The Discourse on ‘Terrorism’

The Discourse on ‘Terrorism’

Remi Brulin

A political discourse is a way of speaking that attempts to give meaning to events and experiences from a particular perspective.

The discourse on “terrorism” has its own, unique history. Over time, a series of actors, from politicians to “terrorism experts” to the news media, have given meaning to, or constructed, “terrorism” by including various voices and viewpoints while excluding others. These gate-keepers have set boundaries beyond which the discourse was not allowed to venture, ensuring that alternative discourses never developed, were erased or silenced.

In the American and Israeli cases, this process of meaning construction is most clearly seen at work during the last decade of the Cold War. In July 1979, the Jonathan Institute, a group with intimate ties to the Israeli government, organized a major conference on “international terrorism” in Jerusalem. This event announced the beginning of a deliberate, and ultimately extraordinarily successful, Israeli public relations offensive aimed at convincing the United States of the seriousness of the “terrorist” threat, a threat squarely identified with the Palestinians and their allies around the world.

The Institute organized a second conference in Washington DC in June 1984. The roster of speakers was just as impressive as the one five years earlier. The proceedings were later edited by Benjamin Netanyahu (the son of Benzion) and published under the title Terrorism: How the West Can Win. The book garnered rave reviews from major American newspapers and was a remarkable publishing success.

As Netanyahu explained, the 1979 conference had represented “a turning point in the understanding of international terrorism” and “helped focus the attention of influential circles in the West on the real nature of the terrorist threat.” This was “not enough” however, since a “coherent and united international response” was still nowhere to be found. “To advocate such a unified policy and to suggest what it might consist of,” he concluded, was “the principal objective of the Jonathan Institute’s second international gathering.”

The success of Israel’s hasbara campaign is best illustrated in the speech Secretary of State George Shultz gave at the conference. States were using “terrorism” as “another weapon of warfare,” he argued, and neither the United States nor the community of “free nations” could “stand in a solely defensive posture and absorb the blows dealt by terrorists.” It was time, Shultz went on, to “think long, hard, and seriously about more active means of defense – defense through appropriate preventive or pre-emptive actions against terrorist groups before they strike.”

By the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, American elected officials had come to accept and adopt the main claims and assumptions that had, for years, been at the heart of the Israeli discourse on “terrorism.”

Remarkably however, this discourse took hold precisely as Palestinians living in Lebanon were the victims of a particularly deadly campaign of “terrorism.” Between 1979 and 1983 a mysterious group that called itself the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners (FLLF) claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings that targeted the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. These attacks involved explosive devices hidden in baskets, on mules, bicycles, car and trucks.

On some occasions the targets were clearly tied to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). On countless others, they were purely civilian: market-places, busy streets, refugee camps or crowded theaters.

Many of these bombings were covered in the local and international press, including on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Several attacks are included in the RAND and START “terrorism databases.” Overall, the FLLF bombs killed hundreds of civilians, and wounded countless more.

At the time, Palestinian and Lebanese officials repeatedly rejected the notion that the FLLF was behind the attacks, insisting instead that this group was merely a fiction created to hide Israel’s hand in the bombings. Israeli officials strenuously rejected such accusations, claiming instead that the bombings were part of an internecine war amongst rival Arab factions.

In the US media, Palestinian claims about Israel’s possible involvement in the bombings were never seriously considered and, after 1983, the FLLF bombing campaign was simply never mentioned again.

Similarly, in the main “terrorism” journals there is not a single mention of the very existence of the FLLF’s “terrorist” campaign. In these journals, the idea that Palestinians were the victims of a large-scale “terrorist” bombing campaign has simply been erased. Meanwhile, in articles about “terrorism” in Lebanon, the term “terrorist” is used solely in reference to Palestinian perpetrators of “terrorism,” whereas Israel’s policies are discussed solely in the context of its fight against “the terrorists” in that country.

In August 2012, the New Yorker published a profile of Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad. Before Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, David Remnick writes, two reporters for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, Yigal Sarna and Anat Tal-Shir, had investigated the possibility that Dagan had “led a secret unit across the border whose mission was to instigate terrorist events that would justify an incursion.” Remnick concludes: “Military censors killed the story, Sarna told me. Dagan acknowledges the censorship but denies the thrust of the story.”

This account takes up one paragraph out of a 50-paragraph long article. These revelations came on the heels of a 30-year-long silence about the FLLF, and were unsurprisingly not followed-up on at the time. Still, journalist Noam Sheizaf did post the paragraph about the military censor on his Facebook page (in Hebrew). As he wrote on his blog for +972 Magazine, Yigal Sarna commented as follows: “Indeed, the censorship [on these stories] has been on for years. Horrifying things were done there, not just planned.”

Four years later Amir Oren, the military correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, published another profile of Dagan that confirmed Remnick’s story and explicitly referred to the FLLF.

An officer who served under Dagan “claimed that on orders from the IDF, under cover of the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners, deadly strikes were being carried out against Palestinian targets, and the casualties included innocent civilians.” That anonymous complaint “reached the press,” Oren writes, “and from there – even though the military censor forbade publication – it reached Begin.”

Oren provides further details. The complaint named four senior Israeli officials: Raphael Eitan, the IDF Chief of Staff; Meir Dagan, the commander of the South Lebanon Region; head of Northern Command Avigdor Ben-Gal; and Shlomo Ilya, an intelligence officer. Yehoshua Saguy, the head of Military Intelligence, looked into the allegations and concluded that they were accurate. However, Prime Minister Menachem Begin “didn’t want to believe it, especially on the eve of an election,” and this was the end of the matter. Oren’s account was never mentioned in the US press at the time.

In February 2018 Ronen Bergman, the senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, published Rise and kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassination. This extensively researched book was very positively reviewed in the major newspapers in the United States. Its author gave public talks, was interviewed on numerous TV news programs, and his work praised by several “terrorism experts.” Rise and Kill First contains several pages devoted to the FLLF operation, a remarkable, detailed account based solely on interviews with Israeli officials involved in the operation or who were aware of its existence at the time.

As Bergman makes quite clear, the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies had been right all along. The FLLF was indeed a creation of Israel, specifically Eitan, Ben-Gal and Dagan. Its objective? To cause “chaos among the Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon, without leaving an Israeli fingerprint,” to “give them the feeling that they were constantly under attack” and to “instill them with a sense of insecurity.”

Bergman tells of early (and unsuccessful) efforts by senior officers and members of the government to push back against such methods, efforts that confirm Remnick’s and Oren’s accounts. Remarkably, he also describes how Defense Minister Ariel Sharon used the FLLF in the hope that such attacks would “provoke Arafat into attacking Israel, which could then respond by invading Lebanon.” Said differently, Sharon conducted a “terrorist” campaign aimed at provoking the PLO into resorting to “terrorism,” which would have given Israel the justification it needed to invade Lebanon in the name of fighting “terrorism.”

“By mid-September 1981,” Bergman writes, “car bombs were exploding regularly in Palestinian neighborhoods of Beirut and other Lebanese cities.” These attacks were detailed in a RAND report on trends in “international terrorism” for the year 1981. Over a two-week span, the FLLF (that is to say, Sharon’s) bombs killed around 120 people. By comparison, and according to the same report, Palestinian “terrorists” killed a grand total of 16 people in 1980 and 1981 combined.

Rise and Kill First provides a clear picture of the inner workings of this “terrorist” campaign. The explosives were “packed in Ariel laundry powder bags” so as to look like “innocent goods” when going through roadblocks. Women were chosen to drive “to reduce the likelihood of the cars being caught” on the way to their target, and the cars themselves were “developed in the IDF’s Special Operations Executive.” As one Israeli intelligence officer told Bergman:

I saw from a distance one of the cars blowing up and demolishing an entire street. We were teaching the Lebanese how effective a car bomb could be. Everything that we saw later with Hezbollah sprang from what they saw had happened after these operations.

The public discussion that followed the publication of Rise and Kill First has focused on the history, efficacy, legality and morality of Israel’s so-called “targeted assassinations” or “targeted killings” program, a program discussed solely in the context of this country’s fight against “terrorism.”

The FLLF bombings were not, however, examples of “targeted killings” against Palestinian “terrorists.” As is clear from countless contemporary news accounts of these attacks, most FLLF attacks clearly amounted to “terrorism.” An Israeli officer interviewed by Bergman makes precisely this point:

With Sharon’s backing, terrible things were done. I am no vegetarian, and I supported and even participated in some of the assassination operations Israel carried out. But we are speaking here about mass killing for killing’s sake, to sow chaos and alarm, among civilians, too. Since when do we send donkeys carrying bombs to blow up in marketplaces?

How is it possible, then, that the public discussion of Rise and Kill First systematically failed to include a discussion of Israel’s use of “terrorism” in Lebanon?

Once again, silence is the answer. Indeed, in all the reviews, interviews and public talks about the book, the FLLF operation was never mentioned once. Truly remarkably, the public discussion of Rise and Kill First proceeded, in its entirety and without a single exception, as if the FLLF bombing campaign had never happened, as if the Palestinians had never been the victims of a widespread campaign of “terrorism,” as if this campaign hadn’t been directed by some of the most senior Israeli leaders of the last decades, that is to say as if the revelations contained in Rise and Kill First had simply never been published.

For decades, the discourse on “terrorism” has been used to delegitimize, dehumanize and otherize Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims (amongst others) as well as to justify the increasingly violent “counter-terrorist” practices of the past few decades.

This discourse fundamentally impedes our ability to think clearly, and ethically, about “terrorism” and about the type of policies that should be developed in response to political violence. The discourse and the practices it enables must both continue to be subjected to radical, critical analysis. Only then can we hope to bring an end to the never-ending and deadly cycles of violence and counter-violence, “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism.”


Remi Brulin is Adjunct Professor in the  Sociology Department and Interdisciplinary Studies Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York