Communication and communication technologies are intrinsic to the idea of terrorism as formulated and understood from the nineteenth century onwards. The discourse of terrorism has come to be symbiotically linked to communication technologies as state and nonstate actors across the globe use and exploit technological advances to further their causes. Schmid and de Graaf (1982, 9) observed that, “without communication there can be no terrorism,” while for Wilkinson (2001, 177), “when one says ‘terrorism’ in a democratic society, one also says ‘media’.”
In an increasingly globalized world, most people make sense of happenings in distant places through the news media, which are now able to communicate events across continents live. Groups and individuals branded by states as terrorists use communication technologies at two levels: to orchestrate events and ensure that news about them is communicated through television, press, radio, Internet, etc. for maximum effect on governments and the public; and they use technologies such as presses, photocopiers, satellite phones, video, email, chat-rooms, websites, blogs, encryption software, etc. to coordinate, plan, and execute acts of political violence. As Brazilian ex-communist Carlos Marighella stipulated in his Minimanual of the urban guerrilla, “modern mass media, simply by announcing what the revolutionaries are doing, are important instruments of propaganda . . . However, their existence does not dispense fighters from setting up their own secret presses and having their own copying machines . . . The war of nerves – or the psychological war – is a fighting technique based on the direct or indirect use of the mass media” (in Nacos 2002, 15).
The definition of terrorism itself has been controversial, with as many researchers formulating as many definitions. It has profoundly negative connotations. There is no universally accepted definition of the term mainly because it is vulnerable to vastly different interpretation by state and nonstate actors. The conundrum is best exemplified by the dictum of “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” The same act of violence can be evaluated as either despicable or justifiable means to political ends, “as either the evil deed of ruthless terrorists or the justifiable act of freedom fighters and/or warriors of god” (Nacos 2002, 16).
The value-loaded term has come to be applied to nonstate actors who use violence to attract attention or further the cause that they deem worth fighting for. Acts of violence perpetrated by states are usually not classified as acts of terror. However, it was not always so. In its original definition in the eighteenth century, terrorism meant acts of violence by the rulers (from above); for example, the violence during the Reign of Terror in the wake of the French Revolution, when terrorism meant the mass guillotining of aristocracy and other real and perceived enemies of the state. During the nineteenth century, the idea of terrorism was expanded to include acts of violence, such as assassinations, by anarchists (from below). In the twentieth century, terrorism came to mean mostly political violence perpetrated by nonstate actors, which include autonomous or state-sponsored groups and individuals (Hoffman 1998).
Researchers, however, agree on the key role played by communication technologies. Ted Koppel, ABC anchor, observed that, “Without television, terrorism becomes rather like the philosopher’s hypothetical tree falling in the forest: no one hears it fall and therefore it has no reason for being” (in Weimann & Winn 1994, 51). The importance of communication in a terrorist’s design led Nacos (2002) to suggest the idea of “massmediated terrorism,” which refers to politically motivated deeds perpetrated by groups or individuals for the sake of communicating messages to a larger audience. Such a communication-oriented view does not include “state terrorism,” or acts of violence perpetrated by states against noncombatants. This is because governments do not want to publicize such incidents while publicity is a key objective of nonstate actors; for them, political violence is committed with the intention to publicize the deed, to gain publicity and thereby public and government attention.
As Laqueur observed (1976, 104), “The success of a terrorist operation depends almost entirely on the amount of publicity it receives,” which stresses the importance of communication technologies in the process of communicating acts of violence. The technologies constitute the cornerstone that links the three elements of a terrorist strategy: the terrorist, the target of the terrorist (victims), and the actual target of the acts of violence: the government or the public. The idea is often to evoke reactions from the government and instill apprehension or fear in the public.
Terrorist activity is immensely newsworthy as it satisfies several news values such as negativity, timeliness, and scale. Nonstate actors indulging in violence satisfy the news media’s need for spectacle and entertainment to increase circulation or ratings. Such nonstate actors and the news media feed off each other – acts of violence are often choreographed to coincide with journalistic routines and production schedules to ensure maximum coverage. Researchers use the metaphor of theatre to describe the ways in which modern terrorism can be understood in terms of the production requirements of theatrical engagements (Catton 1978; Weimann & Winn 1994). In such “theatres” of conflict, there is an intense contest for news space between nonstate actors indulging in acts of violence and the government, each seeking to ensure that their versions of reality get maximum play. Both state and nonstate actors use communication technologies to achieve contending propaganda objectives.
Al-Qaeda using video tapes to communicate messages by Osama bin Laden through the Al Jazeera television channel (and many others) is the most recent and visible example of the ways in which nonstate actors dubbed as terrorist groups deploy communication technologies effectively to propagate their perspectives. An early example of the link between terrorism and communication technology is the late-nineteenth-century discovery of dynamite in 1866 and the rotary press, perfected in 1881. Schmid and de Graaf (1982, 9) observed that, “The two inventions soon started to interact.” The San Francisco-based anarchist paper Truth declared at the time, “Truth is two cents a copy, dynamite is forty cents a pound. Buy them both, read one, use the other.”
Before communication technologies such as the press became key elements of everyday life, the maximum audience that could be reached was limited to the range of the human voice. According to Weimann and Winn (1994), nineteenth-century European anarchists faced the problem of communicating their ideas to the general public. Their pamphlets had limited distribution. The anarchists turned to the “propaganda of the deed,” which meant using acts of violence to secure coverage from the national and international press as well as encourage word-of-mouth communication. Nineteenth-century Italian anarchists Malatesta and Cafiero are said to be among the first to understand and exploit the symbiotic relationship between the news media and acts of terror. Around the same time in Russia, Peter Kroptokin stated, “By actions which compel general attention, the new idea seeps into people’s minds and wins converts. One such act may, in a few days, make more propaganda than a thousand pamphlets” (in Weimann & Winn 1994, 53).
Inventions and advances in technology in the nineteenth century and their potential were quickly seized upon. Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who killed US president William McKinley in 1901, explained his deed thus: “For a man should not claim so much attention, while others receive none” (in Schmid & de Graaf 1982, 10). Another anarchist, Lucheni, who collected news clippings and murdered the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, said he had longed to kill “somebody important so it gets into the papers.”
For early anarchists and latter-day nonstate actors dubbed as terrorist groups, every new communication technology invented increased the potential for effective propaganda as well as better coordination and execution of acts of violence. The national press and international news agencies could carry news of violent deeds to remote regions and countries, thereby providing free and fast communication networks to nonstate actors. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 took weeks to be known widely, but when John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, more than 70 percent of Americans had heard of it within half an hour. The potential for propaganda further increased exponentially with the invention of and advances in radio, film, and television; the world wide web and its many networks of communication such as chatrooms, ICQs, blogs, and email; mobile phone technology and satellite phones; and convergence technologies that combine text, audio, and video elements. Satellite phones and the Internet made it easy for journalists to cover acts of violence in different parts of the globe.
The most significant technological change has been the emergence and widespread diffusion of television broadcasting. According to Schmid and de Graaf (1982, 17), “what the rotary press did for the nineteenth-century terrorists, television is doing for contemporary terrorists.” The inclusive nature of the medium – one does not have to be literate to consume it – and its capability to transmit images across continents to millions of viewers, live, provided a new tool to nonstate actors indulging in violence. The medium not only ensured that acts of violence could be covered live, but that the leading nonstate actors could also counter official versions in the cut and thrust of politics in the aftermath. Bin Laden’s selective video appearances made as much news in the western media as outside the west, ensuring that western perspectives in international communications did not go unchallenged. Modern-day terrorists exploit traditional mass media as well as new media technology.
Schmid and de Graaf (1982, 14, 15) observed that, “while in the nineteenth century the deed had to be specific that it would, as it were, speak for itself, developments in communication technology have since allowed for an ever-increasing distance between victim and message. Yet in its substance terrorism has not changed fundamentally in the hundred years that separate the beginnings of anarchist terrorism from contemporary terrorism.” Thus, millions of viewers across the globe watched in rapt attention as the second plane ploughed into the World Trade Center on September 11 – the victims were not only those present in the twin towers, but the target included millions of people across the globe.
The 1990 Kosovo military conflict between the Belgrade regime and NATO is seen as the first Internet war. Since then, the Internet itself has become a site of terrorism and warfare between contending ideologies and groups, most notably Islamist. According to Khatib (2003, 389), the Internet is used by Islamic fundamentalist groups as a “portable homeland” that allows them to strengthen their global ties and communicate with one another, and also to communicate with the connected world at large. It is important to note that in official and news discourse, the term “Islamic fundamentalism” is often conflated to mean “Islamic terrorism.”
The new information and communication technologies (ICTs) allow a new dimension to nonstate actors who are keen to further their ideologies and causes. The new ICTs allow them diffusion of command and control, which was not available to their predecessors in the nineteenth century, while new opportunities for communication allow them to target the information stores, processes, and communications of their rivals (Whine 1999). The developments in communication technologies facilitate what has been called netwar, which refers to offensive acts carried out by often geographically separate, diverse, interconnected nonstate actors. Called cyberterrorism, the latest convergence between nonstate actors and communication technologies involves hackers (cyberterrorists) who cripple websites, data systems, and networks of rival groups and/or governments. Nacos (2002) observed that such groups have high-tech specialists in their midst and protect their Internet activities from intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the countries they target.
Whine (1999) listed several benefits ICTs bestow upon nonstate actors: they allow interconnectivity (Hezbollah’s website publishes a daily diary of terrorist attacks and urges anybody with an opinion about its anti-Israel activities to get in touch); they enable covert communication; they are cheap to operate; they act as force-multipliers and enable reach and influence that was previously confined to well-organized, state-funded terrorist organizations; and they enable nonstate actors to target audiences that traditional media deny them.
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