For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Sir Isaac Newton called it his Third Law of Motion.
The CIA calls it “blowback.”
As the late historian of empire and one-time consultant to the CIA, Chalmers Johnson, explained in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, blowback is “a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.”
Time and again, the United States and its allies have intervened in a faraway conflict, typically in the Muslim-majority Middle East; they’ve dropped some bombs, killed some “bad guys,” and then declared “mission accomplished.” Time and again, these interventions have ended up resulting in bloodshed and conflict later down the line — often on U.S. or Western soil. “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States,” the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board observed back in 1997.
Yet U.S. and Western politicians avert their eyes from this data and this correlation; acts of terror are explained away as “random,” “mindless,” and, perhaps most disingenuously of all, “unprovoked.” The public, either unfamiliar with secret operations carried out by the U.S. military or intelligence services, or uninformed about the brutal nature of the foreign wars fought in their name, tend to buy into this fantasy of an “innocent” America hated and attacked by hordes of “mad” Muslims.
In a series of short films for The Intercept, launching today, I set out to examine key examples of blowback in greater detail — beginning with the issue of CIA drone strikes — and explore how foreign policy decisions by the U.S. and its allies often produce terrorist blowback and so-called unintended consequences.
Take the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the explosion of Iranian anti-Americanism in the late 1970s. As Sen. Bernie Sanders, of all people, noted in a Democratic presidential debate in 2016, few Americans are aware that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 against the dictatorship of the Shah was blowback from the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup that removed the elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, from office. In fact, the term “blowback” was first coined by the CIA in the wake of, and in reference to, the secret plot against Mossadegh.
“Possibilities of blowback against the United States should always be in the back of the minds of all CIA officers involved in this type of operation. Few, if any, operations are as explosive as this type.” This quote appeared in an internal CIA lessons-learned report on the 1953 coup. However, few lessons were actually learned by the agency or its political masters. The short-term success of the coup — carried out by the CIA just six years after it was founded under President Harry Truman — prompted politicians and spooks alike to embark on a series of covert and not-so-covert actions, many of which would end up backfiring on the U.S. in the long run.
Remember, for instance, how the CIA poured millions of dollars and thousands of Stinger missiles into Afghanistan in the 1980s to support the “jihad” against the Soviet Union? Many of those U.S.-armed and U.S.-funded fighters would later join Mullah Omar’s Taliban or Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and turn their “jihad” against the West. How’s that for blowback?
And there are plenty of other examples aside from the case of Afghanistan and bin Laden. Take drone strikes. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama deployed drones to Pakistan as part of their counterterror strategy, without taking into account how much “drone strikes are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one,” to quote top U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Terrorists such as Faisal Shahzad, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev all cited the civilian casualties from drone strikes among their litany of anti-American complaints. How’s that for blowback?
In 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands in the process; disbanded the Iraqi army overnight while opening fire on peaceful protesters; tortured and radicalized Iraqis in prisons and detention centers built by Saddam Hussein … and then expressed surprise when the Islamic State appeared on the scene. How’s that for blowback?
U.S. allies have been equally short-sighted and self-destructive. The Egyptians and the Jordanians tortured men such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to try and break them. It didn’t work — and, in fact, helped to do the opposite. Zawahiri went on to join bin Laden in creating Al Qaeda while Zarqawi founded the precursor organization to ISIS. How’s that for blowback?
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Israelis backed and funded the Palestinian Islamists who would later become Hamas, as a way of dividing and ruling over the Palestinians and, especially, undermining Yasser Arafat’s secular Fatah movement. Since the 1990s, however, Hamas has killed far more Israeli civilians than Arafat or Fatah ever did. How’s that for blowback?
In 2011, the British government led the charge to topple Col. Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya, backing jihadi rebel groups and turning a blind eye to angry young men from the U.K. going out to fight against the regime in Tripoli. One of them, a British 23-year-old of Libyan descent named Salman Abedi, who allegedly made contact with ISIS fighters in the chaos of post-war Libya, returned to the U.K. and blew himself up at a Manchester concert, killing 22 people. How’s that for blowback?
The inescapable truth for my six blowback films is that you cannot bomb, kill, invade, occupy, and torture, and then expect no pushback, no retaliation, no blowback. Nor can you cynically arm or fund extremist groups to fight your “official enemy” and then assume those extremist groups won’t one day turn on you or your allies. Actions have consequences; actions, to quote Newton, have equal and opposite reactions.
These days, the need to address and acknowledge the contentious issue of blowback has taken on an even greater urgency as the Trump administration escalates and expands every single conflict that it inherited from the Obama administration. Ramp up drone strikes? Tick. Drop bigger bombs in Afghanistan? Tick. Kill more Iraqi and Syrian civilians via airstrikes? Tick.
Whether or not Trump is clinically insane, his foreign policy, like that of his Democratic and Republican predecessors, is the very definition of madness — doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.
Will they ever learn? Or will they continue to endanger us all?
This series of videos was written by Mehdi Hasan, executive produced by Lauren Feeney, and produced by Dina Sayedahmed, Omar Kasrawi, and Nicole Salazar.