Behold The Terrorist (Not)!

Whitehall’s selective attitude towards foreign fighters in Syria confirms that ‘terrorist’ remains an unduly discretionary term, warns Ferdia Carr.

The editor of BBC Arabic, Tarik Kalifa drew criticism for his memorandum against using the word ‘terrorist’ when reporting on the Charlie Hebdo killers. It was taken by many to indicate inexcusable sympathy for violent extremists whose primary aim is to become synonymous with terrorism.  But even if ISIS and its fellow travelers, with their grisly exhibition of severed heads, burnt bodies and bullet riddled corpses, seem to be conspiring to act out the worst cliches of the ‘war on terror’, this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that official use of the term ‘terrorist’ is itself a politically loaded weapon; moreover, it tends to be taken up and put down again according to geopolitical interests, rather than the ostensibly moral considerations which those in authority prefer to refer to.

Right now, as Western governments cautiously keep their troops on the sidelines, Western voters are cheering on Syria’s Kurds, inviting them to give those hooded killers their just deserts. Meanwhile the USAF is coordinating air strikes with Syria’s Kurdish militia, the YPG, and the UK is providing aerial reconnaissance.

Yet the YPG is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the largest faction seeking independence for Turkey’s Kurds. The PKK is, along with ISIS, designated a terrorist group by both the UK and US governments. However Britons fighting with the YPG, while monitored closely by security forces, are not under the same scrutiny or threat of arrest as those fighting with ISIS.

This situation is best explained by reference to shifting geopolitical sands; the discrepancy cannot be accounted for by sole reference to the paramilitary activities of the PKK. These remain as ‘terrorist’ as they were before.

The PKK’s tactics in its war against the Turkish government have been lifted out of the same armed insurrection handbook used by nearly every terror group throughout the past 50 years – kidnappings, bombings, targeted assassinations, guerrilla warfare; tactics no different to many British and American-backed insurgents.

Thus in terms of who they kill and how they do it, there’s little difference between Western-supported rebels in Syria and Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels on the UK terror list. But their ideologies are somewhat different and, most importantly, some are aligned to the current interests of the UK government in the region; and others are not.

In a similar vein, insurgent Kurds were designated as Western allies while their activities were directed against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, but listed as terrorists whenever they took on the Turkish state, which is a member of NATO (historically, because Turkey is handily placed for pointing missiles in the direction of Russia).

With a peace process underway in Turkish Kurdistan, plus the PKK’s involvement in fighting ISIS, there are rumblings that they are soon to be un-proscribed as a terror organisation. However they are still de jure terrorists. Despite this, US warplanes helped the PKK break the siege of Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq, and numerous Westerners are fighting in affiliated militias. On twitter Kurdish activists proudly share images of Britons fighting for their cause.

Londoner Mark Ramsey may be fighting in Syrian Kurdistan with YPG.
Londoner Mark Ramsey may be fighting in Syrian Kurdistan with YPG.

One such fighter, Mark Ramsey from London, casually sports military fatigues in front of a YPG flag in his twitter profile picture. His only tweet is ‘#Rojava’, the Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan. These fighters do not seem to face the same obstacles British Muslims fighting for ISIS or Al-Qaeda. To date only one British citizen, 18-year-old Shilan Ozcelik, an ethnic Kurd from North East London, has been charged with terror offences related to the PKK.

Why one citizen has been charged with such a serious offence while others haven’t, is puzzling. But it’s not hard to see the overarching reason for turning a blind eye to Western fighters in Kurdish militias. Neither the YPG nor the PKK now has an interest in confronting the West. The red scare that reasoned they were terrorists is over, and the Kurds are now making peace with the Turkish state, which, since it has become one of NATO’s least reliable participants, now runs the risk of being downgraded for NATO purposes. With the PKK likely to come off the terror list and gaining traction in its role against ISIS, it would be against British interests to criminalise Britons fighting alongside it. Conversely, Kurds performing the role of anti-Jihadis has served to legitimise the idea of an independent Kurdistan in Western eyes.

But the fact that, having become useful to the West, the PKK may soon no longer be ‘terrorists’ demonstrates how the designation ‘terrorist’ is both fickle and primarily political. Morality, if and when it enters into it, is only second best.

Of course this does not mean that Brits joining ISIS shouldn’t be prosecuted because those joining the YPG generally aren’t, or that the latter should. The so called Islamic State has violated human rights, committed war crimes and murdered British citizens. But perhaps the editor of BBC Arabic was right in thinking the term ‘terrorist’ so heavily loaded that it can only obscure reality rather than revealing it.

Assigning the label only raises questions about why one group’s violence is considered legitimate and another’s isn’t. The PKK and other political terrorist groups such as the IRA in Ireland, ETA in Spain and the PLO in Palestine, were oft-condemned because it was ostensibly agreed that violence shouldn’t be used as the coercive means to bring about political change. Yet Noam Chomsky cites British admiral, Michael Boyce informing the people of Afghanistan that they would continue to be attacked ‘until they get the leadership changed’, i.e. Western forces were using violence to bring about political change in precisely the manner that is officially denied to ‘terrorists’.

With regard to the Kurds currently fighting ISIS, the application of ‘terrorist’ has become moot, because it puts them both in the same category despite the fact they are diametrically opposed. Britain’s selective arrest policy for those lending their support to one or other of these groups, shows that any such group is judged primarily by whether its actions are alien to Britain’s geopolitical interests.

In which case, lo and behold the terrorist!

Ferdia Carr is Rising East‘s International Politics Editor.