, accusing them of being “terrorists.” Under the banner of fighting the “three evils of separatism, extremism, and terrorism,” the CCP launched its own People’s War on Terror in 2014 and have since imprisoned an estimated three million Uighur, Kazakh, and other Turkic Muslims in concentration camps, forcibly separated children from their parents, implemented forced birth control and sterilization policies, and effectively banned the expression of Uighur Muslim culture and identity.

Another act of genocide in the 21st century has also been justified via the “Muslim terrorist” narrative. In 2016 and 2017, the Myanmar military carried out brutal attacks against the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, including burning down entire villages, mass rapes, summary executions, and infanticides. Myanmar’s government defended the actions of the military as fighting against “terrorists'' who threatened the stability of the country.

For the past few years, India has experienced a drastic rise in anti-Muslim activity as Hindu nationalists have been emboldened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A 2018 report by the India Spend Initiative found that “90% of religious hate crimes since 2009 have occurred after the BJP took power at the Centre in 2014.” Anti-Muslim hate crimes are visible in the rising number of cow lynchings, mob harassment, and full-scale assault as demonstrated by the deadly 2020 anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi. 

The violence on the ground is a consequence of the growing popularity and reach of right-wing Hindu nationalism as politicians and media pundits construct the country’s 204 million Muslims as threats to what they hope to create, a Hindu-only nation. In a disturbing example of how deep the WoT rhetoric has gotten, Indian media described Muslims as engaging in “CoronaJihad” during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, accusing the minority population of not only being the source of the virus but actively spreading it.


In many western states, Muslim citizens are securitized, resulting in the government chipping away at their human rights. The securitization lens has been injected into every facet of our lives: from the food industry to “terrorism” databases that banks and financial authorities use and thus impact the funding/financing/and economic success of Muslim-led or Islamic-affiliated organizations/companies. In France and Austria, the government has effectively criminalized Muslim civil society, accusing activists and organizations of engaging in “political Islam,” another catch-all term popularized with the WoT aimed at smearing politically active Muslim-led organizations as “extremists”.

Further, some of those who have wholeheartedly adopted the WoT handbook are Muslim leaders themselves. The ruling monarchy in Bahrain has framed its decades-long campaign of crushing political dissidents fighting for basic human rights, as fighting terrorists and extremists. Utilizing their own broad counter-terrorism law, the kingdom has handed life imprisonment to leading academics, lawyers, and human rights activists, such as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.

"What the last two decades have demonstrated is that the (il)logic of the WoT will live on long after the bombs have stopped"

Next door, Saudi Arabia has been bombing and blockading Yemen since 2015, framing their ruthless onslaught of the poorest country in the region as fighting terrorists. The Kingdom’s six-year-long assault of Yemen has resulted in over a quarter-million dead. Currently, 80 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line, and in December 2020, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that Yemen was in “imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.”

Within the kingdom itself, the ruling family imposed a counter-terrorism law that drew widespread criticism from human rights organizations as well as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights Ben Emmerson, who in 2017 stated he was “concerned about the unacceptably broad definition of terrorism.” This law, which categorizes “disrupting public order” or “endangering national unity” as terrorist acts, has been used to persecute activists and journalists. Further, the Kingdom’s Specialized Criminal Court, established in 2008 to specifically handle terrorism cases, has been used by authorities to crackdown on human rights activists, including women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathoul.

What the last two decades have demonstrated is that the (il)logic of the WoT will live on long after the bombs have stopped. It is perhaps the most politically opportune piece of work used to justify unchecked powers and flagrant violations of human rights by those in power. What we’ve seen in these past twenty years is that this playbook has allowed leaders to label any individual or group they see as a threat, as a terrorist.

Thus, terrorism as a concept has been so politicized and instrumentalized, it no longer holds subjective power. If we are to truly discuss the greatest threats to communities today, it would be the terror induced by states. State terrorism has been by far the greatest purveyor of violence in these past two decades. The WoT handbook must be dismantled if we are to truly create a more safe and peaceful place.

Mobashra Tazamal is a researcher on Islamophobia at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Independent, Middle East Eye, and AltMuslimah.

Follow her on Twitter: @mobbiemobes

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.