First weeks at OEF: the ambiguity and appeal of terrorism

By: Léa Carresse

The film “Carlos”, making terrorism look good since 2010 (or 1970, depending on how you see it)

Researching 1968 onward in West Germany for my undergraduate degree brought to my attention the ambiguity of the terms “terrorism”, “terrorist” and “terrorist activity”. I never really thought about it before, my knowledge restricted to 9/11. In the 2018 Western world, it almost goes without saying what, unfortunately, the stereotypical terrorist profile looks like: Muslim, brown, probably of North African or Middle Eastern descent, predominantly young and male, often single, former petty criminal, targeting civilians. Cause: “religious extremism”.

Forty years ago, in West Germany, your terrorist profile was the following: Christian, white, “urdeutsch” (the Nazi term for “ethnically pure” German), predominantly young and female, often married with middle-class or wealthy backgrounds, well-educated, attempting to exclusively target West German State officials, businessmen and the US military. Cause: “radical left-wing ideology”. The plasticity of the terrorist profile, of terrorist activity and of the terms used, is brought further to light in my work at OEF.

As an intern in the Stable Seas project, my work so far has concentrated on maritime security in sub-Saharan Africa and, because the project is expanding, to North Africa, in the countries of Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, among others. The areas of maritime security that I focussed on include researching those of illicit trade (including arms, drugs and wildlife trafficking, but also that of cigarettes, oil, cosmetics, foodstuffs and more…), piracy and armed robbery and Yemeni terrorism as embodied by the Houthi rebels, AQAP and ISIS.

Through my time at OEF thus far, I discovered that concepts of criminality, instability, terrorism and general conflict are even messier than I previously imagined. There is no international or common legal definition of terrorism, though some domestic criminal codes, such as the 1995 Australian Criminal Code, and international treaties or organisations will attempt to include examples of terrorist activities as an effort to define terrorism. These include hostage-taking and hijacking. But how then would that be different from piracy and armed robbery at sea, for example, where those very same methods are employed? An answer would be that a terrorist’s goal is primarily political, while criminal activity at sea, particularly in underdeveloped regions with limited or no economic opportunity, is centered on financial gain. That answer doesn’t take us very far, however. How do you define political? How far can “religious extremism”  be termed as “political”? And what about the existence of a crime-terror nexus, where terrorist groups will financially invest in and benefit from certain organised crime groups? An example is the trafficking of Libyan antiquities by ISIS to the Italian mafia, or the Italian mafia adopting “terror” tactics to protest against the anti-mafia drive in Italy of the 1990s.[1] These are all questions that I am faced with at OEF.

As a final observation, a “fun” link that I discovered here between the contemporary terrorist group ISIS and that of the West German terrorists, RAF, is the “marketing strategy” that served both groups well. Ironically, though both anti-capitalist, the groups still engage(d) with branding to attract recruits and attention to their cause.

The film The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008) on the RAF illustrates this perfectly: Sexually liberated women with heavily made-up eyes and mini-skirts brandishing guns, “exotic” training camps in Yemen, their youthful faces splashed on the front news pages of tabloids, adopting particular styles of talking and writing to facilitate in-group dynamics. Their aesthetic proved so successful that it was appropriated by the fashion industry, which rebranded it as “Prada-Meinhof”, a play on the group’s other name, “Baader-Meinhof”.

Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin in The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), formerly one of Germany’s most feared terrorists.

Similarly, ISIS develop their own brand:  Their “poster girls”, “tastefully accessorized” (as an ISIS blog notes) with AK47s and their fellow gangster Jihadis in Nikes against graying American counterterrorist bureaucrats in suits; Twitter hashtags such as #accomplishmentsofISIS; the mass dissemination of “atrocity porn” with rehearsed beheadings shot in a Hollywoodesque style; filmed “testimonials” of fighters in paradisiac settings on how they found their true selves in ISIS; and even video games.[2] Those are all part of the evolving dimension of terrorism infiltrating the cyberspace, the progress of which we have yet to fully track and understand.

ISIS “poster girls” today. Sources: ISIS Twitter and US Homeland Security website.

[1] Tamara Makarenko and Michael Mesquita, “Categorising the crime-terror nexus in the European Union” (2014) in Global Crime.

[2] Simon Cottee, “The Challenge of Jihadi Cool” (2015) in The Atlantic.

Terrorism, Ethnic Divisions and a National Day of Protests

2014-ODell-AnnieAnnie O’Dell

It’s now week 6 in Meru, Kenya. Since we have arrived, Kenya has made the international news on several occasions.

  • May 3, 2014: two bombings in Mombasa.
  • May 4, 2014: two buses bombed in Nairobi, four killed.
  • May 10, 2014: I arrived in Nairobi.
  • May 15, 2014: travel advisories for most Western countries increased to include a high threat of terrorism. British nationals are evacuated from Mombasa and the coast.
  • May 16, 2014: a bombing in a market in Nairobi killing 12, wounding 70.
  • June 10, 2014: a Muslim cleric was shot in Mombasa, followed by more clerics killed and some rioting.
  • June 15, 2014: 48 people killed in a small town on the coast and near the border of Somalia, only non-Muslim men were targeted, though apparently 12 women were abducted.
  • June 16, 2014: near the town attacked the day before, ten more killed while watching the World Cup.

This follows a history that includes the Westgate mall shooting (killing 74) only last September. It also includes an attack on the international airport in Nairobi in January. As well as many other smaller-scale attacks that I did not bother listing above because they happened more than a week before my arrival.

In 2011, Kenyan troops entered Somalia. This move has increased terror attacks by the terrorist group linked to Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab.

However, the situation is more complex than Somali terrorism. Last year, President Kenyatta (racially a Kikuyu) won a much-disputed election against Prime Minister Odinga (who is Luo). Odinga claimed the elections were rigged, but the Supreme Court disagreed. The election results caused riots but pales in comparison to the violence that erupted after the elections in 2007. President Kenyatta has been charged by the ICC for inciting and financing parts of that 2007 violence.

Odinga, is currently calling for a day of protests on July 7th, the Saba Saba day. Saba Saba (meaning “seven seven”) is the anniversary of a revolution overthrowing an apparent dictatorship in 1990. This day is expected to be filled with riots and roadblocks.

Al-Shabaab has apparently taken responsibility for the two most recent attacks. But the President is claiming they are part of a political ploy to divide the country among the ethnic lines of Kikuyu and Luo. This conflict is increasing tension and distrust among the population, particularly those near the Somali border who are now arming themselves.

Where we are stationed has never been affected by any violence, terrorist or political. The violence and upsets are not affecting our work in the region but it is affecting our ability to travel on weekends and our parents’ sense of security. We booked a trip to Nairobi this weekend. We haven’t had running water for four weeks now, and this is practically our only opportunity to bathe. We are also looking forward to some Western comforts, such as burgers and movie theatres. But now, though Nairobi hasn’t been attacked in a few weeks, we have had to seriously evaluate whether we should cancel our trip. It’s kind of an odd feeling to weigh options like showering and burgers against the relatively remote, but not unlikely, threat of terrorism.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.