Did the U.S. Commit “Terrorism” in Syria?

Michael Iafrate of Vox Nova condemns the United States for a brutal act of “terrorism” in conducting a strike into Syria against an al Qaeda facilitator.

In typical fashion, Michael likewise insinuates that Sarah Palin approves abortion bombings and alleges that, by virtue of the fact that nobody at American Catholic has yet commented on the story, we are quite obviously racist:

Of course the “pro-life” Cathollic barfosphere, so vocal in the “defense of human life,” remains utterly silent in the face of the Bush administration’s ongoing acts of terrorism. Of course, these weren’t cute white babies who were slaughtered, were they? That explains it.

Michael’s penchant for profanity, libel and general elementary school antics does nothing to enamor readers of his position or the Catholic blog he represents. Yet I think he deserves a response (however meager) …

Generally when I hear stories of this nature, there are some solid sources that I’ll turn to for information. Bill Roggio’s The Long War Journal.1

The target of this military strike was one Abu Ghadiyah — a senior Al Qaeda leader responsible for smuggling weapons, money and foreign fighters across the border into Iraq and identified as a major figure since February 2008. Ghadiyah is successor to Suleiman Khalid Darwish, a Syrian national and lieutenant of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq killed by US forces in June 2006.

Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal has a substantial post on the the strategic importance of Abu Ghadiyah; details on the military operation which took him out, and background history on al Qaeda’s “Syrian facilitation network”. For a basic understanding of the factual details of this operation, I recommend reading it.

I’m going to bracket the question of whether or not the United States was right in crossing into the “sovereign territory” of Syria in pursuit of Al Qaeda. Apparently they judged that getting their man was worth jeopardizing diplomatic relations with a nation that has, in the past, been accused of neglecting to stop the flow of foreign and al Qaeda fighters into Iraq — and obviously opened up a can of worms in doing so (Syria Halts Diplomacy After U.S. Military Strike October 28, 2008).

According to the New York Times,

“the Bush administration is joining a list of nations that have cited Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which enshrines the right of individual or collective self-defense to all member states.Over the years, a growing body of legal argument has made the case that this right of self-defense allows a nation to take military action on the territory of another sovereign nation that is unable or unwilling to take measures on its own to halt the threat.

It’s an interesting debate, but probably not one we can engage in without a good degree of background knowledge and study.2

So let’s deal with the prime charge of the Catholic Anarchist, namely, Can this operation by the United States accurately be described as a “terrorist” attack?

Syrian foreign minister Waleed Mouallem claimed disputed the U.S.’ account, asserting the sole intent of targeting of civilians in an act of deliberate terror (CNN.com 10/27/08): “Soldiers from the two helicopters on the ground fatally shot four members of one family, a guard at the farm and his wife and a man who was fishing nearby.”

The Arab Times has a somewhat different and more extensive account:

Syria said four US military helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction just after sundown Sunday about five miles (eight kilometers) from the Iraqi border just outside Sukkariyeh. A statement by the government said eight people were killed. However, local officials said seven men were killed and two others wounded, including a woman among the injured. An Associated Press journalist at Monday’s funerals in the village’s cemetery saw the bodies of seven men, which family members later buried. …
Villager Jumaa Ahmad al-Hamad told the AP he was walking Sunday when he saw four helicopters, two of which landed. “Shooting then started ringing for more than 10 minutes,” al-Hamad said Monday. After the troops stopped firing and left the area, he and other villagers went to the site and discovered the bodies of his uncle, Dawoud al-Hamad, and four of his uncle’s sons, whom he said were killed in the raid. Local wool vendor Khaled Hamid denied al-Qaeda was in the area and accused Washington of launching the raid in the border region that is home to corn and wheat farms to cover up “failures in Iraq.”

There are many definitions of terrorism bandied about. Since Iafrate has not offered one himself, perhaps that offered by the U.S. Dept. of State will suffice as the “premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets” — limiting the perpetrators to “subnational groups or clandestine agents”, I think we can broaden the definition to include state perpetrators as well (if the shoe fits …).

There is no question that the deliberate targeting of civilians is indefensible and forbidden by the Catholic Church. However, with respect to civilian casualities and the question of collateral damage, or what the military defines as

[the] unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment, or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces”

the Catholic principle of double effect comes into play. I think if one had sufficient possession of all the facts and knowledge of what actually transpired on the ground, one might then go about assessing the actions of those involved in this instance with recourse to this principle.

However, in asserting that “the [U]nited [S]tates military targeted a farm, not a military target”, Michael Iafrate seemingly concurs with the Syrian account (and presumption of the United States’ deliberate intent to harm civilians) and all too willing to discount and dismiss the stated objectives of those involved.

This of course, makes all the difference in discerning the moral culpability of U.S. forces in the attack.

This is not an attempt to make light of or discount the deaths of civilians in a time of war, which are lamentable and something which any soldier with integrity strives to avoid. No doubt their deaths must weigh particularly heavily on the men involved in the operation.

But to discern moral guilt is another thing altogether, and I do not believe I — or Michael Iafrate, for that matter — have the facts to adequately debate the matter.

  1. Bill’s journalistic coverage includes strategic and operational issues relating to the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Lebanon, and more extensively in Iraq, as well as al Qaeda’s operations, tactics, and strategy — to which end he has embedded with the US Marine Corps, the US Army, the Iraqi Army, and Iraqi police in Iraq in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, and with the Canadian Army in Afghanistan in 2006. Suffice to say I generally look him up whenever a story like this arises.
  2. If the Associated Press is to be believed, the move reflects a willingness of military officials to “consider a last resort: violating the sovereignty of a nation with whom the U.S. is not at war,” the rationale being that “that whatever diplomatic damage is done will be mitigated when President Bush leaves office and a new president is inaugurated.” (Presumably Obama, to tidings of joy and good will towards men the world over).
  3. To give credit where credit is due, Blackadder and Katerina of Vox Nova both have written engaging posts on this principle.

37 Responses to Did the U.S. Commit “Terrorism” in Syria?

  1. Donald R. McClarey says:

    More background on the Abu Ghadiyah network in Syria


  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    The idea that countries may give sanctuary to terrorists and be immune from the consequences of their actions defies history and common sense. Syria has now been put on notice that the US will no longer tolerate their collusion with Al Qaeda, and my only regret is that we didn’t do this years ago.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    The always indispensable Michael Yon has an informative piece on the strike.


  4. I hope Michael or anyone else who disagrees with Chris will engage the substance of this post… great post, Chris.

  5. Zak says:

    I would disagree. I think, rather than primarily signifying that you can’t harbor terrorists, it signifies that powerful states can ignore international law.

    International relations depend on the norms accepted by the participants, and here the US is suggesting that the norms are those of Thrasymachus.

    A grand strategy that would better serve us (and which would arguably be more Christian) is for us to argue that powerful states must abide by the same rules as all others, and to have our actions match our words.

  6. Aside from Blosser’s typical cut-up job in which he suggests that comments I made about the Catholic blogosphere in general were made in direct reference to your blog (which is misrepresentation and nothing more), Blosser’s main point seems to be: this certainly could have been an act of terrorism, if we knew that civilians were directly targeted. But since we don’t have all the facts, we don’t know. Blosser assumes that, even though their goal was to kill one human being, these eight human beings were somehow not directly targeted. (Reminds me of that old show Sledge Hammer in which the main character often would blow up a building in order to kill a criminal who had run inside to hide. The show made a mockery of the notion of double effect that Blosser carelessly applies.) The assumption that these deaths were “collateral damage” is an assumption just as much as mu view that they were intentional. The thing is, my assumption is based on the actual history of united states military actions, while Chris’ is based on the illusion that the united states only kills when necessary, or by accident.

  7. And for someone who claims in his writings to take just war tradition seriously, that Blosser would actually defend such an action shows that he does not take it seriously at all. Just war teaching allows for no such actions.

  8. shows that he does not take it seriously at all

    Or that he might be mistaken in his application of it, but that wouldn’t fit with your preconceived notions of Chris, Michael. Better and easier just to impugn him.

  9. Chris, I could charitably say that he was “misapplying” just war teaching if there was any evidence of him actually attempting to apply it at all in this case.

  10. For the sake of argument, Michael, I’ll grant that there is no such evidence. My point is simply that it seems (as I’ve proposed elsewhere) better to give Chris the benefit of the doubt and *inquire* and dialogue with him about that. Instead of saying that he doesn’t take just war teaching seriously at all, given that he does even attempt to apply it in this case, why not *ask* him if he’s applied said teaching, and how he arrived at the position he did having done so?

  11. [Michael]: Blosser’s typical cut-up job in which he suggests that comments I made about the Catholic blogosphere in general were made in direct reference to your blog

    After Chris Burgwald protested charges of racism, classicism and nationalism, you responded:

    I’ve noticed your blog, Chris, has not condemned this action of the united states against innocent people. And of course it won’t. You guys are too busy belly aching over how badly Joe the Plumber is being “persecuted.”

    I think it a fair assumption that your prior remarks would apply to “his”/our blog as well, insofar as American Catholic is presumably part of “the Catholic blogosphere in general.”

    However, if you’re willing to retract your charges and amend your post, I’m perfectly willing to accept your apology.

    [Michael:] Blosser’s main point seems to be: this certainly could have been an act of terrorism, if we knew that civilians were directly targeted. But since we don’t have all the facts, we don’t know. Blosser assumes that, even though their goal was to kill one human being, these eight human beings were somehow not directly targeted.

    All you had rely on in your post, Michael, is a rather flimsy story culled from the headlines — your impulse was to play judge, jury and executioner on the basis of sparse details and rival claims as to the intent of those involved and the identities of those slain.

    My point: I think charity demands we refrain from doing so.

    You bemoan my hesitancy to apply just war teaching in evaluating this particular incident — I would go further in saying that there are likely those who are far more qualified than you or I to make an accurate assessment of what happened based on the facts, and that we do a disservice to the just war tradition when we indulge in speculations and condemnations based on insufficient evidence.

    (The history of a similar “rush to judgement” further compels me to wait until “all the facts are in”).

  12. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    Mr. Blosser,

    What has been your stance about the US invasion and occupation of Iraq?

  13. S.B. says:

    The irony is that to garden-variety leftists like Michael I., it’s America’s fault both for 1) allowing Arab terrorists to enter Iraq and kill people there (i.e., for allowing people to die in Iraq), AND for 2) trying to stop Arab terrorists who have killed people in Iraq. Catch-22.

  14. Tito Edwards says:

    Michael I.,

    Why are your posts on Vox Nova so full of hate and vitriol, but in the American Catholic comments box you are very civil and polite. I hope your commenting skills will spill over into your posts.

  15. S.B. – The united states does not have the right to invade other countries whenever it feels like it, even if Syria is “harboring terrorists.” It goes against international law as well as the just war tradition of the Catholic Church.

  16. Blosser – Is that your advice for the families of the victims? “Just wait until the ‘facts’ are in. Charity, charity.” Give me a break.

  17. Michael, since when is this about what *advice* to give the families? I thought the point was regarding the *justice* of the actions… even if it *had* been a just action, there’s no “advice” that would have solaced the families of innocent victims… would you tell them, “Oh, it’s okay, this strike was justified under the auspices of just war teaching of the Catholic Church.” Of course not.

    Tangentially, Michael, why do you capitalize “Syria” but not “United States”?

  18. S.B. says:

    Because he’s a classic troll . . . he writes not for the purpose of rational debate, but just to ignite other people into reacting.

  19. Blosser – Is that your advice for the families of the victims? “Just wait until the ‘facts’ are in.

    As far as “advice” to families of those killed, I agree with Chris Burgwald.

    Given the deaths of civilians I would hope there to be a full investigation into the matter by the proper authorities to determine culpability.

    On the other hand, we very well could form a mob, hold a public lynching of the soldiers involved and get it over with, facts be damned — just as Senator Murtha did in the case of Haditha.

    It would certainly save us a lot of time and thought.

  20. On the matter of international boundaries, Zach says “rather than primarily signifying that you can’t harbor terrorists, it signifies that powerful states can ignore international law.” True, but there are limits to the case. Weigel makes a good point that “the principle of state sovereignty must not be considered exceptionless.”

    Suppose an Indian government, controlled by militant Hindu nationalists and capable of deploying nuclear weapons, decided to settle the “Pakistan problem” and redress what it considered to be the fundamental injustice of the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, using its claims to sovereignty in Kashmir as the opening wedge for military action. Or at a somewhat less apocolyptic level, suppose the government of Turkey decided to rid itself of the Kurds in the manner in which it had once decided to rid itself of the Armenians. Does the principle of state sovereignty mean these affairs would be no one else’s business? Would it constitute a fundamental breach of the principle of sovereignty of an international force — or an individual state, for that matter — intervened to stop the genocide of Christian tribesmen in the south of Sudan?

    Put that way, the question seems to answer itself: whatever else it might mean, the principle of state sovereignty cannot mean that states are free to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of religious, racial, or ethnic minorities within their borders. When that is taking place, othes have a right — perhaps even a duty — to intervene to stop the killing.

    (Idealism Without Illusions/U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1990s pp. 99-100).

    Syria continues to be a state-sponsor to terrorism — but quite apart from Syria’s hosting of terrorists within its borders, the problem remains of its porous borders. According to the December “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” report to Congress, nearly 90 percent of all foreign terrorists known to be in Iraq had used Syria as an entry point.

    The target in question — Abu Ghadiyah — was not only complicit in funneling terrorists across the border, but himself a leader in terrorist acts:

    Last spring U.S. intelligence picked up similar reports that Abu Ghadiyah was planning an attack in Iraq. The information — not detailed enough to act on — was followed by the murder of 11 Iraqi policemen. Abu Ghadiyah personally led the attack, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press.”The trip wire was knowing an attack was imminent, and also being able to pinpoint his location,” the official said Monday.

    So there is no question that the target was legitimate.

    According to the same AP report, the U.S. had requested Syria “hand over Abu Ghadiyah months prior to the raid, the intelligence official said. Syria rebuffed the U.S. request, saying it was monitoring Abu Ghadiyah’s activities.”

    Should they have gone across the border? — I don’t know.

    How much actionable intelligence did we have?

    How close were we to taking out Abu Ghadiyah?

    Was it a reasonable presumption that those men in Ghadiyah’s company were complicit in his activities?

    Was there any off-the-record notification of Syrian authorities? — One account alleges that “The Syrians were unwilling to be seen publicly bowing to US pressure to tackle the group, he says, but in the end gave the Americans the green light to do so themselves.”

    Did the authorities give consideration to the minimization of civilian casualties? — According to the AP, “A ground attack was chosen over a missile strike to reduce the chance of civilian casualties.”

    Meanwhile, the Syrian government appears at odds with local authorities as to how many people were killed:

    The government statement said eight people were killed, including a man and his four children and a woman. However, local officials said seven men were killed and two other people were injured, including a woman.

    A journalist at the funerals in the village’s cemetery saw the bodies of seven men — none of them minors. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained.

    Lastly,was the United States prepared to deal with the aftermath that would follow when the incident went public?

    There is a lot we don’t know and sorry, I’m not going to imply that I’m competent and knowledgable enough to register a judgement on the culpability of those involved.

    Tangential note: I predict we will be revisiting this argument under the next presidential administration, given suspicions that Osama Bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan and/or being assisted by Pakistani elements, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that President Obama may embark on a similar ‘across the border’ excursion to apprehend another terrorist.

  21. Apologies — for some odd reason, when you insert something in “blockquotes” WordPress renders the first paragraph in bold. Never figured why it does that or how to circumvent.

  22. Chris – Who are “the proper authorities”?

  23. Christopher says:


    Q: What usually happens in the context of a military operation when civilians are killed in the line of fire?

  24. What usually happens is that the event is ignored and/or justified under the vague blanket term “collateral damage.”

  25. Okay… At first cut my thoughts would be:

    1) I very much doubt you would believe a claim of first person knowledge that disagreed with your preconcieved notion, so I’m not sure why we should find your reception of one that agrees with it to be so compelling.

    2) It’s entirely possible that he’s dead right, and that the site attacked was of no military value whatsoever. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a terrorist attack intentionally aimed against civilians. It could well simply mean that it was a mistake. For instance, I wouldn’t claim that Clinton was performing a terrorist attack against the Chinese when he ordered (through a mistake in building address) the bombing of the Chinese embasy in Kosovo.

  26. Darwin you are unbelievable. “Must have been a mistake. My country, right or wrong.” You have no desire to know the truth. You’d rather assume everything is a “mistake,” and that the u.s. military does no wrong.

    (And, yes, Clinton was a terrorist too.)

  27. Look, I think Clinton was a lot of things, but a terrorist? Is your theory, then, that the US _did_ intentionally bomb the Chinese embassy in Kosovo?

    I certainly don’t think that the US military can do no wrong — but to claim this was a terror attack doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The whole point of a terror attack is to kill lots of people in an indiscriminate and spectacular fashion so as to strike terror into the populace. Napalming several whole Syrian villages would be an obvious way to achieve that goal. Sending in a couple helicopters to attack one house, and one house only, in a remote area seems a curious approach.

    It’s entirely possible that the military was criminally negligent and struck a target based on intelligence that was flimsy and entirely wrong (though that certainly seems odd given that it probably took very high level approval to strike across and international boarder) but terrorism really doesn’t seem like a probably motivation.

    It’s not “my country right or wrong” it’s using one’s basic powers of reason. (I invite you to try it some time.)

  28. S.B. says:

    So Michael links to (and thanks) an anonymous commenter who purports to be Syrian (how that Syrian guy ended up on Vox Nova, who knows) who says that the United States is lying about this attack, just like the United States lied about the fact that it arranged 9/11 to happen so that it would have an excuse to kill Muslims.

    It’s very telling what Michael I. does — and does not — disagree with. In fact, I’d guess that Michael is a 9/11 “truther,” given that he’s a sucker for whatever crap he reads on any random leftist website.

  29. I don’t know the particulars about the bombing of the Chinese embassy. But in between the Gulf Wars Clinton oversaw regular bombing raids in Iraq as well as the sanctions there in which children were knowingly left to die. Madeline Albright said publicly that these children’s deaths were “worth it.” This is terrorism.

    Look, I know these actions won’t fit your definition of terrorism. But that’s part of my point. Who gets to decide what “terrorism” is? If the military was criminally negligent, I would still call that terrorism. Being careless about the power you wield over life and death is terror.

    (I invite you to try it some time.)

    And I invite you to include a little self-criticism in your reasoning, and to purge your capacity for reason of the utter denial of your country’s history.

  30. Michael, if you can indulge me… why “Syria” but “united states” and “u.s.”?

  31. Well, I have my suspicions, but I want to see if I’m correct.

  32. S.B. says:

    He’s just being trollish, i.e., trying to poke a finger in people’s eyes, just to get a reaction.

  33. Ryan Harkins says:

    Michael, so who does get to define terrorism? Or more precisely, why don’t you simply lay out your terms for what constitutes terrorism so we can all at least know what the other is talking about? Frankly I have to believe that there is a fundamental difference between targeting a single house with several helicopters and targeting a whole market square with a single bomb. One speaks loudly of restraint, while the other speaks of indiscriminate violence. I’m not saying that therefore you can’t claim terrorism on the part of the US, but then, I like to see exactly, point for point, what your criteria for terrorism are.

    Also, let me ask one further question: is there a difference between intentional and unintentional killing: for example, between murder and manslaughter?

  34. Chris, feel free to email me for an answer to your question. I don’t feel like “discussing” it with S.B. again. 🙂

    Michael, so who does get to define terrorism?

    For starters, I’d say the victims of should be given special consideration as to what constitutes terrorism.

    Frankly I have to believe that there is a fundamental difference between targeting a single house with several helicopters and targeting a whole market square with a single bomb. One speaks loudly of restraint, while the other speaks of indiscriminate violence.

    If the u.s. military was going after one person, which the reports claim, then killing EIGHT other people IS a matter of indiscriminate violence. Perhaps if it was your family that was killed, you would not be calling the action “restrained.”

    …is there a difference between intentional and unintentional killing: for example, between murder and manslaughter?

    Yes, of course. But bear in mind that we often hold people accountable for unintentional killing. That’s the whole point of the concept of manslaughter. I also think that there are different types of unintentional killing. If my car hits a patch of ice and I slam into someone and kill her, that’s unintentional. But soldiers being reckless when attempting to capture ONE PERSON such that EIGHT OTHER people are killed, when this is happening on the ground and not from a helicopter, etc., this is not an accident. It is recklessness that comes from not giving a shit who gets in the way. And being willing to sacrifice whoever is “in the way” is indeed terrorism. The Syrian gov’t is absolutely right to call it terrorism.

  35. Somewhat tangential here…

    Why do so many liberals place so little faith in one aspect of the US government (the military), but so much confidence in other aspects of the same government? And why do so many conservatives do likewise?

    If it’s patriotic to serve your country in the armed forces, why isn’t it similarly patriotic to be a civil servant? And likewise the opposite?

    Am I missing something obvious?