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The power of the terrorist manifesto in the age of print and new media

  • Ibrahim Al Marashi
  • 9 May 2019

The recent attack on a California synagogue demonstrates a symbiotic relationship between violence and media.

A sign asks for time to grieve at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California. ( AP )

This April, a 19-year-old student walked into a synagogue in Poway, California armed with a semiautomatic rifle and opened fire on the congregation commemorating the last day of Passover, killing a 60-year-old woman, Lori Gilbert Kaye, and injuring three.

This attack, like the New Zealand attacks in March, employed “propaganda of the deed,” acts based on the use of symbolic violence to generate mass media attention to the attackers “propaganda of the word,” their manifestos published online to inspire sympathisers and intimidate their opponents.

Their twisted actions and logic are part of a trajectory that began in the age of modern terrorism, where propaganda of the deed was used to attract the attention of the mass media, particularly mass circulation newspapers. In the age of social media platforms, these terrorists have easier access to propagate their violence, which in turn brings attention to their words.

The Poway attacks portend a disturbing trend of internet technologies facilitating both the spread of the propaganda of the deed and word.

Manifestos in the age of print media 

The Unabomber set a precedent for the likes of the New Zealand or Poway attacker, demonstrating how one disturbed individual, not part of an organisation, can still nonetheless employ terrorism to reach a mass audience. From 1978 to 1995 he sent out 16 mail bombs, his propaganda of the deed, killing three, in order to get newspapers to publish his neo-Luddite manifesto.

The Washington Post and the New York Times eventually relented and published his 35,000-word manifesto in 1995. The message of his manifesto was that humanity was under threat from technological advances as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Ironically, he sought out a product of the Industrial Revolution, the mass published newspaper to spread this message. 

Al Qaeda also depended on the newspaper to spread its manifesto. Its manifesto was faxed to Al-Quds al-Arabi, an independent Arabic newspaper published in London.

On February 23, 1998, the paper published the full text of a “Declaration of the Global Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders,” not on the front page, as the news that day was devoted to Saddam Hussein. The manifesto was concise, taking up just a section of the broadsheet paper.

The propaganda of the word in this instance was that Muslims were under threat by an American occupation of the Islamic sacred sites in Saudi Arabia, and exhorted: “By God's leave, we call on every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God’s command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can.”

The propaganda of the deed was followed up a few months later in August with the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, followed by attacks that led to the events of 9/11. 

While the Unabomber perceived that humanity was under threat from rampant technology, Al Qaeda perceived that Muslims were threatened through a hegemonic American superpower to decadent Western culture, to illegitimate governments in the Muslim world. Both the individual and the terrorist organisation were still dependent on an established newspaper to publish their views.

The internet allowed for a terrorism 2.0. Neither ISIS (Daesh) nor individual attackers had to depend on a newspaper, or TV channel to spread their propaganda of the deed and word. The internet offered instantaneous publicity and an unlimited audience.

Manifestos in the age of digital media 

While Daesh as an organisation, with its own dedicated media teams, demonstrated how to leverage social media to maximise the spread of its violence, individuals representing a different genealogy of hate were also able to do the same.

Three individuals responsible for massacres in Norway, New Zealand and California all subscribed to a the White supremacist narrative of replacement theory, a belief that white populations are under threat and need to maintain their identity in a globalising world, otherwise they face elimination from foreigners and immigration, who are aided by “leftist elites.”

Like the Unabomber or Al Qaeda, there is almost a formulaic perception and course of action amongst these terrorists. The actor feels a particular group is under threat and employs violence to attract media attention to wake up their sympathisers to that threat.

The August 2011 Norway attacker detonated a bomb in front of the nation’s parliament and then massacred teenagers in an island hosting a summer camp affiliated with the country’s Labour Party, killing 77 people.

The point of this propaganda of the deed was to focus attention on the assailant’s 1,500 page online manifesto, entitled, “2083 – A European Declaration of Independence,” which large parts were copied directly from the Unabomber’s manifesto, with minor modifications such as replacing of the word “leftist” with “cultural Marxist.”

The attacker did not need to depend on a newspaper, nor could any publication even contemplate publishing such a long rambling and delusional text. The violence in Norway was enough to drive traffic to the document.

The Norway attacks also inspired the March attacks in New Zealand, and the assailant also posted online a much shorter 74-page online manifesto. The attacker wrote the document in a surreal question-and-answer format, a catechism-like style outlining his ideological justifications for the attack and the necessary premediate logistical preparations for the massacre that ended up killing fifty.

The Poway attacker’s much shorter nine-page online manifesto followed the New Zealand manifesto’s Q&A format, and also admitted to his previous attempt to target a mosque in Escondido, California, on March 24, which he attempted to burn down.

His attacks on both Jews and Muslims were “for the sake of my people,” demonstrating a global continuity of white supremacist logic of violence, from northern Europe, to New Zealand, all the way to California.  

The Medium is the message

The examination of the relationship between manifestos and the media that spread them illustrates media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted phrase, “The Medium is the Message.” Irrespective of the messages sent by the Unabomber or the Poway attacker, the medium that delivers the manifesto in and of itself also contains a message.

The message of the medium in the newspaper age was that the propaganda of the deed ultimately brought attention to the words of the violent actor, but the newspaper only lasted the day it was printed on and lacked the audio-visual imagery to demonstrate the violent act of the propagandist.

The message of the medium in a post-modern age is violence can generate notoriety for a terrorist’s manifesto, allowing it to perpetuate in cyberspace. Even if social media channels try to remove these terrorists’ content, it can resurrect itself on the media of their sympathisers, mainly via self-perpetuating memes on outlets like 8chan.

Anti-semitism and Islamophobia have mutated via the post-modern media allowing for easy dissemination. The New Zealand attacker, for example, live-streamed his attack and Youtube and Facebook struggled to prevent the numerous uploads of the video.

While the Norway, New Zealand, and Poway attacks are the products of disturbed minds, the fact needs to be acknowledged that the symbiotic relationship between individual violence and mass cyber-audiences are part of a broader pattern, which portends a disturbing future trend.  

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

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