Following the September 11, 2001 massive attacks on the United States, the issue of political terrorism has assumed a priority stance in the political agenda of several countries. Once fairly disregarded by scholarly research and analysis, the phenomenon has gained wide attention since the events of that day and those that took place in Iraq, as well as in Bali, Madrid, Beslan, and London. All of these tragic events had in common huge coverage by the media, which amplified the psychological impact on public opinion in the respective nations and worldwide. Extensive and emotion-stirring media coverage is a common feature of modern terrorist events. It has been observed in relation to other breeds of terrorism, such as the IRA in Ireland and the UK, ETA in Spain, the Red Brigades in Italy and the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany, the Kurdish extremists in Turkey, and domestic US terrorism (the Oklahoma bombing), and others.
Terrorism, whatever definition is given, has been closely associated with communication and propaganda, to the point that there cannot be envisaged any terrorism without some kind of media-conveyed visibility. The primary goal of terrorist organizations is, in fact, to “send a message,” usually to target governments, the victims being the instruments to pursue the goal. This message may take the form of violent acts, often with bloodshed, but also of personal threats to political leaders, blackmailing of public authorities, and verbal attacks on political or corporate policies. According to Schmid and de Graaf (1982) “terrorism [itself ] can best be understood as a violent communication strategy”.
In the global village, the mass media and the new media play a pivotal role in the terrorist scheme. Thanks to the new communication technologies, today’s terrorism has undergone an epochal change: it is “less centralized, less structured, and less organized, yet far more dangerous than the terrorism of the late twentieth century” (Weimann 2006, 5). Terrorists can count on global media networks to seize the worldwide public arena. In particular, the most notorious terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda, has demonstrated a shrewd exploitation of media outlets and the Internet, securing a global impact for its “message.”
The goals of terrorist groups of securing vast publicity for their actions can be defied only in part by the counteractions of government authorities, which might impose bans on the diffusion of violent or subversive messages, and even censorship on printed and broadcast news, but cannot regulate the Internet, which remains the most resourceful communication means of postmodern terrorism.
By means of the Internet, political terrorism succeeds in attaining several strategic purposes. First, the Internet serves the practical purpose of planning and coordination and to ensure networking and circulation of key information. Through the Internet, affiliated, semi-independent cells, often “sleeping” ones, scattered around the world are able to maintain contact with one another and to plan common actions. Second, it ensures cheap publicity and diffusion of ideological and motivational messages. All sorts of groups, movements, causes, and parties can resort to the Internet to post their propaganda. Third, it makes fundraising easy and safe: terrorist websites can provide bank account numbers where donations can be wired, with information about donating by credit card and forms to initiate monthly donations via automatic withdrawal from the donor’s bank account. Fourth, its worldwide reach provides receptive audiences among which to recruit new followers and activists. Fifth, it can be used to wage psychological warfare, amplified by the mainstream media organizations that draw on Internet materials (videos, pictures, documents) to feed their news outlets. Finally, search engines and similar technologies have made isolated information quickly and easily retrievable by terrorists, who can attack vulnerable public infrastructures via the web.
Beside the Internet, the traditional media may also become instrumental to terrorism in several ways. One question that has often been debated among public opinion worldwide is whether there occurs a sort of inevitable “complicity” between the news media and terrorists, especially in political contexts, such as liberal democracies, where censorship is not tolerated by the media. The widely accepted news selection practices and rules, such as “bad news is good news,” tend to privilege the uncommon and the dramatic. Terrorist attacks, like disasters, perfectly fit the news value criteria of newsworthiness such as sensationalism and negativism – the more violent and spectacular, the better. With the increasing commercialization of the news profession, terrorist incidents may fit more than ever the infotainment mold that the media industry increasingly prefers, by offering the sorts of villains and heroes on which the entertainment industry itself thrives in its search for box-office hits (Nacos 2002).
This raises in many cases excruciating dilemmas on the part of the free media, battling between the professional imperative of covering what makes the news and the resolution to defend democratic institutions and social peace. Despite the efforts especially of mainstream media to avoid supporting terrorists even indirectly, it appears inevitable that information and communication outlets, from the traditional mass media to the online media, offer groups and individuals with violent agendas and messages of hate extensive and inexpensive opportunities to spread their message and to accomplish their search for political legitimization and popular support. Today the information that is not delivered by one medium is inescapably and immediately provided by another. The Arabic television station Al Jazeera and the Internet have often served as disseminating channels for news, announcements, videos, and other materials produced by terrorist organizations which other outlets around the world had intentionally decided to ignore. Nowadays terrorists may not have access to weapons of mass destruction but clearly can command a large array of arms of mass communication.
- Dayan, D. (2006). Terrorisme, performance, representation: Notes sur un genre discursif contemporain. In D. Dayan (ed.), La terreur spectacle: Terrorism et télévision. Brussels: De Boek, pp. 11–22.
- Nacos, B. L. (2002). Mass-mediated terrorism: The central role of the media in terrorism and counterterrorism. Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Norris, P., Montague, K., & Marion, J. (eds.) (2003). Framing terrorism: The news media, the government and the public. New York: Routledge.
- Schmid, A. P., & de Graaf, J. (1982). Violence as communication: Insurgent terrorism and the western news media. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Weimann, G. (2006). Terror on the Internet: The new arena, the new challenges. Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace Press.