Are We Safe from Terrorists? Maybe Not

Last week, I had the privilege to attend a live recording of Channel NewsAsia’s newest TV series, Think Tank, a six-episode series they were working on in collaboration with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). It touches on six specific security issues faced by Southeast Asia, and to some extent, the whole world. And by “security”, I refer to the expanded understanding, not the traditionalist one, which covers the perils of the individual and threats in cyberspace. While waiting for the first episode to air, let me just write about my experience. For more information about the series, visit their website.

So, the big question posed by the first episode was: Are we safe from terrorists? As usual, put a bunch of social scientists in a room together and they will not be able to come up with an agreed definition of a single term, let alone a desirable framework to address the issue. That, I think, is paradoxically the beauty of the social sciences. But it’s what also makes it a pain to study.

Anyway, the panel comprised of four experts in their respective fields: Nur Azlin Mohamed Yasin, Arnaud Vaissie, Ridzwan Rahmat, and Dr. Sumanto al Qurtuby. As you can see, the panel was a balanced mix of academics and practitioners from various backgrounds relevant to the topic.

Because I don’t remember most of the talk details, let me just write the most salient points down:

  • There is still no universally accepted definition of terrorism. It is, what Gallie once said, an “essentially contested concept”. States to non-state actors have their own interpretation of what a “terrorist” is. However, it is widely accepted that a terrorist is an entity, be it individual or a group, that uses violence or the threat of violence to advance their own political purposes. The “political purpose” may be to establish an Islamic state or to bring death to America, whichever strikes your fancy.
  • There are four characteristics of terrorists that tend to change rapidly over time. Known as the 4T’s, these include time, tools, tactics, and targets. I’ll go in-depth later on.
  • In the face of increased complexity of social life (thanks to Facebook and every other social media ever) which more often than not provides small nooks and crannies for terrorists to thrive, we are faced with an increasingly important question: privacy or security? Should we trade off our civil liberties for increased security from terrorists, or should we risk our overall security?

On the contested concept of terrorism

Amidst the myriad definitions of terrorism, it seems that most people would agree that terrorists use violence to forward their political goals. Such violence is often targeted towards civilians or civilian infrastructure. Terrorists believe that killing civilians is acceptable in the advancement of their cause. Maybe we just have to accept that there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for terrorism. Seeing terrorists evolve and adapt quickly, a definition should remain flexible to accommodate this. On the degree of flexibility, however, is an issue for another time.

I would see this as extremely important as a new terrorist phenomenon has been hogging the spotlight recently: lone-wolf terrorism. Can a lone wolf terrorist still be called a proper terrorist? If so, how will we be able to discern their political motives, which is an important qualifier to even be a “terrorist” in the first place?

The 4T’s of terrorism

Terrorism has four characteristics that have evolved rapidly over the years, mostly thanks to technology and the internet.

First, time. This is related to the time of radicalization, which has significantly decreased over the past years. It used to take Al-Qaeda months to radicalize people into believing their cause; it now takes ISIS a few days to indoctrinate people. Given this situation, how would deradicalization methods work out? M.A.S. Hikam, in his book Deradikalisasi: Peran Masyarakat Sipil Indonesia Membendung Radikalisme [Deradicalization: The role of Indonesian civil society in curbing radicalism], points out that along with a “top-down” state approach, civil society plays an important role in not only deradicalization but also preventing radicalization from happening.

Second, tools. Terrorists think of weapons differently from conventional military thinkers. Say I gave you a cargo plane, what would you make of it? If you were a seasoned military officer, you would say that the plane is a weapons deliverance system. A terrorist would say, “It’s a weapon. We can fly it into buildings,” Given terrorists work on a limited budget, their tools of terror tend to be everyday objects that you would not expect to be used to kill people. The Internet and social media have also been added to the tech-savvy terrorists’ arsenal.

On that note, it would help to think about the following: we are obsessed with technological development and modernization of arms. Yet more terrorists are killing American soldiers with homemade IEDs. Is technological development really what we need to counter the terrorist threat?

Third, tactics. Terrorists are becoming more and more decentralized. Anyone now can gun down civilians in the name of ISIS. All they need is to pledge allegiance (baiat) to the cause. They don’t need to report to the higher-ups about their specific plan; bomb now, then the brass will claim it in the name of ISIS. This decentralization allows them to move more freely than ever and all it does is burden law enforcement. The change in tactics is also related to the rise of social media as the preferred medium for terrorists to organize.

Fourth, targets. Terrorists are increasingly targeting “soft targets”, such as concerts, malls, and even eateries. However, Abrahms has pointed out that most of the time, targeting civilians does not work in furthering political aims. The reasons being, attacking civilians is often perceived as a direct attack on the values held by a society, which people are often more reluctant to concede to. Abrahms found that when terrorists attack political targets, such as the state’s military, they were more likely to succeed in their demands. However, the nature of the demands conceded was also mostly limited to tangible items, such as territory. It was never the case that a state would give up its form of government to terrorists. Knowing this, why are more and more terrorists targeting “soft”, civilian targets?

Knowing this, why are more and more terrorists targeting “soft”, civilian targets? Is it just to incite an atmosphere of chaos? Is chaos their endgame? Maybe chaos is just a conducive environment for the terrorist. With people preoccupied with their security, especially with the terrorist threat being magnified by 24/7 media coverage, terrorists will have come one more step closer to realizing pure terror. However, this approach would also constrain them. When security gets beefed up, there be little room to maneuver for terrorists. So, why bother attacking low-level civilian targets?

Security or liberty?

Which brings me to my next point: the trade-off between security and privacy. Should our civil liberties be curtailed for the greater good? If so, how much liberty are we willing to trade with security?  Furthermore, we also need to consider the effectiveness pf the “security-liberty tradeoff”. Some practices, like when you have to go through TSA, have been proven to not work as effectively as planned. Or when the government wants to add more security cameras on the street or other modes of surveillance. Think of Person of Interest.

Ironically, the security measures meant to keep us safe might be the ones making us more unsafe than ever. But not from terrorists; from our own governments.

So, are we safe?

I admit, I came out of the talk with much more questions than answers. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but certainly, the talk did allow me to rethink the issue of terrorism from many dimensions, from the (non) state to the individual level. It also made me think about the effectiveness of the methods that we have right now. Our methods evolve slowly, reacting to the terrorists; whereas the terrorists tend to evolve rapidly. Surely, that means more work for academics, practitioners, the cops and counter-terrorists on the street, and for the individual.

Picture credit: Channel NewsAsia



One thought on “Are We Safe from Terrorists? Maybe Not

  1. Honestly I don’t want to live under big brother’s watchful all seing eye, but in the other hand there’s whiney-ass lazy-as-fuck-in-life terrorist. Also we do not live in Ben Franklin’s time anymore, threat has gotten larger and more diverse, so there’s bound to be compromise between freedom and security. Yeah, I hate both big brother and terrorist.


Comments are closed.

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: