What drives terrorism? This series has strived to identify the forces that influence trends in terrorist tactics, targets and tradecraft. From them, observers can place attacks in context, and can even anticipate the next evolution in terrorism. The first part examined the importance of ideology and terrorist theory. The second focused on how political and economic developments influence these dynamics. The third looked at how counterterrorism efforts make their mark on the terrorists they are trying to stop. And the fourth investigated how technology has made its impact on terrorists. These factors are distinct from the psychological and social forces that lead an individual to become radicalized, which will not be discussed here.
This final installment discusses how the media has long played a role in making terrorism what it is. And while it's an important function, especially when combined with the other four influential forces, it has the added benefit of amplifying the message and perceived power a terrorist group — and terrorism in general — has.
Propaganda of the Deed
Terrorism couldn't exist without the media. Throughout history, people have killed civilians to achieve political objectives, but the unique form of violence known as terrorism is inextricably linked to the media. In fact, the concept of terrorism only emerged after the advent of the mass media, when advances in technology enabled rapid and broad dissemination of news. It began with the printing presses during the Industrial Revolution, which made mass publication significantly faster and more cost efficient, resulting in the wide circulation of daily newspapers, especially in cities. As news agencies became wire services (which sent news stories over telegram lines), news of events was distributed even more rapidly, first at the national level and later globally because of undersea telegraph cables in the second half of the 19th century. These technological advances raised the global awareness of news events to levels never before seen, completely changing the concept of news coverage. The growing media capability also led to greater competition as rival news organizations vied for larger market shares and audience attention. This fostered sensationalism and ushered in the age of yellow journalism, all in an effort to boost sales.
These dramatic changes in the news media were not lost on radical political ideologues, who observed the way the media was 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." Terrorist attacks were now acts of propaganda — or "propaganda of the deed" as they became known.
By using the media to propagate their message through their attacks, anarchists were able to dramatically expand their reach beyond what they could achieve through their own print media publications. Coverage assisted them in recruiting new adherents. It also helped create the perception that anarchists were far more powerful and plentiful than they really were, a notion that would continue for many terrorist groups even as media changed.
Made for TV
Such was the case with television. Coming of age in the 1960s, it began to replace newspapers as the most important way to consume news. Video footage of events proved to be a much more compelling and powerful than print. While film newsreels had long been used for a similar effect, live broadcast news programs brought an enhanced sense of immediacy and intimacy. Space launches and wars were brought live into people's living rooms. Indeed, many people have referred to the Vietnam War as the "living room war" as it was the first conflict to be systematically televised.
Understandably, the terrorists becoming active in the 1960s and 1970s quickly recognized television's importance to the propagation of their message. They, like their anarchist predecessors, began to plan and conduct operations designed to serve as terrorism theater. Examples of such acts are the 1972 kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games — the first Olympics to be televised live — and the 1975 raid and hostage crisis at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna.
But facility seizures were not the only type of attack that catered to television. Aircraft hijackings followed suit, changing from relatively brief endeavors to long, drawn-out and dramatic media events often spanning multiple days and continents. The 1985 hijacking of TWA 847 lasted for 17 days. Kuwaiti Airlines Flight 422, which was hijacked in 1988 after departing Bangkok, landed at airports in Iran, Cyprus and Algeria during the 15-day hijacking.
Perhaps the most live viewed terrorist event in history was when hijackers flew United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World trade Center on 9/11. Millions of people around the world watched the event unfold on television because American Airlines Flight 11 had flown into the North Tower minutes earlier. Such attacks that rely on spectacle exert a powerful hold over the human imagination. The 9/11 attacks alone spawned a global sense of terror and a geopolitical reaction that would have a profound and unparalleled impact upon world events for years to come.
But television news has changed dramatically since then. As cable news networks have expanded, television news is now a 24/7/365 affair. Terrorism draws more television coverage today than it did in the 1960s and 1970s, when it had to compete with other topics of the day for time in a 30 minute nightly news broadcast.
Television channel owners have recognized the power of their medium, and many have taken steps to limit how they cover terrorist propaganda. Luring viewers away from competitors, however, is still a prominent motivation to increase advertising revenues. So, even relatively small terrorist attacks continue to garner a great deal of television news coverage.
More coverage helps to inflate the terrorist threat and the perception of such groups. It enables them to cause far more terror than damage. According to a December 2015 Gallup poll, some 51 percent of Americans said they were very worried or somewhat worried that they or their family members will become a victim of terrorism. Statistically, however, the odds that an American will die in a terrorist attack this year are about 1 in 29 million. These are long odds. Still, the perception of terrorism remains far greater than the threat it actually poses.
Democratization of Media
Media is again changing. The internet and social media applications are rapidly becoming important, if not primary, sources of news information for people. Newspapers and television news networks no longer have the degree of control over information they once did. Terrorist organizations have taken note. By bypassing the gatekeepers of the traditional media, they can now appeal directly to the population through social media channels, websites and other electronic publications such as web-based magazines. The unfettered and unfiltered media has led to an explosion in the amount of terrorist propaganda available to anyone. Prior to the internet, most people were never likely to encounter a terrorist group's propaganda pamphlet, audiocassette or videotape. But today, terrorists can record their attacks on digital cameras to upload them onto the internet, a simple act that can be done by anyone, anywhere there is an internet connection. And all of it can be accessed in an instant.
Terrorists have always altered their behavior to best use the media to their advantage. Today, they're increasingly becoming their own media. It is, and will continue to, shape how they behave.