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Modern Media and Communications: A Terrorist's Best Friend

Brian Connelly examines the evolution of terrorism communications, as well as some outcomes from this evolution.


Terrorism is changing. As communications have become globalized, the ability to publicize the efforts of terror groups has as well. Whereas previously, a group's ability to recruit and indoctrinate was limited by geography, the modern media landscape has enabled groups to spread their message around the world.

The world has become a smaller place in recent years. A planet that was once largely unknown has become more like a backyard than a vast wilderness. Now, an Ebola “czar” in the United States can coordinate a response to an outbreak of that disease with the public health community in Liberia. In the early 20th century, this effort may have taken months. Thanks to modern modes of communication, a response can be crafted within hours. People can share globally beneficial ideas across thousands of miles. The opportunities are limitless. Nonetheless, new technologies have a dark and sinister side. The spread of terrorism around the globe is a powerful manifestation of this truth. A group like the IS can film a beheading in the desert in Syria and indoctrinate someone in the United States. Terror groups are able to take advantage of a 24-hour news cycle to ensure that their acts are covered and reach as many eyeballs as possible. The development and expansion of media platforms have allowed terror groups to enhance and increase their worldwide efforts. Groups are able to manipulate media coverage to take advantage of human vulnerability to the groups’ benefit.

Communications as a tool for fear-mongering

The first significant impact of modern media is the ability of terror groups to have their actions covered and on display for millions of viewers. Terror groups seek to induce terror in a population by publicizing the terrible things that the terror group is capable of doing. This terror can come from an actual imminent threat, or may stem simply from the suggestion of a potential attack. As such, media coverage has enabled terror groups to accomplish a significant part of their mission, rather than dilute their work in a constant news cycle. On any given night, a viewer of a nightly news program can view footage of a suicide bombing in Tehran, a bombing in Lima, or a hostage situation in Texas. Boaz Ganor, a terrorism scholar and Israeli counter-terrorism official, outlines the effect that this “television has the greatest influence on public morale. The terrible images broadcast from the scene of an attack into every home in the targeted nation, and the entire world serves the...fear-provoking goals of the terrorist organization more than any other outlet”1.

A terror group does not seek to merely injure and kill people during an attack. The groups also seek to strike fear in a population.

The former can be accomplished through an actual attack. The latter happens as footage of an attack is repeatedly broadcast to millions of viewers. The development of technology has made this possible. Just three decades ago, an attack in Baghdad would be covered in a newspaper, but popular exposure to footage would be limited to an evening news broadcast. This is changed as the internet and 24-hour news have come into existence. Now, a simple Google search can find hundreds of videos of bombers in Spain(2) , ambushes in Sri Lanka(3) and suicide attackers in England(4) .

The most notable terror group to truly harness the aforementioned power of television and manipulate the impact that constant media coverage can have is Al-Qaeda. The decisions of the group to attack some of the most recognizable buildings in the United States on September 11, 2001 was extremely effective and served the ends of Al-Qaeda well. By slamming planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the group ensured that their work would be broadcast across the United States, reaching tens of millions of homes and hundreds of millions of people. The attack has had staying power too, and the images of that day have been replayed countless times over the past 16 years, thereby maintaining a feeling of fear and trauma.

Such constant exposure to trauma is detrimental to human who may live thousands of 1 miles from the physical location of an attack. In a lecture about the impact of witnessing traumatic events on human behavior, Zahava Solomon, a psychiatric epidemiologist, noted that “after trauma, individuals are left feeling vulnerable, helpless, and out of control in a world that is no longer predictable”(5) This impact is not merely short-term, and the effects can manifest in . According to studies by Ahern et al. (2004)6 and Otto et al. (2007)7 , viewing television coverage of a terror attack (in the case of both studies the September 11 attacks) can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Without doubt, the acceleration of media and modes of communications has been a boon for terror groups in their effort to sow fear around the world.

Communications as a tool for propaganda

Communications and media do more than simply assist terror groups in spreading terror. Modern media and communications allow groups to spread their ideology through propaganda. It makes sense that the makeup of terror groups was based more in geographical rather than an identical agreement regarding the tenets and inspirations of the terror group. Today, groups can form and indoctrinate potential members from around the world. Harnessing the power of the internet, groups have the ability to communicate ideas with individuals halfway around the world, groups can spread their ideology to places that their leaders have never physically visited. A modern terror group can preach an ideology from the backwoods of Kentucky and affect and indoctrinate someone in Chile. In a special report created for United States Institute of Peace, Gabriel Weimann describes the role that modern media and communications play in the activities of terror groups: “terrorist organizations and their supporters maintain hundreds of websites, exploiting the unregulated, anonymous, and easily accessible nature of the Internet to target an array of messages to a variety of audiences”(8) . The inevitability of the internet has enabled terror groups to operate largely outside the law. While in the past groups had to take great precautions to avoid leaving paper trails, modern technology has enabled organizations to cover that trail with relative ease.

Few groups have been as effective as at using propaganda to further their goals than the Islamic State.

The organization produces several online magazines, most notably Rumiyah and Dabiq, the latter being described by the Clarion Project as “a glossy propaganda magazine...sophisticated, slick, beautifully produced and printed in several languages including English”9 . This sophistication lends a sense of officialism to a reader. To a pliable reader, the polished production of the magazine undoubtedly creates an enticement to join appealing magazines contain articles that denigrate the Western world, and promote acts of terror to prove one’s loyalty to the organization and to the achieve the ends of it.

The IS’ most notable (and disturbing) use of propaganda comes in the form of their videos of executions. These include beheadings, firing squads, and live burnings. These videos are intended to strike fear, and have succeeded in confirming the trauma that the aforementioned Ahern et al. and Otto et. al studies sought to prove. What is notable about these videos is the dialogue immediately preceding the executions. In 2014, the IS executed British aid worker David Haines by beheading him. Hours later, the group released a video of his execution. The video begins with footage of an interview given by British PM David Cameron just weeks before the Haines’ execution.

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