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a nightmare attack … a country where 500 counterterrorism investigations are underway at any one time … the resilience that comes with living for years with a severe threat of attack … the attack on democracy was met with defiance … Parliament Buildings all over the democratic world are under threat from those who want to destroy democracy and freedom … “(residents of the city) will never be cowed by terrorism.”

– Some journalistic cliches by someone who should really really know better

As I watch the media cycle repeat itself after the latest assassination, bombing, or mass shooting, I feel compelled to imitate Gwynne Dyer. The modern kind of terrorism did not exist in the ancient world, and I don’t even own a leather jacket. But studying organized violence is my profession, and there are plenty of textbooks for terrorists and counter-terrorists around, as well as books which explain them for beginners. (General Sir Rupert Smith, a retired British general, has published one book for a general audience on the topic and recorded a podcast which summarizes how professionals think about terrorism and insurgency). And I am very concerned that fifteen almost sixteen (!) years after a local tragedy in New York and Pennsylvania, we are still responding in a way which makes further attacks more likely, and still talking about this problem in a way which is not much more sophisticated than it was then.


The modern kind of terrorism began to develop late in the nineteenth century alongside the new mass media and increased recognition that the people had a place in politics. Terrorism is a tactic by which a faction weak in physical force uses spectacular violence to provoke a stronger opponent to do something contrary to its own interests. To the terrorist, the victims are just tools to help broadcast a message.

One common goal is to get attention. Terrorist groups rarely have much money or much success convincing people of their ideas, but if they do something awful the authorities at least have to acknowledge that they exist. If you forbid people to print pamphlets or speak on TV, but give front-page coverage and hours of prime-time news to anyone who blows something up, some of those people will put two and two together. The act is a way to manipulate the establishment into using its power to spread a message which the terrorists designed, even though that establishment will try to distort it to their own ends.

Another is to discredit the state in the eyes of the victims and their neighbours. This idea has a fancy name (la politique du pire) and a long record of inspiring clever people to horrible deeds, but it rarely works as well as the attackers hope. One form which is popular today is trying to scare away tourists, in hope that the people who lose their livelihoods will turn against their government rather than against the terrorists who set the ball rolling. It may succeed this time in Egypt and other North African countries, but usually the victims become outraged and scare their government into a crackdown in which the terrorists and plenty of bystanders are tortured and killed.

A third common goal is to provoke the victims into a massive and poorly-considered response which hurts themselves. This can overlap with the second goal: many of the urban guerillas in the 1960s and 1970s dreamed that if they provoked the state into repression, the people would turn against it (“Now you see the violence of the system!”) However, often attacks with this goal are directed at a third party. In September 2001 Al Quaeda seems to have hoped to provoke the US into invading Afghanistan, and its likely that the recent Islamist attacks in Europe are designed to provoke a backlash against refugees and Muslims.

It is important to understand that the people who plan terrorist attacks often care nothing about who the victims are. They often have a long list of people and groups whom they want to kill or exile or imprison, but if they had the power to do that they would not be terrorists. If they ever get power, most of the people they kill and torture are in their own countries, even if they tell themselves that one day they will turn against the real enemy. Instead, they often choose their targets to catch the attention of the media which they want to spread their message, or to provoke the right people into foolish acts. Just like a mugger, the leader of a terrorist group sees people as objects to be harvested for resources as efficiently as possible. Murdering rich urbanites from a rich English-speaking country gets more publicity than murdering poor rural people from a marginalized group in a poor country.

For people outside the local emergency and security services, there is very little which can be done about terrorist attacks. Like drunk drivers or flu pandemics, they are just a hazard of life in the 21st century which inflicts terrible pain on a tiny and unlucky minority. Terrorists are weak and incompetent … people who are strong and capable use politics and money and force to get what they want. It is always easier to destroy than create, and modern technology puts more and more destructive power in the hands of individuals. But we can chose not to give the terrorists what they want: publicity, respect as serious dangers and not a bunch of losers, and policies which help them achieve their political aims. Terrorism is a tactic of desperation, it thrives on publicity, and most people whose idea of fun is reading blogs on ancient history have plenty of more urgent things to worry about.

Journalists are caught up in some ugly structures which make it hard not to focus on atrocities and pretend to foretell the future. But they were caught up in the same structures when they used to report the gory details of suicides and carry ads for cigarettes. We helped them find a way to report suicides in a way which did not encourage copycats, and fund their writing without selling death sticks. We can help them find a better way to talk about mass killings.

This post was first written in 2015, revised in 2016, and posted in 2017 because while I would rather post some pretty photos this week, the media’s treatment of mass killings is a very serious problem. The people who read a blog like this are much likely to be able to influence the media in their own country than they are to be able to convince would-be mass murderers to pick another goal in life. I have not needed to change its content substantively since 2015, although it took some time to summon the muses. Could some of my older readers tell me if it was this bad in the days of the IRA and the Rote Armee Fraktion?

If you want some healthier opinioney kind of journalism, how about the Macleans article on Churchill, Manitoba, as an exemplum of the Canadian’ government’s Artic policy.

Edit 2017-04-07: For an example of how terrorists think about these issues today, see Charlie Winter’s summary of the propaganda handbook of Daesh:

The final prong of the Islamic State strategy—media “projectiles” —is regularly referenced in the document. These “weapons” are “anything that angers the enemies of Allah,” from ultraviolent videos like the Mohammed Emwazi beheadings to statements and videos put out in the wake of terrorist operations.

The authors explain that these explicit and incendiary messages can “shatter the morale of the enemy,” noting that a well-conceived media “bomb” has the power to complement, and sometimes even substitute for, military operations. Indeed, if launched effectively, they assert, “media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs.” Not only do media attacks offer a way to “intimidate and threaten with violence,” they can make the Islamic State’s adversaries act irrationally by “infuriating them” and ensnaring them in ill-conceived knee-jerk responses.

To this end, the Islamic State uses offensive information warfare to attack not only military targets, but civilian ones, too. After all, in its eyes, there is no such thing as civilian status beyond the caliphate’s boundaries. Thus, its media “missiles”—be they video executions or mass-mediated terrorist attacks—are calibrated to strike disengaged publics as much as they are towards hitting engaged militaries.

I hope that someone commissions him to translate the whole original, or at least representative sections, from the Arabic.