In Russia we trust: the Russian origin of the War on Terror

Crime in full glory consolidates authority by the sacred fear it inspires.”

– E.M. Cioran

Putin’s allegiance to the War on Terror

When Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the WTC-towers on 9/11 Vladimir Putin was the first foreign head of state to respond to the tragedy. He proclaimed Russia’s solidarity to the War on Terror. He remarked that Russia had to deal with terrorism in the past too and that this unfortunate history necessitated Russia to follow every initiative in counterterrorism campaigns. It is this past we should investigate. It is not a coincidence that Putin was the first to react. His declaration was not at all a reaction. In fact, the American response to the attacks of 9/11 placed the US in the direction Russia was already heading. More specifically, we can interpret the Russian policy concerning Chechnya as a foreshadowing of the wars to come. Although it seems as if Russia is on the path to transition toward a parliamentarian, open democracy, embodied by the West, the transition is actually the other way around. The West is transitioning towards a Russian-style authoritarian government. In Russia we trust.Meeting with the President of Russia. Kempinski Grand Hotel Heiligendamm.

Chechnya has been a source of conflict from the moment the USSR fell and split into a myriad of independent republics. The Chechen region proclaimed its independence contrary to the will of Moscow, which led to a war between 1994 and 1996. After these two years Boris Yeltsin had to retreat his troops. Russia had suffered a humiliating defeat from a bunch a guerrilla rebels. The peace treaty made Chechnya a de facto independent republic, although it remained vague about the exact status of the region relative to Russia.

The nascent republic however did not survive for long. Steadily the country slipped into anarchy and warlords ruled the land. Moreover, the radical Islamist Wahabbists gained firm ground for an Islamist state. In 1999 a militia invaded Dagestan, a neighbouring Islamic region in Russia, and the Moscow apartment bombings of the same year killed almost 300 people and injured more than 1000. These developments ran parallel to another shift in Russian politics. Boris Yeltsin became too old to rule and the successor appointed by his entourage, Vladimir Putin, was a bureaucrat without a party or ideology. To win the elections, Putin had to succeed in a PR stunt. A few months earlier he was unknown to the Russian public and now he had to gain the people’s trust to pull the country out of the mess Yelstin had dragged it into. Putin exploited the fear for terror and the longing for stability in Russia for electoral gain. There were even several voices claiming the apartment bombings were even set up by the FSB, the Russian secret police, to aid Putin’s campaign. Even if this theory sounds more like the plot for a James Bond movie than actual reality, it remains true that the Chechen conflict was to Putin’s advantage in the polls. His somewhat brutal USSR-like comments on Chechnya are memorable, like Putin claiming the Chechen terrorists were animals instead of humans. Most of the fighters in the region were not Islamist terrorists, but secular nationalist fighters, but that did not matter in what was really a war of perceptions.

The Chechen wars of perception

The return to Soviet language concerning ‘the enemies of Russia/the revolution’, is not a coincidence. Throughout the 19th and 20th century the perception of political enmity shifted dramatically. In earlier times, the enemy was another state that resided on a level of equality with the aggressive state. France could attack Germany, but that did not mean it thought less of the Germans. When the war was over, everything could easily return to normal. During the 19th century, “massacres had become vital”, as historian Michel Foucault remarks.[1] Not the territorial power of the king, but the life of the population was from now on at stake. The enemy was no longer an external equal, but an internal, inferior threat. For instance, the Soviet ‘enemy of the revolution’ was not simply an accomplice of a foreign state, but an infecting element internal to society. The enemy is now a parasite of the social body against which society has to immunize itself. Hence the death of the other is the health of the nation. The same counts for the Western attitude toward ‘the communist threat’, especially in the McCarthy era. All communists were to be ousted before they infected perfectly healthy and obedient consumers with their ill intentions. The enemy is no longer simply a military opponent, but someone Evil.Chechnya9268

The attitude towards the other as an infectious disease in the social body has a problematic side effect in the case of war. If someone believes the other is the infectious incarnation of Evil, he posits himself on the side of the Good. Is it not righteous to battle Evil? Of course, Good and Evil with capital letters do not exist in reality, but that is not the point. The warring parties are not actual people, but perceptions. A Chechen terrorist does not recognize himself in the caricatures Russia portrays of him, but Russia fights these terrorists only insofar as they embody those caricatures. The people involved are only belligerents insofar as they embody these perceptions. Consequently, no negotiations are possible. If the enemy were an equal one could discuss peace, but we do not negotiate with terrorists. During the Beslan school hostage crisis of 2004 Putin got annoyed with critical western journalists asking him about his cruel practices in Chechnya. He replied: ”Why don’t you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace? You find it possible to set some limitations in your dealings with these bastards, so why should we talk to people who are child-killers [the Chechen separatists]? No one has a moral right to tell us to talk to child-killers”.[2] The War on Terror only ends with the death of the last terrorist. Unfortunately, there is no way to know who is a potential threat and who is not. In fact, everyone is a latent terrorist. The only way to make sure everyone is safe from terrorists is, paradoxically, by killing everyone. Moreover, the image of Evil per se can justify any limitation of civil or human rights of the general public. When the enemy is Evil incarnate, nothing is a sacrifice too high. If the state has the duty to protect everyone from terror attacks, it should take any measures necessary to attain this goal. After 9/11 the proliferation of body scanning, camera surveillance and biometrical examinations are deemed normal, even if they suspend our privacy rights or make it possible for the government to hack our every e-mail. If the government would not take such measures and maintain the risk of a new terrorist attack, the public would hold the politicians in office accountable for such negligence. Sadly, the result is that the American tanks in Iraq and Afghanistan were exporting a democracy no longer applied at home.

The perception of the enemy as Evil can only prevail when one can persuade one’s friends to regard the enemy similarly. There is nothing about Bin Laden’s or the Chechen rebels mere physical appearances that make them the devil on earth. Bin Laden could only be Evil incarnate because the US convinced the rest of the world that this was true. Russia also made sure to convince the world of the cruelty of the Chechen fighters by spreading video footage of war crimes from those rebels. Hence the War on Terror is a war of perceptions in a double meaning. Not only are the perceptions of Good and Evil fighting each other, but also this fight serves as a perception for an audience. The British political scientist Colin S. Gray is right when claiming “the struggle in irregular warfare is always for the allegiance, or at least acquiescence, of people”.[3] When Russia sought support for its harsh policy in Chechnya, Russian ambassadors were asked to show videos to ‘selected persons’ with the brutalities committed by Chechen rebels. The battle of Good and Evil is fought on a stage for the rest of the world to see. Just like the medieval and early modern public hangings, quarterings and other tortures were a public display of the asymmetric battles between the Sovereign and the criminals, nowadays the asymmetric warfare against terroristic, backward peoples serves the display of Sovereign power to the public. The War on Terror does not only fight terror, but also the potentiality of being a terrorist in the obedient population. Such a war does not battle actual people, but the potential rebelliousness of all, since everyone is a potential terrorist.

I double-dare you, motherfucker! The hocus pocus of terrorism

When the 6th century philosopher Boethius was accused of high treason, his trial was an example of Roman legal ingenuity. The accuser, Cyprianus, managed to be both accuser and witness in the same trial because it was ‘a case of danger for the king or the state’, whatever that may mean. Even worse, Cyprianus convinced the judge that Boethius, as an astronomer, was an astrologist with magical powers. Because magicians were expected to manipulate witnesses and the judge, they were not allowed a defence. Boethius was tried and found guilty without ever having been able to resist. Through legal cunning a man was condemned without due process.

On first sight this story sounds like a strange anecdote from distant times, but the times, they are changing. The Obama administration feels justified in killing US citizens with drone strikes without a fair trial when there is ‘solid intelligence’ pointing to a person’s ‘involvement’ in a ‘plot’ and when the suspect is a ‘senior operational leader’ of a ‘terrorist group’. In other words, a lot of vague and arbitrary criteria make the rule of law sound like a joke. The terrorist is like a magician who cannot be given a real trial because it would mean the possibility of manipulative escape. A real court needs evidence to pronounce the death penalty, but the War on Terror cannot let itself be caught in such details. Also here Russia was ahead of its time, with Putin arguing in 1999: “We’ll follow terrorists everywhere. We will corner the bandits in the toilet and wipe them out.”[4]poison

What is this magic of terrorism? Why are the world leaders so afraid to put suspected terrorists before criminal courts or to actually declare war on the countries American drones drop bombs on? As French philosopher and source of inspiration for the Matrix­-movie franchise, Jean Baudrillard wrote, Russia and the West are fighting ‘a ghostly enemy’.[5] The main objective is not the elimination of an actual enemy, but of a ghost. Even radical Islam is only an image around which the antagonism crystallized. In fact, “the antagonism is everywhere, and in every one of us”.[6] The War on Terror is directed at the potentiality of terror in individuals. Everyone can be a terrorist. Every kind of fundamental opposition is possibly subversive enough to infect the whole. Even if the global omnipotence of Russia and the West secure all rebellious regions of the world, we will not live in a safe haven. The enemy is a possibility residing in each of us and can magically manifest itself everywhere at any time. As if by the gesture of a sorcerer’s wand, terrorism is the horizon of contemporary politics.

What is the terrorist spell? What is so infectious about it? Again Jean Baudrillard expressed a poignant explanation. The spirit of terrorism is a challenge to its victims. The attack is an absolute spectacle of death and destruction and it defies its enemies to do the same. It is like the potlatch, described by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, where someone offers a gift to someone else to challenge the other to give even more, until one of them goes bankrupt. This is a kind of calculation beyond our usual, economic cost-benefit analysis. It offers the participants a duel with stakes instead of a competition with investments. The spirit of terrorism defies Russia and the West to spread terror in its name. What else can the enemies of Western democracy call the current situation, but a victory? Democratic deliberation and civil rights are interminably suspended for the protection of the homeland and the only messengers of these values abroad are tanks, drones and other acts of terror. Protected democracy is no democracy at all. “All the security strategies are merely extensions of terror. And it is the real victory of terrorism that it has plunged the whole of the West into the obsession with security – that is to say, into a veiled form of perpetual terror. The spectre of terrorism is forcing the West to terrorize itself.”[7] The spirit of terrorism is a challenge in the sense that the terrorist dares the West to do to itself what the terrorist wants to do to the West. The Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini yelled “Death to America”, but remained inconsequential. The terrorist succeeds in compelling America to kill itself.

Just like the magicians of Boethius’s days, the terrorists have enchanted the witnesses and the judges into manipulated obedience. They have given us the gift of death and we are eager to kill ourselves in return. We were offered the challenge, but probably we will not be able to respond. There is an axis of Evil: us.

“It has been said that even God cannot declare war on himself. Well, he can. The West, in the position of God (divine omnipotence and absolute moral legitimacy), has become suicidal and declared war on itself.”[8]

Further reading

K. Malfliet (2002), “Rusland en terrorisme”, B. Pattyn & J. Wouters (ed.), Schokgolven, pp. 121-135.

J. Baudrillard (2012), The spirit of terrorism.

Boethius (2012), The consolation of philosophy.

Michel Foucault (2003), Society must be defended.

C.S. Gray (2007), War, peace and international relations.

[1] M. Foucault (1998), The history of sexuality: the will to knowledge, p. 137.

[2] [retrieved on 12/03/14]. By the way, Osama Bin Laden was no stranger to Russian intelligence agencies. He fought alongside the Chechen rebels in both Chechen wars.

[3] C.S. Gray (2007), War, peace and international relations, p. 282.

[4] [Retrieved on 12/03/14].

[5]J. Baudrillard (2012), The spirit of terrorism, p. 12.

[6] J. Baudrillard (2012), The spirit of terrorism, p. 12.

[7] J. Baudrillard (2012), The spirit of terrorism, p. 62.

[8] J. Baudrillard (2012), The spirit of terrorism, p. 6.


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