By Bandy Aowdenek
Recently I uploaded an article on North Korea which made use of two you tube videos from Caspian Reports – want to give it another plug as they put up another good one recently on what “terrorist” groups want.
The points made in the video are simple. Terrorist aims are not to physically defeat the enemy which more often than not is an organised state with access to far superior military technology. The aim is to instill fear and panic in the population and to expose just how useless all the military power the enemy has in relation to what the terrorists can do. If terrorists can create a panic amongst the public this can force their Government to act in a responsive and kneejerk reaction.
For terrorists ideally this means their enemy Government is forced into taking action they have not planned or thought through properly which provides further opportunities for loss of life and discrediting of the enemy’s Government.
The most successful example of this strategy is the September 11th attacks. Al Qaeda’s prize wasn’t the deathtoll (even though it was the deadliest terror attack on the West in history); it was that they were able to change the direction of the world’s only superpower. Without 9/11 there would have been no Afghan or Iraq invasions and occupations (or at least not in their current format). No punishing death toll, trillion dollar cost or wave of anti-imperialist anger throughout the Islamic world.
Two days before the attacks on the USA, Al Qaeda suicide bombers disguised as journalists killed the Afghan opposition leader Ahmed Shah Massood known as “The Lion of the Panjshir” for his guerilla campaign against the Soviets. By killing the person most capable of uniting a post-Taliban Afghanistan Al Qaeda ensured the US and their allies would be stuck with crooked placemen like Hamid Karzai in an unwinnable quagmire. Such is the damage of both the Afghan and Iraqi occupations that President Obama is turning to the Pacific, refocusing US power on the new power of China. The 9/11 commission found that the attacks cost Al Qaeda between $400,00 and $500,000 – and that the attacks cost the US $3.3 trillion. That’s quite a return on an investment.
The 9/11 attacks weren’t successful because 3,000 people died . Almost ten times as many US citizens are killed by handguns every year and there is no real political traction against the gun lobby. The 9/11 attacks were successful because 3,000 people died live on 24 hours news coverage timed to coincide with breakfast TV. Al Qaeda adapted their strategy to modern news coverage perfectly and forced the US government to act irrationally and foolishly.
The recent beheading of an off duty British soldier in Woolwich is a continuation of Islamist violence designed for the modern media. While details are still sketchy, it appears that the two assailants first of all crashed into the soldier with their car before attacking him with machetes and knives. We don’t yet know if the soldier in question was specifically targeted and tracked or if he was picked opportunistically, identified by his “Help for Heroes” hoody. What we do know is that after being killed it took approximately 20 mins for armed police to arrive. Why just stick around waiting?
The answer probably lies in the use of a new and ubiquitous technology; the camera phone. Witnesses said the killers encouraged them to take pictures and film of them after the event. One video was uploaded with the killer outlining his justification – we’re sorry women have to see someone beheaded but his happens to Muslims around the world, you kill us so we kill you etc. This footage was bought by ITV and broadcast on the national news and circulated across the internet, mainly using social media like twitter (more on that later).
People who’ve watched Charlie Brooker’s series Black Mirror may notice eery similarities with the episode called “White Bear” in which a woman wakes up with no memory, being hunted while all a crowd does is take pictures on their phone. If you haven’t seen it I thoroughly recommend checking it out. It’s genuinely one of the biggest mindfucks I’ve ever seen on television.
Use of this new technology means that it’s now possible for people with nothing more than knives and machetes to incite national outrage and fear in a way unthinkable in the past. Imagine that the two killers were sympathizers of Irish republicanism in the 70’s for example. After killing the soldier and being shot they would have been kept in hospital for days before it was finally confirmed that they were motivated by politics. It is unlikely there would have been the same response by the media or the Government (which called a COBRA meeting within hours of the attack). It’s much more likely the attack would have been dealt with in a much more low key fashion, keeping with a strategy the British had in relation to Ireland – which was described as maintaining “an acceptable level of violence”.
Of course the IRA’s strategy was to show violence could not be kept at an “acceptable” level by conducting it’s own “spectaculars” like the Brighton bombing, Canary Wharf and Mountbatten assassination. However it’s worth looking at the news reports from that period. IRA attacks were dealt with quite differently on the news, treated in a much more low key fashion.
It’s an understandable strategy. The IRA presented a real threat to the British establishment and it would not be in their interests to exaggerate their capacity. The IRA had to communicate its message through the mainstream media and in statements to the Government both of which had an interest in the defeat of the IRA.
The situation today in relation to Islamic terrorism is the complete opposite. Both media and governments are interested in the gross exaggeration of the threat posed by Al Qaeda to the UK. Conservative writer Alex Massie wrote a good piece outlining just how weak Islamic terrorism actually was in the UK – unable to mount a successful attack on one person in over 7 years. Exaggerating the threat of Islamic terrorism helps the establishment in this country to introduce laws against civil liberties, strengthen immigration controls and most usefully for the Conservatives distract society from austerity programs with campaigns against Muslims.
Even if it is in the interest of the media to hype Islamic terrorism the reality is it is new technology that has taken power from media and governments to control it’s coverage of said terrorism. We don’t know exactly the links and planning of the two killers in London if they had a larger plan or if they had any connections to a wider network. What we do know is that with only two people, knives and a crowd they were able to put Islamic terrorism back on the map in the UK after the success of the London olympics made Al Qaeda look like a busted flush in Britain.
According to witnesses after beheading the soldier his attackers waited for 20 minutes and encouraged people to take pictures and video of them. This suggests the aim of the beheading was not to kill a British soldier and escape but to kill a British soldier then explain to the world why it was done and likely face death at the hands of armed police. Social media was to be used to communicate this message. In fact one twitter account detailing the beheading and the shooting was retweeted widely in the wake of the attack. It’s the footage of the bloodied hands and knives along with the justification of the beheading that was most shockingly shared on twitter. From social media it was bought by ITV and showed on the 6 o’clock news.
As this was happening the twitter of the English Defence Leage broadcast *** WE ARE UNDER ISLAMIC ATTACK ***. The Home Secretary Teresa May did little better declaring that the killing was “an attack on everyone in the UK” grossly exaggerating the impact two Al Qaeda sympathisers with knives could have on the safety of the population. It’s unlikely that the Shankhill Butchers reign of terror and mutilation on several Catholics during the Troubles was ever referred to in these terms.
However the escalation meant that the EDL was able to mobilise it’s supporters in Woolwich and across the UK to demonstrate and in some cases attack Mosques themselves. This recent article by the International Socialist Group outlines quite well how the EDL used twitter to their advantage mobilising supporters across the UK in a timespan impossible to previous street fascist organisations like the National Front.
In summary two men were able to behead a British soldier in broad daylight then explain to a crowd why they did it, before being shot by armed police and having their account uploaded to the internet and then becoming the top item on national news. All of this happened in just two hours. The attacks on Muslim mosques by the EDL happened later that night but only by a few hours. Imagine if this technology was available during the height of the Troubles. The ability of the British state to control or manage counter-insurgency, media portrayal or sectarian revenge attacks would have been greatly diminished. Just as technologies like 3D printing and bitcoins is rendering parts of capitalist and state control obsolete the ability to seize attention and have it broadcast to millions via social media is undermining the ability of the state to control society.
The response of the UK government to these attacks also does not help to defuse the ability of one or two individuals to instill fear amongst the public with sparse resources. Declaring a COBRA meeting sends a message to everyone in the UK who sympathises with Al Qaeda that with nothing more than knives and a will to speak to a camera you can strike a blow that will shock the general public. The response of the press the next day – including the usually liberal Guardian – to print a front page with the attacker speaking to the camera, hands covered in blood and holding knives is exactly the wrong kind of response. Newswipe covered this tendency before in relation to school shootings.
By putting the shooter on the cover of every newspaper and the top of every news item they made him into an icon for his cause the same way many newspapers did in their coverage of Breivik. By giving the attack spectacular coverage the media is making it more and not less likely that someone will follow in his footsteps. A combination of new technology and a self-serving media and political elite means that despite Al Qaeda’s complete inability to create any meaningful network of supporters in the UK thousands of Muslims are forced to apologise for something they have no responsibility for.