Abusing the “Terrorism Discourse” (Again): State Political Suppression and the Case of Extinction Rebellion

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In an article published by The Guardian yesterday, leaked documents revealed the shocking (to many) news that UK counterterrorism police recently added a new name to the list of “extremist ideologies” necessitating state intervention through the (controversial) Prevent program: Extinction Rebellion. XR, an international organization that aims to combat environmental issues and elicit government measures to counteract climate change, is founded upon, and emphatically committed to, the tactical pacifism of non-violent action and civil disobedience. According to activist Sam Knights, “The police were first advised to classify Extinction Rebellion as extremists by the right wing think tank Policy Exchange. Policy Exchange refused to deny the report was paid for by an oil and gas company.”

Irrespective of origin, however, the UK police’s addition of Extinction Rebellion to the “extremist ideologies” list constitutes a thinly veiled act of state-sponsored political suppression. On the topic of terminology and state abuse of political power in the name of counterterrorism—one cannot escape the fundamental irony here—UK police selected perhaps the most apt group to designate “extremist” in an act of political suppression: “Extinction Rebellion.”

In this case, such is the very objective of the state: to render rebellion…extinct.


Extinction Rebellion in the UK’s Precent Guide prior to retraction, a manual intended to “identity young people or adults may be vulnerable to extreme or violent ideologies.”

I could ramble for days about the deeply problematic nature of “terrorism / extremism” discourse.”  Whether you know me as from my rants on Twitter, this blog, the classroom, or as a casual reader of my academic and media work—you’re already (all too) well aware of this frankly pathological tendency. In fact, I teach entire courses that frame terrorism studies through precisely such a lens of terminological instability. I’ll confine myself to a narrow set of parameters (this is, after all, a blog post—and I do have a job…as well as several overdue deadlines, now that I think about it).

Here, I want to talk about how the case of Extinction Rebellion informs, and is informed by, the embeddedness of “terrorism discourse” in state-sponsored campaigns of political suppression. I also want to address the implications of public outrage in response to the news, a reaction particularly instructive when juxtaposed with criticism of the Prevent program itself.

Terrorism Discourse, Terminological Instability, and Political Dissent

Like terrorism, the word “extremism” has little (if any) analytic use value, because of its inherent relativity. Such terminological flexibility offers states—authoritarian and democratic alike—irresistible opportunities for abuse, and a convenient mask for objectives far more insidious, whether the suppression of pacifist political protest or, even as a justification for ethnic cleansing.

Interestingly, the British government’s decision to classify Extinction Rebellion as an “extremist” follows on the heels of a High Court judgement, which ruled the police’s April arrests—over 100 XR-affiliated protestors—illegal. As if that chronology wasn’t fascinating enough—the XR “extremist” designation also comes after protestors’ charges were dropped over their illegal arrests… and threatened to lodge lawsuits against UK police. Further, UK counterterrorism officials promptly retracted the designation after news broke that updated Prevent training manuals and “duty guidance” included Extinction Rebellion.

Interesting timing.

After all, if “extremism” were a stable signifier with precise categorical significance – and not a discourse deployed by state actors as a mechanism for suppression of non-violent political dissidents — Extinction Rebellion’s designation as “extremist” would not have occurred in the first place; indeed, such classification would be unthinkable. Nor would UK police backtrack (and so quickly) once the news leaked of XR’s inclusion in the widely disparaged Prevent program.  

That the UK police did decide to classify the group as ideological extremists  (alongside ISIS and Nazis) exemplifies what Judith Butler terms “non-thinking in the name of the normative.” In this case, the normative at play resides in well-established genealogies of state political suppression—a historical pattern far more pervasive than citizens of democratic nations recognize, and one many conveniently prefer to ignore.

Much like the case of XR, the US response to Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline is deeply informed by state campaigns against political dissent and rooted in the Global War on Terror. To quell the sustained direct action of Standing Rock demonstrators, the US government outsourced policing to TigerSwan, a mercenary security firm originated as a contractor for the Department of State as well as the Armed Forces.

At Standing Rock, TigerSwan invoked the terrorism discourse in no uncertain terms: characterizing the movement as an “ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component [that] followed the jihadist insurgency model,” and explicitly arguing for the deployment of counterinsurgency strategy on the “battlefield” of the protest camp.

The classification of groups like Extinction Rebellion and anti-DAPL protestors at Standing Rock in the ranks  of Al Qaeda and neo-Nazis as anti-state ‘bad actors’—whose actions necessitate the intervention tactics and counterinsurgency strategy of asymmetric warfare against Non-State Armed Groups—accomplishes two fundamental objectives—neither of which address terrorism or advance a successful counterstrategy. Such categorizations:

  1. mask the inherently Islamophobic orientation of CVE programs like Prevent
  2. actively suppress political protest and non-violent opposition movements

Beyond discussions of Prevent in the UK and Extinction Rebellion or Standing Rock and the United States—we cannot forget other (and prolific) instances in which governmental actors eagerly, and deliberately, deploy the hollow signifiers of “terrorism discourse” as cover for rampant abuse of state power.

In the pre-War on Terror United States, COINTELPRO (an FBI-led campaign targeting civil rights organizers, which included state assassinations) springs to mind, as does China’s creation of “reeducation,” or, more precisely, concentration camps for the ethnic and religious Uighur minority population (compounding the last example, the Chinese government proved so eager to conflate religiosity with extremism that it invested significant funds in anti-Muslim Twitter and Facebook advertisements).

Geopolitical Alliances and the Endless War on Terror

Authoritarianism and terrorism exist in a cynical symbiosis: supply-demand. This critical dialectic both explains and structures the post-9/11 era of exponentially cynical geopolitics. States all too often weaponize the terrorism / radicalization / extremism discourse to as a mechanism for incitement of insecurity among citizens, and — in the process — harness fear as the currency of political expediency. I am prepared to go further, and posit causality here—authoritarianism is enabled by, and more deeply entrenched in, a post-9/11 world. “Terrorism” is quite often the inherently relative word that autocrats use for “political opponent.”

State coalitions and geopolitical alliances in the Global War on Terror have solidified governments – authoritarian and democratic alike – to mobilize the “terrorism discourse” as a mask for various campaigns of domestic surveillance, political oppression, state violence, and ethnic cleansing.   Authoritarian regimes that use terrorism for power consolidation and US support, given American strategic alliances, aid, and the political expedience of fear. Case studies: honestly, too many to count—so. I’ll jump right into an examination of the terrorism-authoritarian dialectic.

Even ostensibly democratic states with leadership itching to consolidate power are often eager to use terrorism as an excuse to push through draconian, authoritarian measures. Like, you know…the United States and the Patriot Act (etc.).”Terrorism and authoritarianism” is, to some extent, a case of the-chicken-or-the-egg. But another element at play here is what I call “conflict capitalism” — war-profiteering oligarchs who cultivate & enable authoritarians — aka…the Military-Industrial Complex about which Eisenhower warned.

Here’s the thing (well, one of many) about authoritarian-oligarchical national security states, folks. Succeed in “counterterrorism” too well, reduce threats, and…goodbye, American foreign aid and the international community’s blind eye turned away your human rights abuses. Hello, CIA black sites. “Terrorism” is an inherently relative and meaningless term. Google the definitions used by DOJ, FBI, CIA, DHS, etc. They all differ. Terrorism’s semantic plasticity allows authoritarians to code any dissent or opposition as an existential threat – enabling the cycle.

The geopolitically useful blinder of “terrorism” allows authoritarians like Egypt’s Sisi to crack down on any and all dissent in the name of “terrorist-affiliated” opponents. Identical geopolitical logics operate in the anti-terrorism / counterextremism regimes of other cherished American allies in the Global War on Terror: Saudi Arabia and Tunisia constitute merely two examples among many.

More concretely, consider Iraq and the rise of ISIS. Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarianism (leaving causality entirely aside) undeniably contributed to the conditions that allowed ISIS to flourish and constituted an enormous part of the group’s appeal.  In turn, ISIS enabled authoritarianism by its very existence, which ensured the authoritarianism-terrorism dialectic re-entrenches deeper and deeper, in an infinite cycle of increasing brutality. Much like the (Endless) War on Terror.

Beyond American Allies: The Terrorism Discourse’s Global Pervasiveness

Particularly salient is the embrace of terrorism/extremism discourse beyond American allies. Let’s return to the example of Chinese domestic “anti-terrorism” measures against the Uighur minority. China has deployed the “terrorism” excuse for the state’s campaign of ethnic cleansing since 2014, holding upwards of one million Uighur Muslims in detention camps. Tell me over one million members of minority population coincidentally share an inherent ideological predilection for violence. You can’t. This thesis, to be blunt, defies all logic.

Here is a crystal-clear reason to sit and think about the issues with face-value acceptance of “terrorism” narratives. According to the United States government, that ethnic group China faces a ”terrorist” threat from? Well…

When the United States issues punitive measures against China for what “we” refer to as genocidal targeting of minority populations—what the Chinese government justifies with the term “counterterrorism,” well…. What conclusions should we all draw? I also include Mike Pompeo’s statement here because I want to emphatically highlight a critical (and, sadly, contentious) issue: acknowledgement that “terrorism” remains an arbitrary designation by no means constitutes “anti-Americanism.” The problematic nature of the terrorism discourse lacks a partisan orientation.

Frankly, I don’t care if you think Uighurs are or are not a “terrorism” threat, because that isn’t the point here. Rather, to raise the question simultaneously obscures and underscores my argument. One should never, ever accept at face value “terrorism” claims by any state actor, given how relative and analytically empty that term is — much less that state’s invocation of the word for punitive measures of (literal) life and death.

Relativism and Hollow Signifiers: The Religion Umbrella

Aside from the problematic and opportunistic state invocation of terrorism and extremism in reaction to political opposition, widespread public acceptance of these terms at face value actively facilitates such abuse (and, might I add, often proves counterproductive). For example, I always warn my students to be very careful with terms like “terrorism;” “radical;” “extremist;” and/or “moderate” (et al), because if you cannot ultimately define a word — don’t use the term.

And yet, some students—well acclimated to the tacit acceptance of terrorism’s definability—ignore the cautionary advice or entirely dismiss the discussion as so baseless as to merit no consideration. The few students who refuse to question normative (non)thought on the topic, stubbornly cling to, and regularly invoke, “terrorism.” This small group does so—without fail and as no small surprise—with a myopic focus on the elusive phenomenon’s political motivation, conflated with the theology of a singular religious tradition (I’ll let you take a guess which religion).  

The application of adjectives like “Islamic” to “terrorism” and “extremism” (et. al) doesn’t add any categorical precision to the attached nouns. The Taliban and ISIS cannot be fought on the same terms. They don’t share much beyond allegiance to their own vastly different versions of something both call Islam. The “religion umbrella” criteria, moreover, fails to account for such factors as geopolitical and historical context—to say nothing of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural elements that inform various groups with wildly variant theologies.

Hardly adequate basis to establish causality.

On a related point, “Christian terrorism / extremism” can encompass:

  1. Westboro Baptist Church (egregious but non-violent anti-LGBTQ
  2. Army of God (violent anti-abortionists)
  3. Christian Identity movements (violent neo-Nazis)

All claim Christianity, but they share little else.

The above juxtaposition makes clear why I take issue with the use of “Christian terrorist” as an intended counterpoint that aims to undercut the . credibility of phrases like “Islamic extremist.” It simply doesn’t work. We cannot combat Army of God, the Westboro Baptist Church, and Christian Identity affiliates with a singular umbrella strategy conceived with the amorphous title “Christian terrorism.” The same (non) logic applies to fraught attempts at a unified explanatory theory of “Islamic terrorism” that lumps together Hezbollah, the Taliban, and ISIS. These are vacuous — and ultimately, useless — amalgamations.

By Way of Conclusion

Believe me, I have much more to say.

State violence and campaigns of political suppression accomplish precisely…nothing to successfully combat acts of anti-state political violence. That counterterrorism “strategy,” in fact, enacts…the polar opposite of its purported foundational objectives.

State-sponsored campaigns to dismantle non-violent political resistance through the weaponization of terminologically imprecise “terrorism / extremism discourse” constitute abuse of power in no uncertain terms.

Uncritical acceptance of state claims — whether authoritarian or democratic — about terrorism and extremism without interrogation of such vague terms’ inherent meaning and (mis)application is to enable such geopolitical abuse.

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