Rémi Brulin, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, has written extensively about the discourse of terrorism, particularly as formulated and deployed by powerful states. A particular focus of his has been the so-called Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners (FLLF), a shadowy group that opposed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and claimed responsibility for a series of car bombs and other attacks in Lebanon during the late 1970s and early 1980s. His interest derives from the FLLF’s suspected ties to Israel, which has long portrayed itself as being in the vanguard of the war on terrorism. Apparently defunct since the early or mid-1980s, the FLLF more recently received attention in Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, a book by Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf: Ronen Bergman focuses on the Israeli politicomilitary establishment’s decisionmaking. However, as you have pointed out, Bergman writes—albeit in an endnote—that the FLLF was “a terrorist organization that Israel ran in Lebanon in the years 1980–1983, and which on its own attacked many PLO members and Palestinian civilians.” Is this acknowledgment significant?

Rémi Brulin: You are correct. Bergman does use the term “terrorist” to refer to the FLLF. The quote that you mention appears in an endnote to the book’s prologue. In another endnote, Bergman writes that, according to a senior Mossad official, “[T]he Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners, a terrorist movement established by Meir Dagan in Lebanon, was responsible for” the bombing of the home of Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in Beirut in March 1985. In his book Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, Bob Woodward wrote that William Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the years in question, had later told him that the CIA and Saudi Arabia were involved in the attack. A total of 83 people, mostly civilians, were killed. A banner stating “Made in USA” was later draped over part of the gutted building. In his book, Bergman suggests that Israel, via the FLLF, was involved.

What is rather striking, and also significant, is that Bergman devotes twelve pages of his book (pp. 234–247) to FLLF operations, yet neither in these pages nor in their endnotes does he use the term “terrorism” or “terrorist” to describe the group’s bombing campaign. Bergman reveals that very senior Israeli army officers—Meir Dagan, Rafael Eitan, and Avigdor Ben-Gal—secretly created the FLLF, a mysterious group that claimed responsibility for dozens of car bombings between 1979 and 1983, in order to “sow chaos” in Lebanon. He describes how then-defense minister Ariel Sharon used the FLLF bombs to provoke the PLO into resorting to terrorism, which would then give Israel an excuse to invade Lebanon in the name of fighting … “terrorism.” In just two weeks in the fall of 1981, Sharon’s car bombs killed at least 100 civilians in what were clearly indiscriminate attacks. Yet, despite the focus and subtitle of his book, Bergman avoids the crucial question of whether this secret FLLF campaign was an example of Israeli “targeted assassinations” or of something else entirely.

As I have documented in detail for Mondoweiss (here and here), the FLLF car-bombing campaign took place precisely at the time the Israeli government was carrying out a hasbara [“explanation,” often of a propagandistic nature] campaign to convince the United States and the rest of the Western world that Israel’s “terrorist” enemies, such as the PLO and its Arab allies, were in fact the enemy of the entire (civilized) Western world, and that the “war” Israel was waging against “the terrorists” was in fact a war “the West” as a whole would soon need to join.

The erasure of “our” terrorism is what allows for the discourse to remain unchallenged, and for the practices—immoral, counterproductive, and often deadly—that flow from this discourse to continue unabated. This is why Bergman’s reference to the FLLF as a “terrorist organization” in a couple of endnotes is so important. It is also why his studied avoidance of the term in the book’s actual text, and even in those specific endnotes that link back to the FLLF-related chapter, is so problematic and revealing.

RAS: It should come as no surprise that Israel would want to sweep the FLLF phenomenon under the rug, but what of the United States and its former ambassador to Lebanon, John Gunther Dean? Even if we set aside all the Palestinian and Lebanese civilians killed by the group, Dean has long maintained that the FLLP carried out the infamous August 1980 ambush of his embassy motorcade in Beirut, in which gunfire and light antitank weapons were used. And the FLLF claimed responsibility for the attack, correct?

RB: Right. Dean was often harshly criticized by Israel for his “pro-Palestinian” positions. Specifically, he was in favor of talking directly to the PLO. Dean has always insisted that Israel, through the use of proxies, was behind the attempt on his life in August 1980, and stated as much in his autobiography. Markings on unexploded missiles used during the attack on his motorcade revealed that the missiles had been sold by the United States to Israel. Dean pushed for an investigation. According to him, it went nowhere.

We know that in 1980, the FLLF claimed responsibility for the attack against Dean. We now also know, thanks to Bergman’s book, that the FLLF was a creation of Israel. This suggests, although it does not prove, that Dean may indeed have been correct and that the FLLF were the “proxies” he referred to in his autobiography. Bergman makes no reference at all to this attempted assassination in his book. I think that these revelations should have been major news, especially since we also know that in 1981 the Israeli military censor killed a story by two Israeli journalists (for Yedioth Ahronoth) that would have revealed that high-ranking Israeli army generals Rafael Eitan, Meir Dagan, Avigdor Ben-Gal, and others, were indeed behind the FLLF’s terrorist campaign. Interestingly, Bergman does not say a word about this act of censorship in his book.

In the United States, no media outlet has written about Bergman’s revelations. Bergman himself has appeared on countless interviews or podcasts to talk about his book, yet not a single journalist has asked him about these revelations. This is troubling on its own. Surely, historical truth matters and has value. It is troubling also because the discussion about the book is always framed as “the story of how Israel has used targeted assassinations in its fight against terrorism.” Even when Bergman or his interviewer/reviewer expresses criticism of Israeli policies or practices, the frame remains “this is all taking place in the righteous fight against terrorism.” Failing to mention the FLLF’s (in other words Israel’s) terrorist campaign is, in this context, extraordinarily troubling.

Such media silence is additionally problematic because it means that Israeli officials have not had to confirm or deny the veracity of what Bergman wrote. They have also not had to confirm, deny, or explain the decision by the Israeli military censor to kill a story that would have revealed all this (and potentially stopped the FLLF’s bombs from killing and maiming hundreds of people). Israeli officials have not been forced to launch an investigation into these alleged crimes.

RAS: Why have so many (Western) think tanks and academic-sounding journals purportedly devoted to the study of terrorism shown scant interest in the FLLF? Is the same historically true of other terrorist groups with ties to powerful Western countries?

RB: It’s possible that reviewers of Bergman’s book, which is very long, missed the significance of the relevant pages. Also, academic papers take time to write. They then need to move through the review process, meaning that they get published one or even two years later. So, there might in fact be a number of great papers about the FLLF that are about to get published. I do not know.

It is important to note, however, that there is no agreement among “terrorism experts” on how “terrorism” should be defined. Specifically, there is strong disagreement on whether it should apply solely to nonstate actors, or if it should encompass acts of “state-sponsored terrorism,” “state-supported terrorism,” and even “state terrorism.” It is striking to me how reluctant many of these terrorism experts are to discuss openly and publicly the consequences of their definitions when these definitions are applied in the real world.

In the 1980s, for example, the leading “terrorism journals” did not publish any articles about the Contras in Nicaragua, or about death squads in Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere in Latin America. This was curious, to say the least, because the Contras repeatedly used methods that fit most definitions of “terrorism,” namely political violence against civilians. The death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala did the same thing on an even larger scale. These actors were trained, armed, and supported (to varying degrees) by the United States. Declassified documents show that U.S. analysts for the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency repeatedly described them as “terrorists,” sometimes going so far as to express objections to policies that put the United States in the position of supporting or training terrorists. In the main terrorism journals, however, not only were these conflicts never mentioned, but countless articles published at the time (and since) simply take as self-evident that the United States “is opposed to all terrorism” and go on to assess the country’s “counterterrorism” policies around the world.

The field of “terrorism studies” has long been criticized precisely for focusing solely on “terrorists” that happen to be the enemies of various Western powers, while failing to focus on “terrorism” as a method used by Western states or their allies. This was pointed out in the 1980s by Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Michael Stohl, Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, Alexander George, and others. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the subfield of Critical Terrorism Studies (CTS) came into being, as a correction to these alleged failings. CTS scholars claim that “orthodox terrorism experts” are much too close to (Western) centers of power.

RAS: This isn’t a specifically Western phenomenon, though, is it? Aren’t non-Western countries such as Russia, China, and Iran just as self-serving when it comes to determining who is a terrorist?

RB: That is absolutely correct. In the post-9/11 world, countless countries have used the rationale of “fighting terrorism” to justify deeply problematic, undemocratic, violent, and criminal policies. These issues have been deemed so significant that in 2005 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights created the position of Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.

Russia is indeed a good example. Several United Nations reports have documented how it has used “antiterrorism” policies to target opponents of the regime (including journalists), infringe on civil liberties, engage in human rights violations, and so on. So, the point should certainly not be that what we have discussed here is a specifically Western phenomenon. It is not.

However, as someone who has focused on the genealogy of the discourses on “terrorism,” I would suggest that focusing on the American and Israeli discourses is warranted precisely because of the foundational role they have played in leading us to our current situation. That situation is one in which curbs on civil liberties, the justification of torture or “enhanced interrogation methods” because of so-called “ticking time bomb” scenarios, the spying on Muslim communities, and the use of entrapment, have gained widespread legitimacy as a means of fighting terrorism.

Indeed, everything in the post-9/11 American discourse on “terrorism” was already present in U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s discourse on the subject in the 1980s. And that discourse was, in turn, profoundly influenced by Israel’s discourse on terrorism. This matters now that we know that, while senior Israeli officials were conducting a hasbara campaign aimed at “selling” their country’s discourse to the West, and specifically to the United States, other Israeli officials were covertly conducting their very own (and extraordinarily deadly) campaign of “terrorism,” in part through the FLLF.

RAS: Does Israel’s recent designation of six Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations as terrorist entities figure into all this?

RB: Absolutely. This is how Zena Agha puts it in an excellent New York Times opinion piece: “It seems Israel’s goal is to weaponize the sprawling infrastructure of antiterrorism laws created around the world after Sept. 11, targeting Palestinian human rights defenders by labeling their legitimate work ‘terror,’ thus making their organizations, their efforts and their very persons toxic, untouchable and, most important, far harder to fund.” In many ways, this is simply the latest example in a long history of efforts by Israel to delegitimize anyone who is opposed to, or attempts to resist, its policies. To me, what this decision clearly highlights is the extent to which a number of states (not just Israel) are using the “terrorist/terrorism” label as an ideological and political weapon.

For decades now, Israeli officials have insisted that “terrorism” is a very clearly defined concept, and that it refers solely to the use of violence against civilians. This has allowed them to draw a stark line between “the terrorists,” described as savages and uncivilized precisely because they target civilians, and “us,” the (Western) states that oppose terrorism because we reject the targeting of civilians. Edward Said addressed this in 1986 in his superb essay “The Essential Terrorist.” In the real world, however, Israeli officials have never used the “terrorism” label in such a restrictive manner. Of course, they have condemned Palestinians who did indeed resort to “terrorism.” But they have also, and for decades, used that terminology to refer to Palestinians who used violence against purely military targets and to Palestinians engaged in entirely nonviolent activities.

Often, accusations aimed at civil society organizations and other nonviolent opponents of Israeli policies have been based on extraordinarily problematic assumptions about the kind of “ties” certain Palestinian individuals or organizations may have had with groups that Israel considers to be terroristic. This is perfectly illustrated in the latest case: Israel’s decision apparently rests on alleged ties between six Palestinian organizations and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which Israel, the United States, and the European Union list as a terrorist group.

A number of news organizations have been able to study and analyze the “secret file” that contains the evidence on which Israel based its decision, and have shown that the accusations against the six organizations are completely unfounded. The basic logic is guilt by association: The PFLP is a terrorist group, meaning that any ties one has with the PFLP makes one a terrorist. Israel has employed the same logic to target and kill Palestinian journalists, based on the rationale that they were members of Hamas and therefore not journalists at all, but rather “terrorists.”

In many ways, when we think of Israel’s recent decision regarding these Palestinian organizations, we should recall what happened after 9/11 to countless Muslim organizations in the United States In a number of “material support to terrorism” cases against U.S. Muslim organizations (perhaps most infamously in the Holy Land Foundation case), Israel was directly involved, and even went so far as to provide spies as witnesses for the prosecution.

RAS: Have you noticed any recent trends in terms of which individuals or entities are branded as terroristic by powerful Western countries and those moving within their orbit? Are the likes of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning at risk of being labeled terrorists?

RB: To identify a trend, one has to look at the relevant history. States have long used the “terrorism” label to delegitimize their opponents. The Nazis did so with resistance groups across Europe and beyond. Colonial France did the same with its enemies during its wars in Algeria and Indochina. The United States followed suit and labeled the Viet Cong “terrorists.” During the 1970s and 1980s, Latin American dictators, supported by Washington, used the “terrorist” label to delegitimize all “subversive” enemies. For example, after taking power in a coup supported by the CIA, General Augusto Pinochet of Chile repeatedly insisted he was fighting against “subversives” and “terrorists.” Time and again, he accused Orlando Letelier, a former diplomat who had fled Chile and lobbied against the Pinochet government in Washington, of being a “terrorist.” Letelier’s advocacy focused on defending human rights in his home country. He had very close ties to certain Democrats in Congress.

In 1976, Pinochet’s secret services planted a bomb under Letelier’s car. Letelier and his aide, Ronny Moffitt, were killed in the explosion, which took place on Embassy Row in the heart of Washington. This was condemned as an act of “terrorism” by the Carter administration and countless others in the United States. U.S. military aid to Chile was stopped once it became clear that the Pinochet regime would not investigate the bombing and would not bring the culprits to justice.

The Letelier assassination took place under the umbrella of Operation Condor, a secret system of crossborder repression put together by several Latin American dictatorships in order to fight against and eliminate their “subversive, terrorist” enemies. In the real world, Operation Condor itelf was, as the Letelier car bombing illustrates, an international terrorist network. This is yet another example of the propagandistic nature of the “terrorism” discourse: The very states that claimed to be fighting “terrorism” were themselves engaged in an international campaign of “terrorism.”

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, U.S. economic and military aid to a number of right-wing regimes in Latin America—Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador—was a very contentious issue. Reagan insisted on providing aid to such countries. The argument put forth was that terrorism was the worst violation of human rights, and that U.S. aid would go toward helping these regimes fight terrorism. The terrorists, in this argument, were the left-wing groups opposed to Washington’s allies in the region.

To defend these policies, Reagan and his Republican allies in Congress had to certify that U.S. weapons were not going to human rights violators. To do so, they had to consistently reject reports from human rights organizations that documented precisely such abuses and described how these Latin American countries’ security forces had intimate ties to death squads. For example, Reagan insisted that U.S. support for the Contras in Nicaragua was part of the “war on terrorism.” In this case, the left-wing Sandinistas were the “terrorists,” and the Contras were “freedom fighters.” Many Democrats opposed this policy, insisted that the Contras themselves used methods that qualified as terrorism, and explicitly stated that U.S. support for the Contras amounted to state-supported or state-sponsored terrorism.

This is particularly interesting because Joe Biden, then a young senator, took part in some of these debates. He knows how contentious the term “terrorism” is. He knows that, throughout the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans could not agree on how to define it. They could not agree on who “the terrorists” were in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, and of course South Africa, where Republicans insisted that the African National Congress and its imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela, were terrorists. Democrats, in turn, argued it was Apartheid South Africa that was a terrorist state!

The only conflict where there has never been any disagreement as to the identity of the “terrorists” is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Democrats and Republicans have always agreed that Palestinians are perpetrators, and never victims, of terrorism, while Israelis are always victims, and never perpetrators, of terrorism. This is another reason why the FLLF revelations are so important.

In many ways, 9/11 simply consolidated and hegemonized discursive practices that had existed for decades. As mentioned, Letelier was labeled a terrorist by the Chilean government. His real crime? Documenting human rights violations by his government and lobbying Congress to force policy changes in Washington. Julian Assange, similarly, has uncovered grave crimes committed by the United States overseas. In 2010, he was labeled a “terrorist” by then vice president Joe Biden. A number of other U.S. officials have since labeled him such, as have media pundits and commentators intent on delegitimizing his and other whistleblowers’ work. This is crucial because many U.S. policies and activities that Assange and others have brought to light were criminal. At times, they may have amounted to war crimes, and “terrorism” can be thought of as the peacetime equivalent of war crimes. The fact that those who reveal such crimes would themselves be labeled terrorists says a lot about how propagandistic the discourse can be.

There is a parallel here with the aforementioned Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations that Israel has designated as terrorist groups. Some of these organizations are doing tremendously important work documenting what may amount to Israeli war crimes. A number of their findings have been used to build the case for an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the Israeli military’s various operations in Gaza. Similarly, revelations from Wikileaks have helped document possible U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, both Israel and the United States have refused to join the ICC, and have repeatedly rejected the very idea that the court should have the right or power to investigate their alleged crimes. Attacks against the Palestinian organizations or against whistleblowers such as Assange, Snowden, and Daniel Hale should be seen in the context of continued efforts by the United States and Israel to avoid any kind of accountability for the crimes of which they are accused.