How social media is influencing terrorism
Recent attacks claimed by the Islamic State/Da’esh in Western countries are targeting iconic places, such as London Bridge and Westminster Bridge, and iconic activities, such as the Christmas markets in Berlin. These are part of a symbolic war and augment an existing strategy of destroying cultural heritage such as that of Palmyra in Iraq in lands that are occupied by Da’esh.
The impact of all of these attacks is amplified through the internet in a process known as socially mediated terrorism, which I’ve defined in previous work as ‘the use of social and networked media to increase the impact of violent acts undertaken to further a social, political and/or religious cause with the aim of creating physical, emotional or psychological suffering that extends beyond the immediate audience’.
There is a shift from the elaborate plots that have previously characterised jihadist plots, such as the September 11th attacks in the USA, to a new trend of “sequestered action”, in which individuals act without minute direction from a central organisation but as part of a general ideological movement. Such individuals are difficult to apprehend.
Within the Middle East, there have been a range of symbolic reactions to the last two decades of conflict. Teijgeler describes the massive looting that has occurred after the ‘Lotus Revolution’ in Egypt in January 2011. Papoli-Yazdi observes that in Kuwait, war is a negative or an erased heritage in sharp contrast to the sanctification of war that has occurred in Iran. In Kuwait, the people who died in the Persian Gulf War are neither remembered nor commemorated, post-humus victims of an historical amnesia aimed at improving relations with Iraq.
The use of social media by terrorists builds on strategies developed as part of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
It is possible to identify the motivation behind terrorist actions in the West—the polished materials produced by Da’esh state their case clearly. Embedded within a dialogue of extremist religious interpretations is a reaction against the secular values of the West, particularly the sexualisation of women, an aim to highlight increasingly entrenched inequities and revenge for in-kind for bombings that have killed hundreds of civilians, including children, particularly in Syria.
Terrorist actions are fed by the growing global divide between rich and poor, both within countries and between countries, divides that are exacerbated by (but not necessarily caused by) differences in faith, ideology, values, history, and political platforms. Archaeology can play a role, as a means for peace or a source for violence.
If we are going to halt the grown of terrorist actions in Western countries we need to take social and political action to redress these divides.