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ISIS, 9/11, and the terrorism time loop

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As we mark another anniversary of the attacks in 2001, it seems as if little has changed. We appear to be caught in a time loop where history keeps repeating itself again and again. If it was al Qaeda in 2001 that represented the pinnacle of all things evil that animated the US invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq, today its al Qaeda’s evil twin Islamic State that is prompting air strikes in Iraq and upcoming airstrikes on Syria as well. Once again the moral outrage over the killing of innocent Americans, this time two journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, serves to enable the US government to both carry out interventions in the Middle East and justify its domestic counter-terrorism policies.

Virtually absent in the media circus around ISIS is an honest discussion of how the US War on Terror, rather than halting the growth of violent Islamist groups, actually fosters fundamentalism.

To be clear, the US did not create ISIS. That is, it did not fund and train ISIS in Syria in the way that it funded and trained the Mujahideen (from which al Qaeda emerged) to fight its proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Rather it is US actions in the Middle East that have created the conditions for the rise of a group like ISIS. Al Qaeda did not exist in Iraq until after the US invasion. Al Qaeda in Iraq was formed in 2004, and was the precursor organization to the current ISIS. It is the US’s reliance on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates to push back against the so called Shia Crescent (Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, and for a time the Sunni Hamas) that prompted rich donors in the Gulf States to channel funds to ISIS in Syria. It is US and various dictatorships’ support of counter-revolutionary forces opposed to the Arab Spring of 2011 that allowed reactionary groups to grow while thwarting progressive ones. And finally, it is the US’s destruction of Iraq and its support for the Shia government that excluded and oppressed the Sunni that allowed ISIS to take control of such large parts of that country.

In short, it is the US’s War on Terror, and the part played by various regional actors that have fostered the rise of this virulent form of fundamentalism. ISIS represents a nightmare for the US because it threatens to drag the entire region into a sectarian conflict and to destabilize the orderly flow of oil.

But ISIS also represents a dream in terms of US propaganda. It serves to bolster the aims of the Global War on Terror and to justify a vastly expanded national security state. Since the Snowden revelations there has been growing concern among Americans of the gigantic surveillance apparatus of the NSA. There has been a greater skepticism of drone wars. The box office success of Dirty Wars and its Oscar nomination is an indication of a growing war weariness among the American public. It is this war fatigue that scuttled the intervention into Syria that was proposed last year.

What better to marshal collective anger than a horrendous group like ISIS that cold bloodedly kills Americans, that ruthlessly destroys anyone who disagrees with it, that persecutes religious minorities and is the very prototype of the evil terrorist threat? This threat has justified air strikes in Iraq, increased surveillance in Syria as well as a greater escalation including airstrikes by the US, and regional and international involvement in both countries over the coming weeks and years. In short, the very thing that causes ire among Jihads (Osama bin Laden was particularly incensed by US troops in Saudi Arabia), and that allows them recruit, is what the US proposes to do.

People in the establishment who realize that, and who understand that the US can’t win a conventional war, are proposing instead that the US amp up JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) the shady underground outfit of trained killers that is unaccountable even to Congress. This is the very organization that is the subject of extensive critique in Scahill’s book Dirty Wars.

Also, what better to justify the ten-fold increase in the number of people on the no-fly list in the Obama era than the threat of the “homegrown terrorist” like Douglas McCain of Minnesota who it is believed traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS? US officials have emphasized again and again that about 100 Americans are part of ISIS and therefore represent a grave threat to the homeland. This bolsters domestic counter-terrorism strategies from arbitrary arrests, to deportation, mass surveillance, and entrapment.

Here is an interview I did with the KPFA radio station’s nationally syndicated radio program Letters and Politics on ISIS, terrorism and the media:

Some of the themes I discuss in this interview are dealt with in more depth in my talk (see below). I lay out how the terrorist threat was constructed in the US in the 1970s and how this threat was racialized in the 1980s and 1990s in the political sphere, as well in the news and by Hollywood. Finally, I discuss the banalization of the terrorist threat in the 2000s and the Obama era.

Back in 2001 some commentators suggested that the attacks on the twin towers be treated as a criminal act. In other words, they stated that Osama bin Laden and others in al Qaeda who were responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Americans should have been tried in the World Court and brought to justice. Yet, this is not the course of action that the US government pursued. Instead it launched a Global War on Terror that would go on indefinitely. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, passed by Congress three days after 9/11, established the War on Terror as an open-ended, perpetual, global war.

The reason for this is strategic. In a nutshell, it provided the Bush administration and the neoconservatives with the “pearl harbor” moment that they had articulated in a report the previous year that would enable them to realize their vision of a new Middle East. It was about advancing empire; a project that the Obama administration continued in new and old ways.

But what allowed the War on Terror brand to succeed was the decades of work in the political, news media and cultural spheres that had primed the American public to accept war as the appropriate response to 9/11 (as outlined in my talk). And here we are again in 2014.

“Manufacturing the Terrorist Threat” on YouTube:

This post originally appeared at

Deepa Kumar

Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of "Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire" and "Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike". You can follow her work at her website and on twitter @ProfessorKumar.

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33 Responses

  1. eljay on September 11, 2014, 9:17 am

    Obama unleashes another hypocrisy-laden, vomit-inducing speech on the world.

  2. bopfromthedarkside on September 11, 2014, 9:52 am

    “But ISIS represents a dream in terms of US propaganda”

    Exactly! How do we know that Big Scary in the black PJs, holding the knife, and ready to behead the journalist, isn’t on the CIA dime?

  3. lysias on September 11, 2014, 9:59 am

    Virtually all the discussion in official Washington assumes that we cannot ally with Assad’s government and indeed must continue to support, at least in words, its overthrow? Why? What is the logic here? If we genuinely want to defeat ISIS, and cannot use our own ground troops, isn’t the logical course of action to mend our relations with Assad and Iran, and to let them fight ISIS on the ground, with our support?

    • Marco on September 11, 2014, 10:32 am

      “If we genuinely want to defeat ISIS”… we don’t. ISIS, like Al Qaeda, is just the pretext.

      How soon we forget, after 9/11 we invaded Afghanistan but quickly moved on to Iraq. Why? Rumsfeld complained that there weren’t enough good targets in Afghanistan.

      If we were so flip about moving from a terrorist group that attacked us to launching an aggressive war on a secular Arab state that had never attacked us, why would it be so surprising that we would make that switch again?

      • Citizen on September 11, 2014, 6:01 pm

        It was in the works to attack Iraq even before 9/11, and Bush Jr, Chaney, and Wolfowitz were key linchpins; as well, they knew 9/11 was going to happen before it did. The only two agencies that could have carried off 9/11 were CIA and Mossad. The beneficiary? Israel. Chaney also was motivated by oil control dreams, and Bush Jr, by the dream of getting the guy who dared to say he wanted to murder Bush Sr. Saddam would’ve done anything to avoid attack by US; he offered full inspection of Iraq for WMD–this was ignored.

      • Citizen on September 11, 2014, 6:03 pm

        How many of you have ever heard of this woman, and what she had to say about 9/11?

  4. RobertB on September 11, 2014, 11:00 am

    9/11 After 13 years

    By Paul Craig Roberts

    September 11, 2014

    ” According to the official story, on September 11, 2001, the vaunted National Security State of the World’s Only Superpower was defeated by a few young Saudi Arabians armed only with box cutters. The American National Security State proved to be totally helpless and was dealt the greatest humiliation ever inflicted on any country claiming to be a power.

    That day no aspect of the National Security State worked. Everything failed.

    The US Air Force for the first time in its history could not get interceptor jet fighters into the air.

    The National Security Council failed.

    All sixteen US intelligence agencies failed as did those of America’s NATO and Israeli allies.

    Air Traffic Control failed.

    Airport Security failed four times at the same moment on the same day. The probability of such a failure is zero.

    If such a thing had actually happened, there would have been demands from the White House, from Congress, and from the media for an investigation. Officials would have been held accountable for their failures. Heads would have rolled.

    Instead, the White House resisted for one year the 9/11 families’ demands for an investigation. Finally, a collection of politicians was assembled to listen to the government’s account and to write it down. The chairman, vice chairman, and legal counsel of the 9/11 Commission have said that information was withheld from the commission, lies were told to the commission, and that the commission “was set up to fail.” The worst security failure in history resulted in not a single firing. No one was held responsible.

  5. michelle on September 11, 2014, 2:04 pm

    American troops need new/different uniforms/logos
    being as they no longer represent/defend America
    G-d Bless our troops and their good intentions

  6. John Douglas on September 11, 2014, 2:40 pm

    Jones’n for the Long War

    Eisenhower warned us but we didn’t listen. Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has acted like a kid with his first .22 who can’t find a living thing to shoot at, no rats, no birds, not even a frog. Noriega had to go. The gangs in Somalia had to be stopped (Black Hawk Down). Then 9/11. Saddam was Hitler, Al Qaeda threatened the American way of life. The Taliban hid bin Laden. A “war on Terror” is declared. Duct-tape and plastic recommended to foil al Qaeda attacks. Generals speak of “the long war” (at last), a perpetual state of Americans crusading to defeat someone. Contradicting U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates, Iran sought nuclear weapons and should be bombed. Gaddafi had to go. Mubarak was removed. The Muslim brotherhood, freely elected, was deposed. Assad the ophthalmologist used chemical weapons (probably not true) and had to be bombed – lobbyists from the defense industry and Israel insisted. Yushchenko, freely elected in Ukraine, tilted from the EU towards Russia and was deposed, chased from his residence by U.S. backed thugs and anti-Semites. Putin steps up and was surely seeking a new USSR. He must be stopped. That would be a long war (just like the good old days). From nowhere comes IS/ISIS/ISSIL, well not exactly from nowhere, from the remnants of a destroyed Iraq. IS/ISIS/ISIL, our Defense Secretary tells us, threatens every interest of the U.S. It must be destroyed. In the U.S., roads crumble, schools close, food stamps are reduced, manufacturing disappears, climate change may be reaching a tipping point. Off we go to war, maybe even a good long one.

    • MHughes976 on September 11, 2014, 5:33 pm

      I think it was Yanukovych not Yushchenko who tried to tilt Ukraine towards Russia – and I’m prepared to believe that he had become desperately unpopular in Kiev and in western Ukraine among people in general, not just among thugs and anti-Semites. Also that Putin is no saint but a pretty ruthless nationalist leader. What happened was nevertheless a Western-supported coup and we cannot sensibly claim against Putin that it is morally imperative for parts of the country where the former government was popular to accept the results of a coup in the capital. However, despite Obama’s terrifying dulled eyes in your picture, which make him look like he’s been invaded by body-snatchers, I think that United States and western policy has had some sort of moral compass, some of the time, and that the Islamic Statists are fairly horrible. But they exist in reaction to other horrors: we keep forgetting that. The Sunnis in the IS area had become desperate because of oppressive anti-Sunni forces which we are seeking to reimpose in Iraq, though still apparently trying to destroy in Syria. So we are being driven not only into ever-shifting 1984-style alliances but into factional politics so complex and treacherous that we are on both sides at once, and our moral compass has crumbled.
      The root cause of all this is the one consistent thing, our total support for Zionism, in the view of most in the West the overwhelmingly noble, democratic, human-rights vindicating cause of our times.

      • John Douglas on September 12, 2014, 9:17 am


        Thanks for the correction and comments. On root causes, a tree can have multiple roots that all connect at the trunk but are otherwise causally independent. Zionism is a root but is not alone in feeding our mess in the middle east and beyond. The economic, political and media elite in the U.S., and perhaps more broadly in the west, have vested interests in war and will come to its support rather consistently though never take responsibility when it goes sour.

  7. lysias on September 11, 2014, 5:41 pm

    I remember Clinton (over Kosovo) and Bush fils in their last years in office also speaking robotically. In each case, I think the cause is the same. Each of them has been reduced to spouting words put in their mouths by the national security state.

  8. Bandolero on September 11, 2014, 6:11 pm


    I still wonder when there is the bugfixing since the “New Layout.”

    When I said I was optimistic about the “New Layout” I didn’t know that it would last that long.

    Sorry that I couldn’t read this article: my eyes are not that good and I didn’t make the effort to paste the text into a text editor to be able to read it.

    I also noticed that a feature of the new layout is to have me in a waiting queue, I don’t know whether that’s intentional, however I want you to know it’s discouragang.

    So it goes. (Sorry for my blunt criticism, I would much more like to be more positive, but I really can’t read articles here now anymore – my eyes are not good enough for that)

    • Bandolero on September 11, 2014, 6:43 pm

      Seems my comment mmetiately got published, so I repudiate: that part is working again.

    • elephantine on September 11, 2014, 7:04 pm

      Bandolero, I agree that the text is pretty small and hard to read however you can easily fix this yourself by zooming in. Not sure what kind of computer or OS you are using but you can use google to get the instructions. Cheers.

      • annie on September 11, 2014, 7:36 pm

        elephantine, i am not sure if you got the message eslam downloaded his video on vimeo. i thought you might be about to watch it. he responded to you/ linked in the comment section…

      • elephantine on September 12, 2014, 3:32 am

        Thanks Annie, I had not seen the reply and I’ll go have a look.

      • Bandolero on September 12, 2014, 9:03 pm


        Yes, I know, there are lot’s of tricks to maek any text readable. Ctrl-+ to make it larger, disabling styles in the browser to get rid of a hard to read font – or, copy paste text into an editor to read it with a nice font.

        When I first so the new MW layout, I thought I’ll get used to the new layout, but now, after some time, I remarked, that I didn’t get used to it, and I unconsciously react to the new layout by visiting the MW site a lot fewer times than before the new layout.

        Since I can imagine that I’m not the only one experienceing such an effect, and I find the MW site and it’s content very important, I wanted the editors here to know that.

        But maybe I’m just still mourning: the old MW layout was so nice to read …

  9. JWalters on September 11, 2014, 6:13 pm

    ISIS, the “Islamic State” is at root a direct reaction to the “Jewish State”.

    EXACTLY this reaction was predicted in the 1940’s by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall (after whom the humanitarian Marshall Plan was named), U.S. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, and many other HIGHLY knowledgeable people. The historical facts are succinctly given in “War Profiteers and the Roots of the War on Terror”.

    The U.S. contradicts its most core beliefs in supporting the “Jewish State”. It has created the very type of conflict the U.S. Constitution prevents by banning a state religion. It betrayed its own bedrock principles because massive amounts of money corrupted both its free press and its electoral process. The U.S. was with ISIS is a spin-off. Its main war is with war profiteers in its midst. Israel never had any “moral high ground”.

  10. Citizen on September 11, 2014, 6:20 pm

    Some noticed Obama spoke about his new coalition against ISIS but didn’t name anyone who’s joining his war against pure evil. Who’s in it, UK (minus Scotland?), Australia, Canada, and Israel? Who will furnish the boots on the ground–anyone besides the Iraqi Army and Kurds?

  11. eGuard on September 11, 2014, 6:46 pm

    The only bright point is: Israel was never involved. At all.

  12. RoHa on September 11, 2014, 7:21 pm

    “To be clear, the US did not create ISIS. That is, it did not fund and train ISIS in Syria”

    I’m not so sure. I’ve seen plenty of reports that the US funded and trained anti- Assad rebels, and that those rebels subsequently became Members of ISIS. Are any of those reports true?

    • aiman on September 12, 2014, 4:11 am

      Indeed. The US, the Israel lobby and Saudi Arabia have been using the militant “rebels” in Syria in a proxy war against Asad. The Da’ish army as Taxi rightly calls is an international gathering of Takfiris who emerged out of the utopian violence forced upon Syria. They would be wetting their beds if they hadn’t been let loose with all those weapons. Now they’re boasting of conquering Rome.

  13. Keith on September 11, 2014, 7:23 pm

    DEEPA KUMAR- “To be clear, the US did not create ISIS. That is, it did not fund and train ISIS in Syria in the way that it funded and trained the Mujahideen (from which al Qaeda emerged) to fight its proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.”

    While it is true that the US did not openly fund and train ISIS like it did the Mujahideen, I have little doubt that the Godfather was well aware of what was going on and approved.

    Deepa Kumar: “It is the US’s reliance on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates to push back against the so called Shia Crescent (Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, and for a time the Sunni Hamas) that prompted rich donors in the Gulf States to channel funds to ISIS in Syria.”

    I am confident that the US was well aware of what was going on and approved. The very notion that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates would engage in activities which the Godfather strongly disapproved is not credible. There are analysts who feel that the US and NATO were directly involved in a covert manner. That is one of the purposes of the Special Operations Forces mentioned in the article.

    Deepa Kumar: “ISIS represents a nightmare for the US because it threatens to drag the entire region into a sectarian conflict and to destabilize the orderly flow of oil.”

    This is a totally unsupported assertion that is little more than a projection on the part of the author. The facts on the ground tell a different story. Iraq, Libya and Syria have been smashed to bits as a consequence of imperial actions. That is fact. Does this mean that empire is actively engaged in creating its nightmare? Hardly. Destroying potential competitors ensures hegemonic control. There is a lot of misunderstanding about “stability.” The US desires a dynamic stability in the power relations, not peace and tranquility. The US didn’t get to be the sole super power by continually engaging in counterproductive actions. The US is self-serving and brutal, but it is not run by a bunch of goof-offs.

    Deepa Kumar: “But ISIS also represents a dream in terms of US propaganda. It serves to bolster the aims of the Global War on Terror and to justify a vastly expanded national security state.”

    I agree, and this lends support to the conclusion that Uncle Sam is using Islamic fundamentalism to destroy selected Middle East countries and to create the impression of a clash of civilizations. The balance of the article was good. The war on terror is a pretext, nothing more. That it contributes to increased terrorism is hardly in doubt, Chomsky and others have pointed this out for some time.

  14. aiman on September 12, 2014, 4:23 am

    It should be made clear that no organised gang of zombies can operate within any nation state without the support of official power. These Takfiris despite all their boasts owe all their murderous “victories” to those who supplied them with weapons and propaganda. Saudi Arabia realises that setting fire to Syria has got out of its hand, so it’s now warning that terrorists will strike Europe or the US. What the House of Saud does not say is that it is itself scared. I wouldn’t be surprised if it carried out false flag attacks to hasten strikes against the same people it nourished to kill and hate.

  15. fayez chergui on September 12, 2014, 8:12 am

    America has born in blood, it can only survive in blood.

    • Mooser on September 12, 2014, 5:21 pm

      G-g-g-o, gee whillikers, Mr. Chergui, whose blood in particular, does America need to survive? I mean, I don’t want to upset a big tough guy like yourself, but it would be very reassuring to know whose blood you intend on spilling.

      • fayez chergui on September 12, 2014, 9:54 pm

        Well… if you’re asking, you’ll never understand.

      • eljay on September 16, 2014, 2:35 pm

        >> America has born in blood, it can only survive in blood.

        Why does America need blood to survive? Why can’t America survive with justice, accountability, equality, peace, respect and co-operation?

  16. Mooser on September 13, 2014, 8:01 pm

    “Well… if you’re asking, you’ll never understand.”

    Good. That suits me fine.

  17. CitizenC on September 16, 2014, 9:46 am

    To be clear, the US did not create ISIS. That is, it did not fund and train ISIS in Syria in the way that it funded and trained the Mujahideen (from which al Qaeda emerged) to fight its proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

    This is egregiously wrong. The US did not create AQ any more than it created ISIS. AQ emerged from the “Arab Afghans” who were trained, organized, funded and led by Osama bin Laden. And what set OBL on the path to jihad? Michael Scheuer, who headed and later advised the CIA’s bin Laden unit, argues that it was the malaise of defeat, powerlessness and inferiority in the Arab world after Israel’s crushing victory in 1967. Mohammed bin Laden was fiercely patriotic over the loss of Palestine in 1948, and Osama, who was born in 1957, was deeply affected by Palestine as a teenager.

    Professors Mearsheimer and Walt and and many other commentators have warned that the US-Israel relationship is the chief factor encouraging terrorism against the US. The “notion of payback for injustices suffered by Palestinians is perhaps the most powerfully recurrent in bin Laden’s speeches,” wrote Max Rodenbeck of The Economist.

    Ambassador Chas Freeman stated, “There is no reason to doubt the consistent testimony of the architects of major acts of anti-American terrorism about what motivates them to attack us. In the words of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is credited with masterminding the 9/11 attacks, their purpose was to focus ‘the American people… on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people…’ As Osama Bin Laden, purporting to speak for the world’s Muslims, has said again and again: ‘we have… stated many times, for more than two-and-a-half-decades, that the cause of our disagreement with you is your support to your Israeli allies who occupy our land of Palestine…'”

    It is the US’s reliance on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates to push back against the so called Shia Crescent (Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, and for a time the Sunni Hamas) that prompted rich donors in the Gulf States to channel funds to ISIS in Syria

    No, it was the overthrow of centuries of Sunni rule in Iraq, and the installation of a Shia regime, that destroyed the regional balance of power and put the Saudis and the Gulf on the warpath against Iran. The US has been following in their wake, trying to arm the “moderate secular rebels” (a fiction) to have leverage while the Saudis armed the Islamists (not ISIS, which is even worse) until late in the game.

    The simplest way to defeat ISIS is to let Syria do it but that clashes with the neocon-ordained tilt against the Shia axis of Hizbollah/Syria/Iran.

    The present phase of the US destruction of the ME is not a strategic master stroke but something like Stalingrad

    All this has been set loose by Zionism, which is the sine qua non of the War on Terror and “clash of civilizations”. Its supporters have radicalized the empire, turned southwest Asia into the “eastern front”, site of its most depraved deeds and ideologies, like the eastern front of Nazi Germany. Robert Parry argues that the Ukraine crisis is a neocon gambit to wreck US-Russian entente and mutual problem solving over Syria and Iran. Etc

  18. CitizenC on September 16, 2014, 10:22 am

    See Gary Leupp’s piece on CounterPunch about all this

    ISIS and Washington’s Ignorance About the Sunni-Shia Divide

  19. CitizenC on September 16, 2014, 12:28 pm

    More sense on ISIS from Ahmad Samih Khalidi in today’s NYT

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