Terrorists know the value of sensational media coverage of every lame attack. That is why they encourage lame attacks, which is all they can really achieve these days. If there was responsible coverage of attacks, would terrorist organisations have to invest more into trying to pull off “spectaculars”? I suspect they would. And trying to achieve “spectaculars” is riskier for terrorists, easier for security forces to interdict and successfully prosecute.
Good enough for terrorist work, says al Qaeda
The theme of encouraging attacks on Jewish and Western interests is one to which Hamza has returned again and again in his messages. For example, the first of his May 2017 statements is entitled “Advice for Martyrdom-Seekers in the West.” Over footage of the aftermath of the Fort Hood massacre, a television reconstruction of events leading up to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and images connected with other attacks, Hamza encouraged jihadis all over the world to “Sell your soul cheaply for the pleasure of [God]” and urged them to read Inspire magazine, the online publication of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that taught the Boston bombers how to turn a pressure cooker into a weapon. A caption in the video montage encourages “stabbing with knives and using vehicles and trucks” as an alternative to guns and bombs.
Strikingly, Hamza directs followers not to travel to theaters of war within the Muslim world, but instead to attack targets in the West and Russia. “Perhaps you are longing for emigration,” he says. “Perhaps you yearn for sacrifice in the battlefields. Know that inflicting punishment on Jews and Crusaders where you are is more vexing and severe for the enemy.” He urges “martyrs” that “the message you intend to convey through your blessed operation must be explained unequivocally in the media” and suggests talking points to align these explanations with al-Qaeda’s own propaganda. – Source
“One bomb in London is worth one hundred in Belfast” — Provisional IRA saying
Attacks at home are both easier (no suspicious travel), and more significant as propaganda of the deed. This latter is critical, as Hamza emphasises that the attackers understand
- their attack must be covered in the media, that
- the attack must be linked with Jihadists ideology, and
- he even provides relevant talking points to ensure that the attacker’s “proof” message is on point.
The attack is only relevant because it draws media attention. That attention is only “valuable” because it promotes the terrorist group (and their ideology), and the evidence of links to terrorism (a martyrdom video) must hit specific strategic messaging to capitalise on this.
Regardless of whether there is a Werther Effect on jihobbiest turned loon wolf attacks (“suicide by jihad”), it is clear that the attacks exist only as part of a media strategy. By aggrandising the lame cars and cutlery attacks, the media cheapens the cost of a terrorist propaganda of the deed event to something that someone, anyone, even with only civilian skills, can accomplish. That allows the groups to spread their message using untrained operatives, who are significantly more difficult to interdict because
- they are compartmented,
- they have no incriminating evidence until just before their turn and burn attack
- they are civilians until the moment their car leaps over the curb to start plowing into pedestrians.
This is strong natural security that militant operatives with weapons and explosives don’t have because of the inherent incriminating nature of guns and bombs.
Forcing terrorists to use trained militants, raising the bar for terrorist coverage from cars and cutlery to military equipment will require trained terrorists, who are more likely to be high priority targets for security forces, they must engage in riskier behaviour such as building bombs or purchasing and storing guns. These actions are not only riskier than going to Sainsbury’s for the cheapest 12″ Chefs Knife, they’re also incriminating evidence prior to the operation. That gives security forces easier to find higher priority targets due to more red flags — training, pre-operational surveillance, incriminating preparations — and makes for an easier legal case.
By not reporting on turn and burn terrorist attacks, the groups are disincentivized from pursuing that strategy as it has low payout for their strategic goal of promoting their group’s ideology and prestige. Basically, treat the pathetic car and cutlery attacks as the lame flailing of losers that they are to reduce the chance of more frequent low lethality events, and force terrorists to pursue riskier operations that have a lower chance of success. It would force a change in terrorist group strategy and tactics towards operations that give security forces a higher chance of successful interdiction.
There is a gamble, a risk that the terrorists will succeed in pulling off their more complex more deadly attack, but given a low risk of a high lethality attack vs. a high risk, nee, certainty, of a constant stream of low lethality events. It might be a safer strategy to push terrorists towards high risk operations, and trust in security forces being able to interdict more obvious terrorist plots than to live with a constant background level of stabbings and van ramming. The cost to the terrorists will be higher than it will be to the civilian population because they will lose trained operatives every time they fail, whereas right now they lose nothing. Just lame outsiders who volunteer to commit suicide in order to promote the group’s ideology. These attacks are free for the groups. At least make them invest in their propaganda of the deed.