Monday, January 6, 2014

Terror Also Wears Suit and Tie

“My image reflects in the enemy’s eyes and his image reflects in mine the same time.” 
Mos Def 

It stands to reason that doctors benefit from disease, private prisons from criminality, car mechanics from engine malfunction and journalists from bad news. Thus I wasn’t surprised by the conspicuous absence of any serious discussion on the causes of terrorism at the 13th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. Should terrorism choose to disappoint everyone and vanish, most of those self-proclaimed experts would be out of a job. To expect them to provide solutions would be like trusting the CEO of Los Pollos Hermanos to be against the War on Drugs™.  
But notwithstanding my cynicism, I can be quite an optimist depending on the time of the month. So I decided to go and see it for myself. I harboured the secret hope to dispel my belief that counter-terrorism is an eternally reflecting mirror keeping terrorism replicating Escher-like.

Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t want to pull that academic trick of using words and abstraction to make tangible reality ungraspable and endlessly up for discussion. I don’t mean to say terrorism is imaginary – no, it is sometimes real and should be fought. But while it’s clear that terror and its counterpart wouldn’t live without each other, it is less clear which one is the chicken and which is the egg. In my quest for the origin of that particular poultry, I figured I should endure the terror fest and look at it with positive, constructive eyes. And I tried. I swear I did. But reality kept intruding.

The first shocking thing about that conference was my being accepted to attend it less than two hours after I sent a very perfunctory email requesting to participate. This was a summit that boasted the presence of two ex-heads of Mossad, a few ex-chiefs of Shin Bet and a multitude of army officials and private contractors, mostly from the USA and Israel. If you threw a proper nail-bomb during coffee-break probably half of the Middle East problems would be solved. Still, the only reference I gave in my request was the name of a Brazilian newspaper for which sometimes I write, without any evidence to my claim, not even a link or a published article. Of course they could have just googled me, but in that case they’d have found out that I am the author of a novel whose main character  advocates the assassination of corrupt politicians and businessmen.  
In Eudemonia, the main character – a female journalist, no less – defends the morality of assassination and dabbles in the idea of whacking the VP of the Pale House, Duck Chainy ,and the mercenary Eric Pauper. She thinks that killing one of her interviewees is her way “of helping straighten the world.” 

But if my acceptance was surprising, the real shocker was yet to come. At what is known as one of the most prominent counter-terrorism conferences in the world, the security guards surrounding the Israel Navy Defense building let everyone in without any type of check. Nada. Then they thought better of it and asked everyone out, X-raying people’s bags on their way in while politely asking every visitor if they were “carrying a gun for self-defence.”
I found that quite amusing – we hadn’t even gotten inside the building and we were already adopting their terminology. In the universe of counter-terrorism, a gun could only be used as a reaction, a counter-action as it were. But even that was only on day one. After you hadn’t tried to self-defend or blow up the place on the first day of the conference, you were good to go on the next ones – not a single time again did they check me or my bag. And then I asked myself, quite rhetorically: “But what about terrorism?” Shouldn’t a conference in Herzliya, with all those big names attending it, be the ultimate terrorist dream? Isn’t such laxity incredibly reckless for people who believe the next suicide bomber is just waiting around the corner? You could almost be forgiven for thinking those counter-terrorists don’t actually believe terrorism exists.

Well, yes, we know terrorism exists.
“Terrorism exists and the line outside is just one of its consequences,” said one of the first speakers.


I was stumped. The thing would have sounded like an orchestra, if the instruments weren’t so poorly tuned. If that X-ray line was an evidence of terrorism, the case for it seemed extremely weak. But wait. There was, indeed, a much bigger case for it, and his name was Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian president was the boogieman du jour, at least at the beginning of the conference. Assad was compared to Hitler by more than three speakers on the first day alone. Some went further and expanded the metaphor, comparing the American “hesitancy” in attacking Syria with the US’s reluctance in joining the Allies against Germany. This went on and on, Nazi Germany being the easiest-to-grasp allegory, the simile of choice. Even Qanta Ahmad, a doctor whose specialty is in the field of sleep disorders, had something to say against Bashar al-Assad.
Qanta, who as a woman and a Muslim helped fill two quotas with one plane ticket, complained about Barack Obama’s “reluctance” in attacking Syria. For her, the fact that Syria has not been invaded proves “how jaded we are against tyranny.” Ahmad, perhaps unsatisfied with her diminutive role of movie extra, went beyond her script and praised Israel’s religious tolerance, saying she didn’t see anything that “prevented the flourishing of the Muslim faith” in the country. Who cares about truth at a conference on counter-terrorism? As it turns out, very few people.

More speakers yet joined in bashing Assad, and then another one came on stage and acted like the voice of reason: “Syria is not Nazi Germany.”
That platitude came as a blow at that point. Fellow lecturer Uzi Arad agreed: “Bashar is not Hitler.” Ok, we were getting somewhere, I thought. Yes, that’s how bad the thing was. But it was still too early for Logic to start celebrating. After a few words remembering the holocaust, the next Voice of Reason proposed another boogieman: Iran. The race now was tight between those two, making it impossible to guess who would win this year’s title of Hitler. It was not an easy contest, even with the replacement of hawkish Ahmadinejad by the moderate Hassan Rouhani. No, that friendly outreach recently performed by Rouhani was not going to discourage the likes of Yuval Steinitz. The Likud member, who holds a three-title position in the Israeli cabinet, managed the incredible feat of transforming a conciliatory gesture into an act of aggression. For him, Rouhani’s favourable words to Israel were “an attack of niceties to win public opinion, and he will laugh all the way to the bomb.” He said he didn’t trust Iran or Rouhani. “We must judge Iran by deeds, not words.” Steinitz then mentioned the words Beetles, and the group of words “give peace a chance.”

Not that anyone cared, but Amos Gilad came right after and said the very opposite –
“I believe in everything Iran says.”
Gilad was obviously still stuck in the mistranslated “wipe Israel off the map.” But there was no need to worry – though his premise was the opposite of Steinitz’s, the conclusion remained the same: The world should wipe Iran off the map. This is what is most conspicuous at such gatherings: experts usually come up with the conclusions first, and gather the premises that (pre)corroborate their decisions later. Facts are mostly irrelevant. They are just picked, shuffled and presented essentially for public consumption, a digestible explanation for a motive too ulterior to disclose.
Meanwhile, in a galaxy not far away, the Wall St. Journal hinted at real purpose reporting that “in response to a possible attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Raytheon stock prices have skyrocketed, reaching a 52-week high.”
Yes, folks: As it turns out, many of those experts lecturing us on security and defense work for insecurity and attack firms, from military manufacturers to defense contractors and consulting LLCs.

By and large, I abhor generalisations, including this very one. When people criticise the police, for example, as if they were all thugs, I cringe. There are good and bad policemen, and putting them all in the same basket is less a disservice to the good apples as it is a service to the bad ones. But when it comes to the misnamed defense industry, I’m left like Diogenes fumbling about with my lamp in search of an honest man.

But there was, to be fair, at least one dissenting voice at the conference. The one I heard speaking against an attack on Syria (and I have not heard all the speakers nor could I attend all the simultaneous panels) was Tarek Fatah, author of the book The Jew Is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism. Fatah had the most bombastic, counter-current line in the conference: “If Syria is invaded, it will become the next Afghanistan, and Lebanon will follow.” He also tried to show that a focus on Iran’s nuclear weapons was a bit incongruent when, “just one kilometre east of Iran, Pakistan has 200 nuclear missiles.” Those 200 deterring factors may explain, of course, the reason why no one threatens Pakistan, but the cold rationality of Mutually Assured Destruction was never discussed at the conference. Not once.

Another topic that was never broached was potential motivations for terrorism. According to the very experts attending the conference, terrorism needs two main things to materialise: motivation and operational capability. You’d think it would be a huge neglect to ignore 50 per cent of that equation. But ignore they did. While capability was extensively debated, motivation was nowhere to be seen. Throughout the panels I attended, there was absolutely no talk about the situations that spur terrorism and give it (or are purported to give) its moral ground. Other than the facile scarecrows of anti-Semitism and the Koran, little or nothing else was explored – which is weird, if you take into consideration the studies conducted by Robert Pape, for example. Pape, a terrorist specialist who compiled every known suicide attack from 1980 to 2003, concluded that there is "little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions.” What suicide attacks have in common, he says “is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” To illustrate a point that no one at the conference tried to make, in the suicide attacks in Lebanon against French, Israeli and American targets between ‘82 and ‘86, only eight of the 41 perpetrators were Islamic fundamentalists. One of the attacks was in fact carried out by a girl who was Christian and Marxist.

It soon became clear to anyone with a few active neurons that the whole Herzliya conference was a gigantic circle jerk with men helping each other’s clandestine motives, the legitimate destruction of terrorism not one among them. Even Boaz Ganor, the organiser who appeared more sober than most speakers, looked rather lonely defending the theory that attacks on military targets cannot be considered terrorism. Later on, Boaz’s daughter came on stage to sing Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence, giving me the chance to finally applaud someone.
“Hello darkness, my old friend,” she sang.

One of darkness’s closest friends decided to make an appearance later on. Richard Kemp, former commander of the British Forces in Afghanistan, is described on the Military Speakers website as being “in great demand as a motivational, keynote and after-dinner speaker, covering topics including leadership, decision-making, crisis management, terrorism, intelligence, conflict and the challenges facing the Middle East.” Looking very much the (counter) part, Kemp was well-dressed, perfumed, clean-shaven. And he focused on the challenges faced by Israel, more specifically the Qassam attacks from Hamas. Referring to them as “lethal rockets,” Kemp said thousands of them were sent into Israeli territory. Israel’s reaction, he said, was writing “more than 20 letters to Ban Ki Moon.” That’s cute. And Kemp was right – lethal rockets were launched. But he chose to leave the precise lethality out of his speech. According to the numbers compiled by B’Tselem, “from June 2004 to April 2013, 24 Israeli civilians and one foreign national were killed in Israel by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.” Just for context, between January 2009 and July 2013, 519 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces.
The best friends Darkness could have asked for.

Next (sometime when boredom hits): How I was approached by the Mossad, and how an ex-Navy official, one of the few men with a real radar for danger, rushed out of the conference room as soon as he saw me going to the toilet and leaving my backpack behind. 

The first part of this series was published on +972 Magazine:

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