After a month-long hunt, Amritpal Singh, the leader of ‘Waris Punjab De’, was finally arrested (23 April) by the Punjab Police from Rode village, Moga, Punjab, and then flown to Dibrugarh Central Jail (Assam). The next day, reports, citing top intelligence sources, claimed that “Amritpal Singh is not radicalised like Abdul Suhan Qureshi or Yasin Bhatkal of Indian Mujahideen. The assessment about him was possibly hyped. He is giving contradictory statements…. Singh spoke about the danger to Sikhism in Punjab. He also spoke against Pakistan, saying the country doesn’t treat Sikhs well.”
Yet, in the weeks before his arrest, the media had been accentuating his “close links” with Pakistan’s ISI, some known terrorists, his “attempts to radicalise youth”, etc, and generally casting him as a deadly terrorist waiting to unload on India.
Although several cases stood lodged against him and his associates (spreading disharmony; attempt to murder; attack on police personnel; obstructing the lawful discharge of duty by public servants), a major terrorist act is yet to be attributed to him.
This brings into focus the role of the media as a magnifier of terrorism and in terrifying people.
Terrorists Need the Media
It stands accepted that terrorism is a tactic of the weak, i.e., it's classically used by those who lack the agency, resources, and power to impose their will through ordinary political or military means – and that is also why terrorists generally focus their activities on ‘soft’, civilian targets rather than more-difficult-to-attack military targets. Yet, if terrorism is an instrument of the weak, then how does it work? Terrorists are aware that in the absence of the resources of a nation, their capacity to inflict large-scale material damage is limited and they cannot militarily defeat a government; so, they use the psychological strategy of terrorizing in order to try and change the political situation. And for this, they use a stratagem and exploit the ‘fourth estate’.
All terrorist entities have at their core the stratagem of “propaganda of the deed”, i.e., the violent “deed” they commit must be propagandized and disseminated to as many people as possible in the shortest time and in the most dramatic way in order to create a psychological impact that is far in excess of their violent act. An examination of past terror attacks clearly illustrates there is an overwhelming disproportionality between the actual strength of the terrorists, the damage they inflict - and the fear they manage to inspire.
Terrorist entities are well aware that their terrorism is not conducted in isolation, but happens amidst the populace. Thus, in terrorism, fear is the key to terrorising - and therefore, terrorists actively leverage electronic media and the internet to give wide publicity to a small act of violence. With terrorists requiring publicity to purvey their terrorism, and the media thriving on negative acts, both feed into each other in an incestuous relationship.
Since the media allows passion, emotions, beliefs, political messages, and importantly, torture and gruesome killings to be broadcast worldwide, the terrorists also resort to theatrics. This ensures that the audience impacted by the ‘propaganda of the deed’ becomes far larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of a terrorist attack. Classical examples of such ‘theatre’:-
The TWA-847 hijack of 1985 – it lasted for 17 days and was deemed the USA’s first reality show on terrorism
ISIS’s 16-minute video, titled “Though the Unbelievers Despise It”, shows the simultaneous beheading of 22 Syrian soldiers as well as the murder of U.S aid worker Peter Kassig. The group took about six hours to choreograph and film it and used equipment that cost around USD200,000
The beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by the Islamic State. This gruesome professional film production was psychologically sophisticated and punctuated with powerful symbols
How Media and Govts Both Amplify Terrorism
While the media and internet companies deny that their coverage contributes to terrorism, the fact remains that terrorists use the media effectively to terrorize – and that is why almost every terrorist group has a media cell that churns out slick videos. In sum: the media not only acts as a “terror magnifier”, but through their asinine analysis, are also often responsible for diligently informing terrorists what mistakes they made, how the intelligence and security agencies foiled some of their plots, and by corollary, what mistakes terrorists must avoid in the future.
However, it’s not just the media that acts as an amplifier of terrorism – governments also do. A report by RAND highlights that shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a CIA source called ‘Dragonfire’ reported that al-Qaeda terrorists had smuggled a nuclear weapon into New York. The source turned out to be stunningly wrong - but in the shadow of 9/11, the fear of al-Qaeda made this claim plausible. 2005 saw claims that Al Qaeda had pre-positioned nuclear weapons in the USA and was preparing to attack nine US cities and kill 4 million US citizens in Operation "American Hiroshima."
In 2008, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden identified al-Qaeda as the agency's "number one nuclear concern“ – in spite of zero evidence that al-Qaeda ever had any nuclear capabilities. In sum: fear had made al-Qaeda the world's top terrorist nuclear power, yet it possessed not a single nuke. Nobody bothered to assess that acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon takes the best engineering, scientific, technological, and financial efforts of a country for years. And here was a top intelligence agency, premising that some people functioning out caves in Afghanistan had acquired nuclear capability. This highlights how terrorism works.
Al Shabaab-linked US citizen Omar Hammami, a.k.a Abu Mansur al-Amriki, who has no significant terrorist skills, became a focus of media attention after he published a few awful jihadi rap videos - and the US's Rewards for Justice program offered USD5 million for information leading to his capture or death.
On 28 July 2015, “US Today” published a report that ISIS was planning to unite the Pakistani and Afghan factions of the Taliban into a single “army of terror” and then conduct such an attack in India that it will provoke an apocalyptic confrontation with the US, after which the united “ummah” will be victorious. This was vividly discussed by the media – but no responsible stakeholder explained how difficult uniting these factions under ISIS, and then conducting a major attack in India, which will provoke the US, will be.
What can be Done?
Ergo, the question – how can we reduce the psychological impact of terrorism, and thereby, disrupt the agenda of terrorist entities? Some of the recommended steps are:
Ensure the media simply ignores terror acts. With nil/minimal media coverage, terrorist attacks will cease to terrorize us
Remove the mystique and hype associated with terrorism. This involves accepting that terrorism is an enduring reality, has been and is part of the human condition, and is not going to go away
Publicize that terrorists aren’t akin to super-ninja commandos in a movie who can conjure attacks out of thin air but succeed just once out of numerous attempts. In contrast, governments have to succeed 100% of the time
Win the battle of perceptions. Since the power of the state machinery is far greater than that of the terror groups, nations, instead of using counter-propaganda, must take steps to adjust public perceptions and thinking. By separating terror from terrorist acts, the public can deny terrorists the ability to amplify their message
That said, it does not mean that nations like India slide back on counter-terrorism efforts. But they must do so quietly, away from the media and public glare, so that in this battle of perceptions, terrorists are made to feel their actions are mere pinpricks to an immense nation.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)