Consider the following organizations: the Irish Republican Army, the Taliban, Hamas, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah. All of these groups exist to advocate a political position. Yet, of the five groups listed, how many could you identify their purpose? Many folks probably have a general idea what the IRA fights for, but the rest… could you honestly identify their primary message?
A recent article in Slate Magazine started off with the following dark humor pun: “Q: How do you get in touch with an Al Qaeda spokesperson? A: Call his cell.” Despite the play on words, the article goes on to describe how terrorist groups go about communicating with news organizations, often to claim responsibility for terrorist acts. While some organizations have zealots who are de facto spokespersons, other organizations have quasi-legitimate sister organizations that function essentially as public relations agencies. Al Qaeda’s voicebox, an organization called As-Sahab, is even organized to the point of having its own logo coffee mugs.
Comedian David Cross broaches the subject in his stand-up comedy, although in a very profane and borderline disrespectful manner. He says that many Americans think that radical Islamic terrorists attack America because they have an inherent hatred for the freedom that we have as Americans. He says,
“I don’t think Osama bin Laden sent those planes to attack us because he hated our freedom. I think he did it because of our support for Israel, our ties with the Saudi family and our military bases in Saudi Arabia. You know why I think that? Because that’s what he … said!”
Cross’s controversial dialog makes a point. Bin Laden laid out Al Qaeda’s exact motives in the attacks in a 2004 video release, and yet if asked, most Americans would probably say that the attacks happened because “they hate our freedom.”
Acts of terrorism, horrendous and cowardly, do get people’s attention. So how come out of vile terrorist acts, no one still seems to know why these terrorist groups do their terrible deeds?
First of all, as mentioned in Slate’s article, it’s very dangerous for them to get in touch with western media. Attempts to do so often put journalists in great danger, and sometimes get them killed. Secondly, they have no organizational consensus. Terrorist groups aren’t structured and rigid organizations like national armies. They are loose coalitions of radical people with similar, but not identical beliefs. Finally, they likely misunderstand our social and political context as much as we misunderstand theirs. This makes it difficult for communication to take place.
The wish of the world is that these groups would change their violent ways and rely on diplomacy. If that’s unreasonable, a PR strategist would point out that they should put less effort into getting the attention of the people they attack and more into defining and transmitting their message in a way that will be received by these people.