Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was published in March 2000 — and just about no one noticed. Until then, blowback had been an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, which Johnson defined as “the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.” In his prologue, the former consultant to the CIA and eminent scholar of both Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution and modern Japan labeled his Cold War self a “spear-carrier for empire.”
After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, he was surprised to discover that the essential global structure of that other Cold War colossus, the American superpower, with its vast panoply of military bases, remained obdurately in place as if nothing whatsoever had happened. Almost a decade later, when the Evil Empire was barely a memory, Johnson surveyed the planet and found “an informal American empire” of immense reach and power. He also became convinced that, in its global operations, Washington was laying the groundwork “all around the world… for future forms of blowback.”
Johnson noted “portents of a twenty-first century crisis” in the form of, among other things, “terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies.” In the first chapter of Blowback, he focused in particular on a “former protégé of the United States” by the name of Osama bin Laden and on the Afghan War against the Soviets from which he and an organization called al-Qaeda had emerged. It had been a war in which Washington backed to the hilt, and the CIA funded and armed, the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists, paving the way years later for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan.
Talk about unintended consequences! The purpose of that war had been to give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style bloody nose, which it more than did. All of this laid the foundation for… well, in 1999 when Johnson was writing, no one knew what. But he, at least, had an inkling, which on September 12, 2001, made his book look prophetic indeed. He emphasized one other phenomenon: Americans, he believed, had “freed ourselves of… any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe.”
With Blowback, he aimed to rectify that, to paint a portrait of how that informal empire and its historically unprecedented garrisoning of the world looked to others, and so explain why animosity and blowback were building globally. After September 11, 2001, his book leaped to the center of the 9/11 display tables in bookstores nationwide and became a bestseller, while “blowback” and that phrase “unintended consequences” made their way into our everyday language.
Chalmers Johnson was, you might say, our first blowback scholar. Now, more than a decade later, we have a book from our first blowback reporter. His name is Jeremy Scahill. In 2007, he, too, produced a surprise bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It caught the mood of a moment in which the Bush administration, in service to its foreign wars, was working manically to “privatize” national security and the U.S. military by hiring rent-a-spies, rent-a-guns, and rent-a-corporations for its proliferating wars.
In the ensuing years, it was as if Scahill had taken Johnson’s observation to heart — that we Americans can’t see our world as it is. And little wonder, since so much of the American way of war has plunged into the shadows. As two administrations in Washington arrogated ever greater war-making and national security powers, they began to develop a new, off-the-books, undeclared style of war-making. In the process, they transformed an increasingly militarized CIA, a hush-hush crew called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and a shiny new “perfect weapon” and high-tech fantasy object, the drone, into the president’s own privatized military.
In these years, war and the path to it were becoming the private business and property of the White House and the national security state — and no one else. Little of this, of course, was a secret to those on the receiving end. It was only Americans who were not supposed to know much about what was being done in their name. As a result, there was a secret history of twenty-first-century American war crying out to be written. Now, we have it in the form of Scahill’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Scahill has tracked, in particular, the rise of JSOC. In Iraq, it grew into a kind of Murder Inc., “an executive assassination wing,” as Seymour Hersh once put it, operating out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. It next turned its hunter/killer methods on Afghanistan and then on the planet, as the special operations forces themselves grew into an expansive secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military. In those years, Scahill started following the footsteps of special ops types into the field, while mainlining into sources in their community as well as other parts of the American military and intelligence world.
The phone call between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin after the Boston Marathon bombers were identified as Chechens, in which Obama thanked Putin for Russia’s cooperation on counter-terrorism and promised more such collaboration, was probably the most cordial exchange the two countries have had for some time. The thaw was occurring as Syrian troops were accused of committing a massacre of hundreds civilians as they advanced on Judaydat al-Fadl in the hinterland of Damascus. In other developments, Lebanon’s Hizbullah Shiite militia appeared to have been drawn more explicitly than ever before into the fighting in Syria near the Lebanese border.
It should be realized that from Aleppo in northern Syria, where the radical Jabhat al-Nusra is active, to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya in Russia, is only about 960 miles through Turkey and Georgia, about a 20 hour drive. In Chechnya, the nationalist Chechen forces of secularists, Sufis and other non-fundamentalists have since 1999 fought the radical Caucasus Emirate Islamic Insurgency, more or less an al-Qaeda affiliate, with Putin’s backing. Ramzan Kadyrov and Putin do not want a resurgence in the area of Muslim radicalism, and so hate the idea of the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra defeating the secular Baath Party. (The secular-fundamentalist split in Chechnya, by the way, is mirrored in the Tsarnaev family. Anzor Tsarnaev married a daughter to a policeman working for Kadyrov, according to AP, while his son, Tamerlan, became a radical fundamentalist. See my “Fathers and Sons and Chechnya.”
Although Putin’s reasons for backing al-Assad are mostly geopolitical, having to do with reasserting Russia’s great power status, the two are also allied in opposing Sunni Muslim religious nationalism, especially the radical sort.
But Putin is not alone. The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra and of Sunni radicalism in northern Syria is alleged to be one reason the Obama administration declines to support the rebels militarily. They fear repeating the mistake of the Reagan administration, which encouraged the radical fundamentalists to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and created an atmosphere in which al-Qaeda could be founded in Afghanistan.
But frankly, after the bombing of Boston, the likelihood of US intervention in Syria, never very high, has plummeted toward zero. The Obama administration will not want to take a chance on ensconcing another radical hirabi (terrorist) organization in the Middle East, which might one day strike at the US. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to plump for a diplomatic solution, perhaps involving Bashar al-Assad stepping down, and a joint Baath-rebel government that would move to elections. This scenario, resembling what happened in Yemen, where the ruling party allowed the opposition to join the government after the president was forced out, couldn’t be more unlikely in Syria. The Baath government has killed tens of thousands of people, and is just not any longer acceptable to most Syrians. But the US says it wants talks between the sides.
Even as the US kept hands off except for civilian aid, the situation on the ground in Syria became more dire. The pro-Sunni, anti-Baath Lebanese newspaper al-Mustaqbal reports on a massacre in Rif Dimashq, the region southwest of the capital of Damascus. Syrian troops loyal to the Baath government of President Bashar al-Assad have been fighting in Judaidat al-Fadl for five days, and finally took it on Sunday. But when the smoke cleared, there were some 560 dead, many of them women and children (according to rebel sources quoted by CNN). Al-Mustaqbal accuses the Alawi Shiite militias loyal to the regime, the Shabiha (Specters) of having summarily killed the villagers as an object lesson to the other residents of Rif Dimashq that they would be unwise to join the rebellion.
The newspaper sees this massacre as an act of sectarian ethnic cleansing, i.e. of Shiites intending to terrorize Sunnis.
In other news, the city of Qusair in Syria is on a notorious smuggling route that you could use to supply Homs from Lebanon. It and its hinterland, however, had fallen into the hands of the rebels. On Saturday, the Sunni Syrian rebels sent mortar fire on Hermel, across the border in Lebanon– a Shiite, Hizbullah stronghold. It was the farthest into Lebanese territory that Syrian munitions have fallen. A Hizbullah fighter was also killed in Zita a Shiite town on the Syrian side of the border.
Alarabiya reported that Hizbullah fighters assisted the Syrian army on Sunday in a counter-offensive in the hinterland villages between the Lebanese border and Qusair. These, Arab wire services alleged, fell one by one back into Government hands. They include al-Burhania, al-Ridwaniya, and Tel al-Nabi Mandu (the latter is strategic in being higher and allowing whoever holds it to dominate the surrounding villages). The Jordanian al-Dustur reported that the rebels now expect the Syrians to attempt to take back Qusayr itself.
If this report is true, it is the most direct attested intervention of Hizbullah in the Syrian civil war yet.
We who already have some of the liberties that youth Egyptians yearn for should not be so quick to surrender them. Tsarnaev is an American citizen and a civilian who killed and injured people on American soil. He is a murderer, and should be tried in the courts like a whole host of others who committed or plotted murder as a means to terrorizing the public.
The point seems obvious to anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. Those who point to the Civil War are confusing ordinary times with times of martial law. We’re not having a civil war and there is no martial law.
But here’s another consideration.
Paul Kevin Curtis stands accused (we don’t know if he is guilty) of sending a ricin-poisoned letter to President Barack Obama.
Obama is not just any civilian but is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.
So if anyone should be charged as an enemy combatant, it should be Curtis. Yet senators McCain and Graham have not suggested that step.
Peter Bergen sagely writes that an “FBI study reported that between January 1, 2007, and October 31, 2009, white supremacists were involved in 53 acts of violence, 40 of which were assaults directed primarily at African-Americans, seven of which were murders and the rest of which were threats, arson and intimidation. Most of these were treated as racially motivated crimes rather than political acts of violence, i.e. terrorism.”
He points out that in December of 2011, Kevin Harpham was sentenced to 32 years for planting a bomb at the site of a Martin Luther King, Jr., parade in Spokane, Washington. There isn’t any difference between Harpham and Tsarnaev. Both targeted a public event involving moving through the streets. Harpham was allegedly a member of a hate group, the National Alliance, founded by William Price, the author of ?The Turner Diaries. He was also interested in the Aryan Nation..
I am not aware that Senators McCain and Graham suggested that any of these individuals be tried as enemy combatants.
I’ll just come out with it. I have to ask whether their use of the term “enemy combatant” is racist. Is it only for deployment against people not of northern European heritage?
Moreover, the system the senators are appealing to is itself broken. Despite assurances that the military tribunal system is fair and can work as well as a civilian trial, in fact defense attorneys at Guantanamo are full of horror stories about how their clients have been dealt with. A big problem is that many were tortured and so where they have confessed, the statements are tainted. And apparently once someone is sent to Guantanamo and charged as an enemy combatant, even if he is subsequently cleared for release it is hard for the government to let him go. Uncharged, unreleased prisoners are hunger striking. Guantanamo should be closed and the whole enemy combatant thing should be rolled up. It is an embarrassment before the rest of the world.
The USG Open Source Center translates a reaction from the Caucasus Emirate Islamic insurgency on the news that the Tsarnaev brothers are accused of the Boston Marathon bombing. The CEII casts doubt on their guilt and also on the plausibility that these are jihadis, given their internet profiles at Russian-language sites. It does not claim them. For more on the CEII, see this 2011 article at the Middle East Policy Council
Chechen jihadist website reacts to identification of Boston bombers
Friday, April 19, 2013
Document Type: OSC Translated Text
Text of a report in Russian by Chechen rebel internet news agency Kavkaz-Tsentr; subheading inserted editorially
The story of the Boston bombings is gaining greater and greater prominence. After the US government announced the suspects to be two natives of Dagestan, apparently, ethnic Chechens Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev, interest in the Russian mass media in the Boston bombing grew sharply.
Articles are coming out one after another with various types of allusions, and several commentators have begun to mockingly poke at the USA with their profuse talk: “Look, now (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and (Syrian President Bashar al-) Asad are laughing at the USA, which is supporting the terrorists in Syria.”
Meanwhile, the story of the brothers itself remains very complicated, although it is hard not to miss the PR component of all of this.
For example, the name of one of the “terrorists”, who is by the way only 19 years old, as if it was ordered, is Dzhokhar [Ar. Jawhar, i.e. gem, essence, also a 20th Chechen nationalist], an easily recognizable “brand” that explicitly ties the “perpetrators of the terrorist act” in Boston to Chechnya.
… It is still not clear what happened with Tamerlan Tsarnayev, why did the shoot-out start. Reports that the brothers attacked the police, stole a car and did many other things, rather than lay low and wait, seem strange at the very least.
The US authorities have said that they are searching for the surviving 19-year-old youth.
Blast suspects’ background
By the way, about the brothers. They practically did not live in Chechnya, and the younger one was actually born in Kyrgyzstan. From there they immigrated to the USA. Judging by Dzhokhar Tsarnayev’s VKontakte page, he appears to be far from the image of an “Islamic terrorist”. He described career and money as his main credo. And besides, he had visited his page on the Russian social networking site literally just a few hours ago.
On the website of the Cambridge School (Cambridge Rindge & Latin School), where Tsarnayev studied, says that in February 2011 he won the title of “athlete of the month”. Such famous people as (actors) Ben Affleck and Matt Damon graduated from this educational institute.
As for his older brother, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnayev, as it became known, started training to become a boxer and was preparing to become a member of the US Olympic team.
According to his personal statements, had Chechnya not received independence, he would try to become a member of the US team rather than the Russian team. This information is included in the profile of the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts centre, where he was training to become a boxer.
Tsarnayev’s photo gallery also says the same. He said that he would sooner become a member of the US team than the Russian team. The boxer added that so far he could not make it to the national team, because he did not have US citizenship, but he hoped to receive it in the future.
During his conversation with a photographer, the sportsman said that he was ready to become a member of the Chechen team only if it (Chechnya) becomes independent.
Tamerlan Tsarnayev had been living in the USA since he was five years old. He studied engineering at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.
The Americans found his YouTube page, where he accumulated videos that he liked. It is interesting that one of the videos that Tamerlan Tsarnayev liked was “how I converted to Islam and become a Shi’a”.
The Americans have already concluded that Tamerlan could be linked to “Al-Qa’ida”. Apart from the video on Islam, one of the videos was devoted to the Black Flag anarchist organization. According to the Mother Jones portal, Al-Qa’ida was the alleged protector of the member of the Black Flag.
Meanwhile, foreign correspondents trying to phone Chechnya have reported that (Chechen leader Ramzan) Kadyrov’s spokesperson had turned off his phone. He did not want to speak with journalists about the Boston events.
There is one interesting detail. The Economist’s Moscow correspondent, Joshua Yaffa, recalled that earlier this week, Putin’s Sport Minister (Vitaliy Mutko) said that the blast in Boston was a wake-up call for the upcoming (2014) Olympics in Sochi. This is yet another linkage with “terrorists in the Caucasus”.
(Description of Source: Kavkaz-Tsentr in Russian — Prominent North Caucasus jihadist website, reportedly close to rebel ideologist Movladi Udugov and frequently carrying original statements by senior rebels within the Caucasus Emirate Islamic insurgency; URL: http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/; operates multiple mirror and Arabic-, English- , Ukrainian-, and Turkish-language versions of the site)
The anger and embarrassment visible in the interviews given on Friday by the uncle and the aunt of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, are entirely understandable.
But I see clues here to family dynamics that may be important in understanding what happened. In Ivan Turgenev’s 1862, novel, “Fathers and Sons,” the old man’s son, Arkady, comes back home after studies with a friend, Bazarov, after both had adopted the radical philosophy of Nihilism. Their radicalism roiled the family for a while, until Bazarov’s death. (Later, in 1881, Nihilists assassinated Tsar Alexander II).
The key back in 2013, I think, is Maret Tsarnaeva’s assertion that the father, Anzor, ‘worked in the enforcement agencies’ in Russian Chechnya.
‘We were,’ she said, ‘lucky to get him out of Kyrgyzstan alive,’ presumably because radical Muslims were trying to track him down and take revenge on him there.
Update: If he had been a Soviet era prosecutor, a lot of people in Kyrgyzstan would have had a grudge with him. Hence his abortive attempts to flee first to Chechnya in the early 90s and to Daghestan later.
She also seems to imply that he was given asylum in the US easily, precisely because he had been an ‘enforcer’ in Grozny against the Muslim fundamentalist rebels, and so there was no doubt that his life was in danger from them.*
The uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, said that the bombings had nothing to do with religion, that that charge is a fraud, he said, because he knew the family and the boys as children (i.e. he knew them to have been raised as secularists). Someone, he said, ‘radicalized them.’
Most ex-Soviet Muslims are secular and many don’t believe in God or think religion is important. Their families lived under a Communist regime for some 70 years, with its campaigns of official atheism and anti-religious indoctrination in schools. In the ex-Soviet Muslim-heritage republics, there are huge struggles between those happy in their secularism and those who are attempting to recover a Muslim identity. That struggle has played out in Chechnya as well as in Uzbekistan.
“I want to speak on behalf of Tsarnev. First, the only purpose here is just to deliver condolences and to share grief with the victims here. Those who were injured – this boy this Chinese girl, the young 29-year-old girl – I’ve been following this from day one.
I can never imagine that somehow the children of my brother would be associated with that so it is atrocity. I don’t know this family . I don’t know how to share that grief with the real victims.
They never lived here. The last time I saw them was December 2005.
I never knew they had any ill will towards United States. Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves – these are the only reasons I can imagine why they did this. Anything else, religion, is a fraud. I’ve seen thm when they were kids.
Somebody radicalized them but its not my brother who spent his life bringing bread to their table fixing cars. He didnt have time or chance, He’s been working.
My family has nothing to do with that family.
Of course we are ashamed! They are children of my family! Who had little influence of them. i just wanted my family to be away from them.
Again I say what I think was behind it . BEING LOSERS! not being able to settle themselves. That they were hating everyone who did.
They came early since 2003. They came to Cambridge when they moved to the States. They came to Cambridge. They immigrated. They received asylum. They LIVED there. My family had nothing to do with that family for a long time. Last time I spoke to them was 2009.
I say I teach my children. I respect this country I love this country. This country which gives chance to everyone else to be treated as a human being .
They never been in Checnya. They had nothing to do with Chechnya. They were not born there. One of them was born in neighboring country.
I saw them only this morning when I was contacted at 7 a.m. with the orders. When they said have you seen the pictures I opened up internet and I saw a picture of [Dzhakhar].
I said, ‘You’re alive! Turn yourself in and ask for forgiveneess. The victims from the injured and from those who died. Ask forgiveness from these people.” He put a SHAME on our family. He put a shame on the entire Chechnyan ethnicity cause now everyone blames Chechnyans. They shamed entire ethnicity. TURN yourself IN and put yourself in the discretion of these people.
(Reporter asked: do you consider them terrorists) I would, I would. From now on, I ask you to respect our property. Again, with the families of those who suffered, we share the grief with them. I’m ready to bend in, we seek forgiveness. Thank you.”
I think what he was saying is that the Tsarnaevs were secular Chechens, as the majority of ex-Soviet Muslims are. That the family was not interested in religion or religious nationalism is supported by the reports that the two boys liked to party.
In her interview, Maret Tsarnaev seemed to me to say that the father of the two, Anzor Tsarnaev, had worked as an ‘enforcer’ for the Russian authorities, I take it as a policeman or security official. That was the reason, she said, that he had to flee to Kyrgyzstan. That is, far from being rooted in the Muslim fundamentalist wing of the Chechnya rebellion, as many are assuming, the family appears to have been part of the Soviet and then secular Kyrgyz establishment and opposed to religious radicalism there. [My guess last Friday that the family is on the side of the Kadyrov-Putin establishment in Chechnya found some support on Sunday when AP reported that Anzor Tsarnaev married one of his daughters off to a policeman serving Ramzan Kadyrov; such police are at daggers drawn with the radical fundamentalists.]
This sounds to me like a classic father-son struggle, and a tale of adolescent rebellion, in which radical Muslim vigilanteism appears mainly as a tool for the young men to get back to their father, and perhaps to wipe off the shame they had begun feeling about the family having been on the wrong side of the Chechnya fundamentalist uprising. They were playing the nihilists Arkady and Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The shame of the secular uncle may have been mirrored from the other side in the shame of the newly religious-nationalist adolescents.
*This para deleted because the early speculation seems unwarranted:
It is possible that she is saying that Anzor Tsarnaev was a soldier or security policeman for the pro-Russian Chechnyan government of Akhmet Kadyrov, established in 1999 in the course of the Second Chechnya War against the Islamic Peacekeeping Army, which had invaded Daghestan.
The political reality of the United States in the world is that of blowback. Blowback is a term of art in the intelligence community for what happens when a covert operation goes bad and comes back to bite you on the ass. The US spent the 1980s encouraging Muslim radicals to engage in ‘freedom fighting’ against the leftist government of Afghanistan, and that policy certainly is implicated in the creation of al-Qaeda. We have been suffering with lack of security ever since. And what would have happened if Washington had just left the Communist government in place? Wouldn’t it have gone the same way as the former Communist regime of Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan? Which of you feels threatened by those former Soviet Socialist Republics?
The policy of deliberate deployment of torture by US officials, in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib (Iraq) and Bagram (Afghanistan), as well as black sites in Poland and elsewhere, during the past decade, has spawned a whole new wave of blowback.
The US is not responsible for terrorism against it, and the terrorists are horrible human beings. But let’s just say that a more responsible US foreign policy would make less trouble for the rest of us.
A bipartisan panel found, while the attention of the US public was elsewhere, that there is indisputable proof that the highest US officials of the Bush administration are implicated in torture, that torture was deployed systematically, and that there is no evidence that it ever yielded any useful intelligence about terrorist plots against the US. The Panel argues that the Guantanamo prison must be closed (many of the inmates now there have never been charged or tried and many have been cleared for release, but are not being released. Many are on debilitating hunger strikes that the US media barely cover.)
Russia Today reports on the hunger strikes among Guantanamo prisoners, 166 of whom are said still to be living in small “animal cages” and to lack any hope of ever coming to trial. They are “condemned, dead men who just happen to breathe” according to one attorney. This, despite the fact that the vast majority of remaining prisoners are “cleared for release.” Apparently the US would be willing to let them go but their home countries won’t take them?
The US constitution guarantees all prisoners the right to a speedy trial, and the phony fascist idea that non-US citizens in US custody don’t get constitutional rights is contrary to the Declaration of Independence, which says these rights belong to “all men.”
Defense attorneys say they are systematically stonewalled by the prison authorities. RT interviewed one of the defense attorneys:
“Lt. Col Barry Wingard: The last time I saw my clients was between the February 25 and March 8. I visited with them multiple times. I was shocked at the condition they were in. In fact, we were the first people who broke the story that the hunger strike had begun around February 6 or 7 and had continued on. My client at that point had lost 26 pounds (12kg) and at this point it’s official that he’s lost almost 40 pounds (18kg) – one third of his body weight from 147 pounds (67kg).
RT: How long can they go on like that?
BW: I can imagine we’re getting near to the end when something serious is going to happen. The administration down in Guantanamo Bay initially denied the report that the hunger strike was occurring. They then said it was seven, then 14, then 21 people. They then said it wasn’t the largest hunger strike in history. Then they came out and said it’s 24, 25, and today 26 people. So the story is getting more accurate as we go, but we’re running out of time.”