The Sun - 21 December 2018

Above: The Sun, 21 December 2018. Credit: News UK.


The term blowback is the intelligence community slang for the unintended and unforeseen consequences of a military action, particularly a covert operation. In the classical covert operations setting, blowback (which often takes the form of a definite act of revenge) reaches the public as an apparently stand-alone act--and so is typically notable for its appearing to be seemingly random and/or totally unexpected. For those with access to the "big picture" the narrative is all too clear.

For example, taken out of all context, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center seem bizarre, improbable, narrativeless, completely inexplicable. However, if we begin the narrative with the US decision to create permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War in 1991, as Fawaz Gerges argues, then the picture around 9/11 is different. The scene begins with the radicalization of al Zawahiri and bin Laden, who were appalled that the US would ever be allowed to station a permanent force in the land of Muhammad. Attacks against US assets became the focus of Al-Qaeda from the mid-1990s, with a specific emphasis on "spectacular effects." This led up to the Al-Qaeda attack on the US destroyer USS Cole in the Fall of 2000, and then, emboldened by that success, to 9/11. In other words, in attempting to make the world a safer place in 1991, President H.W. Bush actually did the opposite due to the unforeseen consequences of his decision. (One way of thinking about "closure" in the context of this 9/11 narrative is to conclude it with Al-Qaeda's main aim being achieved, in 2014, when the final US base in Saudi was permanently closed.)

Moving on from the narrative of the Gulf War-to-9/11, it could be argued that blowback has become a defining media motif of modern life in the West: every so often something odd happens (appalling, catastrophic) which cannot really be explained except by resorting to conjecture (the proposed blowback narrative). We increasingly tend to presume that the weird event is in fact only one component of a larger narrative (e.g., it is a retaliation act of some kind), that we are not privy to. Attempting to work out these covert narratives has become a popular past-time (or even an obsession) these days. The frustrating thing about these proposed narratives (which are qualitatively different from a common-or-garden general conspiracy theory) is that they can rarely be proved or disproved, although many seem plausible enough--it is typical to hear a new one at any time: getting aired on cable news-TV; during a bar-room conversation, etc.

(21 December 2018)