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Terrorism, Social Movements, and International Security:
How Al Qaeda Affects Southeast Asia
Japanese Journal of Political Science / Volume 6 / Issue 01 / April 2005, pp 87 - 109
DOI: 10.1017/S1468109905001738, Published online: 04 May 2005
Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S1468109905001738
How to cite this article:
DAVID LEHENY (2005). Terrorism, Social Movements, and International Security: How Al Qaeda
Affects Southeast Asia. Japanese Journal of Political Science, 6, pp 87-109 doi:10.1017/
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Cambridge University Press 2005
Terrorism, Social Movements, and International
Security: How Al Qaeda Affects Southeast Asia
Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison
This paper argues that international security studies canmost profitably engage the
issue of international terrorism by considering terrorist groups as transnational social
movement organizations. It takes as its case Al Qaeda’s role in Southeast Asia, focusing
especially on the efforts of Al Qaeda leaders to align the demands and grievances
of local Islamist movements and to spread a set of tactics and methods of political
violence. In so doing, the paper builds on the often-neglected literature on the politics
of terrorism while tying the argument to prevailing debates over social movements.
The paper thus aims at clarifying the ways in which Southeast Asian organizations have
adopted Al Qaeda’s tactics and language but appear to be addressing primarily local
or provincial concerns. This perspective also draws terrorism into current discussions
of international security while maintaining a detailed focus on the interactions of
individual agents and larger violent movements.
When a massive car bomb destroyed a Bali nightclub in October 2002, suspicion
immediately fell on Al Qaeda, thousands of miles from its original base in Afghanistan
and almost equally removed from the American targets that would ostensibly attract
the group’s attention. In many American minds, at least, this confirmed Southeast Asia
as a ‘second front’ in the conflict with Al Qaeda. And yet the Bali bombing as well as
the recent arrests and killings of Southeast Asian Islamist movements together raise
as many questions as they answer. While there is no more any doubt that Al Qaeda
members have been active in the region, the meaning for the ‘War on Terrorism’ and
for our understanding of non-state political violence remains murky. Were these agents
working under the direct control of Al Qaeda leaders? If the attack on the disco signifies
a broadAl Qaeda shift to attacks on‘soft targets’, why have nightclub attacks not become
a more common phenomenon elsewhere? Is it possible that the target had a distinctive
meaning in Indonesia that might differentiate it fromother Al Qaeda attacks? If so, this
suggests that our usual metaphors for Al Qaeda’s structure – a military organization or
an amorphous network – are insufficient, perhaps because they sidestep the political
88 david leheny
issues involved in the links between Al Qaeda’s core and like-minded groups around
the world.
And the problem is political, not primarily religious, military, or even conven-
tionally ideological. Al Qaeda’s leaders are strategic actors, who believe themselves to
be embedded in long-term, iterative struggles over outcomes, and they have chosen
their tactics accordingly. By the same token, terrorism itself is largely about the use of
potent symbols to hearten supporters and to intimidate enemies, and the tactics do not
make sense outside of the symbolic contexts in which they are chosen. For scholars of
security studies to deal forthrightly with this new type of conflict – which Stephen Walt
describes as the ‘most rapid and dramatic change in the history of US foreign policy’

they will need to think creatively about how to integrate the meaning that small,
violent groups attach to actions with devastating immediate impact and long-term
consequences for international security. What are most distinctive about Al Qaeda’s
efforts are not just their effectiveness but rather their ability to link, sometimes fitfully
and imprecisely, the global interests of the core organization with the more limited
concerns of local activists. Doing so relies on the reframing of local groups’ demands
and concerns, and on the diffusion of repertoires of violence that dictate appropriate
measures and targets.
This paper uses cases of Islamist violence in Southeast Asia to argue that the most
promising way to further the discussion of terrorism in international security may
be to draw the study of transnational social movements into security studies. Largely
marginalized within studies of international norms, social movements in international
relations might be conceptualized differently, to allow scholars to think more broadly
about security threats. In this view, the threat posed by Al Qaeda comes not from
a tightly controlled military organization with global reach, and not from a loose
network with cells operating at roughly equivalent ‘nodes’ around the world – two
popular interpretations discussed below. It arises instead from Al Qaeda’s apparent
but limited success in acting as a social movement organization, operating as a core
group that aims at mobilizing support and cooperation from conceivably like-minded
movements in other parts of the globe. Even social movement scholars critique the
murkiness of research on movement frames, and my goal here is not to argue that
the perspective offers a panacea for the study of terrorist organizations. Comparisons
matter, however, and we are more likely to generate rigorous empirical research if we
can meaningfully draw on the large body of literature on other political movements,
rather than assert the irreducible novelty of Al Qaeda or connect it awkwardly to
prevailing theories of conflict between states.
The use of social movement theory to explain Al Qaeda activities has three merits,
all of which should be important to security studies and international terrorism. First,
evidence on Al Qaeda’s activities suggests that it has played an important role in
Stephen M. Walt, ‘Beyond Bin Laden: Reshaping US Foreign Policy’, International Security 26: 3 (Winter
2001/2002), pp. 56–78, at 56.
terrorism, social movements, and international security 89
supporting Islamist terrorism around the globe, but that these effects are qualified by
the prevailing concerns of local militants. In Southeast Asia, for example, Al Qaeda
members have clearly contributed to the rise in anti-Western violence, but the style of
violence often implies the preoccupation of local actors rather than the movement core.
Second, terrorismoperates at a crucial nexus of meaning andaction. Tobe sure, terrorist
groups try to act strategically and rationally, but their attacks are usually unintelligible
without an understanding of the symbolic contexts in which they take place. Social
movement theory has addressed the tension between rationalist and interpretivist
approaches for decades, and has developed several solutions that might be helpful for
studies of security.
Finally, the sheer variety of studies of social movement theory
provides a rich portfolio from which to analyze terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda.
Because of the paucity of existing international security literature on terrorism, the
theoretical guidance available in the long history of social movement research ought
to provide a helpful point from which to think anew about non-state actors as security
threats. At a certain level, all politics is local, and this is likely true of transnational
terrorism as well.
Competing approaches for understanding Al Qaeda
This approach differs significantly from commonly used claims regarding what Al
Qaeda is and how it needs to be understood. The most in-depth work on the group,
Rohan Gunaratna’s Inside Al Qaeda, eschews theorizing but depicts Al Qaeda as a
tightly controlled organization with reach so global that it approximates a spider web.
Although Gunaratna is fascinated by the extent of Al Qaeda activities, and although
he discusses the group as a global network, his work stresses the unusually rigorous
organization of the group as a transnational quasi-military force.
This empirically
dense work is extremely effective at demonstrating that Al Qaeda militants have taken
part in a wide range of attacks and that their capabilities are most likely significant
even after the US-led ousting of the Taliban militia from Afghanistan in 2001–2002.
But when the book discusses Al Qaeda’s connections to other organizations, it tends to
leave unexamined the group’s long-term relationships with local Islamist movements.
For example, Gunaratna clearly demonstrates that Al Qaeda, for example, had a
connection in 1995 with a Philippine militant organization, the Abu Sayyaf Group,
but what happened after that? If the connection has somehow lapsed, it suggests that
we need to qualify our assessment of Al Qaeda’s control over Islamist movements.
An alternative, more theoretical, approach suggests that Al Qaeda resembles a
network like the Internet. In one representative study, Ronald Deibert and Janice
Stein argue that by understanding Al Qaeda as a ‘distributed network’, with cells of
David Leheny, ‘Symbols, Strategies, and Choices for International Relations Scholarship after
September 11’, Dialogue-IO (Spring 2002), pp. 57–70.
Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (New York: Columbia University Press,
90 david leheny
similar strength and capability placed at nodes around the world, we can develop
more coherent methods to disrupt or ‘hack’ the system.
The metaphorical use of the
Internet provides intriguing ideas for howto counter Al Qaeda, whichDeibert andStein
describe as methods of ‘hacking’ the terrorist system. They also make an innovative
contributionindiscussing the network structure as anincreasingly commonorganizing
principle across political forms. Indoing so, however, they imply a sort of organizational
equivalence: where one cell disappears, another can readily take its place. While this
certainly has the effect of making the organization seem credibly menacing, it also
neglects the political contexts in which these cells operate. And it is unclear that the
cells in Europe in the late 1990s are comparable with those operating in Central or
Southeast Asia in the same period. Like Gunaratna’s book, the network metaphor lends
itself toanunstable conclusion: that Al Qaeda’s activities aroundthe globe shouldreflect
broad agreement either at the core or across the network of goals, tactics, and targets.
Whether one assumes that the groupis tightly controlledor that, like the Hydra, roughly
equivalent heads will grow to replace the severed ones, the logical implication is that its
affiliates should behave similarly, regardless of their immediate political environments.
The difficulty in crafting a commonly used approach for terrorismowes something
to its tenuous (and, until recently, marginal) place ininternational relations theory. One
would be hard pressed to find a more idiosyncratic and clandestine research subject,
meaning that close ethnographic researchis nearly out of the question, and that it might
be impossible to create generalizable results that are effective for theory formation. Put
simply, terrorismis a trickier phenomenon for social science than are many other types
of security issues. And partly because the field of international security is still largely a
state-centered arena (for a variety of good reasons), non-state actors have rarely been
at the core of theory construction. Most specialists on terrorism have chosen to deal
with the problem by adopting some social scientific concepts and methods, while also
aiming a large portion of their work at policy audiences hungry for some guidance on
how to handle this extremely vexing problem.
Research on international terrorism peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, when analysts
focused on the myriad leftist organizations in Europe, nationalist groups in Latin
America and the Middle East, and growing evidence of religious fundamentalism
as a motive for terrorism.
International relations scholars might have found some
recognizable elements in this literature, such as the common reference to Cold War
structures that perpetuated US and Soviet support for certain rebel groups adopting
terrorist methods, suchas, respectively, the Nicaraguancontras or the GermanRedArmy
By and large, however, international relations specialists failed to engage the
problem, preferring to focus on the higher profile aspects of Cold War antagonism and
Ronald J. Deibert and Janice Gross Stein, ‘Hacking Networks of Terror’, Dialogue-IO (Spring 2002),
pp. 1–14.
See Walter Laqueur, The Age of Terrorism (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987).
See, e.g., Claire Sterling, The Terror Network (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1981).
terrorism, social movements, and international security 91
great power politics. Terrorism specialists therefore had to turn attention away from
the security literature and toward other fields. Among these were criminology, which
allowed analysts to group terrorist organizations with other secret, violent groups,
and psychology, which emphasized the supposed psychological rewards offered by
membership in terrorist groups and by the use of violence.
Among terrorism-related
works of this era, there were few concerted efforts to tie the problem to larger political
The perceived decline in anti-American terrorism in the years after the Cold War
sapped whatever broad interest there might have been in engaging terrorism as an
international security topic, especially given the ghastly array of security crises that
followed the end of the Cold War. Security specialists sought to illuminate trends
toward ethnic violence and genocide, toward regionalism, and toward the use of law
in international security. These important topics were, of course, more susceptible
to prevailing theories and methods in political science and international security.
Studies of ethnic conflict or cooperation might emphasize the cultural construction of
or, alternatively, the rational choices of individual actors.
Regional security
studies could emphasize either the reduction of uncertainty through the establishment
of transnational institutions
or the increase of tension following the collapse of the
bipolar system.
Among those works published on terrorismin the late 1990s, the most
influential were not works of academic scholarship but rather of policy research and
Even those works published by university presses aimed in large part at
general audiences rather than at those international security specialists who, it seemed,
hadvirtually nointerest inthe topic.
Animportant subset of this literature emphasized
the possibility that post-Cold War terrorists would resort to the use of weapons of mass
John M. Martin and Anne T. Romano, Multinational Crime: Terrorism, Espionage, Drugs, and Arms
Trafficking (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992).
Jerrold M. Post, ‘Terrorist Psycho-Logic: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Psychological Forces’, in
Walter Reich (ed.), Origins of Terrorism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 25–40.
One important exception is Martha Crenshawof Wesleyan University, who organized a 1989 conference
on ‘Terrorism in Context’, that sought to relate terrorist campaigns to their political environments. For
the published outcome of the conference, see Martha Crenshaw(ed.), Terrorismin Context (Harrisburg:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).
Although it aims at complementing rationalist contributions, one example of the constructivist agenda
is Badredine Arfi, ‘Ethnic Fear: The Social Construction of Insecurity’, Security Studies 8: 1 (Autumn
1998), pp. 151–203.
James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, ‘Explaining Interethnic Cooperation’, American Political Science
Review 90: 4 (December 1996), pp. 715–735.
For one interesting example on the effort to contain China through institutionalization, see Alastair
Ian Johnston, ‘The Myth of the ASEAN Way? Explaining the Evolution of the ASEAN Regional Forum’,
in Helga Haffendorn, Robert O. Keohane, and Celeste A. Wallander (eds), Imperfect Unions: Security
Institutions Over Time and Space (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999), pp. 287–324.
Aaron L. Friedberg, ‘Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for Peace in a Multipolar Asia’, International Security
18: 3 (Winter 1993/1994), pp. 5–33.
See, e.g., Ian O. Lesser et al., Countering the New Terrorism (Santa Monica: RAND, 1999).
Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
92 david leheny
destruction (WMD).
One key concern grew from the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s use of
sarin gas in Tokyo in 1995, which led even some skeptics about the risk of WMD
to rethink their positions.
The WMDterrorismissue, however, points to the difficulties for studying terrorist
organizations in empirically rigorous ways, which have likely contributed to the relative
reluctance of international security specialists to engage the topic. By their nature,
terrorist organizations are clandestine in at least some of their activities, and they
are usually quite small when compared to military forces, and their behavior can be
disquietingly idiosyncratic. Indeed, the WMD issue itself has evolved as a policy study
topic largely through the elaboration of ‘low-probability, high-risk’ threats, which are
difficult to predict or articulate, but whichappear as challenges to policymakers charged
with ensuring national security.
As a result, a good deal of the research on terrorism
appears designed to make ‘guesswork’ more educated. But it is still guesswork, and –
as the 11 September attacks demonstrate – committed, well-educated security experts
are eminently capable of guessing wrong. An attack with a nuclear weapon might have
been more easily detected in advance than the 11 September hijackings proved to be,
in part because it would have been exactly the type of ‘low probability/mass casualty’
attack that policymakers had feared.
This is where theory might help, by providing explanatory frameworks that might
allow policy analysts to determine the conditions under which terrorist groups might
engage in a WMD or other type of attack. One intuitive approach would focus on the
strategic interaction between terrorists and their targets. In a rigorous recent example,
Kydd and Walter (2002), for example, demonstrate the importance of rationalist
approaches by showing that extremist groups, such as Palestinian Hamas, can use
violence toundermine confidence inpeace negotiations.
But terrorist strategies aimat
diverse audiences. In one of the most important contributions to theories of terrorism,
Martha Crenshaw adopts a modified utility-maximizing approach to examine the
organizational politics of terrorism.
Crenshaw uses Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice,
and Loyalty to examine the different choices facing organization leaders and members
on a daily basis. This is important not just as a glimpse into the inner workings of a
group, but also as a reminder that an organization’s activities may be directed internally
as well as externally. That is, a terrorist attack usually attracts the attention of the media
Jessica Stern, The Ultimate Terrorists (Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 1999); Walter Laqueur,
The New Terrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Brian M. Jenkins, ‘Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?’ Orbis29: 3 (Autumn 1985), pp. 507–515.
Brian M. Jenkins, ‘Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? AReappraisal’, in Harvey W. Kushner (ed.),The Future of
Terrorism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998), pp. 225–249. For a critical assessment, see Ehud Sprinzak,
‘The Great Superterrorism Scare’, Foreign Policy 112 (1998), pp. 110–119.
Robert Dreyfuss, ‘The Phantom Menace’, Mother Jones (September/October 2000), pp. 40–45, 88–91.
Andrew Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, ‘Sabotaging the Peace: The Politics of Extremist Violence’,
International Organization 56: 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 263–296.
Martha Crenshaw, ‘An Organizational Approach to the Analysis of Political Terrorism’, Orbis 29: 3
(Autumn 1985), pp. 473–487.
terrorism, social movements, and international security 93
and of a group’s opponents, convincing them that the organization is trying to send a
message. Almost certainly, any attack aims at least in part to hurt a group’s enemy, but
it might also be undertaken specifically to recruit new members, silence debates within
the organization, or the like. A group’s primary goal might well be its own survival,
which radically shifts the way that we need to consider incentives for action.
Even a cursory glance at terrorist groups around the world demonstrates how
internal dynamics can shape external behavior. Hamas, for example, operates as both
an organization committed to violence and as an Islamic social-welfare structure that
has to rely on some tolerance from the Palestinian Authority.
And ‘the Troubles’
of Northern Ireland were continually extended because of the tendency of Catholic
paramilitaries to reorganize whenever certain portions of the movement have been
seen to ‘go soft’.
To prevent factionalization and the disruption of control, group
leaders have needed to provide selective benefits to members and to engage in specific
forms of controlledviolence tomake sure that their organizations remaincoherent. This
implies that selective benefits might draw some terrorists away from an organization.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, political scientists David Laitin
and James Fearon explained publicly howtheir work on rational choices in ethnic strife
might provide clues for how to deal with terrorist conflict, by informing governments
how they might wean members from terrorist activity.
This focus on strategic interaction, both inside and outside of a group, provides
extremely valuable clues for understanding the choices that terrorist organizations face,
and may be indispensable in offering a way to break the cycle of violence. But it does not
provide much guidance for grasping why a group might choose one style of violence
rather than another, which may also be necessary for academic and policy analysts alike.
The Basque nationalist group ETA, for example, would not have carried out anything
on the level of the 11 September attacks, making absurd the Aznar government’s initial
suggestion that they were behind the 11 March 2004 attack on a Madrid train station.
Indeed, when ETA carried out coordinated bombings in December 2004, it warned
police in advance to allowthemto evacuate the areas.
Furthermore, it is inconceivable
that the violent Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin gas on the Tokyo
subway in 1995, would have engaged in hijackings. Indeed, different repertoires of
violence exist in different organizations, because they mean different things. A group’s
focus on massive, media-consuming acts of violence, such as with WMD or with the
David C. Rapoport (ed.), Inside Terrorist Organizations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela, The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2000).
On the IRA’s history, see J. Bowyer Bell, The IRA, 1968–2000: Analysis of a Secret Army (London: Frank
Cass, 2000).
In ‘What Terrorists Want’, The New Yorker (29 October 2001), pp. 36–41, Nicholas Lemann praises
Fearon’s and Laitin’s research agenda and its potential applicability to terrorism, suggesting that the
US might provide better incentives for group members to defect.
Dale Fuchs, ‘Basque Rebels Set Off 7 Bombs; Damage Light’, The New York Times (7 December 2004),
p. A13.
94 david leheny
destruction of whole buildings, should not be confused with an amplified version
of kidnapping or other low-level assaults. Indeed, millennial violence appears most
important to religious groups, in large part because of the transformative rather than
tactical value of such attacks, just as hijackings tend to be more important to nationalist
It is largely for this reason that some scholars have turned more assiduously to
the symbolic importance of violence to terrorist groups. Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror
in the Mind of God relies on his interviews with terrorist group members in order
to understand why they turn to violence. Remarkably, he finds a number of clear
similarities between the tactics, rationalizations, and stated motives in a wide array
of terrorist organizations, drawn from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and even Buddhist
traditions. For Juergensmeyer, the clear issue is how massive violence on earth can help
to instigate the ‘cosmic war’ that will cleanse the earth and leave the movement and
its acolytes in charge.
Robin Erica Wagner-Pacifici chooses a different route, relying
on Victor Turner’s theory of the ‘social drama’, to understand the murder of former
Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Wagner-Pacifici emphasizes that members of the
RedBrigades (as well as police, politicians, andother civilians) usedinheritednarratives
to understand their roles and their proper course of action. And so the entire terrorist
crisis involves the way that people accept culturally inscribed stories of political conflict
that allow them to justify kidnapping, non-negotiation, and the like. She would not
dispute that, at some level, the violence is strategic, but would instead suggest that
the strategy is unintelligible without attention to the symbolic world that the Italian
political elites inhabited, and therefore to their understanding of their best options.
Neither of these approaches immediately solves the problem of explaining how
certain types of violence with symbolic relevance become part of a strategic game.
Juergensmeyer’s book avoids any reference to non-religious groups, so there is too little
variationinhis cases toprovide compelling evidence that his interpretations are correct.
AndWagner-Pacifici’s close attentionto Italy virtually obviates the chance for any broad
claims about the politics of violence across contexts. But both provide valuable clues for
understanding how a symbolic context might be important, especially when combined
with the strategic choices available to militants.
‘Collective action frames’ in social movements
Symbolism and strategy have long been concerns for those scholars focusing
on social movements.
At times, social movement theory has been dominated by
wider prevailing concerns, including ones of mobilization, collective action, and
Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).
This is not always an easy fit. See James Johnson, ‘HowConceptual Problems Migrate: Rational Choice,
Interpretation, and the Hazards of Pluralism’, Annual Review of Political Science 5 (2002), pp. 223–248.
Indeed, Donatella Della Porta discusses terrorism and social movements in Social Movements, Political
Violence, and the State: AComparative Analysis of Italy and Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1995).
terrorism, social movements, and international security 95
negotiated settlements in conflicts. But throughout the past 30 years of debate over
social movements, scholars have dealt with the thorny issue of what participation in
social movements actually means to movement members. In part because rationalist
tools often seem insufficient to explain why individuals would willingly give up their
time and even safety to join a protest- or rebellion-minded group, some experts have
focused on the kinds of social benefits created by people’s willingness to believe that
they belong to something larger, better, and more important than their more quotidian
associations. To be sure, the strategy-oriented social movement theorists have not
given up their focus on the political goals and tactics of groups, and neither have the
culturalists been willing to concede that only strategy matters. Instead, there is a kind
of truce in which scholars of all stripes seem to agree that a full understanding of social
movements will require some attention to both sets of issues.
Social movement theory has witnessed a great deal of intellectual evolution. In the
1950s and early 1960s, uprisings were treated largely in psychological terms as instances
of panic or ‘crowd behavior’.
The protests and riots that developed throughout the
industrialized West in the 1960s provoked scholars to think more about the connection
betweenpolitical change andgroupmobilization.
Sidney Tarrowpoints out that many
specialists were drawn to the notion of ‘political opportunity’ as a tool for theorizing
the connectionbetweenlarger environments and the resource capabilities of movement
By the late 1980s, as researchers expanded their notions of social movements,
some turned to groups with which they likely had less sympathy.
One important contribution included a discussion of the American Christian
Right’s mass mobilization strategies as part of an overall view of social movement
organization’s efforts to draw followers into a broader range of debates. Using Erving
Goffman’s understanding of ‘frames’, Snow, Rochford, and colleagues pushed to re-
theorize social movements in social psychological terms that veer close to cultural
In their examination of conservative American organizations in the 1980s,
these frame analysts argued that social movement organizations expand and build
upon their past successes by attempting to shift the ways in which potential adherents
understand their own interests and goals. Gun rights advocates, for example, might
be targeted by anti-abortion organizations as possible contributors and supporters
because of their willingness to adhere broadly to conservative principles and symbols.
Pamela E. Oliver and Hank Johnston, ‘What a Good Idea! Frames and Ideologies in Social Movement
Research’, Mobilization 5 (April 2002), pp. 37–54.
One classic statement is John D. and Mayer Zald, ‘Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A
Partial Theory’, American Journal of Sociology 82: 6 (May 1977), pp. 1212–1241. See also J. Craig Jenkins,
‘Resource Mobilization Theory and the Study of Social Movements’, Annual Review of Sociology 9
(1983), pp. 527–553.
Sidney G. Tarrow, ‘National Politics and Collective Action: Recent Theory and Research in Western
Europe and the United States’, Annual Review of Sociology 14 (1988), pp. 421–440.
David A. Snow, E. Burke Rochford Jr, Steven K. Worden, and Robert D. Benford, ‘Frame Alignment
Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation’, American Sociological Review 51: 4 (August
1986), pp. 464–481, at 468–469.
96 david leheny
By discussing anti-abortion activism in patriotic and conservative terms recognizable
to National Rifle Association members, movement leaders might help to ‘frame’ the
debate in ways that ‘resonate’ with the experiences and prevailing ideas of tangentially
like-minded activists.
It is unsurprising that framing, as an analytical device, would prove to be popular
withthe cultural studies specialists interested inidentity-based movements of the 1990s,
givenits applicability to ‘constructivist’ theories of politics. It is not aneasy fit, of course,
with rationalist or statistical approaches to social movement analysis. To some degree,
the epistemological tension lying in much of the current work on social movements
reflects concerns between those scholars seeking to pursue quantitative research on
resources and goals, and those trying to use discursive and textual methods to grasp
the meaning of movement activity to members.
Where the two might be fruitfully
combined, however, might be in the construction and framing of a ‘repertoire’ of
tactics shared among members of a social movement, and then their subsequent and
strategic employment. Because of the spread of certain types of tactics – construction
of barricades, hijackings, hunger strikes, to name just three – among activists, social
movement theorists have examined how protest methods are disseminated. Beginning
with Charles Tilly’s research on the French Revolution, scholars have addressed the
relationship between forms and cycles of protest. Social movement organizers often
have a limited array of tactics available to them, and will push followers to adopt tactical
choices that seem familiar. To some extent, this can simply be a strategy of efficiency;
after all, imitation is often easier than innovation. But even the more inventive social
protests have largely been efforts to reshape the more conventional protest methods
to fit current goals and available resources.
Frames and repertoires, however, do not
reproduce on their own; their proponents need conduits for diffusing them.
Of critical but often neglected importance to social movements is the role of
networks in spreading frames and repertoires. Tarrow notes that those movements
operating in clandestine environments have been forced to rely on informal networks,
often facilitated by face-to-face contact.
These informal networks allow movement
leaders to try to shift the goals and preferences of colleagues and followers, while
educating members about tactical possibilities. Secretive networks, however, are
difficult to study, and tend to be unattractive candidates for rigorous social science
research. But by focusing on the ways in which known leaders of an organization
describe their goals and activities, while also assessing the actions and strategies of
other groups linked through informal networks, we may be able to identify the strength
On ‘frame resonance’, see Sarah Babb, ‘“A True American System of Finance”: Frame Resonance in the
US Labor Movement, 1866 to 1886’, American Sociological Review 61: 6 (December 1996), pp. 1033–1052.
Richard A. Couto, ‘Narrative, Free Space, and Leadership in Social Movements’, Journal of Politics 55: 1
(February 1993), pp. 57–79.
For a good study, see Mark Traugott (ed.), Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1995).
Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 47–50.
terrorism, social movements, and international security 97
of the connections between core groups in a social movement and their affiliates.
The importance of face-to-face contact for vulnerable organizations in clandestine
movements also implies a weakness; the frames andrepertoires may be most convincing
to those movement members with direct connections to other organizations. Actors
with exclusively local experiences may find that their narrow and proximate concerns
outweigh the importance of global framing efforts. The experience of Southeast Asian
Islamist terrorism suggests that Al Qaeda’s most important role may have been in
framing motives and interests, but that the leadership has little control over specific
decisions or tactics.
The Afghanistan War and Al Qaeda’s framing efforts
The formation of Al Qaeda in the ashes of the Afghanistan War provides a clear
opportunity toexamine the ways inwhichlocal violent movements canbecome security
problems for superpowers as well. Al Qaeda might well be sui generis, a terrorist group
so unusual that lessons drawn fromits creation and its tactics have little applicability for
larger studies of international security. But if this paper’s main contentions – namely,
that terrorism needs to be addressed in international security research, and that social
movement theory provides the most promising avenue for doing so – are correct,
the lessons might be important for other potential actors as well. Al Qaeda’s success
derives in large part from its efforts to frame religious conflict as a global rather than
local phenomenon, and from the deliberate diffusion of tactics from the Central Asian
theater to the global stage. Its success, however, has been limited and shaped by the
goals and symbolic contexts of local movements that it attempts to mobilize.
The role of the Afghanistan War in setting the conditions for the establishment
of Al Qaeda has been well documented and needs no lengthy recapitulation here. The
Soviet Union’s decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the pro-Soviet regime
that had seized power was unsettling to governments in the West and the Middle East
alike. The course seemed especially clear to the United States and Saudi Arabia alike: to
provide, respectively, military and financial support to the ‘holy warriors’ (mujahedeen)
who would resist the Soviet advance.
The movement’s madrassas (religious schools)
served as increasingly politicized training grounds for instructing young students on
their responsibility to engage in jihad, or a ‘struggle’ re-conceptualized in military
terms. By the mid 1980s, the Afghani mujahedeen found themselves bogged down and
unable to deliver a convincing coup-de-grace to the Soviet forces. Volunteers began
to arrive from around the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East. Only a few
years after the Islamic revolution in Iran (whose influence the Saudi regime sought
desperately to limit), this must have been a remarkable opportunity for young religious
activists from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Philippines, or Indonesia. After all, this
was the first direct conflict between the ‘Islamic world’ and a true postwar superpower,
See especially Gilles Kepel, Jihad: On the Trail of Political Islam, translated by Anthony F. Roberts
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 81–105, 136–159, and 205–236.
98 david leheny
and it appeared to be a war that the Muslims would win. Lured by the promise of glory,
at least a nominal income, and military and religious training, these volunteers began
to form the increasingly important backbone for the Afghani resistance movement.
After the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, the mujahedeen found themselves
facing further civil war in Afghanistan or, in the case of foreign fighters, governments
that were not entirely pleased to welcome themhome. The most famous of them, Saudi
multimillionaire Osama binLaden, became especially critical of the Saudi government’s
decision to host US troops during and following the 1991 Gulf War; he was ultimately
stripped of citizenship, and, after a stay in the Sudan, he returned to Afghanistan.
There, Bin Laden began to work increasingly with other veterans of the Afghan War,
especially with members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). The EIJ’s members, having
beenexiledfromEgypt because of their attacks onthe Mubarak regime andoccasionally
on foreign tourists, sought to use Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to plan a
violent campaign against secular opponents in the Middle East. One EIJ leader, Ayman
al-Zawahiri, became especially close to Bin Laden, who sought to use the Egyptian’s
manpower and military tactics to achieve the expulsion of Americans from Saudi
Arabia, while al-Zawahiri believed that Bin Laden’s wealth and charisma could be
useful in financing the campaign and recruiting new members.
Since the mid-1990s, Bin Laden’s main achievement has been the linking of local
Islamist movements by using networks of veterans of the Afghanistan jihad. Bin Laden
and his colleagues accomplished this through the articulation of a new ideology for the
use of violence and through the construction of an organization that provides funds
and training for attacks on shared targets. On an ideological level, Bin Laden adopted
the language of his mentor, a Palestinian professor named Abdullah Azzam, with whom
he had worked in Peshawar, Pakistan, during the Afghan jihad. Although Azzam was
not a particularly original thinker – after all, the promotion of jihad against outsiders
had been introduced by earlier theologians – he was in the right place at the right
time. As a Palestinian who had urged the destruction of Israel for religious rather than
purely nationalist reasons, Azzam had special credibility among students and young
mujahedeen in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Bin Laden’s language reflected Azzam’s
thinking, as it linked disparate Islamist campaigns of violence into a larger struggle
against outsiders. By drawing this connection explicitly, Bin Laden hoped to overcome
some of the doctrinal differences that had separated earlier Islamist groups. Although
he himself focusedprimarily onthe Americans inSaudi Arabia, he encouragedMuslims
On the Afghan War, Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
Neil MacFarquhar, ‘Islamic Jihad, Forged in Egypt, Is Seen as bin Laden’s Backbone’, New York Times
(4 October 2001). Hisham Mubarak has documented a fascinating interview with Tal’at Fu’ad Qasim, a
leader of the ‘Islamic Group’ from Egypt, who discusses the EIJ/Bin Laden connection. See ‘What Does
the Gama’a Islamiyya Want? (Interview with Tal’at Fu’ad Qasim’, in Joel Benin and Joe Stork (eds),
Political Islam: Essays from ‘Middle East Report’ (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997).
Kepel, Jihad, pp. 144–147.
terrorism, social movements, and international security 99
from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, not to mention those already
living in the advanced industrial West, to think of their own problems as emblematic
of the larger conflict between Islam and the outside world.
Al Qaeda moreover used the military training provided to the mujahedeen by
the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, to establish training centers throughout
Afghanistan. There, recruits froma broadvariety of nations were encouragedtodevelop
similar tactical abilities as well as a set of other organizational skills. In addition
to skills like planting bombs, using firearms, evading capture, kidnapping, and the
like, Al Qaeda’s members were taught to duplicate and compartmentalize aspects of
their operations, so that the loss of one member would not compromise the larger
In this way, Al Qaeda dramatically transformed the ways in which members
and recruits would engage in Islamist struggles. No longer would they focus primarily
on non-violent political organization at home, or on the use of mosques to encourage
piety, or on the possibility of civil wars, instead, they would cooperate – often through
the use of transnational cells – to use coordinated, cataclysmic attacks largely against
Western or American targets.
Al Qaeda did something far more remarkable than just carry out astonishing
acts of terrorism. In the language of social movement theory, Bin Laden and his
colleagues managed to create a new frame through which a wide variety of groups
could understand their grievances, providing a link to militants who otherwise might
have been separated by nationality, class, language, and culture. Moreover, the careful
training at Al Qaeda’s camps within Afghanistan, combined with nearly constant
research on targets, security systems, and movement opponents, together produced
newly shared repertoires of proper action. To this end, both the madrassas and the
training camps were of crucial importance. Some Al Qaeda recruits evidently traveled
to Pakistan primarily for religious instruction at madrassas, but were encouraged by
teachers – who were themselves inspired in part by Azzam’s jihadi theories – to travel to
Afghanistan to prepare for broader conflict. Similarly, training at camps apparently did
what military training often does; it created an esprit-de-corps among members who
began to see themselves as something larger.
None of these efforts could have taken place had the clerics cooperating with
Al Qaeda not redefined local violent struggles as part of the wider jihad. That is, a
strike against distant foreign enemies – such as the United States – is a blow for Islam,
a shift away from the preference of local movements for local actions. US targets could
serve as stand-ins for local secular authorities that have prevented the adoption of
the Shari’a as the organizing principle for decent societies. By enlarging the sphere in
which actors understood their grievances from the local/national to the transnational,
Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda, pp. 70–84.
On the relationship between training and the construction of a national identity, see William H.
McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since AD 1000 (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 117–143.
100 david leheny
Al Qaeda and its supporters provided the philosophical basis for international co-
operation against the putative enemies of Islam. Military training camps generated
both the common collective identity and the shared tactics and repertoires that have
informed the transnational cells operating from Jakarta to Kabul, and Dushanbe to
Hamburg. But ‘informed’ does not mean the same as ‘determined’, and local context
still matters.
Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia
If religion is to be considered politically relevant, it is only because it represents
a way for people to organize their lives, their moral codes, and their understanding of
the consequences (both in this world and the next) of their actions. Islam’s diversity
in Southeast Asia is a crucial condition for understanding the terrain that Al Qaeda
militants face in trying to achieve support and cooperation from the region’s Muslims.
The ways in which Islam is lived, understood, and practiced in Southeast Asia are so
divergent as to suggest that transnational organizations such as Al Qaeda will likely
confront populations that differ widely in their levels of commitment, interest, and
theological (let alone practical) goals.
Little agreement exists on the arrival of Islam to Southeast Asia, though it appears
that Muslims have lived in territory populated by Malays since at least the eleventh
century, and had extended to Mindanao and the western half of the Indonesian
archipelago by the thirteenth century. By the fifteenth century, Islamic edicts were
becoming more prominent elements of local regulations and legal codes.
In the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there have been some region-wide intellectual and
political trends in Southeast Asian Islam, among them the reformism that spread from
the Egyptian Salifiyyah movement, which argued that strict observance of the rules of
the Koran could help achieve critical economic, social, and political change through
strict observance of fundamental principles from the Koran. In Southeast Asia, the
adoptionby key clerics of this framework helpedtospearheadthe local Muhammadiyah
movement, generally described as ‘modernist’ Islam.
Common trends became even
more pronounced with national independence, economic growth, urbanization, and
increased regional travel in the second half of the twentieth century. By the 1970s and
1980s, student proselytizing (dakwah) movements took on political importance across
Muslim Southeast Asia.
But Islam has been mapped on to a diverse territory of ethnic conflict, colonial
legacies, and troubled economic hierarchies that distinguish the region. American
HussinMutalib, ‘Islamic Malay Polity inSoutheast Asia’, inMohd. TaibOsman(ed.), Islamic Civilization
in the Malay World (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1997), pp. 3–48, at 7–11.
Raymond Scupin, ‘The Politics of Islamic Reformism in Thailand’, Asian Survey 20: 12 (December
1980), pp. 1223–1235, at 1224–1225.
Mohamed Abu Bakar, ‘Islamic Revivalism and the Political Process in Malaysia’, Asian Survey 21: 10
(October 1981), pp. 1040–1059; Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 106–109.
terrorism, social movements, and international security 101
discussions of Islamandterrorism, especiallyinSoutheast Asia, have oftendistinguished
between ‘moderate’ and ‘fundamentalist’ Islam, though this is a political rather than
analytical statement. After all, in Indonesia itself, Islam’s practice often seems divided
between ‘traditionalists’ who follow the guidance of ulama (Islamic scholars) and
‘modernists’ who emphasize the strict interpretation of Koranic scripture rather than
interpreted versions. In contemporary studies of Islam and politics in Indonesia,
‘traditionalists’ have ended up looking open and tolerant, where their modernist
counterparts seem closed-minded and ultimately threatening. Even here, though, the
distinction misses the divergent opinions of ulama, who may prefer narrowconformity
to Koranic law or, alternatively, ‘sufist’ mixtures of Islam with indigenous mystical
Beyond this categorization, one might also focus on differences – as does
Geertz (1960) – between priyayi, santri, and abangan Muslims, whose varied styles of
practicing the faith tend also to reflect class distinctions, educational levels, and wider
social debates.
In Indonesia alone, therefore, Islam represents an extraordinarily
complex and diverse belief system; stereotypes become even more absurd when one
broadens the discussion to include Muslims in the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei,
Singapore and Thailand.
Leaving aside the theological issues, the relationships between states and Islamalso
vary widely. In Malaysia, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed’s ruling party,
the United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO), has used Islam as a tool to justify
some specific benefits to the roughly 50% of the population who are ethnic Malays,
while maintaining the claim that the government represents the interests of Chinese
and Indian minorities as well.
Indonesia’s long-time dictator President Suharto tried
at first to marginalize the country’s powerful Islamic organizations, seeing them as a
potential threat to his military rule; over his three decades in power, he increasingly
embraced them while also demanding their willingness to adhere to the ostensibly
pluralistic pancasila ideology that justified his rule.
And in the Philippines, the Moros
of Mindanao have engaged in a long secessionist struggle with the predominantly
Catholic national government.
The diversity of ethnic groups, theological positions, andpolitical conditions facing
individual Islamic organizations has yielded an alarming kaleidoscope of political and
religious violence in the region. In Malaysia, for example, tight policing has limited
the size and scope of Islamist organizations that might extol violence. The most
widely noted Malaysian group is a 60-member
movement known as the Kumpulan
Julia Day Howell, ‘Sufism and the Islamic Revival’, Journal of Asian Studies 60: 3 (August 2001), pp. 701–
Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).
David Camroux, ‘State Reponses to Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia: Accommodation, Co-Option, and
Confrontation’, Asian Survey 36: 9 (September 1996), pp. 852–868, at 854–855.
R. William Liddle, ‘The Islamic Turn in Indonesia: A Political Explanation’, Journal of Asian Studies 55:
3 (August 1996), pp. 613–634.
‘Militant Groups’ Growing Tentacles’, The Straits Times (26 January 2002). Available at http://
straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/usattack/story/0,1870,99176-1012082340,00.html (Accessed 4 March 2003).
102 david leheny
MilitanMujahedeen(Chapter of Militant Holy Warriors, or KMM). The internationally
connected KMM, however, is unusual in Southeast Asian politics, and its educated,
elite members enjoy little popular support.
Indonesia’s post-Suharto experience with
violent Islamist movements has been disconcertingly varied and troubled. Before the
Bali disco bombing, the most prominent was the brutal sectarian violence carried out
by Laskar Jihad in its fight with Christians (who have themselves been responsible for
a great deal of the bloodshed) in the Maluku Islands.
In Jakarta itself, the Islamic
Defenders Front’s pro-piety campaigns have used the bombings and demolition of
Jakarta nightclubs and bars as efforts to intimidate those institutions considered
to violate Islamic law, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan.
attacks by the group (which announced it would disband after the Bali bombing in
October 2002), found legitimacy among a small set of Indonesia’s Muslims, they also
reflected straightforward rent-seeking behavior; members evidently served as unofficial
enforcers for military and police units extorting money from the clubs and bars.
the Philippines, the divergent approaches to secessionist violence by Moro groups often
mirror not just theological tensions but also ethnic divisions between, for example, the
Moro National Liberation Front (mostly Tausug) and the Moro Islamic Liberation
Front (largely Maguindanao).
This is a whirlwind tour of Islam and politics in Southeast Asia. And it is intended,
like a whirlwind, not to create but rather to destabilize – in this case, to undermine easy
assumptions about what a group like Al Qaeda might be able to organize or accomplish
in the region. Indeed, the links between Southeast Asian Muslims and the jihad in
Afghanistan were initially modest. Although some Muslim fighters from Southeast
Asia joined the fight, most of them were not at the time movement leaders. There were
not enough of them, moreover, to represent the kind of critical mass that the Arabs
did in this new and violent expression of political Islam. In spite of occasionally violent
confrontations between Islamists and regimes in Southeast Asia, little evidence thus
far suggests that Al Qaeda’s efforts to create a united front among fundamentalists has
been successful beyond isolated cases that usually involve leadership from an Afghan
War veteran.
Before the 11 September attacks invited wider attention to the global spread of
Al Qaeda, the clearest evidence of the organization’s presence in Southeast Asian
came from the work of Ramzi Yousef – the Kuwaiti-born son of a Pakistani father and
JohnGershman, ‘Is Southeast Asia the SecondFront?’, ForeignAffairs 81: 4 (July/August 2002), pp. 20–74.
Michael Davis, ‘Laskar Jihadandthe Political Positionof Conservative IslaminIndonesia’, Contemporary
Southeast Asia 24: 1 (April 2002), pp. 12–32.
‘Running a Nightspot not all that Easy’, Jakarta Post (7 January 2001). Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
Marianne Kearney, ‘Calls for Jihad in Indonesia are all about “Fame and Position”’, The Straits Times
(18 October 2001). Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
On political violence in the Philippines, see Thomas M. McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday
Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,
1999); and Marites Danguilan Vitug and Glenda M. Gloria, Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in
Mindanao (Manila: The Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism, 2000).
terrorism, social movements, and international security 103
Palestinianmother –inthe Philippines in1994–1995. Yousef was one of the mainplotters
of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, now attributed to the then-nascent Al
Qaeda. After the attack, Yousef went to Manila, where he created an audacious plot to
destroy 12 airliners over the Pacific, murder the pope, and assassinate the presidents of
the United States and Philippines. In a December 1994 test run, Yousef or his associates
placeda bombona Philippine jet, whichmanagedtolandsafely evenafter the explosion
that took the life of a Japanese passenger. Yousef ’s plans unraveled when a fire broke
out in his Manila apartment during preparations of further explosive devices. Narrowly
escaping to Pakistan, Yousef was arrestedandextraditedto the UnitedStates in1995, and
then convicted in 1997 of the first WTC bombing. During his time in the Philippines,
he had worked closely on the plan with members of Abu Sayyaf (‘Bearer of the Sword’,
abbreviated below as ASG),
headed by a young Afghan veteran named Abdurajak
Abubakar Janjalani.
Janjalani created the ASG as an extremely radical offshoot of the Islamic resistance
in the southern Philippines. After studying Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, Janjalani took
classes on religion in Libya, and then traveled to take part in the Afghan jihad. After
returning to the Philippines, he organized the new movement, which announced its
existence with an attack on a military checkpoint on Basilan Island in 1991.
been trained alongside members of Al Qaeda, Janjalani appeared eager to demonstrate
the Abu Sayyaf Group’s commitment to global jihad by cooperating extensively with
Yousef, who actually used the name Abu Sayyaf in his phone call to the Associated Press
claiming credit for the 1994 airliner bombing.
It was this cooperation that served to
justify the early 2002 deployment of US special forces to the Philippines, where they
cooperated with the Philippine military to track down ASG members, resulting in the
capture or death of some of its top leaders.
A closer look at the ASG, however, is instructive for understanding how the
networks forged in the Afghan jihad have been limited by the preoccupations of local
groups, and by disagreements among members with predominantly local concerns.
There is little doubt that Janjalani, who was killed in 1998, was in fact a ‘true believer’,
and that he viewed the effort to split from the Philippines as part of a larger global
struggle to establish Islamic rule over the worldwide umma, or community of the
faithful. Initially, the ASG’s tactics displayed an eagerness to act as a Southeast Asian
arm of the nascent Al Qaeda. But the ASG’s most recent activities – including an
David Kocieniewski, Peg Tyre, and Knut Royce, ‘Terrorism Evidence Destroyed’, Newsday (16 April
1995). Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
Eric Gutierrez, ‘From Ilaga to Abu Sayaf: New Entrepreneurs in Violence and their Impact on
Local Politics in Mindanao’, draft paper prepared for the European Philippine Studies Conference,
9–12 September 2001, in Alcala de Henares, Spain. Cited with permission of author.
Charles Wallace, ‘Weaving a World-Wide Web of Terror’, Los Angeles Times (28 May 1995), p. A1.
Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
Raymond Bonner with Eric Schmitt, ‘Philippine Officials Detail the Trap, Set with US Help, that Snared
a Rebel Leader’, The New York Times (22 September 2002), p. A22.
104 david leheny
extraordinary rash of kidnappings for ransom – display a power struggle that reflects
competing visions of the function of this violent group for southern Philippine politics.
Indeed, the nickname of one of the most publicly visible protagonists in the kidnapping
drama indicates that fundamentalist Islam is merely one of a variety of forces acting on
the group.
There are two main versions for understanding how Galib Andang earned his nom
de guerre, ‘Commander Robot’. In one version, it derives fromhis miraculous survival –
virtually unscathed – from a gunshot that failed to penetrate his skin.
The more
commonly accepted version, however, has it that the flamboyantly extroverted Andang
used to entertain children by imitating Michael Jackson with a ‘robot dance’ when
he worked as a servant in the home of locally powerful landowners. Robot professes
faith in Islam – and this is a claim that probably has some meaning to him, and is not
simply used strategically – but he speaks no Arabic and is largely uninterested in the
broader theological claims made by Janjalani. By 1999, however, Robot had begun to
become increasingly important inAbuSayyaf, taking control of a factionthat kidnapped
Filipinos to collect ransom. In May 2000, Commader Robot helped the ASG leap to
the international headlines with an astonishing attack on a beach resort in Malaysia. In
that assault, Robot’s men managed to kidnap over a dozen foreign nationals, including
a number of Europeans. In the negotiations that followed, the Libyan government
evidently served as a conduit for a ransom payment from the European governments
to the ASG.
The ASG’s success in this mission may have ended up filling the organization’s
coffers for jihad against the Philippine government, but it also presaged a shift toward
kidnapping as a tactic for financial gain rather than clear military or tactical advantage.
Indeed, Robot became a media antihero, enjoying the limelight of a Philippine celebrity.
In the oddest subplot, an actress in soft-core porn films offered herself to Robot
for ‘a week of pleasure’ to release the hostages.
After the conclusion of the initial
international kidnapping crisis, ASG members kidnapped more foreigners, including
several Americans; some were killed (with one, Guillermo Sobero, beheaded) by the
group in 2001, and others died in a rescue mission gone awry in 2002. Atactical ransom
payment by the USgovernment –designedtosecure the release of hostages while leading
to the arrest of the ASG’s leaders – went awry because of internal conflicts in the ASG
about who should get the money, and by the refusal of the actual hostage-holders to
release them until Janjalani’s brother shared the loot more widely.
Al Qaeda’s members have clearly been in contact with ASG leaders in the past, and
so the talk of a link between the groups is true in at least a very general sense. But the
See the interview with Mindanao specialist Thomas McKenna in George Edmonson, ‘Q&A: The War
on Terror moves to the Philippines’, 24 January 2002. Available at http://www.azstarnet.com/attack/
indepth/id-philippineqa.html (accessed 4 March 2003).
Gutierrez, ‘From Ilaga to Abu Sayaf’ has a fascinating discussion of Commander Robot’s life and work
for the ASG.
Bonner and Schmitt, ‘Philippine Officials Detail the Trap’, 2002.
terrorism, social movements, and international security 105
ASG’s behavior indicates that it is a rebel group involved in earthly struggles over land
and money at least as much as it is focused on a commitment to global jihad. Media
analysts have repeatedly noted that the ASG might be more clearly seen as bandits than
terrorists, but this easy distinction misses the point. Al Qaeda was linked to ASG in the
past, and the ASG maintains that it is an Islamist organization committed to the use
of violence to create Muslim governance under Shariah law. Does its behavior suggest
that it is a renegade? How did Al Qaeda lose control if it is a global network with tight
central control or with nearly identical branches everywhere? Simply put, the political
strategies of ASGmembers, as well as the tactics that can be justified to members, differ
from those of other groups. Al Qaeda has been important in the group’s evolution, but
it does not and cannot dictate what the ASG will do.
Indonesia provides a similarly telling case. International press attention has settled
on Jemaah Islamiah (‘Islamic Group’ abbreviated below as JI) as the Southeast Asian
branch of Al Qaeda. The January 2002 revelations that Singaporean police had arrested
13 members for planning to attack Western installations in the region indicated to many
observers that this was, in essence, Al Qaeda-Eastern Division. JI’s roots are murky.
According to one version, the name JI is itself a generic label applied to a variety of
Islamist movements in Malaysia and Indonesia.
To the extent that the name refers
to the distinct group whose members have been arrested in January and September of
2002, JI was creationof twoIndonesianfriends of Yemeni descent, AbuBakar Bashir and
Abdullah Sungkar, both born in the 1930s. Bashir is primarily a theologian whose work
derives strongly fromthe teachings of the MuslimBrotherhood, and, until the late 1970s,
his work focused primarily on the promotion of the idea of an Indonesian Islamic state.
Sungkar was the political strategist who aimed at establishing networks through which
devout Muslims could take direct political action against the secular Suharto regime.
Arrested in 1979 for circulating a book critical of the government and for refusing to
swear allegiance tothe pancasila national ideology, Bashir andSungkar spent three years
in prison. Even upon their release, they were hounded by Indonesian police and fled to
Malaysia in 1985. It was there that they initially began to build cross-national Islamist
alliances, but not until 1995 didthe two beginto work withthe Ga’maa Islamiah(Islamic
Group, originally based in Egypt and linked with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad) and begin
to think more broadly about the establishment of an Islamic state beyond Indonesian
Gunaratna claims that during his exile, Sungkar managedtomeet BinLadenduring
a trip to Afghanistan, though details of the meeting are unknown.
Although Bashir
has been regarded as the JI’s sole major leader since the death of Sungkar in 1999, it is
Vaudine England, ‘Rounding Up the Usual Suspects’, South China Morning Post (26 April 2002), pp. 16.
Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
International Crisis Group, Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia: The Case of the ‘Ngruki Network’ in Indonesia,
ICG Indonesia Briefing ((Jakarta/Brussels, 2002).
Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda, p. 198.
106 david leheny
unclear whether a movement based primarily on his efforts would be anything more
than a strictly local organization typified by virulently anti-Semitic and anti-American
The JI’s plan to attack Western installations allegedly relied on not only
the organizational efforts of Bashir as Sungkar’s successor, and on the financial clout
of his strategy-minded colleague Riudan Isamuddin (a.k.a. ‘Hambali’), but also on
the recruitment activities and military skills of an Indonesian bomb-maker named
Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi (a.k.a. ‘Mike’).
The same small set of militants is accused
of carrying out a series of bombings at 24 churches during Christmas 2002, killing 19
and injuring more than 100 people.
Hambali is currently in US custody, having been
arrested in Thailand in August 2003,
and Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, who had escaped
from jail in the Philippines, was killed in a firefight in October 2003.
That there have been contacts between Al Qaeda and JI seems clear and unmistak-
able. In addition to the presence of Al Qaeda-trained leaders like Al-Ghozi, the JI
demonstrates extraordinary organizational affinities with Bin Laden’s organization.
Like Al Qaeda, JI is organized around a central shura (council) that has made
plans, arranged financial transactions, and built links to existing Islamist groups.
Moreover, financial transfers between Islamic charities and local organizations have
been, along with transfers of ‘bags of cash’ by couriers, major routes for channeling
Al Qaeda-related funds to JI members.
Viewing local struggles in global terms, JI
aimed ostensibly at transferring anger at local regimes for not observing the Shari’a
toward the global enemies of Islam blamed for the failures of the region’s governments.
Although previously consumed with more proximate crises like the Moluccan Islands
violence, JI militants have more recently become obsessed with the US-led ‘War on
Dan Murphy, ‘Indonesian Cleric Fights for a Muslim State’, Christian Science Monitor (2 May 2002).
Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
Home Affairs Ministry of Singapore, ‘The Case Against Jemaah Islamiah’, summary reprinted by The
Straits Times (31 May 2002). Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
Richard Paddock, ‘Southeast Asian Terror Exhibits Al Qaeda Traits’, The Los Angeles Times (3 March
2002), p. 1. Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
Kathy Marks, ‘Two-Year Hunt Tracked Al Qa’ida “Branch Manager” to Thailand’, The Independent
(16 August 2003), p. 13. Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
He had previously escaped from a Manila prison cell, most likely with of the well-compensated
cooperation of his jailers. By some accounts, at least, he was likely executed by police who felt that
arresting, trying, and imprisoning him would be more of a bother (and multifaceted risk) than simply
killing him. See Luz Baguioro, ‘Did al-Ghozi Die in Shoot-Out or Execution?’, The Straits-Times
(15 October 2003). Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
Home Affairs Ministry of Singapore, ‘The Case Against Jemaah Islamiah’.
Zachary Abuza, ‘Funding Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Financial Network of Al Qaeda and Jemaah
Islamiyah’, Contemporary Southeast Asia 25: 2 (August 2003), pp. 169–199.
For an excellent survey, see International Crisis Group, ‘Indonesia Backgrounder: How the Jemaah
Islamiyah Terrorist Network Operates’ (Jakarta/Brussels: ICG, 2002). The ICG has also produced a
follow-up, ‘Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but Still Dangerous’ (Jakarta/Brussels: ICG,
terrorism, social movements, and international security 107
But if the JI’s goals and rhetoric seem at times to mirror Al Qaeda’s, its actions
suggest that local politics has made the reflection murky and imprecise. Though
connected at times with other groups in the region – including at least Malaysia’s
KMM – the JI network has largely been preoccupied with distinctively Indonesian
concerns. Disagreements between those convicted of the Bali bombing make it difficult
to reconstruct precisely what happened, but it seems that most of the conspirators
involved in the attack had been involved in the Afghan jihad and saw themselves as
fighters in a worldwide struggle. Indeed, Hambali’s goals have always been at least
regional and possibly global in nature, but among four of the actual bombers – Amrozi,
Imam Samudra, Mukhlas, and Ali Imron – the Bali location appears to have reflected
more local concerns. According to their testimony, they had considered political or
consular targets that would more directly strike at the United States, but had settled
on the nightclubs in order to cause wider destruction against ‘soft targets’ that would
symbolize non-Islamic interference in Indonesia.
Crucially, the Bali bomb resembles
a version of the pro-piety destruction of nightclubs in Jakarta, though on a much
larger level. Instead, the attack appears to have been a symbolic hybrid; the arrest of
Southeast Asia’s main JI operatives may have meant the management of the attack by
Indonesian militants at least as concerned with the intimidation of impious institutions
on Indonesian territory as with the regional or global strategy of Islamic unification.
The target suggests a distinctively Indonesian struggle over the nature of the Islamic
faith, at least as much as the scale implies the hand of Al Qaeda.
JI’s connections with militant organizations in other parts of Southeast Asia have
thus far failed to generate anything approximating a full regional network. For example,
recent revelations of JI connections to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the
largest of the secessionist groups in the southern Philippines, have been so localized
and narrow that even the MILF’s top leaders may be unaware of their existence. To
a degree, this reflects the decentralized nature of the MILF’s leadership structure,
but it also indicates the ways in which even jihadist organizations with purportedly
regional and global aims may be far more parochial in their actions. My point here
is not that JI and Al Qaeda are unconnected or that the Bali bombers thought of
themselves primarily as defenders of Indonesian piety rather than global jihadists.
Instead, I simply suggest that the meaning of jihad differs across political contexts and
that Al Qaeda’s role may be different than most studies suggest. If we accept, as we
really must, that Muslim experiences vary widely across political and social contexts,
we need to consider the possibility that calls to violence framed in Islamist terms will
likely mean different things to different people. Islamist organizations may therefore
be susceptible to framing efforts by local and transnational actors, but it is unlikely that
Wayne Miller, ‘Samudra Calls Amrozi “The Brains”’, The Age (Melbourne) (12 June 2003), p. 4; Cindy
Wockner, ‘Brother Turns Against Bali Bomb Accused’, Courier Mail (Queensland) (10 July 2003), p. 11.
Accessed through Lexis-Nexis.
International Crisis Group, ‘Southern Philippines Backgrounder: Terrorism and the Peace Process’
(Singapore/Brussels: ICG, 2004).
108 david leheny
one global core can control and direct what all its ‘members’ will do. For Al Qaeda’s
affiliates, language may be global, but politics remains local.
Terrorists, social movements, and international security
That Al Qaeda is a new type of terrorist group is beyond doubt. It links members
in transnational cells marked by intense secrecy, operational competence, and clear
financial support. It is also the first terrorism movement to inflict a major attack, with
thousands of lives lost, on a superpower. As such, it merits the attention it has received,
and it suggests that international relations scholars need to think more creatively about
terrorism as a problem for international security. But Al Qaeda is still a terrorist group,
and many of the arguments made about terrorist organizations in the past still have
relevance for how we can think more effectively about Al Qaeda as a security topic.
This paper has drawn attention to two features of terrorist groups – their strategic
use of violence for internal as well as external goals, as well as the symbolic context in
which violence occurs – and argued that social movement theory provides a useful lens
through which to view the efforts of terrorist organizations.
Social movement theory fits uncomfortably in security studies in part because
of its identification with constructivist accounts that remain controversial to those
who paint a darker picture of the inevitability of violent conflict. And those who use
social movement theory to study more laudable transnational efforts, like those aimed
at ending racial discrimination, sexual abuse, or land mines, might find distasteful a
comparisonto a violent network espousing the most reactionary of religious ideologies.
The pressure in security studies to develop a framework for assessing the threat fromAl
Qaeda has thus far yielded other responses, with some scholars seeking to fit terrorism
into prevailing rational choice epistemologies and others offering newmetaphors, such
as the Internet, to capture its activity. My quarrel with these approaches is not over
their inability to explain all of Al Qaeda’s actions; I certainly do not mean to suggest
that my interpretation of Al Qaeda’s role as a social movement organization in a larger
constellation of Islamist groups is the definitive version. After all, the group’s activities
are primarily clandestine, and all accounts remain sketchy. But I do argue that reliance
on the social movement literature provides clues and intellectual tools missing from
these other perspectives, primarily because of its situation of self-interested behavior
in local contexts that can be affected by the framing activities of external actors.
In stressing the local rather than global, I do not mean to understate the danger
that Al Qaeda affiliates might pose. After all, the sectarian conflict in the Moluccan
Islands, between Muslims and Christians, has claimed many more lives than those
lost in the 9/11 attacks. But the lives were not American lives, and they were not
snuffed out in full view of the international media; the implications for politics and
international security differ greatly. If we are to understand terrorism as a serious
problem in international security, we will need theoretical and conceptual tools that
allow us to distinguish between types of threats and types of violence, and we will need
to think seriously about the symbols and strategies of different groups. Al Qaeda has
terrorism, social movements, and international security 109
chosen a perilous path: that of directly challenging a superpower and framing other
conflicts in global terms to encourage Islamist actors to do the same. And, like other
social movement organizations, it will likely find that its actions have consequences,
but not necessarily those it had planned. Rather than being a network with roughly
equivalent cells everywhere, or a central organization that dominates its militants, Al
Qaeda’s leaders may find that they have set an agenda that is interpreted and managed
differently by like-minded actors elsewhere. This still makes it a threat, but not the one
that its leaders or its enemies have imagined.
I would like to thank Peter J. Katzenstein, Paul Hutchcroft, Jon Pevehouse, and the JJPS’s anonymous
reviewers for their helpful comments on previous drafts.

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