One year after the events of September 11 in New York City, peculiar rumours spread in Colombia that the FARC was preparing a suicide attack with a plane on the presidential palace or the Congress building (CNN July, 25 2002).
This disturbing news had an immediate impact on public opinion. Were we close to reproducing the events of September 11? Were we facing an imminent attack on the spectacular and terrifying scale of those on New York? Had the FARC embraced the bloody cruel dynamics of Muslim extremism? Analogies were the order of the day, and many people believed the apparent and obvious alliance of Colombian guerrillas with radical Muslim groups, particularly Al-Qaeda. A few months later, in August 2003, Colombian newspapers were once again shaken by an army report about the preparation of suicide attacks led by the same guerrilla group against president Uribe. The following year, the intelligence agency of the DAS (Administrative Department of Security) reported the capture of a suspect who was alleged to have trained a group of 22 young men “to blow themselves up with vests full of explosives”. A man with the alias “the Muslim” headed the group. He spoke English, Arabic and German and had “an academic training that allowed him to convert to Islam” (Reuters, March 18, 2004).
None of this news was subsequently confirmed and even today no one is really certain that something of the kind really was on the FARC’s agenda. In the dynamics of the Colombian conflict, where the FARC are noted for the cruelty of their attacks, this information didn’t seem at all suspicious. However, its impact on public opinion was overwhelming: in February 2004 a wave of indignation against the guerrillas took the form of a mass protest.
Leaving aside the issue of the legitimacy of the actions of the guerrillas, what is striking in these reports is a much more subtle question: the rural authoritarianism of the FARC, orthodox communism and its political radicalism were equated with what the media – in a superficial and even cinematographic way – described as Islamic extremism. The political opportunity created by the international crusade against terrorism was used by the Uribe government to amplify the danger represented by the FARC and to persuade an uncritical and uninformed national public opinion of the need to use all kinds of tools in the fight against this illegal “terrorist” group. Use of these basic rhetorical tools enabled Uribe’s government to qualify any attempt to oppose his regime as terrorism.
We could say that this policy based on fear and an exaggerated view of the FARC as a terrorist national threat was temporarily successful. However, we are now beginning to understand and feel the effects of this policy in the form of eavesdropping, surveillance and harassment, attacks on, and even the murder of, ordinary citizens. This is the sad legacy left in Colombia by September 11.
Oscar Guarín Martínez