In the wake of yet another terrorist attack, a former CIA counterterrorism agent has shared her insight into what causes such tragic, intentional carnage. Amaryllis Fox spoke for the first time publicly with Al Jazeera Plus (AJ+) about terrorism, misguided narratives on why it happens, and the underlying motivators driving it — ultimately urging Americans and those in power to adopt a different approach in comabating the ongoing violence.
“If I learned one lesson from my time with the CIA, it is this: everybody believes they are the good guy,” says Fox, who is currently “in the process of getting her CIA cover rolled back,” AJ+ reports. She is now a peace activist and runs Mulu, “an e-commerce company supporting at-risk communities around the world.”
Fox worked as a counterterrorism and intelligence official for the clandestine services during the 2000s. In her first public statement on her time there, she discussed the limitations on the American public’s perception of the war on terror:
“The conversation that’s going on in the United States right now about ISIS and about the United States overseas is more oversimplified than ever. Ask most Americans whether ISIS poses an existential threat to this country and they’ll say yes. That’s where the conversation stops.”
Indeed, while a majority of Americans fear terrorism, reaching a consensus on how to tackle ISIS has proved contentious. Fox explained the simplicity of the way the conflicts are viewed on both sides:
“If you’re walking down the street in Iraq or Syria and ask anybody why America dropped bombs, you get: ‘They were waging war on Islam.’”
In America, the question is: “Why were we attacked on 9/11?”
Fox says if you pose this question, “You get: they hate us because we’re free.”
However, she contests the validity of these assumptions, pointing to the powerful forces that drive conflict in the first place:
“Those are stories manufactured by a really small number of people on both sides who amass a great deal of power and wealth by convincing the rest of us to keep killing each other.”
Indeed, both sides of the conflict expend significant effort campaigning to prove their crusades are justified. In the United States, after decades of prolonged conflict, the populace is largely desensitized to war and often ignorant of its current manifestations.
Fox challenges this paradigm:
“I think the question we need to be asking, as Americans examining our foreign policy, is whether or not we’re pouring kerosene on a candle. The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them. If you hear them out, if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not, you might have made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.”
Of course, as Americans mourn the most recent mass shooting, it is doubtful many citizens are well-versed in the U.S. foreign policy that provokes such terrorism. Rather, they focus, understandably, on the wrong done to their nation. But Fox offered a unique perspective that lends insight to the “enemy.”
“An Al-Qaeda fighter made a point once during debriefing,” she recounted. “He said all these movies that America makes — like Independence Day, and the Hunger Games, and Star Wars — they’re all about a small scrappy band of rebels who will do anything in their power with the limited resources available to them to expel an outside, technological advanced invader. ‘And what you don’t realize,’ he said, ‘is that to us, to the rest of the world, you are the empire, and we are Luke and Han. You are the aliens and we are Will Smith.’”
However, she also challenged the Al-Qaeda fighter’s take, arguing that on both sides of conflict, those fighting on the ground often provide the same reasons for doing so:
“But the truth is that when you talk to people who are really fighting on the ground, on both sides, and ask them why they’re there, they answer with hopes for their children, specific policies that they think are cruel or unfair,” she says.
“And while it may be easier to dismiss your enemy as evil, hearing them out on policy concerns is actually an amazing thing, because as long as your enemy is a subhuman psychopath that’s gonna attack you no matter what you do, this never ends. But if your enemy is a policy, however complicated — that we can work with.”
As terror attacks become an increasingly normal occurrence in the West — and as Western intervention trudges ahead unabated — hearing out enemies’ concerns may, at this point, be the most effective counterterrorism gesture the United States can make; that is, if it is truly determined to bring an end to the violence.