Jihadis Are Not Only Attacking the Media; They Are Using It
All human lives may be created equal, but the first rule of terrorism is that they are not ended that way. It is almost cliché: propaganda of the deed is designed to prioritize a lot of people watching over a lot of people dead. That ugly reality is helpful for understanding the utility for jihadis of both the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the spate of wrenchingly intimate beheadings of journalists and aid workers in Syria. These attacks are best understood not as a strategy by jihadis to silence free speech, rather as an effort to exploit it.
The French response to the Charlie Hebdo attack has been inspiring: a clear declaration of solidarity and reaffirmation of free speech, even of the noxious and often racist sort featured in the pages of the irreverent satirical magazine. This is how a strong society should respond to an attack on one of its institutions, even if the content distributed by that publication is offensive. It is important, however, that we do not confuse that cathartic and reaffirming effort as a direct rejoinder to the jihadi strategy for such attacks. The reason is that the jihadis are not attacking the West in order to make us afraid, or even in an effort catalyze the Muslim world as a whole. Rather, they are striking media targets to create publicity for a narrative aimed primarily at a narrow band of Muslims that is already intrigued by their worldview. This attack was as much about promoting the existence of a publication like Charlie Hebdo to potential recruits that are unlikely to value free speech as it was about suppressing that speech.
Jihadi strategists urge violence against media figures that mock the Prophet Muhammad not to stifle free speech, rather because those satirical provocateurs are useful stand-ins for the West writ large in the jihadi narrative that portrays Muslims as continually humiliated and subjugated by the West. Jihadis aim to position themselves as the defenders of Islam from centuries of Western repression. And vulgar cartoonists become simplified pictograms of Western insult in a jihadi communications strategy aimed primarily at a segment of Muslims.
Despite what some commentators insist, the world is not flat. Key communicators, both in traditional media organizations and on social media, disproportionately impact social and political debate within specific societies and around the globe. Even in an age that celebrates “citizen journalism” and social media, 55 percent of Americans get their news from television. If jihadis want a lot of people watching attacks that kill relatively few people, they still need to influence those key decision-makers within media organizations.
It is not exactly true that “if it bleeds, it leads.” If that were true, there would have been more coverage of Boko Haram’s apparent massacre of 2,000 people in Nigeria, the suicide bombings in Tripoli, Lebanon that killed nine, the ongoing violence in Sudan, the human cost of ongoing civil war in Syria, and the almost-completely-ignored Central African Republic. Not all lives ended are equal to the terrorist (or the media organization), and jihadis target those lives they deem most likely to create the media storm that gets a lot of people watching.
Of course there are many ways that jihadis can attract the attention of media: killing in public, killing well-known figures, or killing in unexpected ways. But we should not overlook the human aspect of a jihadi movement targeting individuals likely to inspire particular attention from journalists: other members of the media and their fellow travelers.
Most journalists honestly aim for truth, but they are not endowed with superhuman objectivity. So when jihadis attack one of their own, it should be no surprise that journalists pay close attention and ensure it dominates headlines eclipsing other, important stories.
We have become inured to some jihadi tactics that used to shock because of the nature of the violence itself. Suicide attacks are the best example. Prior to the Iraq war, the relatively limited use of suicide attacks left observers horrified both by their tactical efficiency but also by the sense of overwhelming and unnatural hatred illustrated by such violence. But after several thousand suicide attacks—mostly in Iraq—the shocking has become banal: just a devilish and asymmetric mechanism for delivering explosives to their target.
Jihadi beheadings are not a new tactic, but they shock the conscience for a variety of reasons: the proximity of perpetrator and victim, the vulgar inefficiency, and the personalization of the victim. Moreover, Islamic State beheadings in Syria have targeted journalists and aid workers—members of different professions that are often fellow travelers in war zones. These attacks target unique individuals with focused violence, yet they shocked the Western world and received more media attention than all but a very few Islamic State strikes in nearly a decade of existence. This is traditional terrorism almost in definition.
The massacre at Charlie Hebdo was raw terrorism: brutal, visceral, and designed to get as much attention as possible. In such a moment, citizens of democracies and the journalists that serve them have a responsibility to ensure that such strikes do not stifle our commitment to boisterous public discourse. But those journalists must also remember that jihadis rely on the media to get a lot of people watching—and they target journalists with violence not just out of hatred, but because it is a useful mechanism to attract attention from other journalists. Terrorism is not just propaganda of the deed, it is a press release written in blood.
Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor and a Fellow at the New America Foundation.
Photo credit: Camille Gévaudan