Terrorism and Media: A Complex Relationship

Terrorism and Media A Complex Relationship
Manhattan, New York City, on Thursday, September 16, 1920, at 12:03 am. A horse wagon stops in front of the J.P. Morgan bank’s headquarters on Wall Street.

The wagon, it later turns out, is stuffed with dynamite and window weights. Suddenly the dynamite explodes, sending the weights flying every direction. The final death toll is 30, with hundreds more injured. It will never be confirmed who the culprits of the attack are, but soon afterwards, several paper flyers are discovered near the scene. They contain the following text printed in red ink: “Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters.”

Manhattan, New York City, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, at 8:46 am. Almost exactly 81 years after the infamous Wall Street bombing, five hijackers crash American Airlines Flight 11, into the World Trade Centre’s North Tower. Suddenly, all cameras around have been directed toward the explosion, and images of the burning tower are broadcast on news channels everywhere in the world. Seventeen minutes after the first explosion, the whole world is watching when a second group of hijackers crash another passenger plane, this time into the South Tower. This attack, which was carried out by the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda, will be known as “9/11” and the beginning of the War on Terror.


Twitter Headquarters, San Francisco, in February 2016. The Guardian reports that Twitter has deleted more than 125,000 accounts linked to terrorists since mid-2015, most of them related to ISIS. According to the company, they are actively cooperating with Western governments in the fight against terrorism, but they also admit that it is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a “magic algorithm” that could automatically identify terrorist content on social media.

These are only a few examples that illustrate the ways in which modern terrorism and media are intertwined. A terrorist attack is never merely a violent event, it is also a communicative act. This may seem a callous statement, but the purpose is not to belittle the brutality of the terrorists or the sufferings of their victims. Rather, the point is that, in every terrorist attack, the perpetrators’ intention is to make a public statement; an act of violence, not matter how brutal, that has been carried out secretly cannot really be counted as terrorism.

The “content” of the terrorists’ messages varies from case to case, from clearly articulated demands – often published in pamphlets or manifestos – to less coherent but nevertheless fearsome threats. 19th century anarchists often listed specific reasons behind their acts of violence, while al-Qaeda’s purpose was possibly to humiliate and frighten the United States in front of the whole world. Sometimes the message may be comprehensible only to a specific group, as is often the case with terrorism motivated by extreme political or religious ideologies.

The examples above also show how terrorists have always taken advantage of any media formats at their disposal from printed pamphlets to 21st century social media. In her book, Mass-Mediated Terrorism (2016), Brigitte Nagos has argued that terrorist groups have, throughout their existence, focused on various forms of alternative media and found ways to use them in spreading their message.

What makes the connections between terrorism and media an important and challenging topic for media scholars and media historians, is the changing nature of this relationship. In today’s post-modern or post-industrial world that is dominated by free markets and global communications, the relationship between media and terrorism has become increasingly complex. Some scholars have pointed out that a new type of symbiotic relationship has been established between terrorists and Western commercial media; this relationship is awkward and ambiguous, but also mutually beneficial.

Terrorist groups do not expect much sympathy from the free media of the Western democracies; but they also know that commercial media outlets operate for profit and that news about terrorism sells. Western journalists and media executives do not want to appear to be helping terrorists, but they also feel that their task is to give their customers what they demand. Although terrorist organisations are aware that they cannot get their propaganda transmitted directly through the mainstream media, they can expect that a successful and destructive act of violence will be “breaking news” for every media outlet, even if the tone of the coverage is negative.

Terrorist groups can also manipulate news coverage by providing material for the journalists, although they must accept that the material may be heavily edited and accompanied by critical commentary before it is communicated to the public. A good example were the al-Qaeda tapes that were received and broadcast by the Qatari TV channel Al-Jazeera.

These tapes contained al-Qaeda’s official statements about their political goals and ideology. Al-Jazeera defended their decision to publish these tapes, albeit in a highly-edited format, by appealing to the principles of objective reporting and journalistic duty to inform the public, while emphasising that they have no sympathy toward the organisation. Ultimately, they ceased broadcasting these messages, because they did not want to be identified as the terrorists’ preferred channel.

Modern terrorism is a complex and controversial topic, and the only way to gain a comprehensive understanding of it is to analyse and address it with a nuanced multi-disciplinary approach, combining political and sociological theories with insights offered by media scholars and cultural theorists.

My short discussion above about the connections between media and terrorism is not meant to lead to any coherent theories or arguments. Rather, my purpose is to show how, in order to understand modern terrorism in its larger context, we also need to understand its relationships with media. This includes studying how terrorists use various forms of media as well as analysing the ways in which terrorism is represented in different media, including news, cinema, literature, and television.

Juho Ahava
PhD in Film Studies, (ABD)