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Will Family Held Hostage by the Taliban Ever Recover?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Coleman endured rape, the murder of her first child, and a terrifying rescue. A psychologist who has talked to hundreds of hostages looks at the challenges ahead for her family.

Caitlan Coleman, 31, of Pennsylvania, her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, 34, and their three little children were rescued by the Pakistani army last week after they were abducted five years earlier by a Pakistani-linked terrorist group known as the Haqqani network.

 Since then, the statements from Boyle and family members might well make one ponder not only what hostages suffer when taken by terrorist groups, but the psychological aftermath once they’re freed—with the situation of their children especially concerning.

 Boyle read from a prepared statement upon his arrival at Toronto’s Pearson airport Saturday telling journalists that their infant daughter had been murdered and his wife raped “as retaliation for my repeated refusal to accept an offer that the criminal miscreants of the Haqqani network had made to me.” According to Boyle, Coleman’s rape was not undertaken “as a lone action, but by one guard… assisted by the captain of the guard and supervised by the commandant.”

 Boyle told reporters that he and his wife had decided to have children even in captivity because they always wanted a big family. Caitlan Coleman was pregnant when they were taken hostage and Boyle claims their first child, a little girl, was murdered. Boyle calls her a “martyr.”

 Their 4-year-old son, Najaeshi Jonah has traumatic events burned in his memory. Boyle told Michelle Shephard of the Canadian newspaper The Starthat his son did not like to close his eyes because the little boy woke up one night to see masked men with Kalashnikovs picking him up. His parents already had been taken away while he was sleeping, to be transferred to another prison. Ever since, he has tried to avoid closing his eyes, even to play the childhood game of peek-a-boo.

 Boyle told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston that his middle child, Dhakwoen Noah, 2, is “nearly as distressed as he was in prison, it seems everything reminds him of the horrors of prison; cameras are equated to hostage videos, pens are equated to syringes used to drug his parents with ketamine by the guards, slamming doors is associated with cell searches or worse, it seems his healing process has barely begun—so we pray that God will hasten it.”

 Even the Boyles’ months-old infant is traumatized writes Boyle in an email to Canadian Broadcasting Service stating, “Ma’idah Grace seems scared most of the time, but also to have discovered there are more decent people in the world than she knew; her world until last week consisted of two good brothers and two good parents and about 15 guards of [who were sources of] increasing fear to her.”

 The family was transported 23 times during its captivity with the final transport ending in a terrifying shoot-out and their rescue. Boyle emailed the Associated Press a statement saying the children had “reached the first true ‘home’ that the children have ever known—after they spent most of Friday asking if each subsequent airport was our new house hopefully.” While Boyle emailed the AP photos of his son’s delight over “raiding the first refrigerator of his life,” it will clearly take time for all the family members to understand that their newfound freedom is real and won’t be again taken from them.

 Najaeshi Jonah, according to Boyle is “terrified to leave the house, even just to go on the porch… it’s as though he thinks if he ever exits this magical wonderland it will all end…”

Speaking for himself, Boyle says he no longer trusts anyone after being held hostage for so long.

 Then there’s the adjustment to modern society; Boyle told journalists his sons had not yet played with their new toys but had flushed the toilet at least 200 times. “These are children who three days ago they didn’t know what a toilet looks like. They used a bucket,” Boyle said in the video. “Three days ago they did not know what a light is or what a door is except that it is a metal thing that is locked in their face to make them a prisoner.”

 Hostages often say their captivity was punctuated with bursts of overwhelming terror amid otherwise unremitting boredom. These episodes of extreme fear often include rapes, beatings, fake and real executions, torture, and verbal abuse, alongside the deprivations of captivity. The Haqqani network which also held American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl captive for five years, is well known for torturing and abusing its captives.

 Half a decade is an unusually long time to endure captivity. Most adult hostages progress in captivity through a range of feelings beginning with shock and disbelief over being taken, feelings that give way to terror, and move over time into feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, regret, grief, and depression. Alan Johnston, the BBC Journalist held in Gaza in 2005 said after his release, “It was like being buried alive and removed from the world, in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable.”

 When hostages are held alone and deprived of sensory stimulation they may begin to hallucinate as the mind tries to fill in the blanks. This, alongside the emotional pain of isolation and losing track of time, can create fears of losing one’s mind. Many hostages state that it was very important to figure out how to communicate with other hostages held nearby and to mark time—often by scratching marks on their prison walls. The ambiguity of not knowing when they will be freed creates deeper distress than having a set date in mind as the end of one’s ordeal.

 The Coleman-Boyle family was kept together, but it is apparent that this fact was exploited to further terrorize and dishearten them, given the murder of one child, the constant specter of violence against the other children, and the rape of Coleman.

 Frequently the end of hostage-takings, occurring through rescue or ransom, add even more traumas to those of being held hostage, especially when they finish in such terrifying ways as occurred in the case of the Coleman family—with no sure knowledge that one will survive the rescue.

At the time they were freed, Coleman, her husband, and their baby daughter, according to Boyle’s interview with Canadian Broadcasting Network, had been crammed into the trunk of a car transporting them from Afghanistan into Pakistan, with the two boys held inside the car, separated by a partition.

 Tipped off by the Americans, the Pakistani army surrounded and shot out the tires of the car, after which a deadly skirmish began. Five of the captors were killed, the rest fled, while Joshua Boyle suffered minor shrapnel wounds. Boyle told his family in Canada that the last words he heard from the kidnappers were, “kill the hostages.”

Boyle and Coleman have suffered through multiple harrowing events, including what has been alluded to as a forced abortion. Normal symptoms and responses to the terrifying ordeal of being held hostage include acute and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—having flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, extreme nervousness, angry outbursts, inability to concentrate, depression, negative feelings, feeling alienated and isolated, and the inability to function well.

Without adequate treatment, sufferers of PTSD can worsen over time and may resort to drug and alcohol abuse to try to tone down the nervousness and quiet their flashbacks and nightmares. That said, hostages should also be given time upon their release to come to their own coping mechanisms, while being offered supportive treatment, as many will find inner strengths to guide them on their own way back into healthy adjustments.

At present, Caitlan Coleman is with her husband in Canada, although her father told NBC that he hopes their daughter and her family return to the United States and accept a Department of Defense or other program to help them get re-acclimated to life outside of captivity, including psychological counseling for their children.

Certainly after all they have endured, the family members can do with some good counseling and support to adapt to freedom. Joshua Boyle stated upon his release that he is looking forward to a safe space for him and his family to heal.

Longer captivities involving familial separations involve stressors and adaptations on both sides of the equation with time needed both by the hostages and their families to readjust. The hostage may return home traumatized, suffering guilt and regret, and needing support, while family members have also suffered anxiety, grief, and having to cope without the hostage, and may even harbor feelings of anger over risky decisions made by the hostage that led to his or her captivity.

Coleman’s father, Jim, told journalists he has no immediate plans to go to Canada to see his daughter and son-in-law, explaining, “We want to see how things play out for now… I’m not on the best of terms with my son-in-law, as you can tell.”

“How would you feel if your seven-month pregnant daughter was put in such a situation?” hiking in Afghanistan, Jim Coleman told NBC. “Taking your pregnant wife to a very dangerous place, to me, and the kind of person I am, is unconscionable,” he told ABC in an exclusive interview.

It’s usually the case that hostages have not been fed well and have been subjected to unsanitary conditions. They may return with symptoms of malnutrition and disease, as well as deep psychological trauma. Coleman gave birth four times during her five years of captivity. She was raped and may have been subjected to a forced abortion, all events for which she likely did not receive medical treatment. The entire family was held at times in an underground prison, conditions also likely affecting their physical and emotional health.

Some countries pay for the release of hostages while others do not. In the case of Coleman and her husband, they were subject to American and Canadian laws, which do not allow their countries to pay ransoms.

Terrorists do not always understand or care about the intricacies and legalities of paying ransoms and terrify their hostages in efforts to extort ransoms, making them release statements on video pleading for payment.

In December of 2016 Coleman, veiled in a black abaya and featured in front of a camera with her husband and two toddlers, appeared to be reading from a script, calling their captivity “the Kafkaesque nightmare in which we find ourselves.” She implored President Barack Obama, “Please don’t become the next Jimmy Carter. Just give the offenders something so they and you can save face and we can leave the region permanently.” Addressing soon-to-be President Donald Trump, she added, “We ask that you are merciful to their people and God willing they will release us.”

Hostages held together may be a comfort to each other, but also distress each other when they disagree about how to respond to captivity. We have yet to learn how Coleman’s marriage and small family fared. Whether or not there were recriminations between them over their child being killed and Coleman’s rape after Boyle refused to meet demands made by their captors is still unknown.

In the case of Canadian hostage, Amanda Lindhout, held for 15 months by Somali militants, she and her boyfriend disagreed on whether or not it was smart to fake conversion to Islam. Amanda “converted” only to find she couldn’t meet her captors’ demands to learn the Koran and prayers and that she was now considered marriageable by the young men holding her hostage. According to a senior Taliban member, the Coleman family also converted, probably to increase their chances of survival.

Joshua Boyle told reporters at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport that they had gone to Afghanistan to help those living under Taliban rule, trying to deliver aid to villagers in a part of the Taliban-controlled region “where no NGO, no aid worker, and no government” had been able to reach, when they were kidnapped.

However, at the time they were taken hostage and still today, some intelligence experts speculate about Boyle and his motives for traveling to Afghanistan, wondering about his previous marriage and divorce from the oldest sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian 15-year-old who was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and became a Guantanamo detainee alleged to have ties to al Qaeda.

The patriarch of the Khadr family was killed in 2003, along with al Qaeda and Taliban members, in a shootout with Pakistani security forces near the Afghanistan border.

Boyle’s associations with the family led some U.S. intelligence officials to speculate that his visit to Afghanistan may have been part of a larger effort to link up with Taliban-affiliated militants. “I can’t say that [he was ever al-Qaeda],” said one former intelligence official, adding, “He was never a fighter on the battlefield. But my belief is that he clearly was interested in getting into it.”

Accompanied by State Department officials on their flight home, Boyle made clear to a journalist onboard that he is interested in battling injustices. He nodded toward one of the State Department officials and said, “Their interests are not my interests.”

Such speculation may be linked to the “offer” from the Haqqani network that Boyle said he refused at great personal cost to himself and his family. What that offer was is still unclear, as is the reason that Boyle is said to have refused a flight to the United States, preferring instead to fly home to Toronto.

Likewise, two senior members of the Haqqani network denied to NBC that Coleman was raped, while Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the infant died after it fell ill in a remote area with lack of medical care and her death was not intentional.

There are many questions that still need answering. Just as there were controversies over the capture and trade of American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, there are controversies concerning the Coleman’s return as well, which may also contribute to a more difficult adjustment to freedom.

Mr. Boyle’s father, Patrick, said in a video posted by The Star, the couple wanted to give their “profound thanks for the courageous Pakistani soldiers who risked their lives and got all five out safely in the rescue.”

Rescues of hostages are often heroic, as this one apparently was. But some are botched, or end in the deaths of those they were trying to rescue. For instance, the gas introduced into the Moscow theater siege in 2002 killed hundreds more hostages than those killed by the terrorists, although in the end everyone might have died if no rescue was mounted. One hostage held in Colombia told me that she continually prayed while in captivity that her release would be negotiated by ransom rather than the police trying to rescue her, an event she feared would end in her death.

Americans, when their country refuses ransom, may be subjected to beheadings by groups like the so-called Islamic State, since the publicity and propaganda value of an execution is of greater value to the group than holding a hostage indefinitely.

Each hostage situation is different in terms of the goals of the hostage taker, the conditions of where and how long the hostages are held. Hostages are taken for many reasons, but in the case of terrorists, their purposes generally are to instill fear in a larger population, extort money, demand political concessions from the government, or simply make a horrifying statement about their ability to take captives and do as they wish with them.

The hostage taker always wants something—money, personal safety, safe passage to another country, or in the case of terrorism, complicated political goals which may include release of prisoners, repeal of policies or law, withdrawal of troops, etc.

Terrorist goals may also include destabilizing the target government of their attack by showing its powerlessness in the face of the hostage taking. Hostage-takers use the publicity surrounding their abductions to garner support within their constituency by showing their action and devotion to the cause.

Terrorists frustrated by the hostage’s inability to produce a ransom and wanting to extort the maximum amount have been known to repeatedly take the hostage to what he or she believes is her imminent execution, intricately staging the events to cause maximum terror. Canadian hostage, Amanda Lindhout, for example was taken to a remote execution site by her Somali captors and made to kneel at gunpoint as she anticipated her last moments of life. American journalist James Foley was thought to be so calm before his beheading by ISIS in 2014 because he had faced his mock execution many times before.

Knowing one’s family will have to sell homes or sacrifice to generate a ransom demand creates guilt and anxiety, both during the hostage taking, and later when the freed hostage sees the sacrifices his family went through to obtain his release. Lindhout’s father sold his home in order to pay her ransom.

In some cases, family members trying to collect funds to ransom their loved ones have been told not to do so by their governments, as was claimed by James Foley’s mother. Accepting a posthumous award for his son, Foley’s father said through tears, “I miss my son,” as he went on to describe the joy and pain of talking to the European hostages held with James who had been ransomed by their governments, stating that he thought U.S. policies should be rethought.

When hostages try to escape only some are successful. A woman escaped out the bathroom window during the Nord Ost theater hostage taking in Moscow running to safety as the hostage takers shot at her. Others were not so lucky. Canadian hostage Lindhout and her boyfriend escaped only to be recaptured. The results were horrific. Both were chained up and Lindhout was mercilessly gang-raped as a result.

Hostages that are kept with their family members, as Caitlan Coleman was, can face harrowing choices. A woman I interviewed from the Beslan school siege in 2004 was offered freedom for her children if she joined the hostage-takers and took up their cause. She refused and, fortunately, did not suffer such horrific punishment as Boyle’s family did.

Some hostages fall into a distorted attachment behavior during captivity in which they understand that their captor holds their life in the balance and they begin to form strong attachments to their captors. This so-called Stockholm syndrome is much more likely to occur when hostage takers isolate and talk to their captives, showing empathy or kindness, frequently interact, and are also terrifying. The combination of terror and kindness creates a “trauma bond.”

In some cases Stockholm syndrome is strong enough that hostages fight alongside their captors or defend them once freed. The most famous case being Patty Hearst in the 1970s, in which she took up arms and joined her captors. Her ordeal however began with her being locked in a closet, drugged, and raped.

The press always wants to talk to freed hostages, and governments want to debrief them. But sometimes this process can re-traumatize them. One young mother released early from the Moscow siege was doing well until she returned to hold vigil outside the theater. As members of the press surrounded her and pounded her with questions, she felt as if she were taken hostage again and immediately lost her ability to speak. She suffered a strong stutter for months afterward and spoke haltingly to us as we interviewed her in Moscow.

One hopes Coleman and Boyle were just naively trying to help remote villages in Afghanistan as they claim, and have no need to clear their names. While loving family members surround them, their children can begin to discover life after captivity. As Joshua Boyle told NBC’s Today, his 4-year-old son Jonah had never played with a toy, read a book, or heard of Disney characters. “He doesn’t actually understand that there is a sun outside.”

Let’s hope they all find much more than sunshine to rebuild their shattered lives.

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne. (10-18-2017) Will hostages taken by the Taliban ever recover? The Daily Beast https://www.thedailybeast.com/will-family-held-hostage-by-the-taliban-ever-recover

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Post-Pulwama False Flag Operation: Prediction and Reality

Haris Bilal Malik

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Since the nuclearization of South Asia in 1998, the region has become a major component of international security and stability. The recent military escalation and de-escalation of February-March 2019 between the nuclear armed rivals of South Asia i.e. Pakistan and India, more than a month has passed but the world is still concerned about the situation in this volatile region. There is an ongoing debate in Pakistan about the Pulwama attack of 14th February 2019 as a ‘False Flag Operation’ in the realm of hybrid warfare which India has launched against Pakistan. The false flag operations are based on deception with pre-determined outcomes to achieve some political or strategic objective.

India has a history of such false flag operations starting from 1971 till now for achieving the predetermined strategic and political goals (whether successful or unsuccessful). The 2016 Uri attack, the PathanKot Air Base attack, the Mumbai attacks 2008are candid examples of the false flag operations which India has carried out. These operations which are now part of history were aimed to divert international attention from Kashmir issue while blaming Pakistan without any evidence. These operations have remained focused of achieving political goals in elections. The most recent example is the Pulwama suicide attack of February 2019, in which 44personnel of Indian Central Police Reserve Force (CPRF) were killed. The BJP election campaign based on hatred against Pakistan to get popular support whereas the timing of attacks i.e. just two months before the elections make it one of the most controversial false flag operations. Within few minutes after the attack India claimed that about 350 kilograms Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was used. There are above 700,000 Indian troops present in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) and most of the times curfew is applicable which makes it impossible for any group to navigate carrying such a huge volume of explosives. As an election stunt the Indian leaders and media blamed Pakistan for backing the attacks without any investigation and evidence.

Pakistan’s ‘appropriate response’ in the after math of February 2019 events is part of history now. On 7th April 2019 Pakistan’s Foreign Minister has predicted that another ‘Pulwama like attack’ in IOK may happen in coming days between 16th to 20th April. India could stage another Pulwama like attack in IOK to justify its military escalation and to increase diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. He further said that Pakistan has authentic intelligence regarding Indian preparations for such attack. In this regard Pakistan has conveyed formally to the diplomatic representatives of the permanent members of UNSC in Islamabad. A meeting of  India’s ‘Cabinet Committee on Defence’ was held recently in which Modi gave free hand to the services chiefs to act against Pakistan in upcoming days. The chiefs responded that they have already selected military targets that go beyond Line of Control (LoC). 

India under Modi’s leadership is intentionally increasing the war hysteria against Pakistan without realizing the reality that any escalation beyond a certain point a may lead to a first ever nuclear exchange between the two countries. The Pulwama attack was no doubt a false flag operation carried out by India with two politico-military objectives. First, to project the freedom fighting movement in Kashmir as ‘terrorism’ which is at its peak since Modi is in power and second is to gain maximum popular support in context of 2019 elections by spreading hatred against Pakistan. The aftermath of Pulwama has re-assured Pakistan’s Nuclear Deterrence at conventional level and proved it a dominant factor over escalation ladder.

In case of a ‘new false flag operation’ or any February 2019 like escalation from India, Pakistan though lacking in number of conventional forces and weapons will remain with no choice but to respond un-conventionally by using the tactical nuclear weapons i.e. ‘NASR’ and subsequently short and medium range missiles capable of delivering nuclear war heads. The recent military standoff has proved to be a matter of failure for India vis-à-vis the credibility of the claims. The international media as well as the Indian media and opposition parties have questioned Modi’s government for the evidence of targeting militant training camp (killing 350 militants) and proof of Pakistan’s jet plane crashed during 27th February dogfight (claimed by India).According to Foreign Policy Magazine US officials have verified that Pakistan’s F-16 fleet is complete in numbers and not a single jet is missing.

The February 2019 military crisis and its aftermath didn’t prove to be a politico-military success for BJP. Pakistan has proved that it can respond to any Indian aggression appropriately and thus gained a moral and psychological edge over India in the crisis.  Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence has served as a dominating factor against the Indian conventional maneuvers. Pakistan needs to be well prepared against a new false flag Pulwama like operation in coming days realizing the political hype in India. In case of breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty by India in the name of a limited conflict or a surgical strike, this time the response might be a ‘nuclear’ staying below the nuclear threshold. 

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Is Designating IRGC a Terrorist Organization a Right Decision?

Bahauddin Foizee

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Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), otherwise known in Iran as the so-called ‘Islamic’ Revolutionary Guard Corps, is designated as a terrorist organization on Monday (April 8, 2019). What followed is a heated-up debate on broadcast-media across the world as well as on various social-media platforms.

Whether the decision was right and whether it is a sensible one — needs no further consideration. Yet the debate that followed on mainstream broadcast-media and various social-media platforms need to be addressed. For this, a bunch of incidents and happenings that have been taking place in Middle East have to consider along with their connection to IRGC. Syria seems the appropriate conflict zone to start with.

In Syria, a 13-year-old boy’s penis was cut off by the brutal mukhabarat (which is the secret police of Syrian dictator Bashar-al-Assad) in 2011. The boy, named  Hamza Al-Khateeb, was returned to his family with his body mutilated. His head was swollen, purple and disfigured, body was a mess of welts, cigarette burns and wounds from bullets fired to injure, not kill. Kneecaps smashed, neck broken, jaw shattered. The most brutal part of the torture was that, as mentioned earlier, his penis was cut off. After a video of his tortured-body was posted on YouTube, thousands of Syrians rallied and chanted “We Are All Hamza!”.

The boy was among hundreds of children and teenagers who faced the same fate in the hands of Assad’s police and army, though it was the boy’s story that attracted more coverage during the time from the mainstream media.

As Iran’s leaders always try to portray themselves as the symbol of moral values against, what the Iranian leaders call, ‘imperialism’, many in Iran and elsewhere expected them to act — or at least speak — for the splayed victims and against the heinous activities of Bashar-al-Assad and his loyalists. Iranian leadership instead chose to side with the longtime ally Assad, who was already named — by the people from his own country, the region and world — as the “Butcher”. 

What followed was horror, terror and death. First, Iranian leadership’s military arm, the IRGC, had led the campaign of killing the Sunnis and non-twelver Shias in thousands to depopulate many areas from Sunnis and non-twelver Shias — something which is no less than a genocide.

This fear of being killed for their sectarian identities had compelled a portion of the remaining Sunni and non-twelver Shia population to leave their homeland and seek refuge in other countries (particularly neighbouring countries and Europe) so that they could escape the genocide — something which is no less than an ethnic cleansing.

In Syria, the IRGC had carried out the campaign with the help from Assad’s army and Iran-backed Lebanese militant group named Hezbollah. In Iraq, the IRGC had carried out the campaign with the help of sectarian elements in Iraqi army, Iran-backed twelver-militias in Iraq and Hezbollah.

Everyone with the slightest interest in Middle East affairs is well-informed about the sectarian cleasing that happened in Iraq’s Fallujah with the backing of the Iranian leadership and IRGC. The Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias killed thousands of innocent Sunnis and non-twelver-Shias in the cover of “liberating” the area from ISIS.

All of the above said killing campaigns had been monitored, aided and managed in the ground-zero by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is designated as a ‘terrorist’ organization just the other day.

The IRGC-members themselves had engaged in the killings of innocent Sunnis in these two countries, particularly in Syria. For years, the IRGC has been training the terrorist proxies inside both Iraq and Syria as well as in other regional countries.

IRGC had also helped Bashar-al-Assad to carryout gas/chemical-bomb attacks on innocent civilians in rebel-held areas in Syria. Every mainstream global media had either published articles or broadcasted the footages of the aftermath of these repeated gas/chemical attacks on civilians. The broadcasted-footages clearly show how civilians, especially the children, died from these attacks. The worst part is that these children had to go through enormous sufferings and pain before ultimately losing their lives.

All the atrocities committed directly or indirectly by the IRGC suggests that if it is wrong to designate the IRGC as ‘terrorist’ organization, it would also be wrong to designate any other atrocious group as ‘terrorist’.  If it is right to designate any atrocious group (including ISIS) as ‘terrorist’, it should equally be right to designate IRGC as ‘terrorist’.

If one poses the question “What we should call a terrorist?”, the obvious answer would be “a terrorist”, and so is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its leadership.

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The Christchurch Shooting and Definitional Problem of Terrorism

Aisha R. Kusumasomantri

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On Friday, March 15, 2019, the world was shocked by the news of shooting attack in two different mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fifty people were killed, while thirty-nine others were injured in the shooting and are currently receiving care in hospitals. The attack was unpredicted since it occurred in a relatively peaceful and stable country. After the incident, the suspect, a 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, appeared in court with a charge of murder. A debate arises on whether the Christchurch shooting should be categorized as terrorism.

Indeed, defining whether an attack can be categorized as “terrorism” remains a complex task for scholars and counterterrorism agencies. The definition of terrorism is critical since our perception is heavily influenced by how the concept is elaborated. It also affects our communication and responses to the issue which potentially affects states’ politics and social dynamics.

One reason for the lack of clarity is because terrorism is difficult to measure. Unlike conventional war between states, terrorism always shows inconsistent metrics because it exploits the position of weaknesses. Some questions that are frequently asked to define terrorism include: when can violence be justified as an act of terror? How does terrorism distinguish itself from regular assault and other violent or criminal act? Also, how can we differentiate morally culpable terrorists from legitimate insurgents and freedom fighters?

Currently, scholars on terrorism studies have written several definitions of terrorism that emphasize the use of violence, politics, sociology, and psychology. There are common traits that are found in every definition. First, terrorism is defined as an act of “extranormal” violence that generates widespread disproportionate emotional reactions from its audiences such as fear and anxiety that influence their attitude and behavior. Second, the violence is systematic, unpredictable, and usually directed on a symbolic target. Third, the violence conveys political messages and threats to communicate their demands and gain social control.

Based on the definitions above, we can categorize the Christchurch shooting as an act of terror as it adheres to most of the criteria. Some prominent actors even have adopted this term to describe the incident. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, for example, called the shooting as “the worst case of terrorism in the Pacific Islands”, followed by her refusal to mention the perpetrator’s name and proposal to ban semi-automatic weapon in New Zealand. However, this label is not yet adopted by the wider public, since many government officials and media still regard the Christchurch shooting as a mere hate crime.

The semantical difference of the Christchurch shooting perhaps can be traced from two main arguments: First; because there are differences in how terrorism is securitized in every state, what terrorizes a particular population may vary depending on their historical and cultural values. In most societies, the definition of terrorism is still associated with the US’s “War on Terror” after the 9/11, which resulted in affiliation between terrorism and Islamic Extremism. The term “terrorism” was suddenly over-generalized as a product of extreme Islamic ideology; the opposition against the West; and a global multi-faceted threat that should be contained.  That is why the idea of “right-wing terrorism” feels strange to most society since it does not fit the description of modern day terrorism.

Second, labeling the Christchurch shooting as terrorism might contradict governments’ effort in securitizing terrorism. The term “terrorism” is generally pejorative and implies a moral judgment which indirectly persuaded others to perceive the labeled party as the common enemy.

For some governments, it is difficult to admit that some of the right-wing terrorism occurred from the backlash of states’ counterterrorism narratives. Individuals might have different interpretations on the subject, and some might understand it as dissension against one particular community—such as what happened in the case of the Christchurch shooting. Expanding the image of terrorism to the very own part of states’ main audience in securitization process, can hurt states’ further efforts in defining the adversaries.

It is apparent that the decision to address the Christchurch shooting as terrorism is very complex, especially because the concept itself is highly subjective, emotionally, and politically driven term where it has a relative meaning to different actors. Nevertheless, looking at recent developments, it is important for us to change how we define terrorism beyond the image of Islamist extremism.

For governments and law enforcers, the outdated understanding leaves them hampered by an inability to define terror acts and criminalize terrorists from outside the Islamist extremist groups. Meanwhile, for the public, redefining the concept of terrorism will help them build a stronger resilience against terrorism narratives and give a more proportional response aftermath a violent attack.

Jacinda Arden’s remarkable response to the Christchurch shooting has shown us that it is possible to label the incident as terrorism. Her actions had created a sense that the Christchurch shooting—and other similar right-wing terrorism—pose an existential threat that requires an emergency measure. By the public’s reaction, it is clear that her response is well received and it could be the first step to redefine the public’s understanding of terrorism.

In the future, we would require more agent of change like Arden, who is able to convey strong narrations and gather a significant number of audiences that accept the designation. Redefining terrorism will not be an easy process, and it should be done with social cohesion, tolerance, and mutual respect. Only after we share the same sense of peril and the need for extraordinary measures, then we can challenge the subjective nature of terrorism.

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The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) new long-term corporate strategy, Strategy 2030, which came into effect this year, needs to be...

Environment19 hours ago

Luxembourg, UN Environment sign deal to accelerate sustainable finance

Luxembourg today signed an agreement to back a UN Environment-convened network that helps the world’s major financial centres to increase...

South Asia22 hours ago

Violence complicates Pakistan PM’s tightrope walk as he visits Iran and China

Two attacks in as many weeks in Pakistan’s troubled province of Balochistan shatter hopes that the country has gained the...

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