Over two decades after 9/11, the language of counterterrorism pervades both Russia’s imperialist violence and the West’s contradictory responses.

Counterterrorism is threaded throughout the incursion into Ukraine. In Russia, it is weaponised against both the Ukrainian people and the Russians opposed to Putin. In the West, governments and media find themselves in great contortions, their contradictory responses highlighting the racialised policies that sit at the heart of the long ‘War on Terror.’

The War on Terror, kick-started by Western powers, initially responded to concerns over a “new” threat of terrorist-style violence through invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over time, these have been overtaken by approaches that attempt to identify extremist tendencies in the West, turning the gaze of suspicion towards communities or individuals deemed “vulnerable” to violence. 

It has resulted in the massive growth of national policies, industries, and language in the West—and beyond—focused on identifying this threat, disproportionately targeting Muslim communities.

The latest appropriation of this language of counterterrorism has been to justify acts of imperialist violence by the Kremlin. Putin has cited “de-Nazification” as a reason for his military attack—playing on Western concerns over the rise of the far-right. 

This framing is questionable in light of the political composition of Ukraine, where the far-right received a paltry two percent in the 2019 elections, and the president hails from the country’s significant Jewish community. It is absurd in the context of the Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial. There are pervasive examples of neo-Nazism in Ukraine, but these are not unique to the region, nor to Europe. 

So, Russian justifications for the incursion that are based on “de-Nazifying” Ukraine are easily challenged. Yet, this language is still powerful, drawing on the recognisable framework of the global War on Terror. By invoking the spectre of the far-right in Ukraine and deploying Europe’s own security language against it, Russia is attempting to both evoke sympathy and create confusion.

Russia has also found a use for the global War on Terror in Crimea, clamping down on pro-democracy protests by magicking up threats of terrorism and “Islamic extremism.” Tatar Muslims have found themselves subject to counterterror raids, arrests, and disappearances in response to activism. 

Meanwhile, in Russia itself, those opposed to Putin and the military attack have found themselves designated “terrorists and extremists.” The language of “misinformation” and “fake news,” interwoven with Western counter-extremism practice, has been recast by the Kremlin as a justification for sentencing voices of the opposition to 15 years in prison.

Implicit contradictions

The military attack on Ukraine shows us, once again, the knotty contradictions of the War on Terror. The vague security laws of Western powers, which often nakedly bypass human rights, have provided authoritarian regimes with valuable tools of repression and left Western governments contradicting their own policies.

One such example is that of foreign fighters. The UK Secretary of State Liz Truss publicly backed British volunteers travelling to Ukraine to join an international legion of fighters. Her comments were cited by foreign fighters travelling from Britain to Ukraine as the “green light” to volunteer.

This sits in stark contrast to how British individuals who travelled to Syria have been framed, even those who travelled before the establishment of Daesh or as vulnerable minors.

Joining the defence of Ukraine against Russian aggression is, clearly, vastly different from becoming a part of Daesh, and yet UK counterterror law theoretically treats them as the same.

As the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office has stated, travelling to Ukraine to fight or assist others in the conflict “may amount to offences against UK terrorism or other legislation” and lead to prosecution. The UK’s Counterterrorism and Border Security Bill of 2019 explicitly forbids individuals from "travelling abroad to take part in or help sustain future foreign conflicts."

Whilst significant numbers of foreign fighters⁠—many of whom are or were young when they left Europe⁠—have since faced the permanent loss of their citizenship, the UK government will soon face the question of how they should deal with the British fighters returning from Ukraine, as UK ministers contradict their own security laws.

Citizenship and border policing

The long War on Terror has also prompted a confusing array of contradictory laws regarding citizenship, borders, and migration.

Since the start of the conflict, over  two million Ukrainians have been displaced, heading for Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and beyond. Governments throughout Europe have relaxed entry and visa requirements for Ukrainians in public displays of solidarity.

Where minority refugees have been framed for years as security threats, white-European refugees are welcomed with open arms.

Refugees fleeing war zones in the Middle East and North Africa have long had to face the might of Fortress Europe: borders have been blocked, boats have been pushed back, and families left to drown in the Mediterranean. 

British media have published statements encouraging the deployment of anti-migrant gunboats along English coastlines, whilst the BBC live-streamed footage of packed boats struggling for safety.

Where refugees did make it past borders, many were subjected to barely habitable conditions and vilified as a threat to the European way of life. Security thinktanks and policymakers have released report after report on the threat of “jihadi sleeper cells” or hidden “radicalisers” within refugee communities.

Even the concept of the incursion has come as a surprise to some journalists, who have publicly expressed shock at seeing the conflict hit those who are “European and blond and blue-eyed,” who “use Instagram and Netflix.” This is despite continued European engagement directly and indirectly in the over 20-years-long War on Terror, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, amongst others.

For Russia, the language of the War on Terror has provided international justification for acts of outright oppression. It has used counterterrorism’s inherent contradictions and vague definitions to cover the crushing of democratic expression in all its forms.

For the West, the War on Terror has always happened to “others” in faraway countries and people that look “different”. And when it has happened in the West, it has targeted minorities—focused on those that were understood as either not wanting or not able to fit a thinly prescribed set of “European” or national values.

The contradictions of the War on Terror are now laid excruciatingly bare. Brown and black communities have been problematized and targeted under its premises. As conflict hits closer to Western borders, governments are now finding it harder to hide the racialised biases that have powered the long War on Terror.

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Source: TRT World