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February 3, 2005

Terrorism and communication©

Aldo Moro’s death eclipses the rest of the news. But I’ll give you the racing results anyway1
While everyone does spontaneously recognize its existence, it is difficult to define terrorism, essentially because it consists of certain de-qualifying concepts such as: "terrorism is the political violence of the other, when ours is legitimate". In addition, beyond this ideological use, terrorism has a rhetorical use: its use by the media sometimes resembling that of a strategy to attract an audience for itself, with a traumatic and spectacular scene- the place of attack- and the victims. From a political point of view, its use by the State makes it possible to symbolize or justify security related public policies. Post September 11, 2001, the United States has thus singularly evolved in their definition of terrorism. The slogan ‘War on Terror’ was from a semantic point of view announcing the second war against Iraq since it implied indeed that military means are to be used against "terrorists", a term understood in a broad sense (Saddam Hussein = "Al Qaeda") and that the American citizens mobilize and form a sacred union around their President. Such a mobilizing formula, by simplifying the reality, discredited all critics.

Jihadist terrorism and its origins

First, the way to represent international jihadism, the main actual threat, is in itself utilitarian. Far from being coordinated by what the Americans systematically call "Al Qaeda", the nebula of trans national jihadist, is on the contrary composite and changing, fluid and volatile. It is composed, let us say, of partially non-coordinated actors:

  • a) A structure of opportunity, planning and financing (Al Qaeda) was directed certainly in the past - and even today - towards the training of radical Islamic militants. This structure has often directly recruited the best of them to perpetrate attacks in its interests (example: September 11 2001). It thus lays out dormant operational structures throughout the world with a varying degree of organisation, starting with a one-man (or facilitator) operation, who is capable of recruiting, training and acting..
  • b) Radical Islamic Organizations engaged throughout the world in specific problems, with methods, means and even doctrines or processes of autonomous decision-making. Part of their training having profited from the training structures in Afghanistan, which includes not only Al Qaeda. Operating militants from these autonomous organizations have become the "relays" between the networks in Afghanistan and the most localised wars.
  • c) The third category, the autonomous jihadist cells, have also appeared and will continue to spawn throughout the world. Emerging spontaneously by the action of "facilitators" of all types (self-proclaimed imams, "big brothers", experts of the "true Islam", fathers, etc), these cells express a solidarity with the difficulties of the Umma (community of believers) throughout the world.

This structuring in several partially interdependent levels contradicts a global understanding of international jihadism. In reality, this violence has multiple and deep origins, which will ensure that it endures for many years, perhaps several decades, in one form or another. It has an ‘economic form’ based on the ability to raise funds, due, for example, to the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia or Iraq, the fate of the Palestinian populations, the existence of a generational romanticism of radical Islamism, the crises in Chechnya or Central Asia, or the separatism with religious substratum. It also has a ‘structural form’, based on perceptions about the future of Arab-Muslim societies balancing traditions and modernity, or developing local models versus absorbing western-liberal values.
Thus, if a security and policing approach is absolutely necessary to fight jihadist terrorism, it is imperative that it questions the structural origins of this violence, and factors that into the design of appropriate democratisation and development programs. From this point of view, there appears to be a deep difference of approach between the Bush administration and that of the European countries.

Al-Qaeda has thus become a symbol, a label having many functions, namely:

  • Justifying policies of security—even, of repression. Thus, in the name of its war with terrorism, the United States has made an unprecedented decision regarding exceptions to traditional civil liberties and applied it to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. At the start of the war with Iraq, a Knight-Ridder survey found that 51% of the Americans respondents thought Iraqis were among those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. This, of course, is untrue. 2 The fact that such a large number of Americans surveyed believe such a thing is in itself noteworthy and, what is more, rather troubling. It is an indication of the ties systematically established by the Bush Administration–but as yet unproven--between two “negative” media icons: Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Ladin. Established systematically by President Bush, this connection stems from the “rhetorical construction” of a crisis. It represents the way national leaders communicate with the media, for the purpose of mobilization and the presentation of reality by them.
  • Referring to al-Qaeda in Russia made it possible to justify some highly coercive tactics in Chechnya; meanwhile, some Arab countries used this pretext for the repression of radical Islamists in general—many of them not affiliated with al-Qaeda. To justify its own actions and to win support and sympathy in Europe and America, Israel automatically connects–in all likelihood, mistakenly—the Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite political organizations attacking Israel with al-Qaeda. Hizbullah appears to confine itself strictly to its war against Israel and would stand to lose a great deal were a connection to be established between it and any jihadist group. 3
  • It represents a way of simplifying the threat. The term “al-Qaeda” is an ordinary noun turned into a proper noun thanks to an American district attorney in the early 1990s. Al-Qaeda is now –particularly, for the media or anti-terrorist forces--a means of communicating in a simple way about a diffuse reality, the transnational jihadist networks. As for the media, the label “al-Qaeda” and bin Ladin’s personality are loss leaders, in the marketing sense of the term—ones that sell. The name is a caricature, a way of representing reality. What’s more, it is a reality that will last a lot longer than al-Qaeda and bin Ladin..

The promotion of terrorism

The question of the weakened media impact of a terrorist tactic is complex. From what we have just seen, it appears rather pertinent. More deaths result from highway accidents than from terrorism, but while auto accidents are seen as “things that happen,” the rarity of terror attacks enhances their impact, the effect of novelty coming into play almost each time. The fact is that terrorist action seeks media attention and, at the same time, attracts it. 4 Terrorist practices may be compared to a strategy of “scandalization,” i.e., the way tabloid newspapers run headlines intended to shock and stun the readers. Using this strategy, planes and buses are commandeered, symbolic objectives or tourist sites attacked. These acts may even be timed to make the deadlines for the evening news programs. This is one of the characteristic features of terrorist organizations, some of which may lack the necessary resources 5 “to mobilize the people” for a revolt or a revolution. Terrorism need not gear its acts of violence to the media in a systematic way. In this case, media impact is only a consequence of the attack. There is a very thin line, though, separating those who benefit from journalistic publicity and those who actually seek it.

State counter-communication

Faced with the bloody language of terrorism, the State communicates in its turn. In this connection, we must differentiate what it says from the reality of secret negotiations or unspoken deals. Against terrorism, the declaratory strategy rests as a whole on solemnity and/or dramatization, “tones” that are the responsibility of statesmen (basically, that of the head of state, then of the competent cabinet members). Such is the appearance of the discourse of the present-day state, chiefly Western, a race for justificatory and promotional talk shows, “televisual” diplomacy. 6
On the other hand, beyond the domestic level, States are committed to one another in strategies at times contradictory around the definition of “terrorism.” States communicate in order to “tell and make reality” and to win acceptance for their view and their interests. By way of example, a high-ranking Kenyan official replied to the alert notices issued by the United States and Great Britain with respect to his country owing to previous attacks (in 1998, then in 2002 in Mombassa) or recent ones (bombings in Saudi Arabia and in Marrakech, Morocco). Indications of possible attacks on “soft targets”-- American, Israeli or British tourist destinations-- have led political leaders in Washington and London to discourage their citizens from visiting East Africa. Such an attitude has adverse financial consequences –notably, owing to the importance of tourism in the Kenyan GNP. Accordingly, the authorities in Nairobi had every interest in counter-communicating to mitigate the consequences, harmful from their standpoint, of the American, Israeli and British communications.

Conclusion : Politico-cultural problems: between stereotypes and representations

Despite its breadth and scope, American public political communication is confronting two structural problems that are hard to solve: 1) the American image in the Arab-Muslim media; 7 and 2) the Arab image in the American media or, even, in American popular culture. In both cases, there seems to be a strong tendency to convey reciprocal, recurrent stereotypes. Accordingly, it is worthwhile looking at how American and Arab sources report the same event—for example, the war in Afghanistan –and how they report the other source. We have seen in the foregoing how American interests were probably weakened by the advent of Arab-language satellite channels that can broadcast to the whole world a more or less stereotypical set of subjects: “The United States is Israel,” “the United States is decadent,” “the United States doesn’t like the Arabs,” etc.
The way Arabs are portrayed in the American media or in popular culture is significant. Any stereotypical and negative portrayal of a people leads to proportional resentment or mistrust. It is a fact that there are relatively few Muslims in the United States such that, actually, an American has few opportunities to speak to Muslims or get to know them.
For many years in the United States, well before September 11, 2001, the Muslim-Arabs continue to be considered as “other,” a cultural threat. As the noted American Orientalist J. Esposito puts it, “Fear of the Green Menace may well replace that of the Red Menace of world Communism…Islam is often equated with holy war and hatred, fanaticism and violence, intolerance and the oppression of women.” 8

Jean-Luc Marret is a Fellow Researcher, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Paris

1France-Inter, 10 May 1978, 4 p.m.
2On this point and the construction of reality by the oligopolistic American media (AOL Time Warner, Viacom or the Rupert Murdoch group) see the article “Entering the Matrix Media Gigantism,” in The International Herald Tribune, 24-25 May 2003.
3Author’s interviews in Beirut—Shiite quarter, summer 2002.
4R.F. Farnen: Terrorism and the mass media: a systematic analysis of a symbiotic process, Terrorism, vol. 13, 1990, pp. 99-143.
5M. Offerlé, Sociologie des Groupes d’Intérêt, Paris, Clefs Montchrestien, 1994, p. 125.
6J. Reston, The New TV Diplomacy, New York Times, 26 February 1986.
7A.E. Jasperson & M. El-Kikhia, “U.S. and Middle Eastern Media Perspectives on the Aftermath of the Sept. 11 Terrorist Attacks,” Harvard Symposium, 25-862002.
8J. Esposito, The Islamic Threat, N.Y., Oxford University Press, 1992, p.5.

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