Terrorists report on their own bloody work, bypassing media

Story highlights

  • Peter Bergen: from Munich to 9/11, coverage in mainstream media defined modern terrorism
  • We've entered a new era -- where terrorists utilize their own media in real time, he says

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of the new book, "United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists."

(CNN)In 1985, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke about terrorism at the annual convention of the American Bar Association. Following a recent high-profile hijacking of a TWA passenger forced to land in Beirut that had received lavish media coverage, Thatcher urged that news organizations "must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend."

Peter Bergen
It's a dilemma that news organizations have grappled with for many decades since. Terrorist attacks are, of course, news, but terrorists also depend on "the oxygen of publicity" provided by the media to spread accounts of their violence.
    But what happens when today's terrorists are the media? In the past, terrorists had to rely on the media to get their messages out, but now they can completely control their own message, from making their own content to ensuring its widespread distribution.
    In a new twist of the past three years, ISIS and other jihadist militants are now reporting on their own bloody work in real time. Consider that ISIS produces lavish TV productions, filmed professionally in high definition -- of everything from its murder of civilians, to profiles of its heroic fighters, to the supposedly idyllic life that can be lived under its purportedly utopian rule. The group also has its own de facto news agency, Amaq, that credibly reports on ISIS' own atrocities.
    ISIS also publishes multiple webzines in English, French, Russia and Turkish. Most strikingly, terrorist organizations and their supporters maintain many tens of thousands of accounts on social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, which they use to further propagate the ISIS message. More and more, those accounts are documenting and broadcasting terrorist violence as it plays out live.
    While ISIS militants took hostages at an upscale cafe in Dhaka, Bangladesh and killed 20 mostly non-Muslim foreigners, they also sent images of their victims lying in pools of blood to Amaq, which posted them for the world to see.
    During the Westgate mall attack in Kenya in 2013 in which at least 67 were killed, someone close to the Al-Shabaab terror group was live tweeting details of the attack, which were often far more accurate than any other source.
    The Westgate mall attack was the first major terrorist attack that was live tweeted by someone close to the perpetrators. As the assault at the Westgate mall was underway, a Twitter account used by Al-Shabaab tweeted: "The Mujahideen ('holy warriors') entered Westgate mall today at around noon and they are still inside the mall, fighting the Kenyan kuffar ('infidels') inside their own turf."
    It was the first confirmation that the attack was the work of Al-Shabaab, and journalists around the world quickly reported this.
    Crucially, Al-Shabaab then explained in a tweet that the mall attack was going to be a fight to the death in which there would be no negotiations for the lives of the hostages the gunmen had taken: "We'll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest #Westgate." This key aspect of the assault on the mall was also reported globally.
    In recent weeks, we have seen an appalling new iteration of this social media trend, with the terrorists posting pictures of their victims as events were unfolding, as we saw in the attack in Bangladesh on Friday.
    Similarly, last month near Paris, Larossi Abballa, an ISIS-inspired militant, killed a police official and his partner. Immediately after the murders, Abballa videotaped himself live on Facebook declaring his allegiance to ISIS. While Abballa was taping this statement, near him was the couple's terrified 3-year-old son.
    Meanwhile, pledging allegiance to ISIS on Facebook after a murderous attack has now become almost routine for terrorists in the West.
    Omar Mateen, the terrorist in Orlando who killed 49 at a gay nightclub, pledged his allegiance to ISIS on Facebook as he carried out his attack.
    So, too, did the terrorists in San Bernardino in December who killed 14 attending an office holiday party.
    One of the big ideas of modern terrorism, from the Munich Olympics of 1972 during which Palestinian terrorists kidnapped Israeli athletes to 9/11, has been to use widespread TV coverage of violent acts to propagate and advance the political ideas of the militants.
    Today, terrorists bypass traditional media entirely and they now act simultaneously as the protagonists, producers and propagators of their acts of nihilistic violence. When terrorists can control the medium and the message, how can we hope to deny them the "oxygen of publicity?"