Excerpt from book “In the Crossroads of terrorism: Islamic State”
Apotheosis of Hyper-Communication
Almost 90 years ago, on 18 April 1930, the evening news segment of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) consisted of a single announcement – there is no news. Nothing newsworthy had happened in the entire world. The rest of the news segment was filled with music.[i] While it is possible that nothing of note transpired in the world on that particular date, the more plausible case is that the media we have today has changed much more than the world around us. 50 years later, US media mogul Ted Turner developed a different approach by establishing the news channel CNN, the first news channel in the world that broadcasted news around the clock. From that moment onwards, there could be no more days with nothing to report in the world, and even if nothing really happened, the news would have to be made up. It could no longer be just about bare facts or “announcements” about the order of things. Now news reports had to be entire stories, the wilder the better, that would touch the hearts and minds of viewers For no one could suffer through a 24-hour news cycle of boring and basic reports.
Terrorism has evolved as well. Serbian “terrorist” Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand and this assassination served as the precursor to one of the most monumental events in human history. Princip is often described in annals of history as a member of a heroic liberation movement fighting against colonial oppression, thus rendering the murder of Ferdinand a “necessary evil”. Such discussions would probably not take place, if the political movement Princip represented had not been successful later on, similar to how the Bolsheviks, led by a terrorist named Lenin, wrote history books depicting themselves as liberators of people. “The difference between political terror and ordinary crime becomes clear during the change of regimes, in which former terrorists come to power and become well-regarded representatives of their country,” says philosopher Jürgen Habermas, immediately adding that he cannot envisage any considerations that would allow anyone to interpret the 9/11 attacks as a political and therefore justified action.[ii] And indeed, the followers of Bin Ladin have failed to engage the masses, and have not even progressed towards their political objectives. Still, in a way Al-Qaeda’s terror attack was absolutely contemporary, modern and unprecedented – it was a powerful “event”.
The aim of terrorism is not to kill people. That is only a (very dishonourable) way to achieve other objectives. And yet never have the conditions been so favourable, both in the context of the 20th century and of the Islamic State, to use terrorism as a tool of war. The evolutionary chain of the telegraph, radio, television and, lastly, the internet has produced a massive growth in communication and resulted in a “age of media”. However, the dark side of such “media” magnificence is that terrorism and media are somewhat interdependent. The terrorist organization Al-Qaeda was well aware that in terms of conventional forces it is considerably weaker than the local secular authorities and the US. In asymmetric warfare, the organization made terrorism its weapon of choice and not only because it lacked regular armed forces of its own, but mostly because terrorism is the brightest star in the age of communication, information and media. The media is not interested in news about the order of things, it craves events full of agitation, scandals, storms and passions. And terrorism is an event par exellance. This creates a peculiar symbiosis or an inexplicit amity between media and terrorism – they keep each other alive. To paraphrase a famous quote by Kant – media without terrorism is empty, terrorism without media is mute. Media would wither if it had no “events” to report on, and terrorism would be pointless if media did not provide it with an audience to scare. Anthropologist and researcher of modern terrorism, Scott Atran, has accurately pointed out that modern media is mostly designed to titillate the public rather than inform it. All of this made it easy for the Islamic State to hijack the mighty propaganda machine of the West for its own purposes. A move “… we could counter with responsible restraint and straight-up information,” goes the somewhat pessimistic conclusion of Atran: “But we won’t.”[iii] And we won’t, because terrorism and the media have grown intertwined in a mutually beneficial and sustaining relationship – a demonic marriage of the 21st century. Media is the oxygen of terrorism. The laws of physics determine that a mixture of fuel and oxygen will produce roaring flames, while in the domain of ideas and thoughts the size of an explosion in a terrorist attack is determined by the presence of media. The more media is present, the more minds are affected by the explosion.
The Islamic State has an extremely rudimentary media strategy: engage in activities that the Western media will, of their own volition, cover and report, transferring information and fear. Propaganda researcher, Charlie Winter, writes: “Isis may be brutal, but it is far from irrational. Its propagandists are paragons of cynicism and know all too well that they can seize and dictate the global media agenda through their audio-visual actions. Isis’s brutality is deliberately broadcast to the world because it breeds publicity. Crucially, though, it isn’t just any publicity, it is publicity on Isis’s terms.”[iv]
Ever since the news became a commodity, it has been exhausted and seem dull. Therefore, it must be made more exciting. This is another media feature – sensationalism. Every news story has to be more horrendous our shocking than the one that came before it and is now promptly forgotten. The media is not only chasing momentous events, but also wants to see event of ever greater scale. This creates a hypertrophic reality or, rather, a senselessly bloated depiction of reality. Such megalomania is an apt description of communication practices – hyper-communication in which everything is given massive properties – the bigger, the better. As a result, things are not just good or better, every single thing is “probably, the best in the world” – the best beer, the best democracy and the best hair shampoo. And terrorism receives the same treatment.
In conditions of hyper-communication importance is not attributed to a discussion in the form of a dialog, but to a series of monologues, the significance of which is certified by the loudness of the speaker. Such logic leads to terrorism. If news must be “massive”, terrorism is an easy shortcut to the front page. To put it a little cynically, to get his message past all the news about Kim Kardashian, an Islamic terrorist needs to kill more people – one will not be enough, at least ten should do. Besides, to the disappointment of such an Islamist, the message will get lost in the glossy pictures presented to the viewers. In this sense, terrorism is absolutely contemporary. It fully complies with the internal logic of media. Terrorism is the apotheosis of hyper-communication.
Already in his comments on the 9/11 attacks, French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, wrote: “And in this singular event, in this Manhattan disaster movie, the twentieth century’s two elements of mass fascination are combined: the white magic of the cinema and the black magic of terrorism; the white light of the image and the black light of terrorism.”[v] Yet as the opportunities of information circulation have developed at a breakneck pace, the propaganda of the Islamic State has demonstrably brought together two well-known, but different topics. One is internet technology and the headlong development of social media, and the other – terrorism and radical Islam. This combination poses another challenge to the obstinate belief that the so-called mujahidin and terrorists are radicals of no technological prowess. The reality is quite the contrary – the scale of the Islamic State propaganda campaign and the methods employed show that military Jihadism has bravely entered the 21st century. Today, the emerging trend of many aspects of human life being transferred to the virtual reality, comes as no surprise to anyone. The topic of digitalisation – the classic of our times – touches upon many well-known issues: tablets in schools, smartphones in households etc. It is clear that digitalisation has both positive and negative consequences, but, up till now, the “average opinion” did not include the idea that it could be in some way linked to Islamic terrorism. This trend has another aspect – digitalisation of life brings with it technological know-how that is especially widespread among young people. Your own web site is no longer something exclusive, and almost all authorities, companies, organizations, and people can be found on the web. It should not come as a surprise then that the so-called evil forces have found their spot on the web, develop their own encryption programs or use the BitCoin crypto currency.
[i] BBC. “‘There is no news’: What a change from 1930 to today.” BBC News. 18 April 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-39633603
[ii] Habermas, Jürgen. “Fundamentalism and Terror: A Dialogue with Jürgen Habermas.” In Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, by Giovanna Borradori, 25–43. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003 — p. 34.
[iii] Atran, Scott. “Why ISIS has the potential to be a world-altering revolution.”
[iv] Winter, Charlie. “Shocked by the ‘cubs of the caliphate’? Of course you are – that’s Isis’s plan.” The Guardian. 5 January 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/05/cubs-of-caliphate-isis-children-videos-propaganda?CMP=share_btn_tw
[v] Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism — pp. 29–30.