Self-Perpetuating Conflict: How the Global War on Terror has Supported Autocrats and Created More Terrorists

Sean R. Roberts

Director of International Development Studies and Associate Professor of the Practice of International Affairs The George Washington University


Nine days after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, U.S. President George W. Bush addressed Congress and the American people, laying out his proposed response to the tragedy. In that address, President Bush famously declared a broad war on “terror” that would begin with Al-Qaeda, which had been identified as the perpetrators of the September eleventh attacks, but “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.1 Later in the speech, Bush seemed to clarify more about these terrorist groups with “global reach,” noting that “the terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars; …(their) directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans, and make no distinction among military and civilians, including women and children.”2

Although most Americans had little to no conception of this amorphous enemy, they were willing to embrace President Bush’s articulation of the war in the hopes that it would prevent future attacks on innocent civilians like that which took place on September eleventh and deliver justice for those who died on that day. Furthermore, it was deemed “unpatriotic” to publicly question the logic of the war as presented by President Bush in the political environment of the United States immediately after the attacks, and there was relatively little critical public discourse on the subject in the mainstream media. However, in retrospect, it is quite clear that the way in which this war was articulated before the U.S. Congress and the American people in September of 2001 did not actually define with whom it would be fought.

Seventeen years after this declaration of war initiated a conflict that became known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT), Bush’s prophecy of a long and protracted war like none the U.S. had seen before has come to fruition, and the war is not only already the longest in the country’s history, but victory also remains as elusive now as at any time since 2001. In fact, the scope of the war has only increased with time, and the toll of civilian lives taken in terrorist attacks has gradually increased globally since the declaration of GWOT, with the number in 2015 over three times greater than in 2001. While it is more difficult  


1   “Text: President Bush Addresses the Nation,” Washington Post, September 20, 2001 (

  1. ibid

to track the actual number of terrorists in the world than it is to document their attacks, the widespread involvement of a new generation of militants in Syria suggests that there are now more of the “Islamic extremist terrorists” that the war was meant to obliterate than there were in 2001. Furthermore, the geographical space in which the U.S. is fighting these terrorists has expanded substantially from the early years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq to also encompass much of the Middle East, most notably Yemen and Syria, North Africa, and increasingly South-East Asia.

While the war has cost the United States dearly both monetarily and in the lives of military personnel, this manuscript explores a less studied and more insidious cost of the conflict to the U.S. – its subversion of U.S. interests internationally. More specifically, it examines the ways in which GWOT has served to bolster the efforts of authoritarian regimes to suppress legitimate opposition and/or marginalized Muslim populations by branding them as “terrorists” and/or “Islamic extremists,” pushing many of these people to eventually join extremist groups and begin utilizing terrorist tactics. This unintended result of the war has not only resulted in the persecution of thousands of innocent Muslims around the world, but it has also helped to generate more terrorists and extremists for GWOT to fight while empowering authoritarian regimes, which regularly work against U.S. interests internationally. Indeed, these outcomes of GWOT may be the most critical legacy of the war as they are radically changing geopolitics in ways I argue are both counter to U.S. interests in the world and damaging to humanity at large.

The Book’s Structure


The introduction begins with a discussion of the situation of Uyghurs in China, which has significantly denigrated in the last several years and is unlikely to be resolved by the time the book is published. This discussion is presented as an extreme example of the unintended outcomes of the war on terror as China has used an ill-informed narrative of a Uyghur terrorist threat to justify ethnic cleansing. Having established the seriousness of this particularly egregious outcome of the war on terror, the introduction demonstrates how the Uyghurs’ plight is emblematic of a larger phenomenon that has impacted numerous marginalized Muslim groups around the world.

Further, it introduces the reader to the book’s overall argument. It explains from a structural perspective how GWOT has facilitated both the empowerment of autocratic states around the world and the manufacture of new terrorists. It also demonstrates how these outcomes of the war have contributed to the destruction of the liberal world order that the U.S. sought to develop in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. As such, it argues that these characteristics of the war make it a self-perpetuating threat to stability in the world today. Finally, the introduction will discuss the research methodology that went into the book’s writing and its limitations as well as provide a brief outline of the book’s chapters. In doing so, it introduces readers to the four primary case studies that the manuscript explores.

Chapter One: Theorizing the War on Terror: Biopolitics and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of the Terrorism Brand

With the intention of reaching a broad audience, this manuscript avoids engaging critical social theory extensively in the main text, but this chapter serves as an exception to this rule. While it will strive to engage theory without using opaque language, the chapter offers a theoretical contextualization of how GWOT has served to create more terrorists and empower authoritarian states. In particular, the chapter utilizes Michel Foucault’s theory of biopolitics as a means of understanding the power of GWOT to suppress the voices and cultures of marginalized Muslim communities around the world by characterizing them as a biological threat to a healthy society. In making this argument, the chapter also stresses that the biopolitical power of GWOT is amplified and wielded more arbitrarily due to the fact that the war fails to define its enemy. This chapter will explain Foucault’s theory of biopolitics in a manner that is accessible to non-academics, hopefully offering an important lens for understanding how devastating it is to be branded as a terrorist in the context of GWOT.

Having established the bipolitical power inherent in labeling any group of people as terrorists, the chapter further introduces the concept of “self-fulfilling prophecy” as articulated by sociologist Robert Merton in his work on the construction of structural racism in the United States in the 1940s. Merton’s concept provides an excellent theoretical framework for understanding how the wrongful labeling of a group of people as terrorists can both lead them to militancy and, subsequently, justify their initial wrongful labeling. In addition to creating more threats of violence, this “self-fulfilling prophecy” reinforces structural racism, justifies the suppression of legitimate political voices, and empowers states to oppress their own citizens with impunity.

The chapter ends with a discussion of the manuscript’s working definition of terrorism. Providing this working definition is critical to the book’s broader argument since it is impossible to suggest that the case studies examined involved the unjust branding of “terrorists” without defining that term. In addition, this proposed working definition can serve as a starting point for a wider policy debate on the need for a clear and internationally recognized articulation of what “terrorism” should and should not describe. As such, this chapter introduces a broader argument that is taken up again in the policy recommendations in the manuscript’s conclusion.

Chapter Two: Turning Political Opposition into Terrorists in Tajikistan: The Islamic Renaissance Party

This chapter provides the book’s first case study from post-Soviet Tajikistan where opposition political movements in the 1990s were violently suppressed and pushed towards militancy. In Tajikistan, a power struggle in the aftermath of the country’s declaration of independence led to a bloody civil war in the early 1990s that pitted

former members of the Soviet elite against a coalition of liberal democrats and conservative religiously inspired nationalists. With assistance from Russia and Uzbekistan, the party of former Soviet elites was able to defeat the diverse opposition forces, but in the process thousands were killed, and many Tajiks fled to Afghanistan where they became increasingly aligned with the Taliban and other religiously inspired militant groups. As this occurred during the 1990s, this militant opposition was not immediately branded as terrorists, and a 1997 peace process called for the creation of opposition political parties representing the different ideologies of the opposition groups from the civil war, all of which were to be given a stake in governance. This included the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which became the only legal religiously based political party in the former Soviet Union.

While the coalition government that evolved from the Peace Process provided a voice for opposition parties, the governing party, which emerged from a coalition between former Soviet elites in the north of the country and the new president, Emamoli Rakhmanov from central Tajikistan, wielded all real political power. Nonetheless, the situation laid the groundwork for a competitive political process that diffused the tensions from the civil war and could have evolved into a more pluralistic society with time. Four years after the Peace Process, GWOT began and changed the dynamic in the country significantly.

As soon as the war was declared, the Rakhmanov government became an important ally to the U.S. in its campaign in Afghanistan. The U.S. decided not to establish a military base in the country despite being invited to do so by the Tajik government, but the U.S. did use the country’s capital, Dushanbe, as a critical re-fueling station for military flights into Afghanistan. Additionally, the U.S. coordinated its counter- terrorism intelligence with the Tajiks while the country served as the main base from which Russia could nominally participate in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. Most importantly, the war allowed the Tajik government to increasingly marginalize the IRPT, which it suggested was linked with “extremist” and “terrorist” organizations. The war in neighboring Afghanistan also allowed the government to claim it faced grave security threats, thus justifying increasing authoritarian policies, including the isolation of all political opposition. Given its geographic importance to the campaign in Afghanistan, the U.S. and European states mostly ignored the increasing degradation of political freedom and human rights in the country.

However, the true “self-fulfilling prophecy” of Tajik violent extremism did not really begin to develop until the Obama administration’s attempts to disentangle itself from the Afghan war forced it into closer collaboration with the Tajik state. With the primary U.S. bases in the region already having closed in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. depended significantly on Tajikistan as a means of withdrawing its operation from Afghanistan. This further empowered Rakhmanov, who began establishing himself as a dictatorial power, initiating a cult of personality around himself and introducing numerous policies to punish overt expressions of the Muslim religion, which he viewed as a threat to his power. These moves eventually led him to ban the IRPT and label it a terrorist organization in 2015. Subsequently, the Tajik government has begun a campaign to imprison opposition figures domestically and assassinate them internationally. In the meantime, many of the banned party’s supporters and other religious Tajiks who felt themselves under duress began joining the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. By 2017, Tajiks made up the largest population of suicide bombers for the Islamic State from any given state. Meanwhile, the United States continues to work with Tajikistan under the Trump administration, training special forces in counter-terrorism operations in advance of Trump’s declared intention to withdraw U.S. military from Afghanistan.

Chapter Three: Turning Domestic Opposition into Terrorists in Uzbekistan: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

The second case study parallels the story of Tajikistan in neighboring Uzbekistan where the suppression of political opposition in the early 1990s likewise served to push a portion of the population into militant groups outside the country. In the aftermath of independence, Uzbekistan elected its former Communist Party leader, Islam Karimov, as president. While Karimov was able to access the remnants of the Communist Party’s administration to establish order and begin building a post-Soviet independent state, there remained much chaos in the first years of independence in Central Asia’s most populous country. This situation led to the establishment of various informal institutions on the local level that maintained order during the transition from the U.S.S.R.

One such informal group called Adolat (or “Justice”) took shape in the town of Namangan in the Ferghana Valley, the most densely populated region of the country. This group, led by a young Muslim cleric and an Afghan war veteran from the town, used a militia of young men to maintain order based on Muslim Sharia law. Their efforts to stop prostitution, robbery, and drug abuse in the town was initially welcome by the President, but when he visited the town in 1992, he was met with demands from the group to be officially registered and to spread its model of justice throughout the country. Fearing the power of this movement, Karimov outlawed Adolat and imprisoned many of its members.  The organizers of the movement fled to Tajikistan where they supported the opposition in the Civil War. When the Peace Accords were signed in Tajikistan in 1997, the founders of Adolat fled to Afghanistan where they founded the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) a year later.

Even prior to 2001, the Uzbekistan government used the discourses of extremism and terrorism to brand the IMU as an international security threat, but I would argue that this initially had limited impact. Many western analysts were skeptical that the IMU was a substantial international threat and portrayed it as an under-resourced and disorganized militant group born of the Uzbekistan’s government intolerance of opposition.

While western states were critical of the Uzbek government’s crackdown on Islam in the country and skeptical of its demonization of the IMU during the late 1990s, this would change after 2001 when the state quickly became one of the key allies of the

U.S. in the War on Terror. In his speech declaring the war on terror, President Bush even mentioned the IMU as one of the terrorist groups in Afghanistan that was to be eradicated. In turn, Uzbekistan offered the U.S. use of a key airbase in the south of the country and was reportedly an enthusiastic participant in the U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program, which outsourced torture as an interrogation method during the early years of the war. Having demonstrated its contribution to GWOT, the Karimov government was able to more forcefully deal with domestic opposition and suppress Islam in the country with impunity.

Even by the time the U.S. had entered Afghanistan in late 2001, Karimov’s suppression of religion locally had bolstered the IMU’s ranks, making it a significant ally of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in its struggle against the U.S. forces. However, since that time, the IMU and its offshoots have only grown in strength and numbers, with its recruitment fueled by Karimov’s brutal repression of religion and political opposition at home. This process was further bolstered in 2005 when the Uzbek government massacred a significant number of its own citizens who were protesting the imprisonment of members of a local Muslim movement in the town of Andijon.

In recent years, Uzbeks have been a substantial contributor to the foreign fighting forces in Syria and Iraq, and Uzbeks also have been involved in significant terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. It is noteworthy that in 2016, Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov died after over 25 years in power, and his successor has sought to address some of these problems by lightening the state’s suppression of Islam and opening up to the world. Of the case studies in this book, Uzbekistan is the only state that shows signs of at least gradual liberalization, and the state’s role in facilitating a self-fulfilling prophecy of Uzbek terrorism appears to be one of the motivations for its reforms.

Chapter Four: Turning a Self-Determination Movement into Terrorists in Russia: The Northern Caucasus

In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in the North Caucasus mountains declared independence from the newly created Russian Federation. Within the first year, this breakaway region within Russia had split, with Ingushetia becoming a part of Russia and Chechenia maintaining de-facto independence. These events were not entirely surprising since the Chechens had long resisted the idea of being a part of a Russian state. It took decades for the Russian Empire to colonize this region, and even during the Soviet period, Chechens had been one of the few Soviet peoples to regularly challenge the hegemony of the U.S.S.R.

While the dissolution of the Soviet Union assumed that the 15 constituent Union Republics would declare independence, this was less tolerated for autonomous regions within Union Republics, such as that represented by the Chechen homeland. After initial attempts to force the Chechens to join the Russian Federation, Russia let the region essentially rule itself while not recognizing its status as an independent state. In hopes that the independence movement in the country would eventually collapse on its own, Russia sought ways to undermine the de-facto state through the clandestine support of internal opposition. While these efforts did not overthrow the existing leadership, they did result in a civil war that gave Russia an excuse to intervene militarily in the country.

Although Russia likely hoped to quickly defeat the standing government when it initially invaded in 1994, the war would last two years and result large casualties on both sides, including thousands of civilians. Russia was criticized internationally for its willingness to indiscriminately bomb urban areas during the conflict, and the Chechen forces increasingly drew on Islam as inspiration in their nationalist struggle, as Muslim foreign fighters began joining their cause. When a peace settlement was reached in 1996, it did not resolve the root cause of the conflict, with the self-declared Chechen Republic of Ichkeria still an unrecognized, but de-facto independent state. The territory of this region had been war-ravaged, and its economy decimated. In this context, Russia continued to use covert actions to undermine the region’s already weak self-declared government.

In September 1999, this “frozen conflict” broke out once again into violent war. In the “Second Chechen War,” Russia under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was much swifter in defeating Chechen forces. Once Russia had taken the city of Groznyi, which is the capital of the region, in early 2000, it installed a pro-Russian interim government that has essentially been in power since under the leadership of a single family. While Chechenia became a part of the Russian Federation in the process, the war did not end resistance. Chechens fighting for independence from Russia continued to be active both inside and outside the territory of their former state.

Russia had already succeeded in branding Chechens as terrorists prior to the beginning of GWOT, and Chechens had already aligned themselves with international Jihadist groups prior to the 11 September 2001 attacks on the U.S. However, Chechen separatists were still viewed internationally as having legitimate grievances against the Russian state prior to the advent of the War on Terror. With Chechens also found in Afghanistan when the U.S. invaded in late 2001, their struggle with the Russian state was increasingly seen as part of a global terrorist network. In 2003,  the U.S. State Department classified two Chechen militant organizations that continued to fight for independence from the Russian government as terrorist organizations, significantly degrading the legitimacy of the Chechen independence struggle in the eyes of the international community.

Indeed, during the two wars with Russia, many Chechens embraced more extreme visions of Islam that included armed struggle against Islam’s enemies. However, it was not until the war on terror that Chechens became active in global Jihadism. At the same time, their acts within Russia became more brutal and increasingly targeted civilians. It is likewise not surprising that Chechens and other northern Caucasian ethnic groups who have joined their fight at different times in Russia were very active among the foreign fighters in the Syrian Civil War.

Chapter Five: Turning Difference into Terrorists in China: The Case of the Uyghurs

The Uyghurs of China provide the most extreme example of the phenomenon explained in this manuscript. While the three previous examples discuss political conflicts that already involved armed struggle prior to 2001, the Uyghurs did not pose any substantive militant threat prior to 2001, yet they were still branded as a part of global terrorist networks after the advent of GWOT.

Like the Chechens’ attitude towards Russian rule, many Uyghurs have long viewed Chinese rule in their homeland to be the result of colonialism and post-colonial occupation. During the early twentieth century, Uyghurs had led two separate insurgencies against Chinese rule, both resulting in short-lived independent states in parts of their homeland. After the advent of Communist rule in the Uyghur homeland in 1949, there was little opportunity for the further development of an organized Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule, but many Uyghurs privately continued to hold on to aspirations for self-determination.

When the Soviet Union fell and newly independent states were formed in neighboring Central Asia, these hopes for Uyghur self-determination were once again raised among the population. As a result, signs of low-level and everyday resistance to Chinese rule in the region increased throughout the 1990s. In response to these rising nationalist sentiments among the Uyghurs, the Chinese state initiated numerous “anti-separatist” campaigns throughout the 1990s, severely punishing signs of Uyghur disloyalty and targeting independent religious observation as a sign of nationalism among the Uyghurs. At the same time, the Chinese state also began programs to encourage Uyghur assimilation into a Han-centric Chinese state culture, providing opportunities to study and work in China proper where Uyghurs were also provided instruction in the Chinese language.

This “carrot and stick” approach to dealing with Uyghur disloyalty was having some success as the 1990s came to an end, but the Chinese government continued to worry about the risk of Uyghur self-determination movements forming. Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the U.S. and the declaration of GWOT, the Chinese government decided that it would be beneficial to link their worries about Uyghur separatism to the war on terror. Within six weeks of the attacks on the U.S., the People’s Republic of China issued a statement that suggested that Uyghur separatists had long ago formed an Islamic extremist organization with support from Osama Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda, which had carried out numerous terrorist attacks on Chinese soil dating back a decade.  Within a year, the U.S. had endorsed these claims by designating a Uyghur group on its terrorist list.

As the Chinese suppression of Uyghur political voices and religious expressions increased over the first decade of the 2000s, the situation in the Uyghur homeland finally erupted into ethnic riots in the summer of 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of the region. While this was a spontaneous riot that had nothing to do with terrorism, it reaffirmed to the Chinese state that the Uyghurs presented a serious security threat to China. As a result, the state employed a brutal crackdown in the Uyghur region for the next year, cutting off the region from international communications and arresting hundreds of Uyghurs on charges of extremism and terrorism.

These events in 2009 and 2010 set into motion the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of Uyghur militancy. After decades devoid of any viable organized Uyghur armed resistance either within or outside China, there were suddenly signs of the development of such a threat by 2013. Uyghurs inside China allegedly perpetrated several brutal attacks on Chinese civilians between 2013 and 2015, suggesting increasingly organized militant resistance inside the country. Around the same time, thousands of Uyghurs fled the post-Urumqi riots’ oppression in their homeland via Southeast Asian human trafficking networks. Subsequently, several thousand of them have been reported as being recruited by extremist groups to fight against the Assad regime in Syria.

This “self-fulfilling prophecy” of Uyghur militancy has further served to justify the Chinese state’s oppression of Uyghurs inside China. As noted in the book’s introduction, since 2016, China has arbitrarily interned between 800,000 and 2,000,000 Uyghurs indefinitely in re-education camps that the state portrays as China’s answer to combatting Islamic radicalism and terrorism. These camps and the establishment of a draconian surveillance state in the region fueled by new technologies of artificial intelligence amounts to an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” the Uyghurs and raises concerns about the risk of future genocide.

Chapter Six: Implications of the Self-Perpetuating War: The Quagmire of Syria and the Rise of an Illiberal World Order

This chapter examines how these four case studies support the central argument of the book – that the war on terror has strengthened authoritarian states and has created only more terrorists. It begins by discussing the role of the four groups discussed in the book’s case studies in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. As such, it makes the case that these groups from Eurasia, who have been disenfranchised by the war on terror, make up one of the most critical groups of new recruits for extremist organizations today.

In making these arguments, the chapter suggests that the continued pursuit of a war on terror provides an endless supply of enemies as the war itself generates new terrorists to fight. Pointing to other examples in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia where the branding of legitimate domestic opposition or self- determination movements as “terrorists” is presently taking place, it suggests that these situations are likely to be the next chapter in the war’s “self-fulfilling prophecy” of terrorism, generating yet another generation of terrorists to fight.

The chapter then turns to the book’s other central argument – that the war has bolstered the power of authoritarian regimes in the world and has elevated the role of Russia and China in defining an illiberal world order. Each of the case studies examined, and especially those of the Chechens and Uyghurs, certainly played a role in solidifying the power of Russia and China over their own citizens. The use of a terrorism narrative in Russia’s subjugation of the Chechens and China’s of the Uyghurs empowered the positions of their respective leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, domestically. In turn, these two leaders have been emboldened internationally in their projection of power, aided by the deteriorating international reputation of the U.S..

The chapter ends by arguing that all of these processes point to a self-perpetuating war that is undermining the United States globally and is threatening the end of the concept of universal human rights around the world and reinforcing an emerging illiberal world order.

Conclusion: Finding a Way to End the War

The conclusion provides a road map for how the United States can lead an international coalition to dismantle the global war on terror.  While this road map may have more salience if the Trump presidency is followed by a Democratic administration, the book’s overall argument about GWOT’s role in undermining U.S. preeminence in the global system should have bi-partisan appeal.

The first step in such an effort to dismantle the war is for the United States to publicly acknowledge that GWOT has been a misguided conflict, which had not defined its enemy, leading to a cascade of unintended outcomes. As a result, the United States should disavow its role in combating Islamic extremism internationally and the use of this role as a means of violent international interventionism.

In turn, the United States should seek to re-define its own legal definition of terrorism as political violence that deliberately targets civilians. This conception of terrorism would be based on the manuscript’s proposed definition and would hold political violence perpetrated by non-state actors to the same standards expected of states engaged in conflicts. As a result, all non-state actors in the United States (and not exclusively those inspired by Islam) who use political violence to deliberately target civilians for bodily harm should be subject to anti-terrorism laws. This would be a significant departure from present practice in the country, which punishes those who establish relations with known Islamic Extremist groups regardless of their actions, and would signal that states can protect innocent citizens while not engaging in the xenophobia and Islamophobia that has defined the era of GWOT.

Finally, the United States should return to a foreign policy that is largely informed by idealism as a bulwark against the increasing international authoritarianism that is at the center of a new illiberal world order. While it will be impossible for the U.S. to maintain an entirely idealist based foreign policy, an administration that seeks to put idealism at the forefront of foreign policy will be more successful in pushing back on the negative impacts that almost twenty years of the war on terror has created. Furthermore, the ideals that should drive this foreign policy should be pluralist governance, human rights, and the empowerment of marginalized people, and the methods of promoting them should be through diplomacy and development rather than militaristic interventionism.