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thoughts & musings :: CCC

Monday, 29 October 2001

War games. Mind games.

Are the terrorism campaigns currently emerging the huge paradigm shift that many people are suggesting?

Just as the war on drugs blurred the edges between warfare and law enforcement, the war on terror is set to do much the same. With the increased weaponry and the plight phrased as a war on terror, it is easy to see this as a conventional war.

However, whereas regular warfare usually wages for the control of land or politics, the landscape that terrorism seeks to take control of is the human mind.

With all the clips of terrorist training camps and with the US set to launch on a global tour of military retribution, mopping up all outstanding Anti-American annoyances, it can be easy to see it all as a regular war.

However, as the September 11th Hijackers demonstrated, terrorism does not need the latest laser guided hardware to achieve its aims.

Terrorism is about generating terror. That is its aim, to terrify a mass of people until they cease in whatever captivity or mindset it was that gave rise to the terrorists in the first place.

Terrorism has only altered its methods because its 'target audience' has shifted its attitudes towards it. Just as advertising has shifted in response to consumer attitudes, so terrorism has shifted in order to 'meet the needs' of its consumers. At the dawn of television advertising, as long as you had a trustworthy chap telling you that brand X tasted damn fine, then most people would take it as read that brand X was one of the damned finest tastes around.

Then, as people slowly came round to the fact that X incorporated were bound to claim that their brand was damn fine the advertising world responded with lifestyle marketing. Now brand X not only tasted damn fine, it got you a damn fine house, a damn fine wife and a damn fine life that was, heck, just damn fine. Then came the science and statistical research ads and now, with cynicism reaching new heights, most adverts barely mention the product or anything beneficial and just plump for, "look, out products great but if we promise not to ram it down your throat and just make you smile, would you please maybe consider buying some?"

Just as marketing boils down to money in the bank, so the aims of terrorism are simply to generate terror. In the terrorist's mind, the people who actually die during an attack are as much the weapons as the explosives of a bomb itself. Those unfortunate enough to lose their lives in an attack cannot be terrorised, but their deaths, splashed across the front pages, ignite fear into the wider populace.

The government's task is to convince the public that the threat is minimal and that they are on the verge of eradicating the perpetrators. This involves a very careful balance of displayed security. Without a heavy troop presence, people wonder if they are safe. With a heavy presence, people are continually reminded of the looming threat.

The way that the public has learnt to deal with this threat is through intra-personal negotiation to define areas as safe and unsafe. As terrorists attack large 'significant' targets, the public minimalise the threat to themselves by dwelling upon the fact that as long as they do not live near or work near any significant buildings, then they should remain out of harm's way. And, with the war analogy being played to the full, the significant targets of today will quickly be viewed as military targets. In order to reinvigorate the terror factor, random and seemingly insignificant civilian areas will become the norm.

We negotiate our fear down to an 'acceptable risk,' one small enough to put from our minds and ignore. This strategy of negotiation within ourselves not only helps us to cope but also lessens the power of terrorism by reducing the number of victims. Increasingly, terrorists will have to target civilians in order to keep their campaigns of terrorism terrifying. In order for the terrorists to reinvigorate the concept of terror in a public that has learnt to define target areas and live with the continuous threat, they will have to redefine what is seen as a potential target.

When the 'Real' IRA blew up a car bomb in Omagh, they tipped off the police to a fake bomb near the courthouse, causing the authorities to evacuate everyone to the other end of the town. The real bomb was at this end of town and the results were horrific. Having packed the bomb with nails, they packed people around the bomb.

The major factor currently holding this transition in check is the terrorists own pride. Obviously a certain logic persists in targeting high profile areas in order to strike a moralistic blow against the opposition and achieve the maximum media coverage.

There must also exist a trophy mentality to destroying high profile buildings, a desire to be known as the terrorist who destroyed x.

But we've seen celebrity criminals before, dapper Mafia boss John Gotti, chatting with reporters and appearing on magazine covers just as frequently as appearing in court. but notoriety comes at a heavy price. Just as the scale of genius eventually tips over into madness, so eventually becoming so renowned that they achieve that mythical 'get at all costs' status.

Terrorists in the future will realise that the continuous targeting of trophies lessens the terror payload of their attack as most people don't live and work in such trophies.

The recent spate of anthrax cases in the US post provides a valuable case study into how terrorist vanity can weaken the devastation of an attack. According to the latest FBI profile, the attacker was a loner in the US, jumping on the September 11th bandwagon, but the lesson remains the same.

The notes within the packages actually declaring the contents to be anthrax served no purpose other than to guarantee verifiable media attention.

Remove the note and put in six sachets of brand name talcum powder, with one of them having 'split' in transit and you have a different scenario. Addressed to one of the female staff rather than the senator himself and phrased as a free set of samples to be compared, we now see the anthrax being handed around the office and deliberately rubbed into people's skin.

This same scenario could easily translate to the shopping mall, with talcum powder test samples being swapped.

Imagine the fear that would still be ongoing if the September the 11th terrorists had dropped the planes onto areas of residential housing, rather than the national trophies they selected. The death toll might have been less, the media shock at an attack on such loved monuments would have been lost, but there would have been no chance for the general public to barricade themselves behind the comfort of 'I don't live or work anywhere significant, so I'll be safe.' Most people live in houses.

It doesn't take a genius to think these things through and bin Laden is no school dunce. The anthrax attacks were more than likely a loner and his desire to see his handiwork gloriously displayed in the media prevented the death toll reaching its full potential.

A lot of media speculation took place about whether the anthrax had been 'weaponsied' (made into a potent air-borne variant), the journalists eager to prove how many Tom Clancy novels they had at home. These Anthrax attacks by a lone nut just as the media were speculating about it happening demonstrates another weaponisation taking place Ñ weaponisation of the mind.

The person responsible for the attacks was not any regular member of the public, they had the means, motive and opportunity to kill innocent strangers indiscriminately, and yet it was only after the media predicted that there would be an Anthrax attack that they decided to oblige this invitation by unleashing it.

The potential terrorist, hearing the prophecies of anthrax doom on the television, realises that they can be the first such attack. Not a lame copycat attempt, the first. Thinking through the media attention they will get, already at fever pitch without any such attack occurring. In that instance, the mind is weaponsied. Potential terrorist become kinetic.

It is not only the terrorists' minds that become weaponised. In order to reinvigorate the fear, they seek to weaponise the thinking of the general public. Simple power cuts are no longer simple power cuts and a panicking public seek verification that this is not the opening salvo of Al Qaeda's latest push.

In the past a plane crash would be just a plane crash and accepted as such. The chances of a terrorist attack would only be mentioned if there was strong evidence that the incident was suspicious. Now, when a plane crashes, one of the first sentences uttered by newsreaders is whether or not terrorism has been ruled out in the investigation. Our news has been weaponised.

In the future we will learn once again to live with this threat through simple statistics. 'My house might be a potential target, but the chances of my block being selected is highly remote.'

The terrorists, in turn, will follow up with an increased number of attacks or maybe pull some strange new strategy from left of field that will splash shock and awe across the front page. When that occurs, not even the Antarctic may be a safe hiding place.
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