Terrorism and the Democratization of Media
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
Last week I wrote how professional terrorists possessing high-level tradecraft pose a more severe threat than self-initiated terrorists.
Someone noted that in addition to tradecraft, professional terrorists associated with extremist groups also have an advantage in recruiting people to their cause due to their dedicated propaganda efforts.
It is true that organized jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and White Supremacist groups such as Atomwaffen and the Base, have put a great deal of effort into propaganda and online recruitment.
However, they are not alone in their ability to recruit and mobilize.
The same factors that have allowed terrorist groups to become their own media have also permitted individual attackers to have an outsized influence in radicalizing and operationalizing others to their extremist causes.
The democratization of the media—the rise of the internet and social media—has allowed individual terrorists to create their own propaganda.
Propaganda of the Deed
There has always been a close relationship between modern terrorism and the media.
It is no coincidence that the rise of anarchist terrorism came on the heels of the inventions of daily mass-circulation newspapers and telegraphic “wire” news services that allowed for the creation of the first mass media organizations.
These media developments were not lost on radical anarchist ideologues, who astutely noted how the media were able to amplify the impact of their attacks.
By 1885, anarchist Johann Most declared, “We preach not only action in and for itself, but also action as propaganda.”
In fact, terrorism, as we know it today, could not exist without mass media.
Terrorist attacks became seen as acts of propaganda, or, as they were later called, the “propaganda of the deed.”
The development of television also played a big role in the rise of a renewed wave of terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s.
During this era, terrorist organizations began to plan and conduct “made for TV” terror spectacles.
Perhaps the best known of these were the September 1972 attack against Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games and the December 1975 storming of OPEC headquarters in Vienna.
There were numerous other examples during this period.
Airline hijackings, as exemplified by a series of hijackings by Black September, also morphed from relatively short operations to extended dramatic media events that frequently spanned several countries and drew heavy media coverage.
While mass media coverage generated notoriety for terrorist groups and drew attention to their causes, the media never truly provided the groups with the opportunity to provide a detailed account of their grievances and ideologies.
Sometimes groups were able to threaten, or otherwise pressure the media to publish their manifestos, but by and large, groups had to rely on primitive statements and manifestos that were published and distributed by hand, or in some cases, via propaganda bombs to get their message out.
This meant that the reach of their propaganda was fairly limited—which served as a point of frustration for terrorist ideologues.
This frustration is largely what drove terrorist groups to become early adopters of new communications technology.
At first, this meant using pirate radio stations or audiotapes that were duplicated and distributed.
In the 1980s White Supremacist leader Tom Metzger began using an answering machine to record messages and provided a phone number to supporters who could dial in to hear his weekly screeds.
Later, this expanded to include recording and distributing videotapes and music.
Jihadists fighting in places like Afghanistan and Bosnia could record video footage of their battles and distribute the tapes as a way to recruit new fighters and raise funds to continue the struggle.
Some in the White Supremacist world embraced “hatecore” music as a way to spread their hateful ideology.
The Digital Revolution
Terrorists of various ideologies were also very early adopters of digital technology.
They began to use Internet Relay Chat rooms and Usenet message boards in the late 1980s to radicalize and recruit.
By the mid-1990s websites such as Azzam.com and Stormfront allowed extremists to post their propaganda directly to the internet and begin forming online communities of like-minded extremists.
Today, most terrorist movements use the internet heavily for propaganda, recruiting, and to provide skills to sympathizers operating under the leaderless resistance model of terrorism.
Perhaps the most successful organization at harnessing the power of the internet has been the Islamic State, which used its propaganda arm to draw tens of thousands of Muslims to its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria as well as radicalizing and operationalizing thousands more individuals around the globe.
Mass media has changed rapidly over the past two decades.
The internet has supplanted print and broadcast media in reach; and social media applications have become an important, if not the primary, source of news and other information for most people.
The result is that newspapers and television networks no longer have the same degree of control over news and other information they once did.
This means that anyone, including terrorist groups and individual extremists, can now bypass traditional media and appeal directly to the population through social media channels, websites, and other electronic publications such as web-based magazines.
Being able to post their own material directly to the internet gives terrorists the opportunity to shape the way events are perceived and present their version of events.
It is also a way to ensure that their entire message is conveyed to the public and not just the parts deemed relevant or acceptable by news editors.
This unfettered and unfiltered media has led to an explosion in the amount of terrorist propaganda from terrorists of all ideological persuasions—and this material is available to anyone anywhere on the globe with an internet connection.
Prior to the invention of the internet, people were highly unlikely to ever encounter a terrorist group’s propaganda pamphlet, audiocassette, or videotape.
But today it is just a click away.
With a simple act that can be done by anyone, anywhere there is an internet connection, any terrorist can record an attack or propaganda statement using a digital camera or smartphone and upload them onto the internet.
We have seen jihadists and white supremacists record attacks using GoPro cameras.
And all of it this propaganda can be accessed in an instant by a global audience.
Speaking of instantaneous, not only can attacks be recorded and uploaded to the internet, but we have also witnessed a rise in terrorists live streaming attacks on internet platforms for like-minded extremists to view in real-time.
An example of this was the March 2019 armed assault on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which the attacker broadcast his rampage on Facebook Live.
The videos were later shared widely on other platforms.
Such broadcasts and recordings provide almost a first-person shooter video game-like experience to viewers.
But as the Christchurch killer illustrated, the democratization of the media means that people don’t have to be directly associated with a large terrorist group to produce terrorist theater that can influence others.
Indeed, the Christchurch killer was influenced by the manifesto of a lone assailant who conducted an attack in Oslo, Norway in 2011, and his attack in Christchurch, motivated individual self-initiated terrorists in California, Texas, Norway, and Germany.
A Small Silver Lining
While the ability of self-published propaganda to create copy-cat attacks is troubling, it comes with a silver lining.
By documenting their attacks, and in many cases their attack cycle preparation and processes, attackers are providing investigators and analysts a valuable window into how attacks are being planned and executed.
This type of granular information is otherwise not readily available in many cases, especially those that result in a dead perpetrator.
Understanding how attacks are planned and executed is critically valuable in helping to identify pre-attack indicators and behaviors which can then be used to help prevent attacks, or at least mitigate the impact of an attack by allowing early attack recognition.
Focusing on how attacks are conducted becomes even more important in the current environment: the terrorist threat stems from actors adhering to a wide array of ideologies and grievances—and the most likely threat springs from self-initiated terrorists who may have no links to known terrorist entities.
Such operatives may not be known to authorities, but they still must conduct the same attack cycle to conduct their operations and are vulnerable to detection as they do so.
Therefore, while terrorists can use technology to record and publicize their attacks, these same tools can also be used to thwart their efforts.