The Anti-Palestinian Origins of The War on Terror

A new report exposes the groundwork for the 9/11 era. Author Darryl Li talks to FOREVER WARS. PLUS: 101,000 Michiganders say Israel's assault must stop.

The Anti-Palestinian Origins of The War on Terror
The Palestinian Flag. By Alpha Blakemono, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Edited by Sam Thielman


In October 2002, rallying in Washington to support Israel's violent suppression of the second Palestinian intifada, [evangelicals] portrayed Israel's fight as indistinguishable from America's. "We are in a war on terrorism," said Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian activist. "We are trying to limit and lessen the number of terrorist nations. So under no circumstances should we create a new terrorist nation of Palestine." Texas congressman Tom DeLay, the Republican whip in the House of Representatives, bluntly asked the crowd if it wanted "Israel to look more like the Middle East, or do we want the Middle East to start looking more like Israel?" Seeking to cement its ties to an American community that enjoyed overwhelming political influence, Israel was happy to portray itself as the tip of the spear in the War on Terror. For decades GOP politicians had marveled at Israel's ability to subjugate Muslims, often using euphemisms like DeLay's. It didn't matter that Bush had declared war on terrorist groups with global reach, which even the most aggressive Palestinian resistance was not.

A new and profoundly valuable report goes back further than the timeline of my book to show how "antiterrorism law has been structurally anti-Palestinian from its inception." The very origins of U.S. counterterrorism laws, the foundation stones upon which the War on Terror was built, had Palestinians in mind, not militant groups targeting the United States. Many of those laws came into being with the aid of Zionist organizations in the United States, guiding lawmakers toward conceptions of counterterrorism that targeted Palestinian finances, associations and freedoms. 

The report is called "Anti-Palestinian at the Core: The Origins and Growing Dangers of U.S. Anti-Terrorism Law," written by Darryl Li and published jointly last week by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights. It arrives as American Zionist organizations, particularly on college campuses, aggressively suppress supporters of Palestinian lives, safety and freedom. To those organizations, it doesn’t matter that some being suppressed are Jewish, like Columbia University’s chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace, since Zionism's relationship with Jewish safety is contingent and transactional, but that's a longer conversation for another time. As I reported in October for The Nation, the Anti-Defamation League is trying to get Students for Justice in Palestine baselessly investigated for material support for terrorism, one of the most important tools of the War on Terror. This history is highly relevant. 

Li knows his stuff when it comes to the War on Terror: He's also the author of The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity, which is on my own bookshelf. I asked him if today we're watching the War on Terror revert to its original form—or if, instead, it's just doing, perhaps more conspicuously in this moment than in others, what it always has.

"In one sense, I think it's the latter," Li tells FOREVER WARS. "Because, we've had all these debates over the past two decades around the high-visibility, high-spectacularity incidences of violence—think of Guantanamo, the drone assassination program—and the standard liberal response has always been to say, 'let's go back to the rule of law.' This repeated mantra. This report highlights how that liberal baseline, that foundational ‘rule of law’ part of the War on Terror is irremediably tainted by anti-Palestinian animus. And that's also important because the debates over the high-visibility forms of violence have kind of faded, so people might be lulled into thinking like, 'Oh, you know, we're past that now…' Clearly, that's a narrative that we need to push back on." 

Li continues: "The other thing about this idea of going back to the early days of 9/11 that gets overlooked is, for me, the point of comparison is not so much 9/11, it's the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the fall of 2000, a year before 9/11. Because that was when I saw liberal elites engage in the open celebration of violence and colonialism and racism that became more generalized after 9/11. And if you think of that year, starting with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, building through that violence, the ascension of George W. Bush, and then finally the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which was of course extremely controversial in the United States because of its endorsement of anti-Zionism and its use of apartheid as a framework, was kind of this moment where so many of these critical antiwar, anti-apartheid energies came together. And then, just a few days later, 9/11 happened, and that was memory-holed so quickly. So in a way, I feel like this report is part of this broader exercise of reconstructing memory, or re-remembering: reconnecting to aspects of the past that kind of got erased or overlooked in all of the urgency of the past 20 years." 

BECAUSE I USED TO HATE IT when newsrooms didn't do this when the shoe was on the other foot, I should also mention that I got beat covering Li's report. You should read Alice Speri's day-one coverage of it in The Intercept and Amy Goodman's coverage of it for Democracy Now. In my defense, the day the report came out, I had a fever that ended up spiking to 103 degrees. 

Digging through Li's report yields a foreboding feeling of prologue to something awful. And that's high praise here at FOREVER WARS, since it's the vibe I was chasing in REIGN OF TERROR. 

The first terrorist group ever designated by the United States as such was the Palestine Liberation Organization, in 1987. Why 1987? Because that was when the First Palestinian Intifada ignited. It's tempting to call that ironic, but in reality it was simple ignorance: The PLO very famously was nowhere near Gaza, the site from which the First Intifada emerged, and played no role in the uprising. But the point was to punish the available symbols of Palestinian resistance for demanding freedom.

Three years later, in 1990, Congress nestled counterterrorism within immigration law for the first time, making terrorism a basis for deportation or exclusion from entry. That seems sensible enough at first blush, but—and see the prologue of REIGN OF TERROR for more on this—the ban didn't require the commission of any actual act of violence, simply membership in a banned organization. Any "officer, official, representative, or spokesman" of the PLO would be considered a terrorist by default. It was redundant, since PLO members had already been banned from entering the United States for over a decade, but again, the point was punishment, not consistency. 

Then came the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), a result of the creation of so-called Material Support legislation, known formally as 2339A and 2339B. 2339B, the major one, and the one that Li focuses on in his paper, emerged from the 1996 law passed after the Oklahoma City bombing. Readers of REIGN OF TERROR are well aware that that law did not criminalize associations with white supremacist terrorism of the sort that murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City, but instead associations with, well, Foreign Terrorist Organizations. And which Foreign Terrorist Organizations? You already guessed it, but Li answers: "The first list of FTOs was announced in October 1997 and consisted of 28 groups—of which eight were opponents of Israel (seven Palestinian factions, plus Hizballah)." 

I'm a broken record on this—it's kind of my thing—but the current crucible in which Israel has placed Palestinians is yet another reminder of the ongoing dangers of the War on Terror. 

"I think of the United States as a deeply distressed hoarder of Chekhov's Guns. Like a cat lady of Chekhov's Guns," Li says. "As I learned from reading your newsletter, the legal basis that Biden invoked for expanding the war to the Red Sea to support Israel's genocide, is the 2001 AUMF. So just as these anti-Palestinian terrorism provisions were kind of the off-the-shelf, ready-to-go tools after 9/11, you have a post-9/11 instrument that's an off-the-shelf, ready-to-go tool for supporting Israel. So it really is a reminder of the symbiotic nature of the two states' agendas." 

Li mentions that he's at work on a paper putting together a framework for understanding both the U.S. and Israel's Wars on Terror—something that I'm excited to read, as Li correctly observes that those who examine each tend to silo them off from one another. (For the record, and while Li didn't mean it like that, I consider that a valid critique of REIGN OF TERROR that I've been using this newsletter since Oct. 7 to rectify.) 

"I want to be very clear, so people don't misunderstand the report as saying that the U.S. copied Israeli terrorism law," Li says. "Because it didn't. It's actually very different and it's obviously because one of them is a global imperialist power and the other is a regional power, even though they're both settler-colonial regimes."

As crucial as it is to exhume all this history, it can't overshadow the fact that these structures endanger real people's lives and freedoms. Among the examples Li's report invokes is FOREVER WARS friend Sami al-Arian, who was maliciously prosecuted for being outspokenly Palestinian and ultimately hounded out of the United States. (Sami currently lives and teaches in Istanbul, which is very much #goals for me.) 

"Once these terrible, repressive laws get enshrined, they're not just a Chekhov's gun for the government, they're a bludgeon that's used by people outside the government, often misused, but still with this insane rhetorical force," Li observes. Think of the high levels of hysteria invoked against Palestinian speech in the name of Jewish safety at, among other places, Columbia, resulting in the Skunk-spraying on campus last month against pro-Palestinian demonstrators. 

Li also clued me into a bill before the Indiana state legislature, HB 1179, "that would require state universities to develop a policy on preventing any funds from reaching people that are quote-unquote associated with an FTO or a state sponsor of terrorism." What does “associated” mean here? "Exactly," he replied. "You could read that to mean a dual citizen of Iran and the United States, right? The concept is harmful enough in its original iteration in federal law, but then the way it gets replicated or cited or copied or stretched by other actors downstream is something we should be very worried about in this moment."

A longstanding unfinished project of mine is a dive through the data on everyone convicted of Material Support for Terrorism, precisely to determine the percentage of them who were involved with Palestinian organizations. You'll notice, as I wrote in the REIGN passage above, that Palestinian organizations were not the "terrorist groups of global reach" that the War on Terror formally targeted. However, when it comes to the bureaucratic prerogatives of the War on Terror, there never were many actual material supporters of al-Qaeda in the United States. But there most certainly were many actual material supporters of Palestinians in the United States. And criminalizing them, as Li skillfully shows, shaped what would become the War on Terror, long before 9/11. 

BOOK REPORT. Steve Coll, a journalist for whom I have a lot of respect—most of us don't have a Ghost Wars in us, much less a Private Empire—has a typically excellent new book out called The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, The CIA and The Origins of America's Invasion of Iraq. I was about 70 pages into an advance copy last month when the Washington Post reached out and asked if I would review it for them. Get paid for a book I was already reading? I couldn't say yes to that fast enough. 

The book is an overdue corrective. It presents Saddam not as a caricature, but as a three-dimensional person—always, however, appropriately recognizing his legitimate monstrosity as a ruler—and gambles that a U.S. audience is finally ready to deal with that. Accordingly, Coll details how Saddam's actions were often more rational than the U.S. was willing to recognize, while the U.S.' actions toward Iraq were often less rational than the U.S. was willing to recognize. You can read my review here. My notes about "Uday Kendall Roy'' never made it to print, but you will definitely hear the Succession theme when you read Coll's treatment of Uday, Qusay and Hussein Kamel. 

ERIC ADAMS continues to stonewall 9/11 survivors about Ground Zero toxicity on behalf of Rudy Giuliani. I love livin' in the city. 

THE MEANING OF MICHIGAN. I'm not a good electoral politics analyst. Other people can do that much better than me. All I can say is that it is only Wednesday, and this week has already featured a U.S. servicemember, in uniform, self-immolating in protest of U.S. complicity in genocide; and then last night, after only three weeks of impromptu organization, more than 101,000 voters in Michigan letting Joe Biden know that their votes depend on him taking meaningful action to end that complicity and stop that genocide. 

Nihad Awad of the Center on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement that hit my inbox: "Today's results show that American Muslims are an increasingly organized and important political force that can impact the outcome of close elections, especially in swing states." 

Biden can listen or he can not listen. He can take whatever comfort exists in "Uncommitted" slightly underperforming his 2020 margin of victory in that state, or he can accept that he is seeing a blinking red light for his presidency and adjust his policy accordingly. Foreign policy is one of the least democratic aspects of U.S. public life. Voters in Michigan have just made an important intervention to disrupt that. And it is not a presidency that is truly in the balance—it is the lives of Palestinians, and those of many others in the Middle East as well. 

SAVE THE DATE! On Friday, March 8, me and my WALLER VS. WILDSTORM co-writer and friend Evan Narcisse will be signing at Brooklyn's finest, Bulletproof Comics on Nostrand Avenue! From 5pm to the 8pm closing, not only can you get your currently-available-for-purchase WVW hardcover edition signed, but you should get Evan to sign your copies of Rise of The Black Panther, Batman: Gotham Knights–Gilded City, the Milestone 30th Anniversary special and all his other modern comics instant-classics. Come hang, it'll be fun. 

Meanwhile, if you don't have single issues of WVW and you want a four-issue set signed by me, they're going fast at Bulletproof! No one is prouder of WVW than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, which is available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is a new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN