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Media Power and Terrorists - Notebook - Complex Terrain Lab
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Media Power and Terrorists

Once upon a time, Karl Marx assigned power to those who own the means of production. Today it's safe to say that power is in the hands of those who either own the means of communication or otherwise manage to communicate their messages directly to their target publics. Governments and influential interest groups have always understood this, and so have terrorists. This point was once again driven home in the latest clash between the Lebanese government and its backers and Hezbollah, the terrorist organization that has actually grown into a mighty guerilla and de facto ruling force. While Hezbollah’s own al-Manar television and radio networks carried the threats and hard-line rhetoric of Hezbollah’s leader Sheik Nassan Nasrallah, the organization’s fighters silenced the Sunni majority party by taking its television station off the air and setting its newspaper offices on fire.

Nasrallah unleashed his fighters in the first place because the Lebanese government threatened to shut down Hezbollah’s own telecommunication network in addition to the organization’s surveillance system around Beirut airport. For Nasrallah, the government’s decision was “a declaration of war and the start of war on the resistance and its weapons.” In other words, Nasrallah left no doubt that Hezbollah’s own telephone network amounts to an indispensable weapon in the fight against Israel and domestic enemies of the “resistance.” Presumably, the communication network facilitated the walkie-talkie transmissions between masked Hezbollah gunmen in Beirut and other sites of the latest Lebanese civil strife on the one hand and Hezbollah fighters and their central command on the other.

Within days, the Lebanese government waved the white flag by signaling its willingness to reverse its decision and allow Hezbollah to keep its own telephone and surveillance networks in place.

It is obvious that organizations that own their own media or piggy-back on the communication means of supporters tend to be especially effective in spreading their propaganda, threaten their foes, enlist and sustain the support of their supporters, recruit among sympathizers, and coordinate and oversee their terror operations.

Hamas with its Al-Aqsa television network and radio transmissions comes to mind, as does the Colombian FARC with its network of mobile radio transmitters. Like Hezbollah’s de facto control in Southern Lebanon, Hamas’s governance of Gaza and the FARC’s command of a chunk of Colombian territory may not be direct results of each of these organizations’ media power, but it surely has helped to safeguard and even increase their strength versus their declared enemies.

While television, radio, and telephone networks are vulnerable to being taken out if intelligence pinpoints the locations of studios and transmitters, even successful measures tend to have only temporary consequences, as Israeli strikes against al-Aqsa radio hideouts in Gaza and against al-Manar during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah confrontation demonstrated. Since it did't take long for the stations and networks to go back on the air, it would take constant intelligence and counterterrorism efforts to curb these voices for longer periods of time.

Other communication means are far less vulnerable to counterterrorist action. A case in point is al-Qaeda Central, which has its own video production arm but no radio and television networks. Al-Qaeda Central relies instead on friendly web sites to carry unedited communications. Web sites can be and are taken down by servers or by concerted cyber attacks, but they tend to reappear, often within a short time.

In sum, then, modern-day terrorist organizations’ impact on domestic and/or international spheres depends to a large extent on their ability to establish their own means of communications or find alternative modes to communicate their messages directly to friend and foe.

Without taking the centrality of communication in the terrorist calculus into account, counterterrorism cannot succeed.

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References (4)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Relevant to the recent discussion here on this site regarding the propaganda of the deed in contemporary insurgency is a post by Brigitte Nacos over at the CTLab site. Nacos, who has written extensively on terrorism and the media, cites the recent engagement in Lebanon to illustrate the value for insurgents ...
  • Response
    The Complex Terrain Lab reminds us that the Hezbollah TV station stayed on the air in 2006, despite the Israelis bombing it; a broadcast TV station is in radio terms the biggest target there is. It just sits there, yelling with multiple kilowatts of power in all directions, and by definition ...
  • Response
    Andrew Exum has an excellent article over at Arab Media & Society, The Spectacle of War: Insurgent video propaganda and Western response... Similarly, Brigitte L. Nacos writes on Media Power and Terrorists at Complex Terrain Lab, with particular emphasis on Hezbollah
  • Response
    Michael Innes references some fascinating material in a roundup of posts related to the analysis of the Hezbollah telecom network and the use of the media by terrorist entities. Brigitte Nacos' short essay on Media Power and Terrorists earns a mention and is worthy of a full read...

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