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In the mid-1990s, a series of couriers made the hazardous journey from Afghanistan, across the mountains along its eastern frontier, to Islamabad, the capital of neighbouring Pakistan. They took local transport, with little to distinguish them from the many other travelers on the roads of the poor, and sometimes violent, states of South Asia. Yet their mission was unique: to deliver video tapes from al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization, to the offices of news organizations.

Osama bin Laden had founded al-Qaeda in 1990 to unite the fragmented and fractious factions of the global Sunni Muslim jihadi movement. With the extremist mujahideen in the vanguard, this would enable regimes in the Middle East to be overthrown and the ummah, the global Muslim community, to be freed from the domination of the West. His strategy, which took some time to mature, was to mobilize existing supporters, polarize communities by forcing them to choose between his version of Islam and the secular West, and to terrorize his enemies.

To do this, communications were crucial. Writing to Mullah Omar, bin Laden said that 90 percent of the battle he was fighting was fought “in the media.” His chosen weapon to achieve his communicative aims was “propaganda by deed”: the use of extreme, spectacular violence against highly symbolic targets.

Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were not the first to do this, of course. 

There have been three major surges in terrorist violence in the last 60 years. One came in the decades immediately following the Second World War. This coincided with the arrival of television in American and European homes, and radio across the Islamic world. Those fighting colonial regimes immediately recognized the implications. In 1956, the Algerian political activist and revolutionary Ramdane Abane wondered aloud whether it was better to kill ten enemies in a remote gully, “where no one will talk of it,” or “a single man in Algiers, which will be noted the next day” by audiences in distant countries, who could influence policy-makers. 

The next major wave of terrorist violence began in the late 1960s but peaked in the following decade with a series of high-profile assassinations, airplane hijackings, and bombings. Bruce Hoffman, one of the most respected academics working in the field, points out that the wave of Middle Eastern terrorism in this period coincided with a series of technological innovations that made it possible to send images cheaply and rapidly across great distances. This allowed American TV networks to provide much more comprehensive, and much more gripping, coverage of events across the world. In 1972, members of the Palestinian Black September group attacked Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the first games to be broadcast live and the first to be the target of a terrorist attack. Senior planners of the operation later said they had selected the target because they knew the event was going to be televised live. “The plan was for international pressure to be brought to bear through 500 million TV sets,” said Abu Daoud, one of those behind the attack. Over the next decade, kidnappings and hijackings became breaking news stories with vast audiences following every development.

Then came al-Qaeda, another technological shift, and another surge of violence. By the late 1990s, satellite TV channels in the respective local languages had begun to spread across the Islamic world, allowing unprecedented numbers of people to watch content that had not been vetted by government officials. These networks soon became hugely popular and bin Laden, now back in Afghanistan, was swift to grasp their potential. But the content he produced – to use a contemporary media term – was of limited interest to editors based in the Persian Gulf or Western capitals. An al-Qaeda courier I interviewed in Pakistan shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, described bin Laden’s frustration at his inability to communicate his message to the widest possible audience: “Every time I took a new tape, he told me how important my mission was, and how, this time, the Muslims of the world would finally listen, and how I must absolutely deliver the tape to the right people.” The escalating attacks of 1998 to 2001 can be seen as a response to these continued failures to capture the headlines. To carry them out, al-Qaeda constructed a vast and vulnerable network of training camps. The technology, to a very great extent, influenced the structure of the organization. 

Through the following decade, and into the current one, there has been the greatest technological shift of all, one that many compare with the Gutenberg revolution and the advent of printing 600 years ago. This digital revolution has also led to an evolution in Islamic militant terrorist tactics and strategy. Digital technology has made communications cheaper and easier. Critically, it has allowed individuals to become broadcasting hubs by themselves and has allowed organizations to reach audiences without convincing any editors to disseminate their material. This has lifted all barriers on the nature of the content that is broadcast – so executions and other appalling scenes, which would never have reached TV screens, are now viewable even on laptops or smartphones – and has allowed that content to be published almost instantaneously anywhere in the world. 

Militant groups were quick to adapt to the rise of the Internet. According to one estimate, the number of all terrorist websites – those ad­vocating or inciting terrorism or political violence – grew from a dozen in 1997 to almost 4,700 in 2005; a nearly 400-fold increase and eight times greater than the increase in the total number of websites over the same period. These figures include both left-wing and right-wing extremists, with Islamic militants accounting for around two thirds.

New technology also greatly simplified the means of giving instruction to recruits, avoiding the need for travel and a large-scale infrastructure of camps. The Saudi Arabian branch of al-Qaeda launched an online magazine in 2004 that encouraged potential recruits to use the Internet: “Oh mujahed brother, you don’t have to travel to other lands to join the great training camps … alone, in your home or with a group of your brothers, you too can begin to execute the training program.” 

The cumulative impact of this change has been seen with the Islamic State, which came to prominence when it seized Mosul and declared a caliphate in 2014.

Through its ability to publish everywhere and anywhere, and in order to directly reach individuals without the mediation of a major news organization, the Islamic State built a formidable propaganda machine that effectively created an image of the organization and its project that was attractive to tens of thousands of young people across the Islamic world as well as in Europe. It also was able to disseminate gruesome images of violence, which had a major impact on Western policy – a classic terrorist tactic. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly going forward now that the Islamic State is losing its territorial stronghold in Iraq and Syria, new technology has made smaller attacks by individuals or very small groups more attractive to terrorist organizations than ever before.

In recent years, we have heard much of these so-called “lone-wolf” operations. The phenomenon is a complex one and, in reality, few such attacks are carried out by actors who are entirely solitary. 

But, nonetheless, the steady rise over the last decade in the number and efficacy of such strikes by individuals or very small numbers of people with tenuous affiliations or contact with an established organization is striking. One reason, of course, is the pressure on both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State from counterterrorist agencies. This undeniably makes ambitious and complex spectacles very difficult to execute. 

However, this is also the case because the digital revolution has created new capabilities for individuals that never existed previously and that are of significant benefit to terrorist groups. These include technical elements, such as easily obtainable apps that allow encrypted communication, as well as the capacity to recruit and propagandize online through social media. Perhaps most importantly, individuals can now broadcast their own pledges of allegiance and their own videos claiming responsibility, as attackers in Germany did earlier last year (2016). Using GoPro action cameras, they can even film their violence themselves. 

These lone-wolf attackers can create significant panic. The fact that the number of people to have been killed in terrorist attacks by Is­lamic militants is statistically negligible is irrelevant. We know the actual chances of being hurt even in a sustained terrorist campaign are minimal, but, when we come across news of a major road accident, outbreak of disease, or simply the mortality rates of heart disease or cancer when scrolling down the headlines on our smartphones or tablets, we do not feel the same anxiety, dread, or fascination as we do when reading of a bomb blast or shooting, even though any of the aforementioned scourges of modern life is infinitely more likely to cause harm to you or your loved ones. The violence seems utterly unpredictable, even if that is not true. Many of the places where we generally feel safe – trains, airports, and even schools – suddenly become danger zones. We extrapolate from the individual attack and turn it into a general rule. A gunman has attacked a museum, so no museum is safe. A classroom, even thousands of miles away, has been bombed and we cannot help but wonder if that could, or might, happen here. 

Our faith in the institutions we have built to keep us safe is also shaken. Terrorism undermines the legitimacy of the state by demonstrating its inability to fulfill its fundamental function of protecting its citizens as they go about their daily lives. It also threatens the state’s all-important monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.1 We all recognize this instinctively. A single bomb on a bus is manageable for policy-makers. Two are a serious problem. Three can bring about the fall of a government simply because there is a general consensus among officials, policy-makers, and voters that those in charge are no longer doing their job. We may understand that the threat is not immediate, but it appears present, everywhere, and constant, and this makes us feel deeply vulnerable. Life or death, injury or health, appears to be a lottery. This sense of perpetual menace is what the terrorists seek above all, for this is what will create pressure on policy-makers to change policies, weaken economies, or simply influence the way millions of people see themselves and the world. It is also what inspires us to raise the drawbridge, shun the foreign or the different, and return to the comforting certainties of what we think is sure and familiar, narrow the channels of communication and exchange, and raise up walls. 

So what role does our media play in this? News organizations not only follow commercial im­­­peratives that often encourage sensationalism, but are also staffed by individuals who are broadly reflective of the societies that produce them. Most consumers are interested in what appears to be an immediate threat or benefit to them. As a result, so too are most editors. The old news adage is “if it bleeds, it leads.” 

However, this is not the only problem. In recent decades, the media has also been guilty of en­couraging, if not actually causing, errors of analysis that have significant and damaging effects.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, a series of misconceptions about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda became widely accepted. Some focused on the person of Osama bin Laden himself – his wealth, health, and history. The group that he led, until then relatively marginal with no real support base and only a few hundred members, was portrayed as a sprawling global terrorist organization with obedient “operatives” and “sleeper cells” on every continent and an ability to mobilize, radicalize, and attack far beyond its actual capabilities. Historic incidents with no connection to the group or its leader were suddenly portrayed as “al-Qaeda operations”. Any incident, anywhere in the world, could become an al-­Qaeda attack.

This misleading impression influenced the Western reaction to the events of September 11, 2001. The threat posed by al-Qaeda was described in apocalyptic terms and a response on an equally massive scale was seen as necessary. The group’s ideological motivations were ignored, while the individual agency of its leaders was emphasized. If they were killed, the logic went, the problem would disappear. Al-Qaeda’s links with other terrorist or extremist organizations were distorted, often by political leaders who hoped for domestic gain and international support; so too were supposed links – all imaginary – to the governments of various states. 

If the egregious manipulation of public opinion and the media sensationalism seen in the early part of the last decade are rarer now, old habits die hard. The emergence of ISIS2 in 2013 prompted reactions that resemble those seen in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and that, despite the generally sensible analysis of the administration of Barack Obama, risk influencing policy. ISIS, despite no real evidence, has, like al-Qaeda, been linked to plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction as well as, ludicrously, to send Ebola-infected “operatives” against its enemies. Media in the United States reported a network of ISIS “sleeper cells” in the “homeland” and “sleeper agents” in Europe, exactly as they had with al-Qaeda in 2002. These claims were, at best, a gross misrepresentation of how either organization operated and how individuals were radicalized. The atmosphere in Europe following the attacks in Paris in January 2015, only indirectly connected with ISIS, also recalled that of a decade earlier, with American commentators making the same hysterical claims of “no-go zones” in European cities, where Islamic law had supposedly been imposed.

Yet blaming the media – or at least the traditional media – in the middle of the digital revolution that is changing so much so dramatically may be misplaced. The influence of newspapers and TV networks has diminished in recent years, while that of social media has risen. The influence of professional journalists has also declined, while that of individuals empowered by new technology has risen. 

This has had obvious consequences in the world of terrorism. 

In one notorious case on June 13, 2016, a 25-year-old French extremist and petty criminal named Larossi Abballa killed Jean-Baptiste Salvaing, a senior local police official, in the latter’s home in a residential neighborhood of Magnaville, a small town northwest of Paris. Larossi stabbed Salvaing seven times with a large knife. He used the same weapon to kill the dead policeman’s wife. Leaving the couple’s three-year-old son unharmed, Laroussi then used Facebook’s new livestream application, Facebook Live, to broadcast a rambling speech in Arabic and French that lasted twelve minutes. He spoke of his motives for the attack, pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, and called for further attacks in France against a range of targets, including prominent rappers, journalists, and politicians. 

Larossi’s use of Facebook, and the new capability to communicate with large numbers of people in real time offered by the new app, was an entirely predictable step. Given the intimate relationship between terrorism and historio­graphy over the years, it should come as no surprise that the empowered individual can be a lone attacker, a citizen journalist, or indeed both.

As the ability to broadcast has expanded, so too has the responsibility assumed by those who do so. A retweet may be as significant an act as a decision taken by an editor. It is not just in the dissemination of images that the individual has a new duty to reflect on the ethics and morality of their actions, but in their broadcast too.

The most powerful images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 came from onlookers. A neighbor used his smartphone to capture the moments when the gunmen effectively executed a wounded policeman on the pavement outside the magazine’s offices. 

As for November’s Paris attacks, two clips have been viewed by many millions of people. One was the smartphone video of terrified concertgoers trying to flee the venue during the attack. Perhaps the most memorable of all was the video of the crowd at the Bataclan concert hall in the moments as the first shots rang out. It was filmed by a member of the audience. 

This raises a new prospect. It is true that the widespread viewing of these images owes something to the actions of employees of news organizations, but it owes as much to the actions of ordinary members of the public empowered by the digital revolution. We have many codes of ethics for professional journalists; perhaps it is time for one for anyone who owns a smartphone and uses Twitter, Facebook, or similar sites?

1 German sociologist Max Weber made the now famous argument about the formation of the modern state in a lecture entitled “Politics as a Vocation” in 1918. In this lecture, analyzing a statement by Leon Trotsky that every state is founded on force, Weber suggested that a state is “the form of human community that [successfully] lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory.” Weber, Max (2004): “Politics as a Vocation.” In: The Vocation Lectures. Indianapolis, pp. 32–94, p. 33.
2 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.