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Wanted Dead or Alive: The Frustrating, Failing Hunt for ISIS Leader Baghdadi

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. 

Last month Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi declared the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq. Yet a pressing question remains—where is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the terrorist group that took over a third of Iraq’s territory in 2014 to establish the so-called caliphate, which terrorized millions in the region, horrified people all over the world, and inspired gruesome attacks in Europe and the United States?

Despite a $25 million U.S. State Department bounty on his head, al Baghdadi has managed to evade capture and death repeatedly. This, even with the fury of the U.S., Russian, Syrian, and Iraqi militaries focused on killing him.

While we were in Baghdad as researchers from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) last month interviewing cadres from the so-called Islamic State who, unlike their leader, were caught and brought to justice, an Iraqi prison interrogator asked, “With all of your country’s military might why is it that the U.S. can’t find al Baghdadi?”

It’s a good question.

Intelligence is best informed from on-the-ground sources, which, in the case of ISIS, the Americans lack. Western intelligence services have found it nearly impossible to insert spies into the terrorist organization. Jordanian sources claimed to us to have done so, and in Jordan’s case there is also a corroborating news story of an agent who had infiltrated and served as a commander in ISIS being airlifted out before the coalition’s final assault on the ISIS capital Raqqa.

Several Kosovar government officials also have told ICSVE researchers about their attempts to infiltrate the organization, but admit they failed. One of them was discovered and killed. And while the Israeli Mossad and Russia may have succeeded (that is certainly what they would like us to believe), it’s not clear that the intelligence received from any of these actors is, or was, coming out of the organization in real time.

Clearly no government or intelligence service has enough information to kill al Baghdadi.

During interviews with 66 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners to date, ICSVE researchers have learned that all cadres are highly controlled. Mobile phones are often taken from them. Those allowed to keep them often have their messages checked. Surveillance of communications is extremely tight. The fate of anyone accused of betraying ISIS is likely to be beheading. In our interviews we often heard of Russians, especially, decapitated after having been accused as spies—claims often made only out of suspicion and with little to no evidence backing them up.

The ISIS Emni (also written Amn or Amni, the intelligence arm of ISIS) was constantly on the alert for enemies within its own ranks, overseeing any external communications and carefully vetting those who joined. Recruits who appeared in Syria and Iraq without personal references spent time under Emni investigation, and often were sent directly to the front lines. The thinking was that if they took up arms, fought valiantly on behalf of the group and managed to survive, they were allowed in. If they died, “martyrdom” was their fate, and if they were true believers, they went to Paradise. Otherwise, to Hell.

Keep in mind as well, that ISIS is not just an agglomeration of fanatical volunteers, as it is sometimes portrayed. Its core structure was formed by a group of highly trained Iraqi former military and intelligence officers from Saddam Hussein’s government who were angry when they were dismissed and sent home following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Ultimately they allied with the short-lived but utterly savage group of jihadists that formed around the Jordanian firebrand Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who had won grudging recognition from Osama bin Laden as the leader of what became known as al Qaeda in Iraq.

The search for Zarqawi from 2003 until the Americans killed him in 2006 gives a glimpse of what’s going on now in the hunt for al Baghdadi.

Nada Bakos was one of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s “targeting officers” on Zarqawi’s trail. Now no longer with the CIA, she explained in a recent interview with the History Channel for a series about the ultimate demise of Adolf Hitler, “a targeting officer is a person who is analyzing information for the purposes of making it actionable—whether it’s working with the military or something the Agency itself could do.”

One sifts through “mountains and mountains” of information, said Bakos. “Everybody leaves a trace. … Everybody leaves some kind of footprint and some kind of pattern that you can find. Every human being is driven to seek out certain things: food, water, shelter, connection with other people. There are very basic instincts that drive a person to exist. And those leave a pattern.”

One also looks for weaknesses, and characteristics that set the prey apart: “Vulnerabilities of people on the run would include if they had a medical issue—understanding what that medical issue is and what they needed to treat that—family members, close friends, if they were interested in a particular area of the world, what they’d considered home,” said Bakos. “You’re trying to paint a picture of where someone might end up going—and what their strategy was and what their intent was.”

Zarqawi was “an evil maniac,” Bakos said. Indeed, more than a dozen years ago, he was drawing world attention to himself by beheading hostages, setting a gruesome precedent embraced enthusiastically by his ideological heirs. As he was pursued, “It was really all about trying to figure out where within the network would he feel safest,” said Bakos. “Where does he want to communicate from? How does he want to live and exist in day-to-day life? We knew he had family members who are around him once in a while. Trying to envision what it was that drove him to exist in the way he wanted to. What did he want his life to look like?”

Eventually the Special Operations task force pursuing Zarqawi learned that an imam and learned Islamic scholar he considered his spiritual advisor would be meeting him at a house outside the Iraqi city of Baquba in June 2006. Drones followed the imam’s car, and when the cleric entered the building, an American F16 flattened it with two 500-pound bombs.

But, Bakos notes something else we might want to remember as we look at the hunt for Baghdadi. Zarqawi’s organization “was literally a network of nodes and power centers,” and not very hierarchical, according to Bakos. Which meant that even after his death and even after what appeared to be a near-complete defeat in Iraq, the group was able to scatter, regroup, and reorganize in Syria, eventually re-emerging as the so-called Islamic State under the leadership, whether real or titular, of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

WE NOTICED THAT in our interviews very few of the former ISIS cadres we’ve spoken with, even those serving in the high ranks of ISIS, report having seen al Baghdadi in person. Since his infamous 2014 video recording from a mosque in Mosul where he declared the establishment of the ISIS “caliphate,” al Baghdadi has lived a reclusive life, only occasionally posting statements online. Despite being the leader of one of the most virulent terrorist organizations to date, the intelligence officers surrounding him have kept his location and movements a closely guarded secret.

That ISIS learned from its predecessor and sister terrorist organizations how to protect its leader should not be a surprise. Those from the intelligence world of Saddam Hussein knew what to do to avoid repetition of the attempted and actual executions of Chechen terrorist leaders Basayev and al Khattab by the Russians, and Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden by the United States, respectively. From the first moments of the formation of the ISIS caliphate the ISIS intelligence operatives took steps to minimize the possibility that al Baghdadi would meet the same fate and the organization would be prematurely decapitated.

So, finding al Baghdadi is not as simple as relying on the technical prowess of the American military, as our Iraqi interrogator believed. The highly precise and round-the-clock satellite surveillance that the United States employs and the sophisticated drones that can zoom in to search the ground in the greatest detail do very little to inform when the likes of al Baghdadi can scurry through the labyrinth of tunnels in Mosul and elsewhere that were built by ISIS. And when those tunnels are no longer available to him, al Baghdadi has the additional advantage of transforming his appearance, perhaps even disguising himself as an Arab woman hiding under a niqab to evade surveillance, as other ISIS cadres have attempted to do. While the U.S. troops and the U.S. supported Kurdish forces scour telephone intercepts, al Baghdadi almost certainly learned, as Osama bin Laden did, that he could only communicate with relative safety via couriers.

FOLLOWING THE 2003 U.S.-LED invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a hole in the ground. This was not the result of the $25 million bounty that also was put on his head. It took the Americans many months to catch Saddam after mounting a massive hunt for him. The capture was finally accomplished by pulling in his former bodyguards who, under interrogation, gave bits and pieces that finally led to the discovery of Saddam’s whereabouts. At the time of his capture, Saddam may also have lacked the kind of devoted network that al Baghdadi can still rely on, with as many as 20,000 ISIS cadres that have melted back into society, according to Iraqi officials. It’s also apparent that the ISIS Emni knows how to spirit its members across international borders.

Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, al Baghdadi has been reported killed, yet resurfaced multiple times‍.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, chief of the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria told a conference call with journalists at the end of August, as he was about to rotate out of his assignment, that he thought al Baghdadi was still at large, but the question of where was left vague, to say the least.

“I don’t have a clue. He could be anywhere in the world for all I know,” said Townsend.

“Here’s what I think. I think he’s somewhere in Iraq and Syria. I think he’s probably somewhere in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.”

This is an area, often referred to by the acronym MERV, that runs about 250 kilometers from around Deir ez-Zour in Syria to Rawah in Iraq. “That’s where they believe their last sanctuary is,” said Townsend. “So I think he’s probably somewhere down there.”

But Townsend noted that fighting in MERV would not be like the siege of a city or a neighborhood. “You can’t really just contain the whole Euphrates River valley and starve them out. It’s too big. It’s too complex,” he said. And there is the added complication that rival forces—the Russians and the Syrian army of Bashar Assad with its allied Iran-backed militias—have converged on the area at the same time as the U.S.-led coalition and its allies, which have approached from the opposite side of the river. Obviously, time that might be spent hunting for al Baghdadi is spent avoiding clashes between the forces converging to kill or capture him.

“We’re looking for him every day,” said Townsend. “When we find him, I think we’ll just try to kill him first. It’s probably not worth all the trouble to try and capture him.”

That was more than four months ago, and the fighting, and the hunting, continues—along with the deconfliction issues. “We’re piling up a lot of airplanes in a very small piece of sky,” a senior U.S. Air Force officer in the operation told The New York Times at the end of December. Two senior figures, Abu Faysal and his deputy Abu Qudamah al Iraqi, were taken out by an airstrike on Dec. 1.

According to Daily Beast contributor Wladimir van Wilgenburg, who has followed the Syrian combat closely on the ground, “There are some remaining pockets of ISIS militants along the east bank of the Euphrates River [in Syria] and in the desert along the border with Iraq. Earlier this week 70 ISIS fighters and their families reportedly handed themselves over to the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces. So it’s possible Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is either in those pockets or in the desert. Most likely in the desert.”

Several Iraqi security officials that we spoke to last month said they strongly believe al Baghdadi is still around. Kurdish intelligence chief Lahur Talabany figured “99 percent he is alive.” Talabany cited the history of ISIS and its roots as al Qaeda in Iraq, which dispersed like bees when the hive was destroyed, then came back together in a swarm.

The man is wanted “dead or alive” but nobody seems to be sure which he is just now, which probably is just they way he’d like it.

“ABU BAKR AL BAGHDADI” is a kunya, a pseudonym similar to names many ISIS members give themselves indicating where they come from. In his case it means the father of Bakr, from Baghdad. In fact he was born in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971, and his real name is Awwad Ibrahim Ali al Badri al Samarrai.

As head of the so-called Islamic State, Baghdadi sought to legitimize his claim as “caliph” with claims that his family ancestry traces back to the Prophet Muhammad, and because he had post-graduate training in Islamic studies.

But in operational terms a more important figure may have been Abu Muhammad al Adnani, often described as al Baghdadi’s right-hand man and the voice of the organization. He was the powerful head of the ISIS Emni who served as the “emir” of the Syrian territories and director of overseas operations, including horrific attacks in Europe. Unlike Baghdadi, Adnani was known for his battlefield strategy, prolific propaganda, and international plotting. He was killed by a coalition airstrike in 2016.

In the Zarqawi days, al Baghdadi was reported to have fallen out with Zarqawi, condemning his brutal bombings of Shiites. Yet when al Baghdadi came to head ISIS—and broke with al Qaeda’s core leadership—his terror organization became the most brutal seen to date, continuing the indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims. And what is known of al Baghdadi’s personal heartlessness is no different than that of Zarqawi.

American hostage Kayla Mueller was held for a time with a half-dozen Yazidi girls as sex slaves for al Baghdadi in the home of Abu Sayyaf, a Tunisian working as the ISIS oil and gas emir. Hostages held with Mueller, reported that she frequently was called for by al Baghdadi who raped her mercilessly. She was killed in 2014.

Al Baghdadi harbored a deep hatred for the U.S. after his capture by the Americans in 2004 and the 10 months he spent in Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib. Some credit his time in the U.S.-run prison as connecting him to other jihadis, although his ties to Zarqawi mean he was already well connected, and others wonder what effect the abuses in Abu Ghraib had on shaping his own subsequent actions.

In 2013, al Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that AQI and Jabhat al-Nusra terror groups were merging under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham” and later as the Islamic State. In 2014 he declared the ISIS Caliphate from Mosul and himself the Caliph—his only video performance to date. His latest public missive in September 2017, following an 11-month silence, was an audio recording urging his forces to resist the American supported Iraqi incursion into Mosul and to mount attacks worldwide. American forces judged it as authentic and current.

Iraqi Sunnis in Baghdad told us that he still sends messages to his followers, although they are likely relying on rumors. American intelligence sources have told CNN that they have failed to intercept any ISIS communications confirming his death and that given his stature in the organization, the U.S. expects to see significant chatter discussing his demise should he be killed.

In December 2017 an Iraqi Ministry of Intelligence officials told us, “Iraqis may turn up the heat on trying to catch him in the next three months, as it will be good propaganda for the Prime Minister to do so while facing his bid for reelection.” That said, another MOI officer shrugged off questions about the hunt for al Baghdadi, asking in return, “Does it matter anymore? ISIS is defeated.”

It does.

In Iraq, officials estimate from 6,000 to 20,000 ISIS cadres have melted back into the landscape, which means the group may still harbor the capabilities and manpower to carry out guerrilla warfare with smaller scale suicide attacks and bombings, particularly if there is a leader to order it. But at this point, even without their leaders, ISIS and al Qaeda have spawned a social movement of small actors who attack on their own.

Likewise, for all that ISIS has lost—the territory that it once claimed as the caliphate, the oil fields from which it derived the wealth and revenues to enable it to finance weapons supplies and salaries for its fighters, its ability to enslave and sell captured women, its clandestine theft and sale of antiquities and other valuables, and its ability to impose taxes on those who lived under it—the ISIS dream still remains.

Even ISIS defectors and prisoners, while expressing their disillusionment with the group and its tactics, often show evidence of remaining loyalty to the ISIS dream they were sold. The Islamic State’s offer to young men and women the world over who are frustrated with injustices, political inequalities, and lack of opportunities still remains. The ISIS promise to join in building a new form of governance that they falsely claim will uphold Islamic ideals, be inclusive and offer justice and opportunities to all Muslims is a heady one. This utopian dream of the true Islamic Caliphate peddled throughout the world by ISIS has not been destroyed.

The fact that al Baghdadi is at large may make it seem to those true believes even more possible to resurrect the defeated empire.

As Gen. Townsend put it last August, “In 2014, the world watched in horror as ISIS seized more than 100,000 square kilometers of Syria and Iraq and brought more than 7 million people under its barbaric control. ISIS was something the world had rarely seen before. ISIS is the most evil entity I have encountered in my lifetime.”

Not only must we break the ISIS brand totally, discrediting entirely the dream they have sold as possible to achieve through violence and brutality, we must also do all we can to continue the hunt for the 25 Million Dollar Man, so that, one way or another, those who supported him and those he victimized can see he has been made to pay for all the crimes against humanity carried out under his leadership.

—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (1-6-2018) Wanted Dead or Alive: The Frustrating, Failing Hunt for ISIS Leader Baghdadi, Daily Beast 

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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