Last Friday’s terrorist bombing outside the Tomb of Ali in the Iraqi city of An-Najaf was the deadliest such attack against a civilian target in Middle East history. It recalls a similar blast in the southern outskirts of Beirut in March1985, which until last week held the region’s record for civilian fatalities in a single bombing.
There are some striking parallels between the two terrorist attacks: both were the result of a car bomb that exploded outside a crowded mosque during Friday prayers and both were part of an assassination attempt against a prominent Shiite cleric that killed scores of worshipers and passers-by.
There is a key difference, however: While no existing government is believed to have been behind the An-Najaf bombing, the Beirut bombing was a classic case of state-sponsored terrorism: a plot organized by the intelligence services of a foreign power.
That foreign power was the United States.
The 1985 Beirut bombing was part of an operation, organized by CIA director William Casey and approved by President Ronald Reagan, to assassinate Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent anti-American Lebanese cleric. More than 80 civilians were killed and over 200 wounded, though Ayatollah Fadlallah escaped serious injury.
Few people today are aware of this major terrorist incident. Not only did Casey, Reagan, and other officials responsible never face justice for the crime, it is as if the tragedy has completely disappeared from history.
It is conspicuously absent from most lists of major terrorist attacks in the Middle East and is rarely mentioned by the so-called “experts on terrorism” who appear on radio and television talk shows. Often when I refer to the incident during the course of an interview, my credibility is suddenly placed into question.
The attack and the U.S. role in it is not, however, a matter of historical debate. Major American daily newspapers not only made the bombing itself front-page news, but when the CIA connection came to light several weeks later, that too made the lead headlines. In addition, award-winning Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward examines the incident in detail in his best-selling 1987 book Veil.
Despite increased corporate control of the media, there is very little outright censorship of the news in this country. There is, however, a kind of selective historical memory that makes it difficult to even recall events which go beyond what the noted M.I.T. linguist Noam Chomsky has referred to as the “boundaries of thinkable thought.”
As Thomas Kuhn describes in his classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolution, if something occurs outside the dominant paradigm, it -- for all practical purposes -- did not really happen because it is beyond the comprehension of those stuck in the old ways of thinking. In this case, if the dominant paradigm says that terrorism is the exclusive province of movements or governments the United States does not like and the United States is the world leader in fighting terrorism, there is therefore no such thing as U.S.-backed terrorism.
Unfortunately, even if one restricts the definition of terrorism to exclude acts of violence against civilians by official police and military units of established governments, the United States has a long history of supporting terrorism.
Much attention has been given to the ultimately successful U.S.-led effort to force the extradition of two Libyans implicated in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Few Americans, however, are aware that the United States has refused to extradite four terrorists -- right-wing Cuban exiles trained by the CIA -- convicted over twenty years ago in Venezuela for blowing up a Cuban airline in 1976.
The United States has also refused to extradite John Hull, an American CIA operative indicted in Costa Rica for the 1984 bombing of a press conference in a Nicaraguan border town which killed five journalists.
Similarly, the United States refuses to extradite Emmanuel Constant for trial in Haiti. The former military officer, who had worked closely with the CIA, is believed to be responsible for the murder of upwards to 5000 people under the Haitian dictatorship in the early 1990s.
Perhaps the most significant U.S.-backed terrorist operations in recent decades involved the Contras -- a paramilitary group composed largely of Nicaraguan exiles in Honduras -- who were armed, trained and financed by the U.S. government. They are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 civilians in a series of attacks against villages and rural cooperatives in northern Nicaragua during the 1980s. A number of prominent Reagan Administration officials directly involved in supporting such terrorist activities are now in prominent positions in the Bush Administration. Among these is the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, who -- as President Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras during the1980s -- actively supported the Contra terror campaigns across the border.
Yet despite all the attention given to international terrorism in the two years since the 9/11 attacks against the United States, this sordid history is rarely raised in the mainstream media or on Capitol Hill.
This does not mean, when faced by very real threats from mega-terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and while Israeli and Iraqi civilians are being blown up by extremists, that critics of U.S. policy should simply respond with an attitude of, “Well, we do it, too, so what’s the big deal?” Pointing out hypocrisy and double-standards alone does not address the very real and legitimate fears that Americans, Israelis, Iraqis and others have from terrorist violence.
There must be decisive action by the international community to stop such attacks, both through challenging policies that breed terrorism -- such as military occupations and support for dictatorial regimes -- as well as through improved intelligence, interdiction and, where necessary, well-targeted paramilitary operations aimed at the terrorists themselves.
At the same time, the refusal by the U.S. government and media to acknowledge the U.S. role in international terrorism raises serious questions as to whether the United States really is waging a “war on terrorism” or a war limited only to terrorism that does not support U.S. strategic objectives. Until the U.S. government is willing to come out categorically against all terrorism, it will be difficult to find the international cooperation necessary to rid the world from this very real threat.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He is Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project and is the author of 'Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism' www.commoncouragepress.com