It is often said that terrorism practices judo with the media, suggesting that terrorist groups take advantage of the desperate greed of journalists for spectacular news to make them publish their own texts or speeches and thereby gaining maximum visibility for their cause. Intense deontological debates take place on the subject: should this kind of free advertising be offered to people who use violence instead of democratic activism to influence the largest possible audiences? Should we censor what they say? On the other hand, do we have the right to hide from the public who these people are and what it is that they want?
But we could consider things quite differently. Is terrorism (provided that there is such an animal and that terrorism is an essence and not only a method) the poor man’s war (namely: when you don’t have missiles you use human bombs?) or is it mainly propaganda by action, a paradoxical fight for the hearts and minds of men? To be more precise, a violent way to attain symbolical purposes: humiliating the enemy; ascertaining one’s right to a land; to a status or to a fair political system; expressing one’s identity and punishing those you consider responsible for your pain, by hitting symbolical targets. By symbolical targets, we mean that those who die from terrorism: a leader; a policeman; a civil servant or simple passer-by who would certainly consider himself as innocent of a terrorist’s grievance, are targeted not by reason of who they are or what they did but for what they represent. Terrorists take ideas seriously: when they kill a man, they want to destroy an idea: colonialism; authoritarianism; capitalism; foreign imperialism or the oppression of the Jews and the Crusaders.
And they do so to demonstrate another idea: for instance, they intend to reveal the illusion of a bourgeois democracy to the oppressed or to create solidarity among those who are occupied by a foreign power, or to legitimate – theologically and strategically – the necessity of defensive jihad and martyrdom.
In this perspective, terrorism is not only using the media, it is becoming a media which turns action into message. Terrorism is rhetoric and pedagogy by blood and explosion. This means in no way that the media are only a means to an end and that their technology is not relevant to the nature of terrorist practices. On the contrary there is an obvious link between an era’s dominant media and its’ dominant form of terrorism. Russian fin de siècle Nihilists and European Anarchists were ardent readers, published manifestoes and newspapers. Colonial freedom fighters or resistance movements were highly dependent on radio. When the PLO took Israeli athletes as hostages in Munich, it was a worldwide TV event and the Palestinian cause, as a result, became global. And Al Qaeda could not survive as a transnational terrorist network without a numeric network, the Internet.
And now the rising power among jihadists, Isis (Islamic State in Irak and Syria) has turned more and more « 2.0 » using social networks as an incredible machine to terrify and to attract. On one side they produce images of slaughterings (which in their minds are « proofs » that God will punish the unbelievers) to generate a maximum impact : burning people, using kids as executioners…, to literally petrify us with fear. On the other hand, young jihadists reporting their experiences on personal accounts, Twitter for instance, describe how happy is the life they are leading, now that they are joined the land of caliphate.
Which leads us to a paradox: Do you remember when people used to celebrate media for the people, we the media or don’t hate the media, become the media? With the Internet, everybody has an equal access to the public domain; everybody can become a publisher instead of being a passive receptor ?
It seems that jihadists understood the lesson. They understood the power of images, even the Taliban or recently Boko Haram whose’s communication by video turns more sophisticated and modern; despite their strict interpretation of the Quran, lead them to burn pictures or works of art and simultaneously to strike triumphant poses for journalists. They understood the devastating power of digital information whose circulation cannot be stopped. They understood how to use Web 2.0 technologies. Maybe it is time for us to understand how they think.