Use of media by terrorist organizations

“ It has become far more alluring for the frantic few to appear on the world stage of television than remain obscure guerrillas of the bush.”

-J. Bowyer Bell.

The power of the Fourth Estate for good or bad is unquestionable. However, if we observe the trend for the last decade or so, we will find a definite connection between terrorist organisations and the media. Some unprecedented terrorist attacks in recent history show whether it is in the United States (US), Europe, or the Middle East or Afghanistan or India, it is generally the case that the planners of terrorism exploit the media for the benefit of their operational efficiency, information gathering, recruitment, fundraising, and propaganda schemes (Nacos 2006). In return, media get the people’s much-needed attention that is indispensable for its survival and profits from the sales and substantial public attention because terrorism has to be communicated for its effectiveness. Since the media has to cover the occurrences in such a way to benefit from the public’s enthusiasm to get information about terrorist attacks, it is, therefore, reasonable to maintain that there is a reciprocally beneficial relationship between terrorism and today’s media.

The media plays its crucial part in the plan of action of terrorism. This interdependence is undeniably worth probing in more detail, as it is as savage and risky as it is mainly ignored. In this age of Information explosion, worldwide communication and global media, the agents of hostility and dread are not hampered by national borders or regions. They can comfortably fan out the texts and images all over the world to influence public opinion.

By its very nature, a terrorist act is meant to be awe-inspiring. It is calculated beforehand as far as attention gathering is concerned. The basic theory of terrorism is the same as that of the theory of deterrence. Both require extensive publicity to reach their targeted audiences. While the role of the media is apparent, it (media) is questioned only when terrorist organizations use it (media) to achieve their objectives.

Why terrorist organizations need publicity? Terrorists wish to impress the various sections of the populace to achieve their ulterior motives. The goal of terrorism is to kill or damage property and break the spirit of opposition. Explaining the nexus between media and terrorism, Hoffman argued, without the media coverage, the act’s impact is arguably wasted, remaining narrowly confined to the immediate victim(s) of the attack, rather than reaching the wider ‘target audience’ at whom the terrorists’ violence is actually aimed.” (Hoffman, 2008). “The way to reach target audiences and to broadcast the messages the terrorist organisations want to transmit it through media.”(Boaz Ganor). Thus, media help transmit the messages of terrorism concurrently to local audiences, the targeted populace, and the international community.

Terrorist attacks are very often carefully planned and carried out to attract media, both national and international. It will not be wrong to say that it is generally fashioned to suit the requirements. This has become possible because now the stage is set to influence more wide-ranging sections of the population. Press camera crew and hordes of press reporters form part of the event.

The advancement of technology has made the task easier these days; only mobile can capture anything and everything. The objectives of terrorists are; seeking publicity, coercion, extortion, disorientation and despair, provocation of unpopular countermeasures, and morale-building of their cadres.

Terrorists know what the news media consider news value and tailor their attacks to fit the news system’s criteria to get free publicity on a scale that very few could afford. By tailoring their violence to the news values of the media, terrorists could gain access to mass audiences. The media not only transmit their message but almost in real-time. They also publicize the terrorists’ grievances and accusations free of charge, making their strategy very cost-effective. Researches have shown that several goals are pursued in this way.

  • They enhance their sympathy among the populace.
  • For attracting the recruits for their organizations.
  • Demoralizing targeted section of the public.
  • By demonstrating the vulnerability of authorities.
  • By polarising the political situation.

The media has become a weapon of mass communication in political conflicts and even more in armed conflicts. News is considered a weapon of the conflict, and it aims to wage conflict and not disseminate the information. Each side in a conflict desires to give some media ‘swirl’ to what is occurring on the ground to understand appropriate events favorably by the public. Terrorists are mainly concerned with the psychological effects rather than the physical effects of their acts of violence. 

How and why the media covers terrorist acts of violence. Terrorism is a unique advantage for media coverage, mainly because terrorist attacks make viewer ratings increase and make profits. To be more specific, terrorism has many facets that make it a fascinating subject for the media, as it has all the elements required by media to survive; drama, danger, blood, human tragedy, miracle stories, heroes, shocking footage, and action.

Strolling down the Colaba Causeway, past the refurbished face of Cafe Leopold, in the contours of the iconic Taj Mahal, or Kalaghoda, adjacent to the Jewish Chabad house where the fissures in its crumbling walls have gulp down the marks of violence, it does not take time to think of the carnage and turmoil let wobbly on these Mumbai(India) beacons on the 26th of November 2008.

The Daily Telegraph’s journalist Claudine Beaumont wrote, just a day after the siege of Mumbai began, that Twitter and Flickr users not only broke the news first but continued to provide instant, eyewitness accounts of the unfolding horror in a steady, invaluable stream of information. Onlookers uploaded photos to blogs, hostages inside the hotels tweeted about terrorists demanding to know guests’ nationalities from the hotel reception. In addition, hostages were calling their relatives on phones and sending emails.  TV news channels focused their cameras at each location. Reporters and camerapersons tried to get as close to the sites as possible. Even terrorists’ calls were intercepted as they were in constant touch with their bosses sitting in Pakistan.

The problem does not lie in why the media covers terrorism but lies in how the media covers terrorism. It is by and large the case that the media covers terrorist acts by writing sensation-seeking, enlarging anecdotic stories, especially on who is to blame, repeating the same images over and over again, separating physical and mental health consequences of disasters, and creating new syndromes (Vasterman, Yzermans, and Dirkzwager 2005).

Furthermore, social media has further compounded the nexus between technology and terrorism. “In a study conducted by Medina, the author states that about 90% of terrorist activities online are conducted via social media platforms while 76% of UK terrorists engage in the internet to research and strategize their actions. In 2013, ASG, a terrorist organization, kidnapped Australian Warren Rodwell and held him for about 472 days. The group used YouTube and Facebook for ransom videos and demonstrated the proof of life.”( Pooja N Jain* and Archana S Vaidya, 2021).


It is well known that media does not create terrorists but, through its skills, can portrait him as either saint or monster. Most of us think it is easy to project the terrorist as it is, but it is challenging because of the nature of terrorism itself in dispute. The exigencies of domestic and world politics have created confusion by stating that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In a world where ‘terrorism’ is itself in dispute, it becomes challenging for media to paint ‘terrorism’ in ‘Black and White’ only. The media only reflects the reality of society. If the media is responsible enough to see itself as part of the problem, it can play a definite role in the solution.

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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