Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 22:57 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 22:57 | SYDNEY

Celebrity terrorism


Michael Wesley


21 September 2009 17:35

Celebrations over last week's killing of Noordin Mohammed Top are premature. The evolution of terrorism stacks the odds in favour of the emergence of a replacement to Noordin – a 'super-terrorist' bent on planning complex attacks and attracting thousands of admiring supporters.

Terrorism is a form of political theatre, and there are two audiences that contemporary terrorists seek to influence: the intimidated and the inspired. The intimidated are those whom the terrorists attack, and those who identify with the terrorists' victims. Terrorists also use their violence to communicate with each other and their sympathizers – the inspired.

The increasingly dominant culture of celebrity, which produces a profound discomfort with anonymity, evokes among the alienated an urge to rage against obscurity. But it’s not just about ego, it's also crucial to the viability of a terrorist campaign. Without the ability to attract attention, peddle inspiration, and impress fellow travelers with one's commitment and ingenuity, a terrorist campaign will not be able to generate the footsoldiers, finances, and facilitators it needs.

When they're planning an attack, terrorists make an implicit trade-off between inspiration and intimidation. The pattern of their attacks shows that terrorists want blood and fire. Quiet, murderous campaigns such as the anthrax attacks – though devastatingly intimidating – don't make terrorist superstars, lauded across the extremist world, copied by others, and able to attract supporters and finance.

So the ability to intimidate through sustained, unconventional, unpredictable and indefensible attacks is foregone in pursuit of terrorist spectaculars – bombings, highjackings, shootings. Such attacks are expensive, take planning and preparation, and hence are more prone to detection and disruption by authorities – but that's the price of celebrity terrorism.

This suggests we will also see more of the the drawn-out, reality-TV style terrorist events of a kind with the Moscow theatre siege in 2002, Beslan, and most recently in Mumbai. The recent foiled plot by al-Shabaab to storm Holsworthy Army Barracks is another example. The objective of these attacks is to extend out the horror over hours or preferably days, and make sure that every random, pitiless act of violence is captured by the blanket media coverage.

Our most vulnerable sites are those where large numbers of people congregate, and which can be sealed off and defended from attempts by the authorities to break the siege. The bad news is that there are innumerable such sites in our society. The good news is that such plots also require substantial planning, financing and casing of targets. The more of this there is, the better the chances that the authorities will detect and disrupt the plot.

Photo by Flickr user d.mistry, used under a Creative Commons license.