Notes From the Margins…

The Ambiguous Terrorist

  • May 14, 2012
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US intelligence agencies and national security analysts are reportedly furious at the leaked revelations about the latest Al Qaeda “underwear bomb” plot, and some have laid the blame on the Obama administration for supposedly seeking to gain political advantage from it.

These allegations may well be true,   and the current US government would certainly not be the first to attempt to reap political rewards through thwarted bomb outrages at politically opportune moments regardless of how feasible or viable such plots may have been.   Nor would it be the first time that alleged bomb plots and atrocities have turned out to be the work of agent provocateurs and informants.

The anger emanating from the US security/intelligence establishment concerns the damage wrought by these revelations to what it regards as a successful sting operation.     But such operations also raise broader questions about the use of such intelligence assets in the “Global War on Terror”.

When the story first broke at the beginning of the week, it immediately slotted into the usual media and political narratives that accompany such events.  As Hilary Clinton put it, the plot was further evidence that “terrorists keep trying more terrible and perverse ways to kill”.   Since then the would-be Al Qaeda operative with non-metallic explosives in his underwear has been variously described as a CIA/ M16/Saudi agent with Saudi/Yemeni nationality and a UK passport.

Whoever this anonymous operative was working for, it’s not clear whether this ‘perverse’ plot was instigated and proposed by the person concerned, or whether he was selected by ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ for a mission that had already been decided.    Would it have taken place without his input, or was the involvement of an agent provocateur the decisive factor in bringing it to fruition?

These questions are not only relevant to the latest underpants bomber. They could also apply to a number of the thwarted plots and terrorist episodes of the last decade or so, which have involved individuals with obscure connections to governments and intelligence agencies.  Even the New York Times admitted last month that numerous recent ´foiled ´ terrorist plots had been instigated and/or brought t0 fruition by FBI informants or  provocateurs, who suggested and developed plots and even supplied the weapons used to carry them out.

Governments have always relied on informants in attempting to penetrate and unravel clandestine organizations engaged in campaigns of violence against them.  But there is a blurry line between informants who provide information on already-existing plots, and agents provocateurs who engage in entrapment and end up manufacturing plots.

Not only do such plots make it difficult to determine how real the threat actually is, but they can also involve intelligence “assets” who may have their own agendas. The vicious murder spree carried out by Mohammed Merah  in Toulouse last March may have been on example of this tendency.  Merah appears to have had connections to western intelligence agencies that enabled him to travel to Israel and Afghanistan, and which may have enabled him  to arm himself to the teeth and carry out one murder after another without anyone thinking – or bothering -to check up on him.

Those who like their conspiracies served neat would argue that all these episodes are manufactured by obscure elements within the ‘deep state’  in order to terrify the population/justify foreign wars/ resource grabs and pave the way for some kind of national security dictatorship.

That governments have exploited the current terrorist emergency for political purposes that have nothing to do with protecting the public is indisputable. But the historical trajectory of terrorism is filled with episodes in which the state and its terrorist opponents overlap in ways that are not always clear or entirely logical.  During the so-called “anarchist terror” of the late nineteenth century, a number of assassinations and bomb outrages involved provocateurs and informants of ambiguous motivations.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, the most notorious example of this tendency was Yevno Azef, the head of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Combat Squad, which carried out numerous high-profile assassination of Tsarist state officials, many of them planned by Azef himself.

Throughout this process Azef was working for the Russian secret police, the Okrana, and was giving information to them about his own comrades a revelation that stunned the revolutionary demi-monde when it was eventually revealed in 1909.

This revelation was a huge blow to the political prestige that the SRs extracted from their terrorist coups, but it didn’t mean that the entire combat squad was a police front.   Azev’s dual role as police agent/terrorist organizer reflected a recurring tendency that it is equally applicable to our own era, in which the boundaries between intelligence gathering and complicity are crossed and it is not always clear whose agenda informants are actually serving.

In some cases police or security forces may be willing to foment certain acts of violence or even allow them to take place in the hope of making bigger intelligence gains in the long run -or simply because it may be politically useful and convenient to do so in the short term.

Within this twilight zone,  it’s not at all outlandish to find individuals who are able to serve more than one master, sometimes at the same time, especially since neither the state nor its opponents are always as competent and in command of events as they sometimes like to appear – or are assumed to be.

I suspect that something similar has been taking place in the terrorwars of our own era, and that is why the underpants bomber may not be the last terrorist who was not what he seemed.

Featured image: Yevno Asef. Wikimedia Commons.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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