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The power of terrorist propaganda

Years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Brian Jenkins at a conference in Washington. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Jenkins’ work you would be hard pressed to find a terrorism scholar and analyst more seasoned than him. He was examining and writing about terrorism well before 9/11 and is still active. You really should look him up.

One of Mr. Jenkins’ signature phrases is “terrorism is theatre” (although, as an American, I am sure he would have written ‘theater’). He coined this way back in 1974 when he was with the Rand Corporation. It means that terrorists are people who use violence to send a message and influence others, unlike garden-variety criminals who either just like to maim and kill or for personal gain. Terrorists seek to get a reaction, ranging from fear and trembling to policy shifts such as removing one’s forces from a foreign land (cf the decision by the Reagan government to pull out of Lebanon following the Marine barracks attack in 1983).

Mr. Jenkins also wrote in that short seminal 1974 paper (16 pages!) that “terrorist attacks are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press”. These words came back to me the other day when I read about an Islamic State (IS) threat to launch new attacks in San Francisco, New York, and London, according to new warning messages posted on the group’s social media channels (i.e. via Telegram). Images were accompanied by questionable grammar such as “Go and answer the call. Don’t spare none. Kill them all. It is now time to rise. Slit their throats. Watch them die.” and “O Crusaders Indeed You Are Weak And Powerless. The Soldiers Of Allah Gonna Be Immediately Come To Your Country And Will Destroy The Crusaders Everywhere.” Methinks IS is in need of a good copy editor!

What, if anything, should be made of all this? Can IS really carry out terrorist attacks in the major international metropolises listed above (NB I found the reference to San Fran odd: I cannot recall any similar menace to that city – is it a target because of the local LGBTQ community?)? What should we do?

The simple answer is that yes, these places could be hit by terrorism as much as any other city could and of course NY and London have both been targeted several times. Such an attack does not have to be ordered or planned by a central IS command: any idiot who is a self-proclaimed IS member/acolyte/wannabe can do it. So, yes it is possible.

But is it probable? This, I fear, is impossible to answer and security and law enforcement agencies have to be vigilant at all times. To me, however, there is another set of purposes behind these posters. This is IS’ way of saying ‘Yoohoo! We’re still here! Your President said we had been ‘defeated’ but we are capable of terrorising and killing you at will.”

You see, terrorist propaganda is cheap – and effective. Authorities cannot dismiss these warnings out of hand no matter how outlandish they seem. After all, did anyone seriously think that 19 men would get away with hijacking four aircraft on September 11, 2001? In response money has to be spent and all leads have to be run down. This quickly becomes very, very expensive. And the terrorists know that: this is partly why they spread their messages, to bleed us dry.

The important thing for the general population is not to over-react, not to panic. We have to allow our protectors to do their jobs and see that they are adequately resourced. Let IS and the other groups bluster and scowl, although we do need to make a much better effort at getting this stuff off the various social media channels.

The last thing we should do is to show IS that they have gotten to us. Even if the group is dangerous it nevertheless failed miserably at maintaining their self-styled ‘Caliphate’. Regardless of the real damage they can do they are history’s losers. Best to remember that .

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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