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Terrorism: myths and facts
Terrorism: myths and facts
Speech / Asia

Terrorism: myths and facts

Lecture delivered at Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung, Indonesia, 18 January 2013.


Terrorism is a very difficult and emotional subject, but it is one that deserves serious study. The word suggests an extraordinary crime with massive casualties of innocent people, with the iconic image now being the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The word “terrorist” is also loaded -- it conjures up images of ruthless killers, like Anders Breivik, the Norwegian gunman who killed 77 young political activists in 2011.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Not all terrorism involves large numbers of deaths: in 2011 in Indonesia, for example, we had eight separate terrorist incidents and a total death toll of five, including two bombers who killed only themselves. Not all crimes are instantly recognizable as terrorism. Suicide bombings have become the classic terrorist crime, but what about the robbery of an ATM or the shooting of a policeman? They might be terrorism, but they can also be acts of rebellion or ordinary crimes, depending on the circumstances and who was involved. Drawing those lines is not always easy. The problem gets even more complicated when we try and understand the causes of terrorism. Why in one village is one young man tempted to join an extremist network while his neighbor, of the exact same age, education, religious training and economic background, is not?

I’ll explore some of these questions in the next half hour or so, mostly drawing on examples from Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia.

What is Terrorism?

Let’s start with the most basic question, what is terrorism? Even the question is fraught, because we have to distinguish what it is as a phenomenon from what it may be defined as under international or domestic law. As I’m sure all you know, there is no single definition of terrorism. Nevertheless, there is wide consensus that it is a tactic, not an end in itself, involving a deliberate effort to create a sense of fear in a particular target population to achieve a political objective. Those who use the tactic can be religious or secular: in the past, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the IRA in northern Ireland, Timothy McVeigh in the US; and many others all have used terrorism for very different ends.

In 2008, a high-level UN panel defined terrorism as “any action…that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.” Thus the abduction yesterday of western oil workers in Algeria was almost certainly intended to send a message to the French govt that they should stop intervention in Mali

This definition was aimed at non-state actors, groups like al-Qaeda or the Tamil Tigers. It excluded the concept of “state terrorism”, or crimes committed by a particular country or government, but it’s important to understand why. It wasn’t because states don’t deliberately create fear or cause mass casualties

But under international law, and particularly international humanitarian law, most acts of terrorism by states that involve deliberate killings of civilians are already considered crimes, either “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity” and the perpetrators in theory can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, though it’s not easy.  So why muddy the waters by trying to define a new crime, state terrorism, when it’s hard enough to get prosecutions of the old ones?

The other problem with the UN panel’s definition above is that it suggests that only civilians can be victims of terrorism. It is true that generally, the targeting of civilians IS what distinguishes terrorist organizations from other organizations that use violence. But again, the lines aren’t clear -- for the last several years, we have seen police become the No.1 enemy of terrorists in Indonesia, and in many other conflicts, insurgents use terrorist tactics against members of the security forces.

Now, here’s another definition of terrorism that is both more detailed and more useful. The following is paraphrased from what I think is the best book available on the subject by a scholar named Martha Crenshaw. She says:

Terrorism is a form of violence that is primarily intended to influence an audience. It depends on concealment, surprise, stealth, conspiracy and deception.  Terrorism is not spontaneous and does not involve mass participation; it is carried out by a handful of people claiming to act on behalf of a larger group. The act itself communicates a future threat to people who identify with the victims – it conveys the sense of “You will be next”.  The choice of time, place and victim is meant to create shock, fear or anger. Psychological impact is key. It involves maximum impact with minimum effort (Martha Crenshaw, Explaining Terrorism: Causes, Process and Consequences, 2011, p.2).

This is a neutral definition because it deals with method and not so much with motivation. Sometimes you hear the phrase, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”. The people who use this cliché are often trying to make the point that terrorism is too subjective a term to be the subject of serious scholarship. But I like this definition because it does not take into consideration the ultimate objective – it looks at only at tactics, in a way that could be applied equally to Christian or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian.

Terrorist Motivations

We will come back to different elements of the definition later in the lecture, but let’s move on to another critical question: Why do individuals and organizations use terrorism? It’s a particularly interesting question for Indonesia, because often, terrorism is used by groups fighting occupation by a foreign power or repression by an authoritarian state, and of course neither is true for Indonesia. Or it is used by groups representing an alienated minority facing discrimination, as some groups in Europe or the Malay minority in southern Thailand, or by nationalist groups seeking to overthrow a government. Even with groups advocating global jihad, recruits have generally come from countries that fall in these categories. But none of this explains the phenomenon in Indonesia.

So let’s look at three broad levels of analysis that are often used to explain terrorism: societal, organizational and individual.

I find the societal issues the least helpful because they are too generic, and all too often, when people, usually government officials, start talking about the “root causes” of terrorism, they are talking about broad sweeping generalizations that may or may not have a basis in fact and in any case are not helpful for understanding what’s actually going on. For example, many officials here often assume that poverty is the cause of radicalism, or that poverty leads to radicalization, just because one of the Bali bombers like Imam Samudra, or one of the suicide bombers in the 2009 hotel bombings, comes from a poor background. But if that assumption were true, Indonesia would be crawling with terrorists! Jakarta and Bandung would be overrun with them! And where’s the evidence? Of those who say poverty is a cause of terrorism, who has looked at the background of the 700 or more individuals arrested on terrorism charges here, or indeed in any other country? Yes, some come from poor backgrounds, but many are also university-educated from middle class families.

We need to ask, what is the actual socioeconomic status of those arrested to date, does it vary by region, and does it vary over time? If and only if you have enough information can you explore causal links between individuals and the acts they engaged in.

And if you assume, without good data, that poverty is the problem, you will also make the wrong assumptions about solutions: for example, that economic development will prevent terrorism. There’s not a shred of evidence to support that thesis in Indonesia, although economic neglect combined with lack of political power has certainly been a factor in some parts of the world. Even here, we have some cases, in some areas, where young men have been sucked in to terrorism activities in part because they are unemployed and have nothing better to do, but there are always other factors at play. In these areas, poverty may be a necessary, but never a sufficient, factor to explain radicalization.

Even when you can identify unemployment as a factor, you have to be careful. In 2006, the government had a training program for militants being released from prison, on the assumption if they had more training they wouldn’t go back to their old ways. But no one bothered to match the skills being taught to the labor market, or to the backgrounds of the ex-prisoners, and as a result, the training program was of limited use (Dave McRae, “Reintegration and localized conflict : promoting police-combatant communication”, World Bank, 2009). Again, data, data, data

Another societal issue that is often raised is injustice. Here in Indonesia, some genuinely believed that acts of violence could help draw attention to fellow Muslims who were under attack or persecution elsewhere in the world. But if solidarity with fellow Muslims and anger at the way they have been treated was sufficient to push people into these networks, we would have far more extremists than we do. Like poverty, a sense of injustice may be a necessary condition for many people to join terrorist networks but it is certainly not a sufficient one.

The Organisational Level

What about terrorist organizations?  Why do they use violence? Martha Crenshaw suggests several reasons.

  • The most important is to advertise their cause: fighting the international Christian-Zionist alliance for al-Qaeda; drawing attention to the plight of Chechnya in the case of Chechen groups or Palestine, in the case of Palestinian groups that undertook airplane hijackings in the 1970s. If the purpose is to advertise a cause, then there is a strong incentive for the group to claim credit for an attack, through a phone call, video or Internet posting.

After the second Bali bombing, Project Bali document stated that the only two places worth bonbing in Indonesia were Jakarta and Bali, because they were the only places that would get international media coverage.

  • They may also want to show that the government is weak or unable to defend its supporters by repeatedly attacking security forces or civilians who work in government offices or as teachers in state schools. This may be a factor in some of the terrorism used in southern Thailand today, and here there isn’t so much need to claim credit – in fact you may create more fear by being a shadowy force that the government can’t find or identify.
  • In some cases groups may want to provoke overreaction from the government as a way of changing the political dynamic or increasing the resentment of the local populace to draw more people to their side. In Papua, one radical pro-independence group talks of wanting to create “a second Santa Cruz” referring to the shooting of unarmed demonstrators in East Timor in 1991 that was caught on videocameras and transformed the political struggle there.
  • Sometimes groups want to mobilize support of the population by killing members of a group perceived as their enemy. This may have been a factor in the attacks by Poso militants on Christian communities after a peace agreement was signed in 2001, although it didn’t work – most people in Poso just wanted peace.
  • And finally, terrorism can be used to try and force a government or a group to take actions that it might otherwise not want to take. For example, some terrorism in Iraq was aimed at forcing Western troops to leave. And in Aceh, the systematic execution by GAM, the rebel group, of suspected cuak, or informers, was a way of sending a strong message that Acehnese should not side with the government. This has all changed, of course, since the peace agreement in 2005.

So organizations have different reasons for using violence. The violence in turn affects how they operate.

First, all terrorist groups have to operate in secret out of necessity, but they can be a secret cell of a larger organization that operates above ground. Living in hiding creates a particularly strong sense of solidarity among group members, and as we’ll see later, some people are attracted to terrorist organizations for exactly that sense of community.  For people who don’t make friends easily, the terrorist group, like a cult,  can be like a family.

A critical requirement of any terrorist cell is loyalty among the group’s members. You can’t risk people coming in and out like they were joining Greenpeace or WWF. You have to make it difficult to join and then hard to leave, if only for security reasons. So most organizations have some kind of initiation or oath-taking; in Indonesia, there has usually been a bai’at, or oath of loyalty to the leader. And frequently new members are asked to commit an illegal act to show their commitment to the cause. In Indonesia, it has sometimes been a robbery; in the first Bali bombing, some young men from Banten who took part were asked to rob a gold store, not because the bombers needed money but because they wanted to test the courage of the new recruits. And of course, once a crime is committed, it binds the perpetrators together and makes it harder for them to opt out.

Sometimes a group turns to violence because its leaders are in competition with another group and want to show they are even more committed than their rivals. In 2010, the group that organized the Aceh training camp wanted to prove that they were more committed to jihad than JI was. And sometimes a group commits a terrorist act because the leaders are afraid that if they don’t, the members will leave to join another group. One characteristic of violent extremists in Indonesia is that they try to have regular military training. But if you train people to use guns or attack targets, and then you never give them anything to do, they are going to get bored or disillusioned.  Many militants left Jemaah Islamiyah because it decided to focus on building up the organization through education and dakwah and not risk further arrests by undertaking acts of violence.  Many others in the movement accused JI of abandoning jihad and left to join groups that would allow their members to act. Because you have to remember, one characteristic of every terrorist group, regardless whether its base is religious or ethno-nationalist, is that is committed to action – you aren’t a terrorist group if you sit around doing nothing.

Individual Motivation

Now we come to the critical question: why do individuals join terrorist organizations? Again there can be a wide range of motives, and it varies from person to person. Many people assume that everyone who joins a terrorist organization must be deeply committed to the ideological cause that the group represents, whether it is ending the occupation of a country, or overthrowing a government, or establishing a new social order.

But while leaders are often deeply committed, ordinary members can join for a variety of reasons. A very important one is peer pressure – you join because your friends or family do. For people studying terrorism, social network theory has provided many useful insights. If you were a young man living in certain neighborhoods in Poso in 2001 (and for our non-Indonesian friends, this was a major conflict area between Muslims and Christians), you would have found it very hard not to be pulled into one of the militant groups operating there

Often the motive is revenge. The number one motive of terrorist groups operating in Indonesia today is revenge against the police for having arrested or killed fellow mujahidin. Sometimes it’s revenge for having relatives killed or captured, and this can be passed down through the generations. In northern Ireland, there were many cases of sons or nephews of fallen IRA men joining up as soon as they could carry a gun. We also have many cases of JI members whose fathers or grandfathers were fighters in the Darul Islam movement. Remember earlier I said that in analyzing causes of terrorism, we have to be able to explain why one person joins an organization when others in the same village with the same background do not. Well, in the case of the suicide bomber in the Australian embassy bombing in 2004, out of about a dozen young men recruited and trained from his village, the one who actually went through with the violence was the one whose father had been a member of the Darul Islam movement, and we had several such cases in JI.

Sometimes people join because they are looking for social status. They want to be respected. This can be a motivation for people who have not succeeded in school or do not have many friends.  Since terrorist organizations are necessarily elitist – only a very few select people can be trusted to join – being accepted as a member can be very gratifying – almost as gratifying as being accepted by Parahyangan! In Indonesia, an important part of extremist doctrine is the notion of thoifah mansuroh, the group that will be saved on Judgement Day. For most scholars, membership in thoifah mansuroh can only be achieved by deep religious knowledge, but for some violent groups, participation in jihad is a way to be part of this elite

The desire for status is also frequently a motivation for thugs or criminals recruited by terrorist organizations – they are given a chance to redeem themselves by people who appreciate their criminal skills. We have several examples of this in Indonesia. After the Bali bombings, Imam Samudra, Muchlas and Amrozi had very high status in Kerobokan prison. They were seen as brave enough to take on a superpower! So several criminals sought them out and joined their study groups as a way of enhancing their own status, to the point that Kerobokan became known as Campus Terrorisme. Several of these recruits later became involved in another plot to attack the hard rock café in Bali in early 2012, but they were caught before they could do anything.

Speaking of prison, so many extremists have been arrested in Indonesia that some have another reason for undertaking acts of violence after their release – they want to prove that they are still “pure” and have not sold out to the police. Many, in fact, are suspected of providing damaging information after their arrest, and some are ostracized by their old friends – people refuse to see them, they are not invited to meetings, their wives are not accepted by other women. One of such person was a man named Urwah, who had worked on the Australian embassy bombing with the Malaysian terrorist leader Noordin Top. To prove that he was still okay, he rejoined Noordin after his release in 2007. When the police finally tracked down and killed Noordin Top in September 2009, Urwah was with him and also died.

Other people, but not many, join for the money, particularly when they join robbery operations. In Medan, North Sumatra in 2010, one young man joined in the robbery of the CIMB-Niaga bank, because the participants were guaranteed a share of the proceeds. Of $34,000 stolen, each robber received about $1,000 (10 juta) – a major incentive for someone in need of money.

“Lone wolves” – people who become radicalized by themselves, often by reading the Internet, and who then set out to commit a violent act – have been rare in Indonesia. We’ve only had a few cases, but we are seeing more use of the Internet for recruitment and fundraising, and it’s not impossible that more lone wolves could emerge.

Leaving Terrorist Organisations

One question that many scholars are asking these days is why some organizations decide to leave violence behind – because if we can understand why groups or individuals opt out, we may be able to formulate better policies for countering terrorism. A whole field of research has grown up around the idea of life cycles of terrorism – how it is born, how it matures, and how it dies.

Several factors can be key to weakening terrorist groups. An important one is government response. In Indonesia, there is no question that a forceful government response to terrorism after the first Bali bombing was extremely important in weakening terrorist organizations, especially Jemaah Islamiyah. Not only were many leaders arrested, but the imprisonment of hundreds of members, and extensive infiltration of extremist groups, created widespread suspicion and distrust, leading to splits in the jihadist movement.

But a forceful government response is not a guarantee that terrorism will end. As we have seen here, anger at the police for arrests and killings has become a driver for new militant groups emerging. Since Feb 2010, 50 suspects have been killed by police, and 21 police have been killed by jihadi suspects. It’s as though what started out as a movement to draw Indonesia into the global jihad has degenerated into a low-intensity conflict between terrorists and police.

Sometimes terrorist actions create so much public outrage that the group can no longer find shelter or protection. One reason JI leaders have given for pulling back from violence is that there was no local support. Indonesia was not like Iraq, one commentator wrote, where Abu Mus’ab Zarqawi, the insurgent leader, was able to build on a hated occupation by US troops. What was the rationale for attacks in Indonesia?

Some militant commentators also realized that if their goal was an Islamic state, above-ground advocacy groups like FPI and FUI, that were using democratic space to bring about change, were actually far more effective than groups that used terrorism.

Individuals also can make decisions to pull out, often for family reasons, although as noted, the deeper one has been involved in a terrorist organization, the harder it is to withdraw. Scholars who have studied men involved in the Poso conflict have also noted that in some cases, humane treatment by police after arrest and during imprisonment, as well as economic opportunities after release, have persuaded some men not to return to the use of violence.


Up till now have spoken of terrorism as an all-male affair, but important to understand the role of women. In some countries, women – Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya among them – women have become the suicide bombers of choice. In the Philippines, women can serve as combatants, not only in the NPA but also in the MILF and Muslim movement, (although negotiations with the govt are conducted only by men, to the frustration of a few senior women).

Women are valued for their reproductive role, but concern for security is such that it is often left up to the leader of the group to choose a wife for unmarried members.

Increasingly we are seeing some Indonesian women who want a more active jihadi role but are denied this by existing organizations looking to social media as a way to seek out radical partners or just have long chats with like-minded friends.


All of this is to say that for all of the emotion and subjectivity involved in terrorism, it is a topic that needs in-depth and impartial study. The most important message to you all as scholars, is that there is no substitute for hard facts and in-depth analysis.

Thank you.

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013