Book review: Propaganda and Counter-terrorism

First published in 2015, Propaganda and Counter-terrorism has gained increased relevance in recent months, as the world comes to terms with the power of propaganda to affect dramatic social and political change.

At the time of writing, there are just days to go before Donald Trump takes office as US president, among the furore of fake news and accusations that have surrounded his campaign from the beginning. Propaganda has never been more relevant, especially in our digital age, where technology has the power to obscure identity, location, and source – along with the concept of truth itself.

Set in the context of a post 9/11 media environment, the book explores how the British and US governments adapted their propaganda strategies to address the perceived threat of global terrorism, which became top of the agenda after 9/11. In the resulting Iraq War, both sides collaborated not only to fight Al Qaeda, but also to produce propaganda of all stripes. Their goal: to change hearts and minds, both at home and in the theatre of war itself.

But, as Propaganda and Counter-terrorism reveals, that was not the only goal. Through extensive interviews with high-profile sources, including journalists, military officials and defence analysts, author Emma L. Briant explores the unseen story of post-9/11 propaganda. She shows on how the UK and US aimed to change existing propaganda systems, seen as ‘outdated’ within a fast-evolving global media landscape where messages could travel at lightning speed across disappearing boundaries.

Early on in the book, Briant dives into a deep unpacking of the terminology used. She defines propaganda as the ‘deliberate manipulation of representations, with the intention of producing a desired effect among the audience.’

Briant points out that propaganda can involve facts as well as untruths, and does not always have to be perceived in a negative light. She lays out the different categories of propaganda, from white (truth), to grey (uncertainty), and black (lies). One could argue that the use of ‘fake news’ in the US election is a perfect example of grey propaganda.

In subsequent chapters the book deconstructs Anglo-American collaboration in propaganda efforts, power-sharing within the relationship, methods used and mistakes made. There is a key focus how the ‘war on terror’ narrative was constructed and delivered, not just by government, but also by many social institutions including the media.

The book includes a case study of the Iraq War, which some sources describe as ‘tragedy and farce’ and a ‘failure of journalism’. The problems arising from this failure have been far-reaching, fuelling anger and resentment within Iraq that has led to unending conflict. The resulting destabilisation has created an opportunity for the rise of ISIS; a brutal terrorist group with the most advanced propaganda ever seen.

In the final chapter, Briant examines how US/UK-led attempts to counter terrorism risk denial of dissent within society, both at home and abroad. She refers to ‘democracy building propaganda’, which shows ‘sustained lack of understanding’ of non-Western cultures, while building a disproportionate fear of terrorist attacks among foreign audiences. This is problematic as it encourages a view of ‘us and them’, which is harmful and hampers efforts to build international cooperation.

My concern is that the view of ‘us and them’ is only getting stronger. We now live in a Trump-led world, which is veering towards increased nationalism, where borders are reinforced and societies encouraged to look inwards, glancing outwards only with fear. As Briant highlights in her closing chapter, ‘dominative foreign propaganda cannot create lasting peace and stability, indeed it shuns true intercultural understanding’.

One of the book’s main strengths is its analysis of extensive source material, which draws on the expertise and insider knowledge of numerous defence, intelligence, security and PR professionals, both in the public and private sectors. These are the people at the coalface of propaganda planning and delivery.

Their input gives the book a distinct authority and instils the reader with confidence in the ideas expressed. Ideally, I’d have liked to see Propaganda and Counter-terrorism examine the role of social media, fake news, post-truth and so on, in shaping approaches to propaganda, but realise this was probably outside the scope of this book at the time of writing. Perhaps a follow-up is due soon.

Propaganda and Counter-terrorism is an important read, if not always an easy one due to the sheer depth of source material contained within. This makes the book a heavyweight in its field, and readers who persevere will gain a host of new insights and intersections relating to the role of propaganda now and in the future; an invaluable understanding in the current climate.

Istanbul: Next target in ISIS narrative?

ISIS opened 2017 with yet another attack, this time targeting Istanbul. The Reina nightclub shooting, which killed 39 and injured over 40 during the early hours of New Year’s Day, is the first attack on civilians in Turkey that the terrorist group has officially claimed. The gunman remains on the run at the time of writing.

Mass attacks on civilians have become an ISIS hallmark. In Turkey, the goal to kill civilians differentiates ISIS from other groups who have launched similar attacks, such as TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) or the PKK. Both of the latter (which are linked to each other) tend to target military and/or police targets, instead of civilians (although they can often be killed in the process).

Turkey – and Istanbul in particular – has suffered many terrorist attacks during 2016. Three notable incidents were the Ataturk airport bombing (June), the Sultanahmet suicide bombing (Jan), and the Istiklal Street suicide bombing (March). Interspersed with these have been numerous TAK and PKK-claimed bombings aimed at taking down police and military targets.

There have been other ISIS-attributed attacks in Turkey, such as the November 2016 Diyarbakir car bomb, but none as deadly as the Reina shooting. This style follows a pattern already seen elsewhere, with the Orlando nightclub shooting and the Bataclan shooting in Paris. Although ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially claimed the Diyarbakir attack, that was aimed at police. The Reina shooting represents the first time ISIS has claimed an attack of this nature against civilians in Turkey, a Sunni-majority country. It’s important to note that most of the victims at Reina were Muslims.

So why has ISIS changed the modus operandi of its attacks on Turkey? One theory is that, in the past, the group considered Turkey an essential gateway for foreign fighters to reach its heartland in Syria. This theory could have been valid when the borders were still porous in 2014, but makes less sense now that they have been closed. It is also questionable in light of recent ISIS attacks on Turkey, which have killed many Turks and other Muslims. Why would ISIS attack Turkey if Turkey were still covertly helping it?

Another idea, explored in more detail here, suggests that ISIS tailors its attacks to resonate more effectively with specific audiences. Knowing the group’s tendency to follow best practice in content strategy, this would seem logical. Killing Sunni civilians (as in the Reina attack) would seemingly contradict the interests of the main ISIS support base. Killing your target audience is probably not the best way to engage with them…But somehow ISIS is able to justify its actions enough to retain influence and make them work within its propaganda narrative.

The new focus on Istanbul as an ISIS target could also fit within the original ISIS narrative as outlined in the group’s propaganda magazine Dabiq. The magazine talks at length about the many battles leading up to the conquest of ‘Constantinople’ (as Istanbul was known during Crusader times), which precedes the final showdown against the ‘Crusaders’ (i.e. Western coalition forces). If ISIS and its supporters are still following this narrative, it is possible that the latest attack on Istanbul is a natural progression along the apocalyptic storyline of ISIS propaganda.

Could this ISIS-claimed attack on ‘Constantinople’ really be a deliberate step towards fulfilling another part of the Dabiq propaganda narrative? From an ISIS perspective, Muslims who frequent nightclubs (and most likely drink alcohol) would be seen as apostates – and hence, in the mind of an ISIS adherent, their killing would be justified. That, combined with the Turkish army’s recently increased offensive against ISIS in Syria, could be reason enough to put Istanbul in the firing line. Unfortunately, it seems we can expect more attacks on Istanbul during 2017, as the conflict between the Turkish state and ISIS ratchets up even further.