Donald Trump loves to say the words “radical Islamic extremism.”
In the last months of the 2016 presidential campaign, he belted out this three-word rallying cry at campaign stops across the US, often to thunderous applause from his supporters. He slammed both President Barack Obama and Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton for avoiding the term; in reference to his use of the term he said, “[a]nyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit” to lead the country.
Controversy over public discourse about terrorism didn’t start with Trump. After the attacks of September 11, politicians, media outlets, and analysts in the US needed a vocabulary to talk about the newly launched US “war on terror.” Americans started hearing terms like “jihad,” “Islamic extremism,” “insurgent,” and “terrorist” everyday. As if they were coins running the machine of US popular culture, these terms are now exchanged so prolifically that often their meaning is no longer discernable. Once a term limited to particular organizations about which the US intelligence community had gathered decades of information, “terrorist” is now a term as likely to be applied to US based computer hackers as it is to Islamic State fighters.
Recently publicized discourse from global security firm Tiger Swan concerning their actions at the anti-DAPL protests in North Dakota demonstrates what I, as a rhetorician who writes about rhetoric and violence in the context of foreign and domestic terrorism, call the “boomerang effect” of terrorism discourse. In this effect, rhetoric deployed to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the decade long armed drone war throughout the Middle East boomerangs back to the US. The ricocheted discourse then is used as a justification for actions against US citizens with no known link to Islamic extremism or global terror organizations. Terms like “jihadist,” “Islamic extremist,” and “insurgent” are all grounded in a mythos of religious fanaticism. And, each has boomeranged back to the US.
In April 2016, indigenous groups began an encampment on the land in an effort to prohibit the company from continuing construction on the pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners sprung into action to dismantle the protests. Enter Tiger Swan.
The archetype of a jihadist post-insurgency is the aftermath of the anti-Soviet Afghanistan jihad. While many insurgents went back to their pre-war lives, many, especially the external supporters (foreign fighters), went back out into the world looking to start or join new jihadist insurgencies. Most famously this “bleedout” resulted in Osama bin Laden and the rise of Al Qaeda, but the jihadist veterans of Afghanistan also ended up fighting in Bosnia, Chechnya, North Africa, and Indonesia, among other places.
Tiger Swan also outlines an effort to collect information that would allow the firm to “find, fix, and eliminate” protester threats to the pipeline. As Intercept reporters argue, this language is “an eerie echo of ‘find, fix, finish,’ a military term used by special forces in the U.S. government’s assassination campaign against terrorist targets abroad.” In other words, the exact discourse used to describe lethal military operations against foreign terrorists is now deployed against US citizens engaging in a nonviolent protest encampment on US soil.
A boomerang works simply. The device is thrown away a distance; it flies away from the thrower and then returns. The same process applies in the case of post 9/11 terrorism discourses. And, post 9/11 US terrorism discourse has had lethal effects. It was mobilized to garner support for torture programs at facilities like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; it has been linked to a historic rise in hate crimes against US citizens who happen to be Muslim (or appear to be Muslim to their attackers); it continues to be used to support a nearly decade long extrajudicial targeted killing program waged by U.S. drones that has killed countless innocent Yemenis and Pakistanis as well as at least four US citizens. The list goes on.
When this kind of rhetorical work boomerangs back home, it starts to authorize the same deadly war fighting logics deployed by the military abroad. Only now those logics are aimed at nonviolent protesters on US soil. Tiger Swan’s rhetoric about the anti-DAPL protesters shows us how discourse about terrorism can become increasingly opaque while it simultaneously becomes more powerful. “Insurgent” and “jihadist,” as terms, can now apply to any individual engaging in any protest action, even actions that have nothing to do with what we have understood as the “war on terror.” The terms become unstable signifiers that are highly mobile. Hence, the boomerang effect.
Just like an empty Tupperware container, terrorism discourses can then be filled with whatever ideology or beliefs one wants to fill them with. Jihadist can be used to refer to people we simply perceive as angry; an indigenous college student attending a protest can become an insurgent. Once those terms are attached to a person, the actions those terms have authorized (e.g. drone strikes, torture, imprisonment) can be used against them, often with little oversight. Large scale, warrantless surveillance efforts of the American population writ large and increasingly militarized policing tactics that lead to the deaths of unarmed civilians are examples.
As the summer of 2017 simmers, Tiger Swan’s role “has expanded to include the surveillance of activist networks only marginally related to the pipeline.” Tiger Swan’s operatives now monitor “anti-Trump protests” across the country and are preparing to infiltrate protest networks gearing up to resist new pipeline projects in Texas, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. The boomerang effect is in full effect as the company claims that, “Much like Afghanistan and Iraq, the ‘Fighting Season’ will soon be here with the coming warming temperatures.” And with it, more dangerous effects of ricocheting terrorism discourse loom.