The Revenge Attack Myth

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It is an axiom in coverage of Islamist terrorism that attacks on Western targets by jihadists are inevitably defined as acts of "revenge" or "retaliation" for previous Western attacks or offenses. The recent attempt by Faisal Shahzad to blow up part of Times Square in New York is no different; Shahzad's bungled try, apparently sponsored by the Pakistani Taliban, was motivated, we read, by the CIA's drone attacks against the group's leadership. This is from the The New York Times:

"The C.I.A.'s drone program in Pakistan, which was accelerated in 2008 and expanded by President Obama last year, has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Washington in part because it was perceived as eliminating dangerous militants while keeping Americans safe.

But the attack in December on a C.I.A. base in Afghanistan, and now possibly the failed S.U.V. attack in Manhattan, are reminders that the drones' very success may be provoking a costly response."

Newsweek tells us that one its sources claims that the Pakistani Taliban was "desperately looking for revenge against America inside America." And this from The New York Post: "The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the Times Square bombing attempt immediately after it occurred, saying it was in response to the drone killing of one of its leaders in August -- but that claim had been roundly discounted by US authorities at the time. But by yesterday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Qureshi said, "This is a blowback. This is a reaction. This is retaliation. And you could expect that," according to CBS News.

All of this analysis would be true if America were using its drones to launch unprovoked attacks against targets in Pakistan. But it is not. These attacks are provoked. And who is doing the provoking? Jihadists, who, for all the obvious reasons, want us to believe that it is our actions that cause the violence they inflict on us. Ask yourself this question: Did American drone attacks in Pakistan cause 9/11? Or the attack on the U.S.S. Cole? Or the embassy bombings in Africa?

For those who, for whatever reason, feel a need to argue that it is Western action that causes jihadist reaction, I suppose it is possible to posit that the decision, in 1990, by George H.W. Bush to station American troops in Saudi Arabia to protect it from Saddam Hussein set in motion the jihadist war we experience today, because the decision helped motivate Osama bin Laden to launch his anti-American jihad. But of course, Osama bin Laden built his ideas on earlier ideas, largely those of Sayyid Qutb, the leading Islamist ideologue of the early 20th century, whose ideas were not motivated by a desire to seek revenge for American drone attacks on Pakistani targets.

Bruce Hoffman, the terrorism expert (now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars), told me that the Western media, by implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) accepting the notion that terror attacks are brought about by a immediately-previous Western response to terrorism, propagates the self-serving narrative of Islamists. "The media can make it look as if the terror groups are simply defending themselves from some provocation. The question is one of original provocation. When you focus on this sort of causality, we accept the terrorists' framing." He went on to say, "No terrorism group has the word 'terrorism' in its name. They see themselves as reluctant fighters, always retaliating, never initiating."
 
So, a proposal: The next time a young Muslim male attempts to make mayhem in New York or elsewhere, and, once captured, tells the authorities that he was seeking revenge for some specific act of American aggression, we should do our best to avoid repeating his proximate-causality excuse-making and report that his act was undertaken on behalf of a larger movement that seeks the overthrow of moderate Muslim governments, the restoration of the caliphate, the eradication of Western influence in the Muslim world, the oppression of women, the annihilation of gays and Jews, and so on. This approach would have the benefit, at least, of accuracy.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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