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Terrorism? But who’s behind the weapons?

Joseph Hellweg
By Joseph Hellweg

Joseph Hellweg is a cultural anthropologist teaching in the Department of Religion at Florida State University in Florida's capital, Tallahassee. He is author of Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d'Ivoire (2011, University of Chicago Press) and Anthropologie, les premiers pas: Introduction à la modélisation et aux méthodes de recherche qualitative en sciences sociales (2011, L'Harmattan, Paris). He has conducted research sponsored by the Fulbright Foundation in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Mali. In 2008-2009, he taught as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Kankan, where he learned to savor ndapa with lakudu sauce at Mme. Kourouma's restaurant in the Marché Diaka.

Posted on Friday, 1 April 2016 15:19

On March 24, Pope Francis mourned the attack in Brussels. But instead of focusing on the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack, the Pope highlighted the “arms traffickers who want blood, not peace, who want war, not brotherhood.”

The Pope’s remarks echoed earlier comments on June 21, 2015, when he despaired at the un-Christian nature of the arms trade, singling out “people, managers, businessmen who call themselves Christian and . . . manufacture weapons.” Yet global discourse on terror blames stateless forces, overlooking the complicity of corporate capital and state governments.

The global flow of arms to non-state terrorists shadows the arms trade between states

The Malian conflict of 2012-2013 is a case in point. “After US and French forces helped to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011,” Nick Turse wrote in The Nation, “neighboring Mali went from bulwark [against West African instability] to basket case.” Ironically—or predictably—the military misadventures of France and the US in Libya contributed, with Italy’s help, to the Malian debacle in which France intervened militarily in 2013.

After Italy, France was the second largest supplier of arms to Libya from 2005 to 2009. Then the French deployed their soldiers to Mali to plug the leak that likely spilled some of France’s own arms from Libya into the hands of Malian rebels, threatening French neo-colonial hegemony in West Africa. The leaked weapons also found their way to Boko Haram in Nigeria and, it seems, to Syria.

The United Nations Security Council’s Group of Experts deplored such “illicit flows” of arms to “non-State actors, including terrorist groups,” but the group said nothing of the proliferation of arms among “state actors.” Why, when weapons manufacturers are part of the problem?

With every act of violence, arms manufacturers profit. It is in their interest for violence to continue, no mater what its source. They sell arms to state governments, including their own. Their home states attack other states; those states collapse. Liberated weapons fall into the hands of stateless recipients, and the arms makers sell more weapons to their home states to attack stateless forces. And on it goes. Endless war, perpetual profit.

In volume one of Capital, Marx wrote, “Circulation sweats money from every pore.” Today global trade, like world diplomacy, sweats weapons at every turn. Terrorism, to paraphrase Clausewitz, has become economics by other means.

Arms, we are told, sustain stability when they rest in the hands of states and generate instability in stateless hands. But states and the stateless reach out toward one another, guns in their grip. France and the US, under Presidents Hollande and Obama, have competed to become or remain, respectively, Saudi Arabia’s main arms suppliers. They appear to do so without a care that Saudi Arabia’s radical form of state-sponsored Islam, inspired by eighteenth-century reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, is the same as that championed by the Islamic State.

If democratic states traffic prodigiously in the tools of global destabilization, and if their presidents act as agents of arms manufacturers, is it any surprise that private networks now assume state aspirations? Not just terrorist organizations but individuals and private companies, too?

On March 24, the very day the Pope deplored the global arms trade, journalists Matthew Cole and Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept reported that Erik Prince, founder of the now defunct mercenary organization Blackwater, is under investigation by authorities in the United States for money laundering and for allegedly offering armed services to overseas governments:

“What began as an investigation into Prince’s attempts to sell defense services in Libya and other countries in Africa has widened to a probe of allegations that Prince received assistance from Chinese intelligence to set up an account for his Libya operations through the Bank of China.”

Prince heads the Hong-Kong-based private company, Frontier Services Group (FSG). Cole and Scahill report that the state-owned Chinese investment firm, Citic Group, is FSG’s most important investor. FSG’s website claims that the group provides “reliable, customized supply chains and a complete transport and logistics solution for our customers doing business on the African continent”. If you are confused by the gap between the charges brought against FSG and FSG’s mission statement, so was FSG’s management.

Cole and Scahill write, “Since 2014, Prince has traveled to at least half a dozen countries to offer various versions of a private military force, secretly meeting with a string of African officials. Among the countries where Prince pitched a plan to deploy paramilitary assets is Libya, which is currently subject to an array of U.S. and United Nations financial and defense restrictions.” Another conflict in which Prince hoped to intervene was Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram.

Prince appears to have made such offers against the wishes of both FSG’s corporate management and the United States, his main competitor at supplying anti-terrorism logistics. As Turse reported, “In 2013, Captain J. Dane Thorleifson, the outgoing commander of an elite, quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10, described . . . training ‘proxy’ forces in order to build ‘critical host nation security capacity; enabling, advising, and assisting our African CT [counterterror] partner forces so they can swiftly counter and destroy al-Shabab, AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and Boko Haram.”

The global flow of arms to non-state terrorists shadows the arms trade between states. Presidents, navy captains, and captains of industry swim in the same sewage of arms as terrorists, trading weapons and influence to increase their shares of violence in ways that lead, inevitably, to moral bankruptcy and political impoverishment leaving human death and inhuman profits in their wake in Africa and beyond.

Arms makers may not pull the trigger, but they give fanatics triggers to pull—an endless supply. When will their complicity matter? The Pope wishes it were sooner.

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