Terrorism is a monstrous global problem in our time, not just for its capacity to cause untold suffering but for its ubiquity and its unpredictable metamorphosis around global challenges such as pervasive poverty, displacement and migration, and dysfunctional government arrangements. The transmutation of large terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaida and ISIS into regional groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabab in East Africa, presents a challenge to governments, global trade, and local communities–including churches, as Christians remain a core target for terror groups.
It is important for Christians to face the fact that the phenomenon cannot be explained through the singular lens of persecution of Christians.
However, it is important for Christians to face the fact that the phenomenon cannot be explained through the singular lens of persecution of Christians. They therefore need to be both more nuanced and better prepared, particularly as church communities.
The use of fatal force to intimidate and spread widespread fear has a significant historical track record. However, concentrated application of terrorism as a political and ideological weapon to express hatred and grievance against certain religious, ethnic, or other groups has only really grown in the last few decades.
Aftermath of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Kenya in 1998.
A key shift to that use of terrorism was the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, where 250 people were killed, and thousands were injured. The 9/11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York brought the crisis to widespread global consciousness, and since then numerous large and small attacks have taken place all over the world.
In 2019 alone, there were terror attacks in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cameroon, Somalia, Egypt, Mozambique, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Myanmar, Philippines, and India, among other places.
Definition and motives
A fair amount of discourse among Christians assumes terrorism is motivated by religious hatred. It is that; yet there are complex and mutating issues behind it. Suicide bombers and shooters have little or nothing to gain because they die in their cause. They also lay claim to religious allegiance to aspects of the Muslim religion. However, behind the religious and ideological façade of the visible attackers, there are individuals with carefully calculated material interests in political power, financial gain, and geopolitical control of whole regions.
For example, a US Congress intelligence briefing about global regions that generate terrorist activities shows that terror groups are supported through traffic in arms, illegal drugs, and unlawful trade in natural resources such as gold, wildlife, charcoal, and oil. These are lucrative commodities that generate large amounts of money for the masterminds of terror. Therefore, it is in the interests of those behind the attacks to maintain instability and lawlessness in certain regions so that revenues can keep flowing. When a terror attack is described in terms of intolerance of religious groups, mistrust spreads among communities that have long lived peacefully. This plays right into the interests of the invisible perpetrators.
Because terrorism takes many forms, governments and the UN are careful not to attach definitions that may be twisted in a court of law in the event of legal proceedings against perpetrators of terrorism. The UN vaguely defines terrorism as a term that can ‘broadly be understood as a method of coercion that utilizes or threatens to utilize violence in order to spread fear and thereby attain political or ideological goals’ (Doha Declaration, 2018).
Behind the religious and ideological façade of the visible attackers, there are individuals with carefully calculated material interests in political power, financial gain, and geopolitical control of whole regions.
The attacks are directed against innocent and unsuspecting victims, usually in large numbers, with the intention of inflicting maximum damage and invoking shock in the general public. They thereby generate widespread media-driven reactions that elicit strong opinions. In most cases, terrorists want to provoke such reactions precisely to divide the world. Beyond immediate carnage and panic, terrorists achieve their goals by intimidating opponents, destroying symbolic targets, and depressing business confidence, thus sabotaging national economies.
In the case of the 2019 Dusit Hotel attacks in Kenya, the terrorists claimed that they were taking revenge on the Kenyan government for invading Somalia in the Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Nation) campaign aimed at flushing out Al-Shabab cells that had been growing in Somalia and crippling development work in Kenya’s North Eastern region.
Non-Western countries that have been attacked by terrorists have been the subject of travel advisories issues by Western nations. However, in the wake of increased terror attacks in the West, these negative advisories are diplomatically harder to justify. Global travel and business have had to develop adaptive measures. For example, travelers now must undergo careful inspection at airports.
In Nairobi, shopping malls now look like fortresses surrounded by high concrete walls and perimeter wire. Nearly all public premises have a visibly armed police presence, and entrances to public buildings are guarded by security guards who search people using metal detectors.
Taken of and around the 2013 Westgate shopping mall terrorist incident in Nairobi, Kenya.
Churches can no longer be naïve about the security of congregants on Sundays. In Nairobi for instance, nearly all churches in the city are guarded by armed security, including police officers who stand visibly in place, deterring a would-be attacker from even trying to come close. Staff members of most large churches have undergone intensive security preparedness training.
Churches can no longer be naïve about the security of congregants on Sundays.
Some churches have constructed adaptive soft barriers, such as large potted plants that are strategically placed to prevent a would-be attacker from gaining easy access at an entrance. A soft barrier alone does not stop a terrorist, but in combination with other security measures, it helps in preparedness. Another adaptive measure has been the installation of guards with metal detectors at the main entrances of the churches.
In addition, teams of ushers and Sunday greeters are trained to be security aware, to watch out for people carrying large bags or suspicious packages, and to signal to a security officer if there seems to be a problem. At first, these procedures seemed excessive, but people soon came to appreciate the resulting sense of safety, and now they are a feature not only in churches but at other all other public events in Kenya.
It is important for Christians always to bear in mind that, while terrorists attack churches, the real correlation between terrorism and Islam is not necessarily a matter of Muslims against Christians. In July 2016, a Catholic priest in Normandy, France was killed during prayers by two ISIS followers. The case was presented to Pope Francis as a case of Christian persecution. Many people were surprised when Francis, who is known to be deeply concerned about Christian persecution, did not immediately call this ‘martyrdom’ because he discerned the senseless violence behind the attack was less about religion and more about sending a message to global powers. ISIS would later claim that the two attackers were its ‘soldiers’ retaliating against the US-led coalition fighting the group in Iraq and Syria.
Christians are often targeted as easy targets, while Islamist terrorism is often actually directed against other perceived enemies, usually because of political, socioeconomic, historical, or geopolitical grievances. This is not to downplay or deny situations of actual persecution against Christians. Persecuting Christians for their faith is real in many countries around the world. However, by and large, in the case of terror attacks, Christians are a proxy target.
It is important for Christians always to bear in mind that, while terrorists attack churches, the real correlation between terrorism and Islam is not necessarily a matter of Muslims against Christians.
Often the intention of the terrorists is to send a message aimed at forcing a political entity to change some action or policy, or at asserting control over a region. Singling out a target amplifies the broader message and influences a wider audience. Thus, terrorism almost always has a political dimension: ideological protest, resource protest, asserting control, seizing power, or expressing long-held grievances.
Besides churches, other victims of terrorist attacks are selected because of their shared group or class characteristics. The larger population is then psychologically manipulated to pressure their governments to comply with the terrorists’ demands. The media frenzy that follows attacks amplifies these consequences.
None of this in any way diminishes the pain experienced by Christian and local communities when they are targeted, but it does put things into perspective. Any specific attack on churches and Christian communities usually stems from two perceptions:
- Christians are especially likely to be gathered as a defenseless crowd;
- Attacking Christians will almost always elicit an outcry from Christians elsewhere, thus advancing the terrorists’ political and ideological goals.
What this means for Christians is that when they gather, they need to be security-conscious—to be as wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves. ‘Watch and pray’, said Jesus—literally, be watchful as you pray too.
A practical Christian response
In late 2015, a band of terrorists attacked a bus that was traveling to Nairobi from the remote town of Mandera in Northern Kenya, where Christians and Muslims coexist. The terrorists ordered Muslims to separate from Christians so that they could kill the ‘infidels’, the Christians. Tired of all these senseless attacks on people with whom they have lived side by side for years, the Muslims stood their ground. Muslim women had hastily given head coverings to Christian women so they could not be distinguished. The Muslim men stood together with the Christians and told the terrorists that they were not going to separate from the Christians. They were either going to have to kill all of them together or to leave all of them alone. Not being able to separate them, the terrorists left.
Christians and Muslims united in Cairo, Egypt
If we are to respond appropriately to terrorism, we need to build bridges to rediscover and recover incarnational life among communities that are different, including Muslim ones.
This is the power of sociability and cultivated solidarity—reinforcing relationships that have always existed among communities around the world. If we are to respond appropriately to terrorism, we need to build bridges to rediscover and recover incarnational life among communities that are different, including Muslim ones. In many parts of the world, pluralistic communities, that is, people who are different in worldview, religion, and language, have lived side by side for many decades, even centuries. The kind of social architecture that separates communities that have different religious, ethnic, and other affiliations is a much more recent feature.
Today, some communities are once again turning to their ‘tribalized’ or ‘ethnicized’ enclaves, out of which some people are becoming radicalized. As the recent mass shootings in the United States and New Zealand show, those becoming radicalized are not only Muslims, but are also other ideological extremists.
However, in many parts of the world, different communities continue to live, study, and work side by side. In a world where suspicion is growing because of terror and other divisions, this is an opportunity for Christians everywhere to get to know, and intentionally to build bridges with, Muslim and other neighbors in a rediscovery of incarnational ministry. Incarnation is not always about direct conversion. It is that; but it also about discerning witness by life, example, friendship, and sheer human sociability, trusting that, in his providence, God would enable these incarnational relationships to morph into redemptive influences in place of the coercive, terrorist influences forged in isolation.