Conversation: Terrorism Theater and Social Media

4 MINS READAug 31, 2015 | 20:34 GMT

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Fred Burton: Hi I'm Fred Burton here today with my colleague Scott Stewart. Scott, you've written a lot about the theatre of terror. Help us understand exactly what you mean by that term.

Scott Stewart: Well really what we've seen Fred, you know all along terrorism has always thought about itself as the propaganda of the deed. Going all the way back to the anarchist in the late 1800s. But really in the modern era, really starting in the 1960s and 1970s, we saw terrorists trying to kind of present these made for TV type attacks. You know, think about these iconic airplane hijackings. TWA 847. Think about the Olympic hostage siege. The OPEC siege. Over years and years and years we saw terrorists working the press and trying to get their message out through these actions that grabbed the attentions of the press. And in some cases, as you know, that meant even grabbing press. People like journalists who were abducted in the Middle East. But what we're seeing today that I think is interesting is that with the popularity of social media, we're seeing people kind of becoming their own press and taking their own propaganda of the deed, this terrorist theatre right to the Internet.

Fred: I think technology has certainly helped that. If you go back to some of the cases that you mentioned, for example Scott, the horrific killing of Robert Stethem on the tarmac in Beirut during the TWA 847 hijacking, and of course the 1972 Olympic massacre at Munich. Scott, don't you think that technology we have today, for example the go pros have made this job a little bit easier on the part of the terrorists when they want to help promote their cause?

Scott: Yeah absolutely. And as we saw with even the domestic shooting of the news crew in Roanoke, Virginia, in the last week, we saw the disgruntled employee wearing a go pro and showing the first person shooter type aspect to the crime. And so we're seeing more of that and this means that this theatre of terror is migrating from these main terrorist groups like the Palestinian Liberation Organization, like Hezbollah, like al Qaeda, like the Islamic State down to these grassroots operatives. So we're seeing grassroots operatives, places like Toulouse, France, or Brussels, Belgium, wearing this go pros in order to make their own propaganda videos that they can then post on social media and go viral. So what we're even seeing this idea of the terrorist spectacular migrating down to the grassroots level, from the main group level, and that's a very interesting thing to follow, especially in this age of social media, of video games and it all kind of ties together with this technology.

Fred: From a tactical perspective, if you turn the tables from our days of being special agents, I think there is also something that counterterrorism personnel can learn by studying this videotape, don't you think?

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. They're definitely giving us the first person aspect helps us understand the how. How are they planning these attacks? How are they conducting the surveillance? I'm certain that once you get the suspect, for example in the Roanoke case, I'll bet that they found a lot of information on him from how he conducted the surveillance. And the same thing you see in these attacks in places like Belgium and France as well. So it also helps in the investigation and of course trying to then find ways to counter these attacks.

Fred: I know guys like us have always been fascinated about the how versus the why. Could you explain that a little bit?

Scott: Well the how is important and that's one of the things that we really try to stress at Stratfor. The why is important and the who, but really when you're looking at the how, that's what allows you to deconstruct the event and figure out the exact steps that were taken to undertake, to do it, to conduct the attack. So when you understand the steps, then you can start looking for indicators. You can start looking for countermeasures. And you can start looking for ways to disrupt or abate attacks rather than just respond to them after the fact. So really looking at the how and deconstructing it really helps defensively, not just putting people in jail after the fact, but also helping you prevent the attacks before they happen.

Fred: And hopefully keeping people alive. That's all the time we have today Scott. I appreciate your thoughts on this. For anybody that's interested in more information, please visit our website at Thank you. 

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