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Torture creates enemies and radicalizes people

2014 December 22
by Ian Welsh

This article is a must read:

And we’ve documented that torture creates more terrorists.   Indeed, Salon notes:

Among the most notable victims of torture was Sayeed Qutb, the founding father of modern political jihadism. His 1964 book, “Milestones,” describes a journey towards radicalization that included rape and torture, sometimes with dogs, in an Egyptian prison. He left jail burning with the determination to wage transnational jihad to destroy these regimes and their backers, calling for war against all those who used these methods against Muslims


“Milestones” remains one of the Arab world’s most influential books. Indeed, it was the lodestar of Al Qaeda leaders like Ayman Al-Zawahiri (who was also tortured in Egyptian jails) and the late Osama Bin Laden.

In other words, it was torture which drove the founder of modern jihad to terrorism in the first place.

The article goes on to list a variety of other, very important people, radicalized by torture.

I mean, if I were thrown in prison, tortured and raped, and got out, you can damn well bet when I got out I’d want the order that did that to me destroyed.

I will note also that drone warfare/assassination warfare does the same thing.  It is very rare that assassination programs do anything but bring more radical leaders to the fore. The only prominent exception I can think of is the probable assassination of Arafat.

24 Responses
  1. Solar Hero permalink
    December 22, 2014

    I’ll rewrite the title of this post for you: Torture Works.

  2. CCCCVZVCCCC permalink
    December 22, 2014

    IIRC the Aztecs left a handful of small nations unconquered so that they could rally the population in hatred against them.

  3. Tom Halle permalink
    December 22, 2014

    We’ve been manufacturing our own enemies for a LONG time. For the last sixty years or so, in both Central America and the Middle East, our political and intelligence geniuses have been undermining (and occasionally overthrowing) democratically elected governments and replacing them with dictators who we teach how to torture, radicalizing the citizens (see Iran), arming and training radical groups who then turn on us (see Al Qaeda), and destabilizing regimes we have ourselves turned on which then engenders enemy states in exile (see ISIS).

    If, as Albert Einstein is purported to have said, insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results, could our politicians and intelligence agencies not be legitimately characterized as insane? Unless manufacturing enemies is in fact the very point of these actions, in which case these institutions have become unmoored from any semblance of what this country is supposed to stand for. As my wife says, “Democracy – an interesting experiment which has now concluded”.

  4. realitychecker permalink
    December 22, 2014

    Absolutely correct that we enrage many by torturing, and that is a good reason to abjure its systematic use. And also correct that we’ve done many other things to enrage them, legitimate rage, IMO.

    But, in all honesty, those same people would probably hate us for letting our women go outside uncovered and/or unaccompanied. So, there’s that.

    Maybe we just can’t “all get along”?

  5. JustPlainDave permalink
    December 22, 2014

    I would be wary of accepting this interpretation uncritically. There seems to be little understanding of the difference between locally focused and true transnational movements. Qutb was transnationally oriented as a form of “pan-Islamism” not in the sense it is commonly used today in discussion of al-Qa`eda. Similarly, IMHO the primary driver for the rise of ISIS is not how prisoners were treated in American custody (though that is clearly a potent enabler), but is rather the failure of the Iraqi government to make an adequate political “place” for Sunnis.

  6. December 22, 2014

    we can get along, if all of you are dead. ( yes it’s joke, for those of you who are literally minded)

  7. John Measor permalink
    December 22, 2014

    @JustPlainDave … you’re missing the hinge between Qutb and al-Qaida … the latters’ tactical insight to take the fight to the West, rather than fighting the Western-sponsored regimes (as Qutb proscribed) and / or altering society ‘from below’ (as the Muslim Brotherhood advocates).

    So, the ‘direct action’ hinge led a very small number of individuals, at an extremely low cost, to poke the U.S. into doing what was fairly predictable – and what was the single most probable action to expand support as well as recruitment amongst radicals for a movement that was fairly emaciated and drifting in the late 1990s. I’m not arguing that bin laden et. al. were genius strategists, but they carried out a single direct action on 9/11 that led to high probability reactionary behaviour from the U.S. and – while the #3 guy in al-Qaida seems to get killed every second Thursday – recruitment and funding have never been better!

    The torture and other associated behaviours – drones, Katrina, etc. – all played a role, but U.S. / Western ‘legitimacy’ and any fear of U.S. intervention has gone out the window for not only this crew, but for a much wider swath of humanity. Muslims and others continue to suffer to ever greater degrees – the radicals don’t care. The U.S. has lost two land wars in Asia and been made to look barbaric.

    The U.S. hand-picked the Iraqi government and knew what they were all about – Shi’i revanchist anti-Ba’th anti-Sunni and anti-West – so responsibility lies with the Anglo-American occupation.

  8. Monster from the Id permalink
    December 22, 2014

    Creating enemies creates more contracts for the “defense” industry, and keeps the power, income, and perks coming for “defense” bureaucrats, both military and civilian.

    “Blowback” isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.

    As General Smedley Butler said, war is a racket.

  9. CMike permalink
    December 22, 2014

    All three episodes in the Adam Curtis documentary are a must see in my opinion, but that would be especially true for Part 1 as an introduction to Qutb and al-Zawahiri. LINK

    My mother will start to worry
    Beautiful, what’s your hurry?

    My father will be pacing the floor
    Listen to the fire place roar

    So really I’d better scurry
    Beautiful, please don’t hurry

    But maybe just half a drink more
    Put some records on while I pour

  10. JustPlainDave permalink
    December 22, 2014

    John, I’m not missing it – you and I are in agreement as to the important role of Qutb’s thought. What I was trying to highlight was that the relationship between torture and the US being targeted by Islamist actors is a little more complex than billed. Without the very fundamental shift in focus to the far enemy that characterized bin Laden’s thought, Qutb’s ideas are not terribly important to the US. Similarly, without the Iraqi government freezing out the Sunnis al-Baghdadi would be a contingency capability rather than a broad based movement that could possibly metastasize to hosting transnationalist movements. Key to managing the threats of the coming decades is learning to view Islamist movements in their contexts, understanding their terms, rather than lumping them all together in service of broader rhetorical (or Dog help us, political) points as the article seemed to me to be doing.

  11. The Tragically Flip permalink
    December 22, 2014

    Why does this feel like the climate debate, where all the rational evidence is one side and yet has no discernible effect?

    This is about some ugly, primordial lizard brain feature of our psyches. Those of us able to override that vengeance gland or whatever can’t understand those who can’t do so and will rationalize anything to justify torture.

  12. December 22, 2014

    It has only been a decade since the U.S. – publicly/openly – began torturing and endorsing torture. The blowback from this extremely recent stance on torture will be years in the coming, and it will come.

    We are still living with the deadly, and predictable, results of decades of warfare, violence and trillions of dollars of militarism in the middle east. We have been sowing these seeds since the beginning of the Cold War.

    The U.S.’ 1953 coup in Iran (where the U.S. overthrew a democratically elected secular gov’t) left at a torturous dictator in the place of a democracy. (The reason for the cold war Iranian coup was, or course, Iranian oil). Sixty years of upheaval, death and destruction lay in the wake of what the U.S. did to Iran in 1953. The country has, arguably, never recovered.

    The U.S. killed, tortured, and/or stole the future from millions of Iraqis while leaving an economic and violent disaster zone where that troubled country was.

    Osama bin Laden never had the ability to do any significant or lasting harm to the U.S. He did, however, trigger some of the most effective acts of self-destruction the U.S. has ever committed against itself, its citizens, the community of nations and our future.

    Among the most notable victims of torture was Sayeed Qutb, . . . . His 1964 book, “Milestones,” describes a journey towards radicalization that included rape and torture, sometimes with dogs, in an Egyptian prison. He left jail burning with the determination . . . to destroy . . . all those who used these methods

    Just repeating the obvious. It has always been this way. Always will be. There is nothing controversial or surprising about the above paragraph. It’s sociology 101. It’s history. It’s human nature.

  13. CMike permalink
    December 23, 2014

    Caoimhin Laochdha writes:

    It has only been a decade since the U.S. – publicly/openly – began torturing and endorsing torture.

    More precisely, “It has only been a decade since the U.S. – publicly/openly – admitted to torturing and endorsing torture as an ongoing policy”:

    School of the Dictators

    Published: September 28, 1996

    Americans can now read for themselves some of the noxious lessons the United States Army taught to thousands of Latin American military and police officers at the School of the Americas during the 1980’s. A training manual recently released by the Pentagon recommended interrogation techniques like torture, execution, blackmail and arresting the relatives of those being questioned.

    Such practices, which some of the school’s graduates enthusiastically applied once they returned home, violate basic human rights and the Army’s own rules of procedure. They also defy the professed goals of American foreign policy and foreign military training programs.

    Though the manual was taken out of use in 1991 and the school’s curriculum modified to include some instruction in human rights standards, the school does little to advance American interests and should be closed down.

    The School of the Americas was established in 1946…

  14. December 23, 2014

    It was, I believe, the guy who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square who said that his reason for doing it was our killing of innocents with our drone program.

  15. anonone permalink
    December 23, 2014

    One reason that Obama won’t prosecute the torturers is because he should then logically be prosecuted for murder. Whereas the Bush-Cheney gang captured and tortured people, Obama simply murders suspects and any poor saps that happen to be around them with drones.

  16. Monster from the Id permalink
    December 23, 2014

    @CMike: True, but CL did specify “publicly/openly”. Those of us who read outside the mainstream media and right-wing media boxes knew what kind of mayhem the Warfare State got up to, but the general public did not know it.

  17. alyosha permalink
    December 23, 2014

    I am encouraged by the editorial in yesterday’s New York Times, Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses, but I’m fairly certain it won’t happen in my lifetime.

    The Tragically Flip wrote:

    This is about some ugly, primordial lizard brain feature of our psyches. Those of us able to override that vengeance gland or whatever can’t understand those who can’t do so and will rationalize anything to justify torture.

    Not “Can’t”, Won’t – “those who won’t do so”.

  18. Monster from the Id permalink
    December 23, 2014

    Alyosha is more optimistic than I am. I suspect it is “can’t”.

    I think one of the reasons God forgives us our sins is that S/He knows our wills aren’t really all that free.

    Our species was (mis)shaped by millennia of unguided evolution in an amoral and pitiless natural environment, “red in tooth and claw”, in which our ancestors would not have survived if they had lacked the capacity for vicious behavior.

    We “come from a bad neighborhood”, so to speak.

  19. CMike permalink
    December 23, 2014

    @Monster from the Id: The U.S. public isn’t a whole lot more innocent of having guilty knowledge than were the Romanovs back when the excuse was “if only the tsar knew,” though granted even in a republic we would hope to expect a little more from leadership than from the general population. That link in my comment is to a New York Times editorial. Here’s a New York Times news article from July, 1999:

    School Long Seen as Despots’ Training Center Faces a Cutoff

    The House voted early today to cut off recruitment funds for the Army’s School of the Americas, long criticized for graduating Latin American military officers who became tyrants and murderers.

    In a 230-to-197 vote that was a shock even to the critics of the school…

    ”The School of the Americas has trained some of the most brutal assassins, some of the cruelest dictators and some of the worst violators of human rights that the Western Hemisphere has ever seen,” said the amendment’s sponsor, Representative Joe Moakley, Democrat of Massachusetts.

    ”It’s time for the United States of America to admit its mistakes and remove this horrible blemish from our military establishment,” he said.

    The graduates include Gen. Manuel Noriega, the former dictator of Panama; the late Roberto d’Aubuisson, a political leader and reported death-squad commander in El Salvador; officers linked to human-rights abuses in Colombia, Peru and other Latin American nations, and 19 El Salvadoran soldiers implicated in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in San Salvador.

    Those killings 10 years ago led to a campaign, led in part by American Jesuits, to close the school. Efforts to cut its funds have been defeated by the House every year since 1993.

    Representative Sonny Callahan, an Alabama Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s foreign aid panel, said that the abuses committed by the graduates were past history….

  20. jcapan permalink
    December 23, 2014

    “I mean, if I were thrown in prison, tortured and raped, and got out, you can damn well bet when I got out I’d want the order that did that to me destroyed.”

    “It was, I believe, the guy who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square who said that his reason for doing it was our killing of innocents with our drone program.”

    Perfectly natural reactions. Strangely reinterpreted as something unique to Islam. As if American society hasn’t always been pickled in retributive violence. As if westerns and Hollywood writ large haven’t always been in the revenge-porn business.

    Those who’ve never been tortured, those who’ve never seen their wives or children displaced, raped, or murdered, can rationalize anything, I suppose. Condemning barbarism bred in a charnel house of our own making is always entertaining to observe.

    Ask any American father what he’d do to the people or the system that bombed his home or harmed members of his family. Show me any father and I’ll show you a man willing to practice genocide to protect his kids. Now toss in a foreign empire looting his nation of its precious resources, wrecking its economy or propping up vile, sadistic butchers to keep the rabble in check and see how pacified he is.

    And clearly this parallels the previous thread. Black Americans have suffered the same systematic oppression, the same stifling of opportunity, the same horrendous levels of imprisonment and violence for how many generations now—do you expect them to be nice when your occupying force rolls through their ghetto?

  21. Everythings Jake permalink
    December 24, 2014

    The problem is the damage is lasting, across generations.

  22. Lisa FOS permalink
    December 24, 2014

    I remember reading an interview of a US (forgot what service) interrogator in Iraq some years ago. He didn’t use torture and actually said that he found the biggest motivator of foreign Moslems to come to Iraq and fight the US was all the reports of torture (particularly against women) that they were getting.

    Remember that while no one in the west knew about it (unless they dug around), everyone in the ME did know what was going on with the US’s industrial scale torture regime.

    Now this was at the beginning of the insurrection against the US. So you could argue that it was the US’s use of mass torture, right from the start of its invasion and colonisation of Iraq that created the insurrection against it.

    So the sequence wasn’t: insurrection -> US mass torture as a response. It was: US mass torture -> insurrection as a response.

    Blowback indeed.

  23. JustPlainDave permalink
    December 24, 2014

    You are likely thinking of Major “Matthew Alexander” USAF (the name is a pen name). It’s been a number of years since I read it, but my recollection is that the methods he described seeing in his book went beyond the letter (and certainly the spirit) of military interrogation rules, but fell well short of many of the methods that have come out of the Senate report.

  24. Monster from the Id permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Off topic, but maybe it would be good to admit some light to this darkness.

    The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke

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