How Do Terrorists Sell Extreme Violence?

How do Terrorists present violence which is repulsive to most in a way that it is appealing to some? 

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Terrorism can be commendable and it can be reprehensible. Terrifying an innocent person and terrorizing him is objectionable and unjust, also unjustly terrorizing people is not right. Whereas terrorizing oppressors and criminals and thieves and robbers is necessary for the safety of people and for the protection of their property. The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind.

Shortly following his infamous declaration of Jihad against America in 1998, these were Bin Laden’s words to a delegation of Pakistani journalists at his camp hidden in the mountains of Afghanistan. These words sought to rationalise the wave of mass casualty terror attacks and suicide bombings which would characterise al-Qaeda’s modus operandi in the years to come.

Given the kind of rhetoric we now see from groups like Islamic State, Bin Laden’s words might almost appear moderate in comparison to the unremorseful bloodthirstiness of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group. Nonetheless, Bin Laden’s version of “commendable terrorism” was on display for the whole world to see in the weeks which followed, as al-Qaeda simultaneously detonated truck bombs outside the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; killing and maiming hundreds of (mainly) Kenyans and Tanzanians – as well as several Americans in the process.

Fast forward to 2014, when the newly rebranded Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) shocked the world by capturing Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, and initiated an appallingly brutal propaganda campaign which involved the filmed decapitation of American, British and Japanese hostages, as well as the burning alive of a Jordanian Royal Air Force pilot.

This was not the group’s first foray into choreographed extreme violence for the digital age. The previous incarnation of the group, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had actually been warned by the old guard of al-Qaeda central that their hyper-violent brand would soon turn supporters into enemies. Indeed, the group’s bloodlust was a major contributing factor to the Sunni-Muslim population in Northern Iraq joining force en masse (the Anbar awakening) with the coalition to fight against AQI from 2006-8.

Undeterred, with this new beheading campaign the again rebranded Islamic State (IS) had doubled down on its brutality; and while much of the world repulsed, thousands of individuals and families around the world mobilised to join this new self-declared caliphate. Even in 2017, as IS finds itself on the backfoot, the group is still seeking to direct mass casualty attacks around the world, and is still releasing sickeningly violent propaganda videos, many of which now involve children

Understanding how such extreme violence could possibly be appealing to some individuals can be one of the most baffling trends of today’s terror threat. In seeking to explain this phenomenon, it is crucial to note that although the violence and cruelty understandably garners the most global attention, it is merely one small cog in the overall propaganda machine.

In its heyday of purporting to be a functioning state in 2014-16, the majority of IS propaganda focused almost on the mundane, the facts of everyday life in the caliphate. These might include the settling of sharia disputes, the education system, or even a health service which could almost have been a comedy skit parody of the British NHS. The aim was to present the Islamic State as a completely viable place to live, rather than simply a terrorist group. This is why at times we saw entire families perform Hijra (migrate) to the new self-declared caliphate.

When IS does deploy extreme violence in its propaganda though, again, the act of violence itself is often just a small part of that particular message, albeit the most sensational part. To take the example of the murder of the Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Lt. Moath al-Kasasbeh - shot down over IS territory in Syria before being burned alive in a cage. The moments of the pilot’s murder on film made up the final two minutes or so of the grim production; the first 20 minutes of the 22 minute film were crammed with justifications and metaphors excusing the violent spectacle which was about to take place.

Interviews with the pilot were spliced with images and footage of civilian homes and people, which the group inferred had been destroyed or killed by coalition airstrikes against them. Furthermore, as the pilot was led to the cage in which he was due to be killed, he was guided around the ruins of buildings which had allegedly been bombed by pilots of the coalition forces; pilots just like him. Notably, the pilot was made to wear an orange jumpsuit for the video, the kind of orange made notorious by Guantanamo Bay military prison (these orange overalls were a common theme in the snuff films made by IS).

The message to the viewer is clear; this is far from the ‘mindless violence’ which is frequently talked of in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and the violence is committed against people who are anything but innocent. Just like in Bin Laden’s message to the journalists, the violence is retribution against oppressors and criminals. The violence is justifiable vengeance for the real or perceived crimes committed against the groups they represent, and the crimes which they say are committed against Muslims around the world.

In the group and their supporters’ view, the people being murdered in these videos are far from innocent people, even if they were (as in James Foley’s case) journalists seeking to expose the suffering of ordinary Syrians, or aidworkers like Alan Henning. Just how the 2,977 people who were killed in the September 11th attacks were far from innocent in the view of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. According to Bin Laden, these 2,977 people were complicit in his own personal grievances, and in his ideological grievances which held them responsible for the suffering of the global Muslim community.

Indeed, since the early 1990s when a top al-Qaeda ideologue deemed that the killing of Muslim bystanders in terrorist attacks against Westerners was justified, mass innocent casualties have been met with little more than a shrug of the shoulder. As, if the victims were good practicing Muslims (by the al-Qaeda standard) then they would be dispatched straight to heaven, and if they were not, they would spend eternity in hell anyway – so good riddance – a win-win for the terrorists. When a group adopts this type of mindset then it will find cause for almost any act, no matter how depraved.

IS has since taken this ‘takfiri’ thinking to its logical conclusion and considers any Muslims which do not support the group as legitimate targets, and they have behaved as such (this is to say nothing of the group’s pathological hatred of Shia Muslims).

IS and al-Qaeda, as well as similarly aligned groups around the globe, are adept at rationalising and repackaging the violence they unleash on the world. In addressing and discussing this violence, we must do more than to dismiss it as ‘mindless’. It is brutal, cold and calculated as part of a propaganda strategy which has proved to be shockingly successful in the number of recruits it has attracted. By disentangling the grievances and the justifications from the violence we will be better placed to deter potential sympathisers and supporters.