By Peter Knoope, Associate fellow ICCT – The Hague.
Traditionally one of the most powerful tools of terrorist organisations is the instrument of fear. Terrorism frightens us. It is meant to do that. Terrorists want to frighten their potential victims. Its powerful because terrorism impacts beyond its immediate action in terms of time, geographic space and direct victims. An act of terrorism in New York effects people far beyond the US and much longer than only the weeks after the 11th of September. Something happens here and now, but we will be frightened of it happening again long after and also in faraway places. That is how terrorist acts change the way we live and look at the world. It deliberately seeks to do that.
In more general terms terrorist acts are a form of communication. Terrorist acts, at least also, sent a political message. Terrorists can use violence because they feel unheard, not listened to. It can in that sense be considered a loud message of those who feel politically excluded. Terrorism can be instrumental in communicating a specific political agenda. An act of violence seems to scream: listen to me I’ve something to tell you. It can bring a forgotten or excluded political position or group to the agenda. It can advocate that position and be considered an act of frustration and an instrument of the powerless that oppose the monopoly of the state to use violence. It can even be considered the ultimate instrument of those who feel excluded or suppressed to be heard.
All those elements are found in old school terrorism like separatists movements of the nineties in the last century. It holds for those who fought colonial powers in the last half of the 20th century. It was found in the case of the Molucans in the seventies in the Netherlands, the ANC in South Africa, the IRA, the case of the ETA, and even the RAF in Germany.
The question is, is IS representing a form of terrorism deviating from the old school elements? What, in the light of the above can we make of IS? Is what they do really new? How does IS exploit fear as a change agent and what is the message?
The leadership of IS has a well-developed communication strategy. It makes calculated choices. It is frightening the West. Purposely and targeted. It is approaching and addressing the local population in (parts of) Iraq and Syria with an underlying idea and plan. It is exploiting media in a calculated and advanced way. It controls the external communication of its support base. It has a targeted recruitment strategy. They developed a well-controlled and strategic message. It is seeking to change the way we live and look at the world.
The message they have for the world seems to be “We are relevant”; “You will have to deal with us”. This message is meant not just for the so-called western world, but even more importantly for the audience in the Muslim Majority States. IS pictures itself as the representatives of that same Muslim world with a distinct political agenda and, in that sense, the organisation presents itself as “ahead of the curve”. Their methods are such that it cannot but frighten, and leave a strong impression onto the world. They have purposely managed to be the talk of the town. And IS has a message for those who would under normal conditions do a reality check on their claims and acts: journalists and aid workers. The message to them is “stay away”. This is our territory and space. And last but not least there is a very strong message for the potential supporters “If you agree with us you are welcome”. If you have nowhere to go, if you have no perspective in life, if you want to be a somebody, come and join us. We at IS offer comradeship and a reason to live and die for. IS seems to claim not only strength and commitment to a cause but also a readiness to die for it, which gives a sense of invincibility.
IS has picked up the lessons from the Arab spring revolts and the strength of the use of social media, it is convinced of its support base in many western diaspora communities plus in Muslim Majority States and it is convinced of the potential of a military victory, based on the Afghanistan scenario, so it presents and considers itself the winner. Frightening the West and provoking a military response from the US and UK, is based in, and the result of, this conviction. They have the money, the support base, the enemy, a vision and the ideology to support the vision. They challenge the monopoly of the use of force and claim to represent the powerless.
It seems to me that without a doubt IS exploits fear and sends messages, but the sophistication of the exploitation of fear by IS, as a political instrument, is unprecedented. The professionalism of the use of communication by IS is unheard of. IS is more apt and equipped to the new era of modern professional communication and media outreach, than any previous terrorists organisation has ever been before. There seems no escape. Not the elements of fear and messaging, but the way it is exploited to its full, is confrontationally new.
Is this new development reflected in the response by the international community? Fact is that the counter terrorism approach to IS employs old school methodology. Suppression and military response is the impulse. Inducing more fear in western societies by allowing a stage and repeating the images of atrocities and violence. Softly treading on the political element of the underlying issues and the motivational factors. But we hopelessly fail in mirroring the sophistication of the messaging. We seem to underestimate and unable to match the professionalism of the communication efforts. So we necessarily rely on the concept of the monopoly of the use of force. We even turn to old school methods of empowering oppositional fractions.
It is time that counter terrorism should mean building resilience in society to the fear factor. Societal actors should be empowered to identify underlying grievances. And not just identify the grievances but also address them and effectively deal with them. Soft power and communication should seriously become part of the toolbox of the Counter Terrorism world at large. Not just because fear is part of the instruments of terrorists, not just because terrorism holds a message for an audience, but also because terrorist organisations become more professional and more aware of the state of the art of communication. That should represent the real and fundamental difference in the response mechanisms compared to that in earlier cases of political violence. The potential victims deserve a professionalised counter terrorism effort, one that matches the sophistication of the new agents of fear and intimidation. That change in counter terrorism approach should be the real news.