Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Bali, the 2012 GTReC conference examined the significant progress made in understanding and countering violent extremism. A number of Indonesian presenters joined international and local speakers to discuss developments in terrorism and counter-terrorism over the past decade and beyond.
Reflecting the ARC Linkage Project’s emphasis on linking research and practice, this conference attracted a diverse audience including academics, security practitioners, policy makers, journalists, community leaders and students. This partnership between academics and senior practitioners led to an open and frank exchange of ideas and information. Speakers presented innovative research findings, often based on first-hand fieldwork, such as interviews with extremists, terrorists and members of affected communities worldwide.
A key theme that emerged was the breadth, diversity and resilience of the current threat, despite the setbacks faced by the global jihadist movement in the past ten years. A small but potent subculture of militant global jihad has become entrenched in Indonesia, and several speakers addressed its evolution, complexity and the legal and institutional difficulties the country faces in countering it. Other speakers discussed jihadism in Thailand and the Philippines. Further abroad, movements such as Somalia’s al-Shabab have attracted Western youth, both from the Somali diaspora and beyond, and new jihadist groups have emerged in other parts of Africa, some adopting al-Qaeda’s agenda.
Another key theme was the future of terrorism and counter-terrorism. The terrorist threat to Western countries is evolving, and will be inspired by a variety of ideologies, not just jihadism. The rise in extreme-right terrorism was discussed, and lone-wolf terrorism is another growing concern, with recent attacks by Anders Breivik and Wade Michael Page demonstrating their lethality. Counter-terrorism is also changing as we enter a period of budgetary constraint, with the result that we may be witnessing a reduced appetite for counter-terrorism measures. ‘Countering violent extremism’ (CVE), using non-coercive measures to prevent people becoming involved in terrorism or helping them to disengage, is emerging as a favoured approach across the globe. How it will ultimately mitigate the terrorist threat, however, remains essentially an open question, but several promising domestic and international initiatives were discussed.
For example, Noor Huda Ismail spoke about his innovative NGO, the Indonesia-based Institute for International Peace Building, which works on the idea of disengagement through food. Huda created employment for former terrorists in his social enterprise restaurant, which not only helped them gain alternative skills, but develop new social networks and relationships that led them to abandon their intolerant worldviews. Similarly, Max Boon, who was seriously injured in the 2009 Marriott Jakarta attacks, spoke of the NGO he founded, the Victims’ Voices Project. He stated that the experiences of terrorists’ victims are often lost in Indonesian media, which instead focuses on the drama of the event and the background of the perpetrators. His project aims to actively involve victims’ voices in efforts to counter violent extremism.
Online extremist activity was also a key theme. One issue was the increasing use of social media by terrorists. It was observed that when the terrorist cells foiled in Operation Pendennis had been active in 2005, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, iPhones and Google Maps were yet to be invented. With each year there is greater proliferation of tools that are overwhelmingly used for legitimate purposes but can also be used by terrorists and other malevolent actors. Another issue raised is that online propaganda is often reactive, with several speakers demonstrating that ideologically opposed radical groups often interacted with each other online, using the existence of hostile groups as a way to rally supporters.
A final theme that emerged was the continuing need to utilise a wide range of information sources and methodologies in terrorism research. The speakers had used various approaches to study terrorism, including:
- Conducting interviews in conflict zones.
- Conducting interviews in post-conflict situations.
- Conducting interviews in prisons or with people released from prison.
- Using police listening device and telephone intercept transcripts.
- Using police files and court transcripts.
- Studying online terrorist material and communications.
- Fieldwork in communities affected both by terrorism and by counter-terrorism.
It was observed that each methodological approach had strengths and weaknesses, and that some approaches brought with them ethical challenges and difficulties. The presentations and discussions demonstrated the requirement for diverse approaches and the need to continuously scrutinise the utility and appropriateness of the various methods. Addressing the terrorist threat, and ensuring counter-terrorist actions do not themselves cause harm, requires a solid understanding of the phenomenon. Continued effort and innovation by scholars can help contribute to this.
This conference was characterised by lively discourse between academics, practitioners, policy makers and community stakeholders. Selected papers will be published in edited books in 2013. The final conference arising from the ARC Linkage Project on Radicalisation will be held in the latter half of 2013.
This article originally appeared in the GTReC ARC Linkage Project on Radicalisation Conference 2012 – Terrorism and Counter-terrorism in Australia and Indonesia: 10 years after Bali events page.