Terrorism and Modern War

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NBC News reports that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, which has long been designated a terrorist group by the State Department, has been receiving funding and training from Israel:

Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News, confirming charges leveled by Iran’s leaders.

….The attacks, which have killed five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007 and may have destroyed a missile research and development site, have been carried out in dramatic fashion, with motorcycle-borne assailants often attaching small magnetic bombs to the exterior of the victims’ cars.

So does this mean that Israel is a state supporter of terrorism? I’ve suggested before that it does, and Robert Wright outlines some of the arguments pro and con:

After the NBC story broke, Paul Pillar, a former CIA official who teaches at Georgetown, dusted off the definition of terrorism used by the US government for purposes of keeping statistics: “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” That, says Pillar, is what these assassinations are.

The counter-arguments have tended not to be big on legalisms….”Israel is entirely justified in using whatever means it has to prevent Khameini’s government from achieving its genocidal ends,” writes Jonathan Tobin in Commentary. Daniel Larison, writing in The American Conservative, was aghast at Tobin’s argument: “In other words, Israeli state sponsorship of a terrorist group is acceptable because it’s in a good cause.”

Oddly, these both seem like decent arguments to me. Are the attacks on Iran terrorism? Of course they are. If they’re not, we might as well give up on even trying to define the word. But is it acceptable just because the other side is using it? Of course it’s —

But wait a second. Is it? For all practical purposes, Iran and Israel are at war; they’ve been at war for a long time; and both sides have tacitly agreed that it will primarily be a war carried out nonconventionally. The alternative is what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq: a full-scale conventional attack.

Is that a superior alternative? To say the least, I’m a little hard pressed to say it is. But the alternative is not to fight back at all. Given the current state of the art in human nature, that’s really not in the cards.

Still: is it terrorism? Yes. Do both sides use it? Yes. Is this, in many cases, the future of warfare? Probably yes. Is there a better alternative? That’s a good question.

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Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

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