There is a great deal of debate concerning the relationship between terrorism and the media. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described media publicity as the “oxygen” of terrorism. The former leader of al-Qaeda (AQ), Osama bin Laden, had, according to a former close associate, an “extreme infatuation” and was “obsessed” with international media attention. Indeed, terrorists need people beyond the immediate geographic area of an attack to know about their actions in order to spread fear and gain popular support. As Bruce Hoffman concludes: “without the media’s coverage the act’s impact is arguably wasted, remaining narrowly confined to the immediate victim(s) of the attack, rather than reaching the wider ‘target audience’ at whom the terrorists’ violence is actually aimed.”
While the relationship between terrorism and the media may at first seem straightforward, it is in fact complex and dynamic. Terrorist groups have used mainstream media as well as their own propaganda products as a means of gaining publicity. In doing so, they simultaneously attempt to influence multiple audiences, including (but not necessarily limited to) government officials, the mass public of a particular country, their own constituents, and/or a larger international audience. It is evident that terrorism and the media are intimately linked in a dynamic relationship. Over time, however, this has become increasingly complex, with radical changes in the media landscape, in particular the emergence of ‘new,’ Internet-based media platforms. This poses significant challenges for combating terrorist use of the media in democratic countries.
This chapter begins with a discussion of the fundamental relationship between terrorism and the media, followed by an overview of historical developments. Particular attention is paid to the emergence of new media and how it is transforming the terrorist-media relationship. In this context, two case studies are included in order to illustrate how contemporary terrorist groups are making use of emerging media technologies – these focus upon al-Shabaab in Somalia and the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ (IS). The concluding section then highlights some of the challenges involved from a combating terrorism perspective.