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Making a Killing

by Caron Gentry on November 8, 2017

War is a profitable business—for some—and this post ponders how terrorism is also a profitable business.  Even before the 12 August Guardian article showed, in a damaging light, that the Thatcher government exploited Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait in order to sell arms (then defence procurement minister Alan Clark described it as an “unparalleled opportunity”), there was a discredited claim that Trump (and Raytheon) profited from the Syrian airstrikes in April.  Even though the April airstrikes were justified as counter-terrorism measures against Syrian chemical airstrikes, and state terrorism does not traditionally fall within terrorism, it has been clear that some governments, businesses, and individuals make money off of war.  This begs the question: why wouldn’t terrorism be just as profitable?

The question posed in this post is ‘who benefits from the label of terrorism’?  My very basic understanding of political economy begins with asking ‘cui bono’?  I combine this with my Feminist Security Studies (FSS) research agenda, which aims to identify and dismantle power hierarchies by investigating who or what these hierarchies benefit and seeing, hearing, and working with/alongside those that these hierarchies harm.  In my mind, the tracing out of who benefits and the goal of FSS come to a similar endpoint.

Daring to ask who benefits from terrorism risks looking sympathetic towards terrorists or as if I am denying the harms the violence perpetrates.  But instead of engaging this political and moral quagmire, I want to take a step back to think about the ‘politics’ of terrorism—where ‘politics’ and ‘political’ means engaging the contentious and unsettled as a way of exploring power.

The first political point to make is that terrorism is a hugely loaded term and even the majority of Terrorism Studies scholars see it as a pejorative.  There is no agreed upon definition of terrorism.  It is often associated with non-state and, very often, non-Western violence, making it a discourse and not just a term.

Secondly, by noting that terrorism is a discursive label, then the politics of terrorism labelling leads to intense condemnation and the removal of legitimacy and credibility from its perpetrators.  There is value in this discursive maneouver—something is gained for those who use it.  This leads to some much larger questions:

  • When an act of violence is labelled terrorism, and this is generally accepted, and a response to it is also accepted, then who benefits?
  • Are all acts of violence that become labelled as terrorism befitting of that (highly contested and completely unsettled) terminology?
  • Is the terminology unsettled exactly because it rests upon power hierarchies, and not just in who gets to do the labelling but in who the terrorist is assumed to be—not white, not Western, not associated with a state? (Although, the conversation is finally shifting after Charlottesville…)

The gains this labeling process makes are immense—whether that is the acceptance of extreme counterterrorism measures or whether that is in economic profit.

Much of the work on economics and terrorism looks at the economic drivers (push factors) of people (mainly men) into terrorism or it looks at the cost of a terrorist attack on the targeted (mainly Western) country.  This sells a particular narrative: terrorists are men coming out of a youth bulge in the developing world and have a vindictive need to target the West. (Although, see for instance Kimmel’s great piece on gender, economy, and terrorism).  Thus far, such a narrative/explanation is fairly expected and the presumptions in it have been unpacked and deconstructed.  Yet, what remains to be explored is how much the instrumentalisation of the terrorism label has profited governments, defense contractors, and the weapons industry.

The War on Terror was estimated to cost $5 trillion as of October 2016.  The “cost” is thus because it is a war financed by Treasury bonds; therefore it is the next generation that must pay it back.  But every time there is a cost, someone benefits.  This, to me, appears to be a foreclosure as Butler defines it: an “erasure and negation that determine the field of appearances and intelligibility of crimes of culpability.”  What is foreclosed is that while wars may be written up as tragic but necessary, unwanted but just, politicians, weapons manufacturers, fund managers make gains in the (culpable) drive to war or, furthermore, in the response to terrorism.

In 2006 the Bush “White House’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism confidently announced that the United States had ‘broken old orthodoxies that once confined our counterterrorism efforts primarily to the criminal justice domain’” as the military took over responsibility for domestic counter-terrorism.  In order to ‘catch up’ with the military and to regain responsibility for counter-terrorism, the police “purchased military equipment, adopted military training, and sought to inculcate a ‘soldier’s mentality’ among their ranks” (Rizer and Hartman 2011).  With the militarising of the police come costs: body armour, attack helicopters, military grade equipment—“bazookas, machine guns, and armoured vehicles (mini-tanks)” (Rizer and Hartman 2011), and surveillance technology.  And these costs flow back to the military-defence complex as profit.

Articulating that there are some who may benefit from terrorism treads on very uneasy ground.  Terrorism is narrated as the ultimate crime—immoral, heinous destruction that targets the innocent.  As such a loaded concept, it is then possibly difficult to suggest that the West particularly profits from it.  To clarify: it is not that Western actors profit from an attack on the West intentionally, but it profits by playing into the label, condemnation, and the necessity of responding to the violence that has been identified as terrorism.  The profit comes in the response.  The need to keep profiting and to keep gaining in profit is circular: profiteers in this instance will need terrorism to keep happening or for violence to be continually named as terrorism in only the particular instances that create profit.  And this maintains a cycle of security/insecurity, protected/precarious, profit/disruption that maintains a neo-imperialist, gendered global hierarchy that operates across different ‘levels of analysis.’

It is this dichotomous cycle of who is ‘made’ secure by declaring ‘that violence’ perpetrated by those ‘people,’ who are now made (further) insecure that needs unpacking from a political economy and feminist security studies perspective.  It is a deeply intersectional problem: the discursive activity of ‘terrorism’ is racialised and gendered and, thus, what is the profit to be made off of this activity?  And how does this continue a cycle of harm?  There is something to be seen in the unpicking, unpacking, and shaking out of these questions.

Caron Gentry
Caron E. Gentry is a Senior Lecturer in the School of International Relations and a Research Fellow in the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence both at the University of St Andrews. Her main area of research focuses on gender and terrorism, with multiple single and coauthored publications. These include Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Thinking about Women’s Violence in Global Politics (Zed: 2015) with Laura Sjoberg, and articles in Millennium: Journal of International Studies; International Feminist Journal of Politics; Critical Studies on Terrorism; and Terrorism and Political Violence.

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