The following article is adapted from a panel discussion hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Chicago in February 2023, entitled “Counter-Terrorism and Empire: State Violence and the Right to Resist.” This panel was the culminating event of SJP UChicago’s #IsraeliMilitaryOffOurCampus campaign, a quarter-long student movement in the winter of 2023 aimed at exposing the University of Chicago’s ties to the propagandistic “Israel Institute” and opposing its decision to host “counter-terrorism” courses taught by Israeli military personnel, notably Brigadier General Meir Elran.
The discourse of counterterrorism has risen to prominence in recent decades, providing political justification for such acts as the US invasion of Iraq and the ongoing Israeli colonization of Palestine. By exploring counterterrorism’s origins, imperial applications, and entanglement with other systems of gendered and racialized violence, this discussion raises important questions about anticolonial struggle, discourses of state violence, and the role of academic institutions in normalizing and perpetuating them. Special focus is placed on how these global forces come to manifest at University of Chicago and with the university’s police department. The panel can be viewed here.
Over the last year, the Israeli military has intensified its repressive violence as part of an ongoing operation that the state calls “Break the Wave.” Relying on a resurgence of extrajudicial assassinations, military arrests, land confiscations, and home demolitions, Operation Break the Wave began under the previous Israeli administration and has intensified since Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in November of last year.
In late February, an Israeli undercover unit entered the old city of Nablus to execute two Palestinian militants. When the Palestinians dared to resist, the Israeli army flooded into the old city, subjecting Nablus to the full force of its violent repression. Israeli soldiers killed 11 Palestinians, injured over 100, and left the old city in ruins. Just weeks earlier, an Israeli raid in Jenin killed 10 Palestinians and another in Jericho killed 5. In total, Israeli forces have killed over sixty Palestinians in the first two months of 2023—after killing over 230 in 2022.
And then, days later, 100 armed Israeli settlers accompanied by a dozen Israeli soldiers descended upon the Palestinian town of Huwara, near Nablus, where they opened fire and burned the city to the ground. Dozens of homes and businesses along with hundreds of cars were set on fire, and the settlers prevented Palestinians from leaving their homes while they were on fire. One Palestinian died of a gunshot wound because soldiers blockaded the road and refused to let an ambulance pass through. Three hundred and fifty Palestinians were treated for injuries that night, and since then settlers have patrolled the outskirts of Huwara, controlling who enters and exits. The perpetrators, of course, have not been punished, even though they are well known to the Israeli police. That force is headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a settler from Hebron, who has a long history of participating in violent attacks on Palestinians.
As Israel intensifies its settler-colonial project in Palestine, and as Palestine solidarity movements grow stronger around the world, more and more people are recognizing Israel as a racist apartheid state. In 2017, a report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia documented the ways that Israel’s apartheid regime oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole. And then, over the last two years, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and Amnesty International have all released reports documenting Israeli atrocities and declaring Israel an apartheid state. Even US politicians like Jimmy Carter have used the language of apartheid to challenge Israeli policies.
And it is in this context that the University of Chicago invited a veteran Israeli military general to whitewash Israel’s reputation by teaching a course on the way that so-called liberal democracies respond to terrorism. The class is in fact instructive, unintentionally demonstrating how imperial and colonial ideologies construct terrorism and the ever imperiled liberal democracy.
The discourse of terrorism
In 2002 (while I was a Fulbright student studying Arabic in Damascus), the Israeli military launched a brutal campaign they called Operation Defensive Shield. It was Israel’s largest combat operation in the West Bank since 1967. The military invaded and reoccupied every Palestinian city in the West Bank. They surrounded and besieged Yasser Arafat’s presidential compound in Ramallah, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They demolished the heart of the Jenin refugee camp. Over four weeks, the Israeli military killed 500 Palestinians, injured 1,500, and arrested 7,000.
That April, I was part of an international delegation that met with the US ambassador in Syria Ted Kattouf. This meeting provided an important insight for me into the meaning of terrorism. Our delegation demanded international protection for the Palestinian people, and insisted that Israel be held accountable for state terrorism. But the ambassador dismissed these demands with imperial disdain. Israel could not be accused of terrorism, he explained, because terrorism by definition involves the use of political violence by a non-state entity. Under international law, he explained, states can commit war crimes, but not terrorism.
This one-sided definition should delegitimize any use of the word terrorism. The discourse of terrorism is simply the language used by racial, imperial, and settler-colonial states in an effort to delegitimize political resistance and uphold unstable regimes. The discourse does at least three things:
- It conceals the real source of violence, which stems from white supremacy, racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and empire. If oppressed people resort to armed struggle, it is only in response to the violence of their oppression. As Frantz Fanon explains, “The colonial encounter is marked from the very first moment by state violence, and the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is maintained by a great array of bayonets and cannons.” Palestinians describe this ongoing violence as the ongoing Nakba, or catastrophe, which began in 1948.
- The discourse of terrorism denies the political critique that grounds the anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements by deploying a dehumanizing racialized discourse. Whether or not they include armed struggle in their repertoire, victims of racist state violence consistently develop sharp critiques of racism, capitalism, colonialism, and empire. These critiques inform their freedom dreams and liberation movements that consistently challenge the stability of these regimes. But the discourse of terrorism silences these critiques, using racial archetypes such as the figure of the “Arab-Muslim terrorist” to redefine resistance as merely the violent behavior of uncivilized people. Importantly these racialized archetypes circulate through the circuits of empire—the image of the Arab-Muslim terrorist that informs the “US War on Terror,” for instance, trades on imagery and self-justification that emerged from the Israeli suppression of Palestinian liberation movements. Moreover, because the discourse is racialized, non-state actors who are aligned with the racial state, like Zionist settlers in Palestine, or white nationalists in the United States, are almost never defined as terrorists.
- The language of terrorism justifies the use of repressive violence and racialized surveillance by police, military, intelligence, and paramilitary forces, in an effort to protect so-called liberal democracy. Indeed, the Israeli general’s course description explains that it “explores the ways that Western liberal democracies respond to the threat of terrorism.” Defining Israel as a liberal democracy is hard to stomach. But the discourse of terrorism positions the state as the protector of liberty and democracy and implies that the state is justified in using any measures it deems necessary to protect its modern liberal order from the savage forces of chaos and violence.
“War on Terror”
This brings me to my second argument: the so-called global War on Terror must be understood as a racial project, driven by Israel and the United States, to shore up unstable settler-colonial and imperial regimes. Importantly, this war did not begin after 9/11 but rather dates back to the late 1960s, when the Palestine liberation movement built strong connections with Black radicals and internationalists in the United States and around the world. Initially, government surveillance programs such as Operation Boulder focused on Palestinian and Arab leftists and secular nationalists, especially those associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the figure of the terrorist began to expand through a process that conflated Arabs and Muslims. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, two shifts took place in the 1990s: first from communism to terrorism as the primary threat discourse utilized by US empire; and, second, from the conflation of Arabs and Muslims to the projection of suspicion against all Middle Easterners, leading to the hyper-surveillance of many communities. So when the administration of George W. Bush used the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC to formalize a global War on Terror, he was building on long-standing practices, grounded in the logics of US empire and Israeli settler-colonialism.
The so-called War on Terror is an endless, expansive, global project that includes military invasions, drone wars, assassinations, extraordinary renditions, and torture, as well as the hyper-surveillance and criminalization of anyone presumed to be Arab or Muslim. Importantly, it does not just take place through imperial wars and other interventions “over there,” in the Middle East; it also targets diasporic communities from the region that live here, in the United States, as well as in the UK and other parts of the world.
The War on Terror activates the racialized discourse of the Arab and Muslim terrorist by deputizing civilians to participate in surveillance through programs such as suspicious activity reports (SARs) and police-led profiling initiatives known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). These programs rely on and inculcate a racialized discourse of terrorism.
CVE relies on the unfounded theory that it is possible to identify early warning signs of radicalization. CVE programs encourage educators, librarians, religious leaders, mental health workers, and social service providers to report expressions of Muslim culture, Islamic religious belief, support for Palestine liberation, and critiques of foreign policy in the US—with the idea that then they’ll develop interventions to help divert people away from a process of radicalization.
Suspicious activity reports are also part of the Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” program. Because of the overwhelming association of Arabs and Muslims with terrorism in popular culture, the vast majority of SARs filed by police and civilians involve suspicions about people who are assumed to be Arab, Muslim, or from the Middle East.
Here in Chicago I’ve done research on these and found that over 53 percent of all suspicious activity reports that include markers of racial identity list the suspect as Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, or “olive-skinned.” And 76 percent are identified as people of color more broadly. The use of suspicious activity reports as a tool of racial profiling can be seen in some of the examples of activities that people consider suspicious. In June 2016 for instance, a concerned citizen called the Chicago police to report seeing two men and a boy, all of whom appeared to be Middle Eastern, sitting on a bench at a CTA train station during rush hour, on two different occasions. The group did not board a train, and eventually they got up and left the station. Video surveillance confirmed that on both occasions, the group exited the train, sat down on a bench for 15 minutes, and then left the station. One of the men was “carrying a black duffel bag” on both occasions.
One of the primary functions of SARs is to criminalize dissent, and suppress critiques of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Another is to criminalize a wide range of everyday behaviors, when performed by people of color, including work, mental health crises, and protected speech. The most common pattern we saw in the suspicious activity reports from Chicago and Illinois is photography while olive, brown, or Black. People submitted SARs after seeing people of color, especially people whom they identified as Arab or Muslim, taking photographs of churches, train stations, fire stations, the state capitol, the Art Institute, and other locations across Chicago and across the state. In 2016, during the Major League Baseball playoffs, when the Cubs were on their way to winning the world series, a man reported a suspicious male, possibly Middle Eastern, at the L station across from Wrigley Field. He appeared to be out of place, while taking various photographs of Wrigley Field and was seen typing or texting, possibly in Arabic.
The Chicago Police Department directs suspicious activity reports to a fusion center. This is one of the newer tools for data sharing between local and federal agencies that have been developed as part of the so-called War on Terror. Every state and every major city has a fusion center located at the police department headquarters. Illinois state police have one, the Chicago police department has one. You have agents, not only from the Chicago police but also from the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, the Illinois state police, and Department of Homeland Security, all in a room together, on their computers, sharing information with one another. The whole idea is to facilitate access to information and data sharing across agencies as part of the counterterrorism project.
Programs like Countering Violent Extremism and suspicious activities reports reify racialized suspicion among the public and proliferate racialized surveillance throughout society.
Finally, it is important to recognize that the War on Terror is just one of the many police wars that are waged by the US empire-state to contain the racialized poor and to suppress dissent. The war on crime, known here in Chicago largely as the war on gangs, is used to justify police deployments designed to monitor, contain, and eliminate Black and Latinx populations by concentrating violence and surveillance in working-class communities of color. Almost every single police strategy in Chicago is justified in the name of combating gang violence, including stop and frisk, electronic surveillance, beat downs, false confessions, torture, and murder.
Until September 7 of this year, CPD maintained a “gang database” that included more than 134,000 names—of whom 70 percent are Black and 25 percent are Latinx, which demonstrates the anti-Blackness at the heart of the primary police war taking place here on the streets of Chicago. Moreover the CPD shared its databases with over 500 agencies across the country, and participated in joint task forces with the FBI and other federal agencies to track and target alleged gang members.
In addition, the war on immigrants is designed to control the flow of and regulate the behavior of migrants from the Global South who are displaced by war, repression, and capitalism. Chicago is officially a sanctuary city, which means that police are not supposed to cooperate with federal authorities to enforce immigration laws. But there are loopholes and exceptions to this rule. Until two years ago, Chicago sanctuary ordinances denied protection to four categories of immigrants. If you had a felony conviction, a felony charge, or an arrest warrant, or if your name appeared on a police gang database, none of the sanctuary protections would apply to you. US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was one of the 500 agencies that had access to CPD data—until recently. And from 2009 to 2018, ICE searched the CPD database over 32,000 times to try to identify supposed gang members as priority targets for deportation.
These flows of data bypassed sanctuary protections to enable collusion between the CPD and ICE as part of the war on gangs and the war on immigrants. And the War on Terror intersects with these wars as well. It justifies the militarization of the border and adds millions of dollars of militarized equipment and surveillance technology that local police departments use to target not only Arabs and Muslims but also Black and brown communities, working-class communities, and activist communities.
Fusion centers are one of the main mechanisms that link these wars together by supporting the flow of information between local and federal agencies. And as part of the global War on Terror the US is also establishing new mechanisms for sharing data and intelligence with its partners overseas, such as Israel, to support US imperial projects around the world.
So policing increasingly operates through these networks of private and state security forces that extend beyond national boundaries through networks of empire. Flows of technology, training, expertise, data, and discourse, constitute the infrastructure that link these forces together as carceral webs that enforce and expand racial capitalism, settler colonialism, apartheid, and empire.
But the circuits of imperial policing are being met by circuits of transnational solidarity and resistance—from South Africa to Palestine to the United States and beyond. Through principled forms of joint struggle and solidarity, movements are providing visions of liberation and abolition that stretch from local police and private security companies to federal immigration authorities, national security agencies, and ultimately the racial capitalist US empire itself.
We can see this in the resurgence of joint struggle between Black, Indigenous, and Palestine liberation movements, building on long histories of shared struggle. The 2014 Ferguson uprising and the 2016 Standing Rock water protectors encampment became key moments in the revival of joint struggle frameworks. These combined struggles are grounded in the recognition that Palestinians, Black Americans, and Native Americans confront similar yet distinct forms of racial, colonial, and capitalist domination that are connected through a global network of imperial power. These movements provide the clearest direction and the most inspiring visions for the future.