Stop crying "terrorism" every time we're attacked.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 11 2010 11:53 PM

Traitor, Bomber, Soldier, Spy

Stop crying "terrorism" every time we're attacked.

Two weeks ago, a Jordanian suicide bomber blew up seven CIA employees at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. The CIA called it a "terrorist attack." So did the Associated Press in a report published in dozens of news outlets. Other journalists, analysts, commentators, and TV news anchors followed suit. In a Washington Post op-ed published yesterday, CIA Director Leon Panetta said of the fallen officers, "When you are fighting terrorists, there will be risks."

Terrorists? No, sir. The bombing of the CIA base, like the November massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, was an act of war. It was also espionage. But it wasn't terrorism. Terrorism targets civilians. The CIA officers killed at the Afghan base, like the soldiers shot down at Fort Hood, were not civilians. They were running a war.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

According to the U.S. Code (Title 22, Chapter 38, Section 2656f), "the term 'terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." That's the definition we apply to other countries when we designate them as state sponsors of terrorism.

The Sept. 11 attacks, which used planes full of civilians to hit the World Trade Center, fit this definition. So did the attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253  on Christmas Day. So did the Taliban's 2008 bombing of a hotel  in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The Afghan base bombing doesn't fit the pattern. The CIA personnel who died in the attack were combatants. In interviews with multiple newspapers and wire services—for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here—U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed that the personnel at the Afghan base were closely engaged in selecting drone targets in Pakistan and orchestrating special-operations attacks on the Taliban-allied Haqqani network. In the Afghan theater, the CIA is becoming a paramilitary agency. It runs our drone war in Pakistan, and the Afghan base struck on Dec. 30 is "a targeting center for Predator strikes and other operations inside Pakistan."

That's why the bomber, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, targeted the base. Read the accounts of his will and his farewell video. "This is a message to the enemies of the [Islamic nation], to the Jordanian intelligence and the CIA," he says in the video. "We will never forget the blood of our Emir Baitullah Mehsud." He vows to "retaliate" for the death of Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban boss who was killed in August by a CIA drone strike. In his will, al-Balawi reportedly names other militants blown away by the agency's unmanned aerial vehicles. He wants to kill the drone masters.

And because the officers at the Afghan base were drone masters, they let him in. He was offering them hot intelligence on Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's deputy leader. They hoped his information would lead them to al-Zawahiri. They were going to do to al-Zawahiri what they'd done to other al-Qaida commanders: wipe him from the face of the earth. If they'd been ordinary intelligence analysts, they never would have whisked al-Balawi into their base for an urgent meeting. They did it, and they died, because they were fighting a war.

Al-Balawi was a jihadist. He wrote nasty, crazy stuff about martyrdom and killing Americans. But those were just words. He was, as one terrorism expert put it, a "cyber-activist." Presumably, that's one reason the CIA took a chance on him: He had never actually tried to kill anybody.

Well, now he has. But his victims weren't civilians. Neither were the victims of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. Read the job titles of the Fort Hood casualties: major, sergeant, captain, specialist, specialist, sergeant, private, private, captain, private, lieutenant, private. Then check out the video of Hasan calmly buying coffee at a 7-Eleven before the shooting. He didn't target civilians. He targeted soldiers.

Within days of the Fort Hood massacre, everybody and his brother was calling Hasan a terrorist. As Slate's Juliet Lapidos noted, even Sen. Joe Lieberman and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who should know better, said it was terrorism. Lieberman cited evidence "that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act."

Therefore? You mean, anybody who kills anybody in the name of Islamic extremism is a terrorist? If that's all we mean by terrorism, then our enemies are right: It's just a code word for people whose religion we don't like.

This isn't what we meant by terrorism when we went to war against it. But one of war's perils is forgetting your principles. You torture, you lie, you change the meaning of your commitments. You win the war by losing your bearings.

Al-Balawi's father understands what terrorism means. Two days ago, he said of his dead son, "Had he killed innocent civilians I would have denounced him." But his son hadn't done that. He had killed intelligence agents.  And the fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the father argued, was "a war of intelligence agencies."

He's right about that. In the skies over Pakistan, our agents have the means to incinerate al-Balawi's masters. And I hope they succeed.

But imagine the reverse scenario: an armada of Afghan drones hunting American militia leaders in the United States. Would you retaliate by slaughtering Afghan civilians? Or would you identify the drone masters, infiltrate their intelligence network, and kill them? Does it matter which path you choose?

It certainly does. And if we can't tell the difference anymore—if we need lessons in the meaning of terrorism from the father of a suicide bomber—then it's time to remind ourselves what we're fighting for.

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