International Terrorism: Agonizing Misconceptions

Say the word terrorism to a crowd of individuals from western countries, and the first thing that will come to mind will be images of large scale attacks perpetrated by international organizations with recognizable names, such as ISIS, or Al-Qaeda. 

International Terrorism

This is not an incorrect interpretation of the word, for these organizations exist and they have carried out large scale attacks in the past for political gain. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: is this the best interpretation of the word? My hypothesis is that no; there is a better meaning for the word terrorism.

To explain and test my hypothesis, we’re going to use real world scenarios. For the sake of this specific piece, we will focus more on international groups than domestic. As an intelligence and security analyst, I see real world examples every day. Not all of these events make it to larger news sources, and so they do not have the opportunity to influence the initial reaction to the word terrorism. But in my world these events weigh a lot more. The only perception of terrorism is not some network of individuals who are living in caves thousands of miles away from their targets. No, in my world they’re living in and around the communities that they attack. They are members of or affiliated with larger organizations, but they attack domestically.  Nigeria, with their very active Boko Haram cells which are tied back to the Islamic State. Abu Sayyaf, Islamic State affiliates who operate in the Philippines. The members of these groups do not live thousands of miles away, they live in the countries in which they attack. That is what terrorism is for most of the people who experience it. 

So, let’s talk about Nigeria. Again, for this installment we will be focusing on international groups, but don’t worry – domestic groups will be discussed soon enough. While areas such as Abuja and Lagos feel a sense of relative security, areas in the north, especially those surrounding Borno state, tell a different story. Residents in these states know all too well about the potential for an attack. The majority of the descriptions for these events begin the same, “ suspected Boko Haram Militants ambushed…” and in some cases, the targets for these ambushes are local government officials from the area; however, a majority of these targets are civilians, villagers in the area. Militants will enter the village, guns ablaze, and then kidnap, ransack, and worst of all, shoot whatever or whoever is available. Then they’re gone, just as fast as they came, but not to another country. No, in most cases they can still be found in the same country they just attacked- Borno state may see some militants going into the Lake Chad region of Chad, but this is still not as far away as many western individuals believe terrorists are from their desired targets.  


This is potentially all conjecture, so I ran a kind of experiment. I went to my event database and I searched for events using relative parameters for this hypothesis: events that were classified as terrorism, and occurred in Nigeria. With some selective date parameters I came out with 25 events that specifically involved Boko Haram, and most of them (except for three) occurring in 2020 alone. Of these 25, I narrowed down 19 events with descriptions that matched the scenario I just described. That’s 19 out of 25, or 76% of the terrorism events that occurred that matched my hypothesis, a clear majority. It was not 100%, as my hypothesis didn’t discredit the previous notion of terrorism. Some events were larger scale, involving bombings and occurred in larger cities and resulted in international recognition. But these were not the majority, the majority were gunmen affiliated with Boko Haram attacking villages or outposts, just as I described.

I am satisfied that my hypothesis was confirmed. At the very least, I am satisfied with my argument that not all terrorist attacks will result in an overhaul of airport security. For so many people in 2020 that is not the reality of terrorism. The reality is that many attackers are from the same communities, at the very least the same country. They may be part of a larger network, but the men behind the triggers don’t flee to another continent when the attack is over. Which means the occurrence of an attack in these areas is not an if, but a when. Western countries do not have to consider this, for us it is an if. Of course it is no one’s fault for their perception of terrorism, western individuals do not live the same way that those surrounding Nigeria’s Borno state do. Within Riley, we understand what the correct notion of terrorism is. We understand that both definitions are correct, but one is more of a risk than the other in many locations across the globe. It is a risk that does not go unnoticed, and this is reflected in every assessment. Even though this definition of terrorism may downplay the brevity of an attack, it is not a definition to be overlooked. Terrorism is still dangerous in this form, just as it is in the western notion of the term. And Riley accounts for both. What we’ve mentioned isn’t the only concept of the word, terrorism comes in all shapes and sizes. Domestic terrorism is another topic to dive into, and the next installment will see a similar experiment conducted to find out how Riley and our team classify terrorism domestically.