Who benefits from the label of ‘terrorism’?

Last week, an armed man entered a Manila casino, and began shooting. In the end, at least 36 people were dead, as was the gunman. After the attack, Islamic State claimed the attack (twice!), and even President Trump called the incident an act of terrorism. The police, on the other hand, said it was not terrorism, but an attempted robbery gone horribly wrong. The gunman was said to be a gambling addict.

Why would both a terrorist organization and a politician both label an attack terrorism, when is wasn’t? As I was asked recently, who benefits from labeling something ‘terrorism’?

First, terrorists themselves benefit. Coverage of a successful attack spreads their message, and spreads fear. Coverage of terror attacks is one of the best forms of propaganda. 24 hour news coverage is free, and has a worldwide reach. The news organizations display the terrorists’ messages, pictures of the dead and wounded, and spread fear of more to come. The very act of terrorism is to instill fear through violence or threat of violence for a certain, often political, gain. The more terror attacks there are (real or perceived), the more people will fear the terrorists, and sometimes even giving in to the demands.

Second, the politicians who are looking to curb freedoms benefit. In the Philippines, President Duterte declared martial law after militants stormed Malawi City. Duterte, no stranger to extrajudicial power plays, could have used the Manila incident to justify the need for even more crackdowns in the country. This is something that has been going on in Erdogan’s Turkey for years. In that country, incidents are routinely blamed on the Kurds, and then used as an excuse to limit rights and even jail people. President Trump benefits by drumming up support from his base for his travel ban. In the aftermath of this weekend’s London terror attacks, Prime Minister May suggested regulating the internet to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online.” In short, politicians use the fear of more attacks to push their agendas and gain power.

Third, the news organizations benefit by way of ratings. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a common refrain. Despite the horror of a terror attack, people sit glued to the screen for hours, watching experts and hosts try to make sense of the tragedy. The longer the news channels can keep talking about an incident, the longer people will keep watching.

And finally, a certain class of individuals benefit by being able to push their personal agendas. Over the weekend, a woman asked how the London or Manchester attacks were considered terrorism, but the Sandy Hook shooting was not. She was implying it was due to race/religion, and using that point to attack others. Seemingly lacking the understanding that terrorism is a specific thing, she (and others) have used terror attacks not to have a legitimate conversation about the perpetrators of terrorism, but to attack people for imagined discrimination.

Even if a crime is not actually terrorism, there are people who benefit from labeling it as such. And it often comes down to fear or power, no matter who is doing the labeling.

 

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Propaganda of the Deed, or Russia in Syria

Propaganda of the deed has its origins in the anarchist/revolutionary movements of the 1800s. The actors then tried to spread their message through actions, feeling that would have a bigger impact than traditional propaganda. Those early anarchists and revolutionaries used violence to attract more attention and gain a bigger audience than any speeches or pamphlets had done.

Today, propaganda of the deed is used regularly to describe the terrorist playbook. Spectacular attacks, such as September 11 by al Qaeda and the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (IS), capture the attention of the world. The names become recognizable, and put the messages on a world stage.

But propaganda of the deed isn’t just for terrorists. We are witnessing it right now in the geopolitical power play between Russia and the West. Several weeks ago, Russia began moving military equipment into Syria, a move welcomed by President Bashar al Assad. Russia and Syria watchers took notice, awaiting the reaction from the Western nations – especially the US. As early as 2012, the US government began backing the Syrian rebels*, whose intent was to overthrow the Assad regime. By 2014, Islamic State had established a foothold in Syria. Later that same year, the US began conducting airstrikes against IS. Despite White House reports to the contrary, the strikes have not been overly effective in stopping IS.

Enter Russia.

Russia, a major ally of Syria, moved in with the promise to help Assad defeat IS. Almost immediately, Russian planes began bombing not only IS targets, but Syrian rebel positions as well. To those who know Russia, their true intent is no secret.

In Russia, image is everything. The intensity of their bombing campaign is designed to show the world how effective Russia is compared to the West (read: US) in defeating an enemy in the Middle East. In recent years, the gains made by the US in the region seem to have been lost. Russia, looking to improve their image tarnished by their annexation of Crimea, wasted no time stepping in. During his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Vladimir Putin all but called out the US for acting superior to the world, and for creating the power vacuum that now exists in the Middle East. He also announced a strategy to stabilize the region, in this case providing military and technical assistance to Assad.

Putin’s speech was a message to the world that Russia is still a superpower. Russia’s actions in Syria deliver a bigger message that the West is ineffective when dealing with terrorists and unrest in the Middle East. Russia is asserting its (perceived) dominance while increasing its presence in the Middle East, traditionally dominated by the US. Putin is also showing the world that he is a real leader, that President Barack Obama and other Western leaders are weak. In the wake of US failures to train and aid the Syrian opposition, Putin is stepping in with guns blazing.

The image of a strong, manly Russia has long been feed to the masses, from the New Soviet Man to Vladimir Putin’s shirtless photo ops. Putin openly challenging the West in Syria is more effective propaganda than any UNSC speech. Any attempt to show Russia as a great power, all the while showing up the US, is a great victory for Putin. The outcome of Russia’s actions in Syria remains to be seen. In the meantime, those actions are speaking volumes

 

*On 9 October, the Pentagon announced it was ending its program of training Syrian rebels, focusing instead on supplying weapons.