Responsible speech

Remember the good old days when terrorism was a rare thing?  Yes, sometimes people got hurt or even killed, but the more frequent incident was an airplane hijacking or a nuisance bomb.  And then the inevitable claim of responsibility would come from the PLO or the ALF or the FLQ in the form of a phone call to a newspaper, or as technology advanced a fax (who recalls faxes??).

I got thinking about this when I read that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in Kuwait (at a Shia mosque) and Tunisia (at a hotel), in which dozens died.  And this after the group claimed other attacks in other countries.

I have already noted that just because a group says it did something doesn’t mean it did.  AQ and IS and others have a clear interest in getting their brand out there and taking responsibility for some heinous act or other.  Whether the recent attacks were perpetrated by people ordered by IS or just inspired by it, in any event IS wants in on this bandwagon.

But the notion of claiming responsibility leads me to look at this issue from two different aspects.

The first has to do with calls by some in society that the media not give the terrorists oxygen by reporting on their atrocities.  As if not reporting something will make it go away or somehow discourage terrorist groups from continuing to do acts that get no notice.

I find this argument spurious.  First and foremost, media outlets have a job to do and that is to report the news.  Terrorist attacks are news.  End of story.  Secondly, while we assume that terrorists want attention (Brian Jenkins once famously compared terrorism to theatre – see his classic original 1974 paper here), it is not clear whether they would stop their acts in the absence of coverage.  Terrorists are motivated by multiple causes (political, religious, ideological) and think that they are on the side of right (or justice or divine will…) and some would probably act regardless of whether their attacks are picked up by the BBC,

The second has to do with the belief that terrorist groups have to keep carrying out attacks to avoid losing support or meaning.   As if action is the only attractant.

I – not surprisingly – do not agree.

There is probably some truth to the notion that AQ is on the wane because it has not carried out an attack in some time (although there are many other reasons for its drop in popularity) but a group like IS has other things going for it to garner support in addition to its acts of terrorism.  These include:

– the fact that is has re-established the Caliphate

– the fact that it has territory

– the fact that it is seen as the group most likely capable of overthrowing the tyrannical Assad regime (we’ll ignore the fact that its plans for government are even more tyrannical)

– the fact that it is a “state”

And I am sure there are others.

The bottom line is that terrorism is both simple and complex.  Simple in that it can be reduced to violence carried out to effect change in the support of some kind of ideology. Complex in that we cannot use simple theories to describe why some groups do what they do.

So let’s gather as much information as we can – which means reporting everything we (media, academics, governments) know so we can best confront this beast.

That would be the responsible thing to do.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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