State Terrorism

David Wearing

On 9 August, a Saudi Arabian air strike on a school bus in Yemen killed 40 children aged betweeen six and eleven, along with eleven adults, wounding a further 79. The 500-pound bomb had been supplied by the US. It might just as easily have come from the UK. Around half the Saudi air force consists of British-built planes, which have played a significant role in the war.

The multi-billion pound contracts under which London sells military jets to Riyadh also cover the ongoing supply of munitions, components, training and maintenance, including assistance from British personnel on the ground. ‘We have a significant infrastructure supporting the Saudi air force,’ the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said in March 2015, at the start of the Saudi-led war on Yemen’s Houthi rebels. ‘We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.’

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA analyst, said in 2016 that ‘if the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow, because the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.’

In 2016, a UN Security Council report described a pattern of ‘widespread and systematic’ attacks on civilian targets by the Saudi-led coalition; the latest report finds ‘no evidence’ that appropriate measures have since been taken to mitigate the war’s impact on civilians. Coalition air strikes are responsible for most of the thousands of civilian deaths, and the humanitarian catastrophe into which Yemen has descended is caused in large part by a coalition blockade. Amnesty International has argued that the tightening of restrictions on imports ‘could amount to collective punishment of Yemen’s civilian population, which would constitute a war crime’.

It seems reasonably clear, despite official claims to the contrary, that the coalition is attempting to terrorise and collectively punish Yemeni civilians into turning on the Houthis. It’s difficult to think of another plausible explanation for this pattern of conduct, which is now well established and has been sustained throughout by the British state.

As details of the school bus atrocity emerged, the attention of the British political class was firmly fixed elsewhere, on the question of whether Jeremy Corbyn had honoured those responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre carried out by the Palestinian group Black September (a claim he strongly denies).

In the discourse of British foreign relations, the terrorist is assigned the role of the evil Other, in contrast to a virtuous and decent Britain. This externalisation of terrorism obscures the fact that indiscriminate violence against civilians, including violence calculated to terrorise them into specific behaviours, has long been a significant feature of British power in the world.

Throughout the formative centuries of British capitalism, the Atlantic slave system was dependent on an intimate, daily terror. For decades after Britain’s now much celebrated abolition of slavery, the textile industry at the heart of the industrial revolution continued to be fed by cotton produced by a sadistic regime of white supremacy in the US Deep South. From India in the 1850s to Kenya in the 1950s, uprisings against British rule were met by indiscriminate violence designed to intimidate whole populations into submission. In the Kenyan case, testimony from civilians subjected to mass incarceration by the British bears comparison with some of the worst horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism.

Since the end of formal empire, the direct use of terror to maintain the global system that British economic and state power benefits from is more likely to be outsourced to allies. The Arab uprisings at the start of this decade were the most serious recent challenge to that system, and local elites responded with particular viciousness. The violent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011 targeted doctors and nurses who were treating injured protesters. The 2013 military coup in Egypt was followed by the massacre of hundreds of people. In accordance with London’s historic commitment to the conservative regional order, the heads of state ultimately responsible for these atrocities are fêted on the steps of Downing Street, praised as reformers, and continue to benefit from UK arms sales and military co-operation.

Systems of power rest on a combination of coercion and consent. Among our political class, consent is freely given, based on a shared belief that the British state is a benign and enlightened force for good in the world, although it occasionally makes regrettable errors. For those at the rougher end of the system in the global south, the rawest forms of coercion have long been required to uphold the status quo. If our opposition to terrorism is principled rather than performative, we might usefully focus our energies on exposing and ending our own complicity in these disciplinary forms of violence.


  • 28 August 2018 at 2:34pm
    hag says:
    So you would argue that the British government directly and actively supports state terrorism?
    OK, obviously true.
    That, to all intents and purposes, it is itself guilty of state terrorism?
    OK, yes, the argument can be made.
    And that we, as the UK electorate, bear responsibility, and are thus ourselves guilty of terrorism?
    Not sure about this one - For the ordinary UK voter to be a terrorist, wouldn't the UK have to be a democracy?

  • 30 August 2018 at 5:39pm
    Jimmy Mack says:
    Or we might usefully focus our energies on not writing sanctimonious pieces like this effectively justifying people with knives slaughtering innocent people on a night out at London Bridge because we are (kind of) at it too. Terrorism and state violence are not the same. At what public enquiry do I get to question Rachid Redouan? At what election do I get to punish at the polls Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba? Democratic states are accountable. Terrorists are not.

    • 31 August 2018 at 10:25am
      allahg says: @ Jimmy Mack
      Generally the victims of state terrorism aren't permitted to vote for or against the perpetrators. Rachid Redouan, Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba are dead, had they been arrested they would have been questioned and punished. The citizens of Yemen have no such recourse.

  • 31 August 2018 at 2:30am
    bobjames says:
    The article is saying that the democratic state [ie Britain] has NOT been held accountable but should be. It's up to you voters and politicians to hold them accountable. And, as for differences, tell it to the victims, the parents of the school kids, that somehow State terrorism is different from non-state. ALL TERROR [as the article clearly says] is wrong, and the fact that a State perpetuates it doesn't stop it being terrorism.

  • 3 September 2018 at 4:20pm
    Neil Foxlee says:
    In 2003, Mark Curtis, former Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House),published "Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World". Basing his book largely on official records, Curtis wrote:

    "state-sponsored terrorism is by far the most serious category of terrorism in the world today, responsible for far more deaths in many more countries than the 'private' terrorism of groups like Al Qaida. Many of the worst offenders are key British allies. Indeed, by any rational consideration, Britain is one of the leading supporters of terrorism in the world today." (Web of Deceit, p.94; quoted in John Pilger's introduction, , pxii)

    In "Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses" (2004), Curtis calculated that "Britain bears significant responsibility for around 10 million deaths since 1945 [...] including Nigerians, Indonesians, Arabians [sic], Ugandsns, Chileans, Vietnamese and many others. Often, the policies responsible are unknown to the public and remain unresearched by journalists and academics." (Unpeople, p.2, referring to the table on p.310; )

    Curtis's books focused on foreign policy under New Labour, but it is hard to imagine that things have changed in the decade and a half since he published them - Yemen is just one example.

  • 3 September 2018 at 4:42pm
    1968 says:
    I remember in my undergradute days becoming familiar with the notion that a terrorist is someone who does have a bomb but doesn't have an air-force.

  • 5 September 2018 at 1:40pm
    XopherO says:
    In the end it is all about the military-industrial complex. Britain makes weapons and sells them to all and sundry just-about. The military like to have their weapons tested in real action, by proxy if they cannot do it themselves. So it is about armed forces rivalry, profits, employment (for MPs in constituencies that make weapons). So we have to fund Trident, which is a white elephant in a world where the strategy is Flexible Response not MAD (as both France and the US know - the former has a flight of nuclear armed fighter-bombers on the General de Gaulle, for example) - nothing to do with defence, just hollow chest-thumping, profits for the manufacturers (a third of the money goes to the USA), employment in Labour constituencies (or what were once such!). So Labour supports the farce. Are Labour MPs as thick as their support for the Iraq war, benefit cuts and Trident suggests?

    Neither logic nor humanity, nor even real politic, play any part in the UK's approach to selling arms, or supporting nasty regimes, or supporting terrorists (sorry freedom fighters) where it suits us (sorry, I mean the CIA and the USA.) And this includes the Yemen. So is this blog all hot air?

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