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The missing 'T word'

By John Hickman - posted Thursday, 3 January 2013

When did the press stop using the word 'terrorist' to describe those who perpetrate atrocities against the innocent? On October 30, 2012, 20 religious pilgrims were burned to death on a bus when it was attacked by a suicide bomber. That same day 21 police officers kidnapped from a sporting event were summarily executed. Yet neither of these horrors was described as the act of terrorists in news coverage.

The AP news report that appeared in the Guardian, Washington Post, USA Today, Fox News and in the Telegraph under the byline of Taha Siddiqui attributed both of the outrages to 'militants' and 'extremists.' The AAP news report in the Australian identified the perpetrators as 'militants' and 'insurgents.' Salman Masood, writing for the New York Times, described both as the work of 'militants.' Gul Yousafzai, writing for Reuters, and Nasir Habib, writing for CNN, described the attack on the pilgrims as the work of 'militants.' The Voice of America noted only that Baluchistan, the province where the attack occurred, was home to militants and separatists.

To be fair, several of the news reports named Lashkar-e-Jangvhi as the organization suspected of carrying out the attacks, but others simply identified those responsible as Sunni Islamists linked to the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda. None used the 'T Word' to describe any of the named groups. Perhaps we are fortunate that they dared to identify them as 'militants.' After all, the press now uses the term 'rebels' to identify the Sunni Islamists fighting in Syria, a word with an even more positive connotation. Those who speak for them outside Syria are further upgraded to 'activists.'


The news coverage of the Syrian Civil War makes you wonder whether journalists mistake the aphorism that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" for an endorsement of the amorality of international politics rather than a caution against believing one's own propaganda.

Something else was missing from the news coverage of the October 30 atrocities in Pakistan.

Readers of all of the news reports would have learned that the victims in the suicide bombing were members of Pakistan's Shi'ite minority. Some of the news reports would have instructed readers that they also members of the Hazara ethnic minority, that Shi'ites believed that the Pakistani government had done too little to protect them from sectarian violence because the perpetrators are linked to Pakistani intelligence agencies. What readers would not have learned is that Sunni majority in Pakistan is divided between the more tolerant Barelvi community and the fundamentalist Deobandi community, and that the mosques and madrassas of the latter were used to recruit terrorists.

Most importantly, readers would not have learned something crucial about the links between the terrorist groups and the government. What is missing is three decades of state sponsorship of Islamist terrorism. What began in late 1979 as the financing and arming of Sunni Islamists by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States to drive the Soviet Red Army out of Afghanistan never actually ended. The Reagan Doctrine was to embrace anti-communist 'freedom fighters' no matter how vile. Although the United States lost interest after the Soviet Union withdrew, eventually becoming a target itself in the 1990s, Pakistan continued to support its terrorist clients in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir. Saudi Arabia continued to finance the Deobandi mosques and madrassas. After battling Sunni Islamist terrorists during its long occupation of Iraq, the United States ultimately found that it was easier to take them as clients once again. Indeed, the United States and Saudi Arabia now finance and arm many of those same terrorists to overthrow the government of Syria.

Material about the ugly history of state sponsorship of Islamist terrorism is not missing from the news coverage because reporters fear losing readers by writing about the irrelevant. It is missing because the dominant frame for reporting Middle East and South Asian terrorism – or perhaps it is militance? – forbids discussion of blowback? The official sources providing reporters with most of their information might be embarrassed. We cannot have news audiences connecting the dots and then challenging current foreign policies that repeat the mistakes of the past.

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About the Author

John Hickman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Berry College, USA. He may be reached at

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