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Did Central Asia’s Jihadists Challenge Al Qaeda?

Uran Botobekov

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Jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party

Uzbek and Uyghur Muhajireen support HTS

First-time al Qaeda-linked Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia, Caucasus and China’s Xinjiang fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in northern Syria have interfered in ideological disputes and internal confrontations between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Tanzim Hurras al-Din, the Guardians of Religion, which has remained loyal to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Foreign fighters groups in Idlib such as the Uyghurs’ Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the Uzbeks’ Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) and the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) affirmed their support to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in a joint statement released in February 2019.Also, the statement was signed by the Albanian militants group Katibat al-Alban, Iran’s Harakat al-Muhajireen al-Sunna, Saudi Arabia’s Rabitat al-Ma’ali, the Maldivian Mujahideen and other smaller foreign groups fighting under the leadership of HTS.

Thus, foreign speaking Salafi-Jihadi groups violated their traditional balanced ties with al Qaeda’s various branches and first time openly supported one of the sides of the confrontation. As is well known, Uzbek and Uyghur militants have always tried to keep their neutrality, without interfering intra-jihadi rivalries between HTS and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

In the one-page and three paragraphs statement, foreign fighters are clearly stated their strong support and loyalty to HTS.The first paragraph states that “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, represented by its leadership and fighters, is the dignity and the force of Ahl al-Sunnah [Sunni Islam] in Bilad al-Sham”. Further, statement authors poured to HTS generous words of praise that “it is the best to have borne the banner of jihad in this blessed land; the one that defends the frontlines; it has protected Muslims security and established the courts that rule by God’s law in all the areas subjected to them”. Special attention is paid to the centralized role of HTS “around whose leadership the mass of the Ansar [natives] and Muhajireen [foreign fighters] has gathered”.

Then, they turn to other opponent groups that “we are with our brothers in one rank and a structured edifice, and we will stand as a barrier of obstruction before all who take it upon themselves to attack HTS.” Thus, foreign groups gave a clear signal to other branches of al Qaeda that they are ready to take a bullet for themselves for the HTS and they will defend it in arms.

The second paragraph of the statement is devoted to the relations between Ansar and Muhajireen, who are militants from Central Asian and the Caucasus, who made Hijrah (migration of Muslims) to Syria for jihad. The Muhajireen are very worried that their interests are not being taken into consideration. According to the authors, “the interest of the Muhajireen is the same as the interest of the Ansar, the masses of the Muslims in al-Sham, and they cannot be separated from each other. Because Muhajireen came to this blessed land of Sham at the call of Allah and do not claim particular interests and particular rights. Both belong to the Muslims Ummah and what comes upon them comes upon others besides them.”

Then, foreign militants raised the sore question that “some local groups want to use them [Muhajireen] who came from all over the world to Syria for holy jihad as a bargaining chip to be handed over to ‘disbelievers’.” The authors noted, “we will not be content that they [opponents of HTS] should be a door for auction to support a faction over another besides it, for their [HTS] support is truly well-known in its ways and there is not from that auction in their name.” Then the foreign fighters thanked the HTS for its strong support, reception and granting of refuge to Muhajireen and called it the best of Ansar.

In the letter’s third paragraph foreign fighters turned to other al-Qaeda-backed groups and warned that they should not accept the false accusations of the HTS address at face value and advised them to verify and investigate it. They called for the conciliation and unity of all Mujahideen to lead together jihad in the path of Almighty God.

There are several reasons why al Qaeda-backed foreign fighter groups support HTS.

Muhajireen and Ansar: Brothers or Rivals?

At the timethe Syrian government forces with the support of Moscow and Tehran have achieved significant success in regaining control over the main part of the country, the question of the withdrawal of foreign militants from the region is often being raised not only by Damascus’ sponsors but also by the local influential Salafi groups too.

It should be noted that Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations, has become a real-life shelter for the foreign militants from the former Soviet Union and Chinese Xinjiang. Among them the Uzbek groups Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari,Uyghur’s Turkestan Islamic Party and Chechen’s Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar are affiliated with al Qaeda. All of these groups are fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad under the leadership of HTS. They share al Qaeda’s ideological doctrine and, on its call, performed Hijrah from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Syria.

The presence of al Qaeda-backed foreign militant groups in Idlib greatly irritates Moscow and Tehran. During regular meetings, the leaders of the so-called “guarantor countries of the Syrian peace process” – Russia, Turkey and Iran – constantly reaffirm the determination to eliminate HTS’ predecessor “Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups associated with al Qaeda or ISIS”. The main responsibility for forcing the withdrawal of al Qaeda-backed foreign groups from Idlib obligated Turkey, the initiator of the Sochi Memorandum to accomplish this. But, so far, Ankara has not succeeded in fully complying with its obligations to withdraw the militants and heavy weaponry from the demilitarized zone.

Because Ankara has limited opportunities to influence foreign militant groups associated with al Qaeda in Syria. The main obstacle on this path is HTS which took under its wing of protection the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar not only from Assad’s regime but also from possible attacks by other Salafi-Jihadi rival groups.HTS remains the most powerful Islamist group in Syria. During the last three months, HTS had expanded its territories and imposed control over 90% of Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold, inflicting a crushing defeat on the rival rebel groups Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham, the members of the Turkey-allied National Liberation Front. Therefore, Muhajireen from post-Soviet countries and China feel secure under the umbrella of HTS.

The HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani considers that on the question of mutual relations between Muhajireen and Ansar his group relies on Islamic values when the local inhabitants [Ansar] of Medina warmly welcomed, provided shelter and supported the Prophet Muhammad and his followers [Muhajireen], who had left their homes behind for the sake of Islam in 622.At the beginning of the Syrian civil war Jabhat al-Nusra provided Muhajireen, who migrated from Central Asia and joined al Qaeda, the opportunity to live in separate villages in the northwestern Syria’s countryside where they could lead jihad against the forces of Damascus. Thanks to HTS support the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari have taken deep root in Syria soil where they opened several madrasahs in which militants’ children receive the education in Uzbek and Uyghur languages. In recent times, cases of joint marriages between Muhajireen and Ansar have become more frequent.

Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the head of HTS’ Shariah Council and the group’s highest ideologue, in his article entitled “Six Issues” clearly defined the position of the HTS regarding Muhajireen. He claims that “HTS will not compromise on its principle of refusing to barter with the Muhajireen. We do not do something that does not please our Lord. We consider it forbidden to hand over the Muslims to the disbelievers [the states]. And the Muhajireen are our brothers and we do not see a difference between a Muhajireen and Ansar, and our throats are beneath the throat of the one who has migrated to us, and we will not allow bartering on their portfolio in any circumstances, for besides the fact that it is in contravention of the Shari’a principles, it is far removed from Islamic ethics and chivalry.”

The strong support of HTS for Muhajireen fully meets the military and religious goals of Uzbek and Uyghur fighters who made Hijrah to Syria for jihad.In turn, they respond to the HTS with reciprocity and devotion to the ideals of jihad and with respect for Ansar.Abu Saloh, the leader of Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad, during the Bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda stated that Abu Mohammad al-Julani is the lion of Islam, who never uses Muhajireen as a bargaining chip. He compared the HTS leader with the founder of the Taliban movement, the late Mullah Omar, who provided Muhajireen at the head of Osama bin Laden refuge in Afghanistan to conduct jihad against America. According to him, after 9/11, even under the threat of the US military intervention to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar did not betray bin Laden to crusaders and remained faithful to Islamic values of Muhajireen until the end of his life.

HTS’s Controversial Turkey policy

Russian and Turkic speaking foreign fighter groups are supporting HTS rapprochement with Turkey which has long been a sensitive issue causing problems among global Salafi-Jihadi movements. Turkey’s factor and the forced collaboration of HTS with Ankara caused sharp criticism from al Qaeda, his loyalist Tanzim Hurras al-Din and many ideologues of Salafism.

In a speech entitled “The Way of Salvation” and published on 5 February 2019, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri criticized HTS for clinging to territory under Turkey’s protection, albeit not mentioning the group explicitly. He rebuked HTS for relying too heavily on Turkish support and its desire to hold onto ground at all costs. In his opinion, the jihadists in Syria are engaged in a misguided “competition for an imagined authority” over territory that is under the oversight “of secular Turkish checkpoints.” Zawahiri strictly warned the jihadists that they shouldn’t rely on Turkey to protect them. The main point of the appeal of the al Qaeda emir is that the HTS jihadists instead, of holding onto Idlib province as a proto-Emirate, it would be better for them to go underground and conduct continuous jihad against the Bashar al Assad regime, Zionists and America.

The HTS’ position on Turkey was sharply criticized by one of the most important spiritual fathers of the Salafi-Jihadi ideology Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who considers that any diplomatic or military ties with non-Muslim rulers count as “sinful wala’.” For Maqdisi, allowing Turkey to control any land at all in Syria is equivalent to allowing the criminal, apostate regime to do so, and makes HTS dangerously close to violating Tawḥid.

The decision of the HTS to allow Turkish troops to enter Syria and establish 12 military posts in Idlib agreed upon at Astana on October 2017 was also heavily criticized by Tanzim Hurras al-Din.The Hurras al-Din amir Abu Hammam al-Shami and its Chief Sharia Counsel Sami al-Uraydi published a statement on 30 January 2019, in which they argued that HTS’s jihad is not founded on correct Aqida (Islamic creed) or Manhaj (Methodology of the Salaf us-Saalih). Further, the leaders said some of HTS’s weapons belong to al Qaeda, and since Hurras al-Din now represents al Qaeda in Syria it is the rightful owner of the weapons.

Along with authoritative ideologues, ordinary supporters of al Qaeda accused the HTS of thwarting its own jihad by forming relations with the NATO army [Turkey] and considered it a traitor. But they could not blame HTS for apostasy.

HTS Shura Council member Abu Al-Fatah al-Farghali denied all this accusations and named three conditions under which the Turks were allowed to enter Idlib that were based on the Shari’a. First, the military superiority in the liberated areas should be for the mujahideen and not the secular Turkish army. Secondly, the Turks should not intervene in ruling or administering the liberated areas in any circumstances or forms, so as not to violate the Sharia rule. Thirdly, the decision of peace and war in the liberated areas should be in the hands of the mujahideen and not the Turkish army. He concluded that today all three conditions are strictly enforced according to the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal (al-wala’ wa-l-bara’).

The vitriolic debate and ideological violent controversy between HTS and Hurras al-Dinal most turned into an armed confrontation, during which an HTS fighter was killed in a checkpoint in southern Aleppo on February 7, 2019.The Central Asian’s Muhajireen were worried that a conflict between al-Qaeda’s former allies was causing damage to the common goals of Jihad. As a result, on February 10, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din reached anew agreement, in which both organizations swore to end their war of words and cooperate against their common enemy. HTS and HAD agreed that an Islamic court would handle the controversial issues between the parties.

As we noted at the beginning of our article, the Uzbeks’ KTJ and Uyghurs’ TIP suggested that the Ansars resolve the dispute through an Islamic court, where they promised to protect the HTS with a weapon in the event of an attack on it. They hope for the justice of Islamic scholars at the head of Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who became a member of the Islamic court review the case. It should be noted that Abu Qatada al-Filastini played a key role in joining the Uzbek group KTJ to al Qaeda and HTS.

Uzbek and Uyghur militants support HTS in its pursuit to choose the lesser of two evils and do not see in its forced cooperation with Turkey violating the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal of Salafism in waging Jihad. Muhajireen do not oppose Ankara’s initiatives to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib jointly with Moscow. This is due to several factors.

First, the cultural, linguistic and kinship community with the Turks plays an important role, and they consider Turkey’s initiative helped delay for one year a possible attack by the Assad army, Iran’s Shiite proxy forces and the Russian Aerospace Forces on Idlib. During this time, the Muhajireen and the Ansar were able to prepare for a future battle.

Second, the Uyghurs Muhajireen view Turkey as the only country that provides them with moral and political support in the face of Chinese repression. More than 50 thousand Uyghurs live in Turkey who fled from Beijing’s persecution and Ankara condemned China’s Islam policy .In this regard, the Uyghurs are trying to pay back for this act of kindness. Some Uyghur Muhajireen participated in the military Operation Olive Branch along with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army to liberate Afrin in March 2018.

Thirdly, in the Kurdish question, the ideological position of the Central Asian militants coincides with the position of the HTS, who consider Kurdish YPG and PKK as communist organizations and unbeliever (kafir) groups.

The future of Central Asia’s Muhajireen in Idlib’s Safe-Haven

The ideological contradictions and continuous clashes between the rival rebel groups in Syria clearly characterize not only the current state of relations between former al Qaeda allies, but also the complex transformation that occurs within the global Sunni Salafi-Jihadi movement.

In this regard it should be noted that the statement of foreign fighters in support of HTS will have far-reaching consequences. Now, the prospect of finding Uyghur, Uzbek and Caucasian salafi groups on Syrian soil and their participation in global jihad in Middle East will depend on the position of the HTS. It can be expected that further deepening of the contradictions between HTS and al Qaeda in the near future will raise the question for foreign fighters about the choice of a strategic partner, because TIP and KTJ are members of al Qaeda, but at the same time they support the position of HTS in its dispute with al Qaeda.

After the defeat of the last stronghold of ISIS in al-Baghuz the attention of the regional powers will now be focused on the HTS, which built a prototype of the Caliphate, the so-called “Government of Salvation” in Idlib, which is managed on the basis of Sharia. However, HTS’s pursuit to distance itself more and more from al Qaeda and its desire to transform itself into a participant in the political dialogue of the Syrian conflict will force it to distance itself from the foreign Muhajireen. Therefore, in the near future, Uzbek and Uyghur Muhajireen will have to flee from Idlib or they await the bitter fate of ISIS.

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Terrorism

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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