Communication via mass media by international terrorist organizations. A completely new phenomenon?

Term Paper 2017 22 Pages

Communications - Media and Politics, Politic Communications


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Introduction to the theme
1.2. Research question
1.3. Limitations and organization of the research

2. Terrorism, communication and mass media – definition
2.1. Terrorism
2.2. Communication
2.3. Mass Media
2.4. Symbiotic relationship of mass media and terrorism

3. Terrorist media communication strategies

4. Historical view on the example of the RAF
4.1. General information about the RAF
4.2. Relationship between RAF and the mass media

5. Recent developments using the example of ISIS
5.1. General information about the ISIS
5.2. Relationship between ISIS and the mass media

6. Conclusion and suggestions for further research
6.1. Conclusion
6.2. Suggestions for further research

7. Bibliography

8. Appendix


This scientific essay aims to demonstrate that using mass media by international terrorist organizations is not a new phenomenon of the 21st century. In fact, the use of media as a weapon by terrorists is nothing new at all. The essay shows the most important terms in this context and explains the communication strategies of modern terror. There are parallels drawn between the actions of the “Rote Armee Fraktion” in the past and the “Islamic State” in the present. Finally, the author suggests that further empirical studies on the effectiveness of the use of mass media by terrorists would be a sensible continuation.

1. Introduction

1.1. Introduction to the theme

On Friday, November 13th, 2015, millions of soccer fans all over the world are captivated in front of their big screens (or the internet) for the friendly soccer match between France and Germany, scheduled for 21:00 Hrs. at the ‘Stade de France’ (Paris – France). All of a sudden, several explosions are heard in the vicinity of the stadium! Thus, begin a night of utter terror. In an unprecedented act of brutality, a group of Islamic terrorists attacked innocent people in one of the biggest and most renown metropolises of Europe.

The police reconstruction[1] of this "night of terror" in Paris revealed the following information: Eight Islamic terrorists, armed with explosive belts and assault rifles conducted well-coordinated deadly attacks at five different locations in the French capital. In all, 130 people were massacred that night in cold blood, and about 300 more injured. Pictures of the dead and wounded were broadcasted live on the airwaves. The headlines in the news lasted for weeks.

Immediately on becoming aware of the perfidious details of that night, the terror organization "Islamic State" proclaimed itself the mastermind of these attacks, with their confessions published on Facebook and via YouTube. Honestly, we are accustomed to hear the news and see pictures of terrorist attacks in the media, with pictures of brutality and images of human suffering.[2] Objectively viewed, the impression may arise that there is a symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media. On the internet platform YouTube thousands of self-broadcasted videos are uploaded by terrorist organizations, in which they represent themselves and show their brutal atrocities. Considering these facts, the question arises: Is Communication via mass media by international terrorist organizations a completely new phenomenon?

At the beginning of this essay, the most important terms in that context are defined. Subsequently, the general goals, which terrorists follow with the communication via mass media, are delineated. Based on the historical example of the "Rote Armee Fraktion", the handling of mass media by terrorist organizations is described and parallels are shown to the current strategy of the "Islamic State".

1.2. Research question

Considering the present global security environment and the perceived subjective risk of terrorism, the following question is being edited in this scientific essay: Do organizations of international terror use mass media to achieve their goals – has the behavior of international terrorist organizations changed significantly in regard to the phenomenon of mass media in the last decades?

1.3. Limitations and organization of the research

The following scientific essay does not claim to be complete. It is a selective presentation of the most important definitions in the context of the research question - which is supplemented by a historical summary of the handling of mass media by the “Rote Armee Fraktion” (RAF). Further, the latest developments are described by using the example of the “Islamic State” (ISIS).

At this point the organization of this research will be explained: It is a literature- based academic work. The contents have been compiled from existing scholarly publications, the internet and scientific articles. The facts and scientific knowledge were collected and discussed.

2. Terrorism, communication and mass media – definition

2.1. Terrorism

The German word "Terror" originally derives from Latin and means "Schrecken (breites Geschehen)".[3] Terror is the root of the word terrorism.

Despite intensive international efforts there is currently no universal agreement on the definition of terrorism.[4] Moreover, governments have been reluctant to formulate an agreed upon and legally binding definition. These difficulties arise from the fact that the term is politically and emotionally charged. In 2008 Schmid noted that there exist about 109 definitions of terrorism worldwide which cover a total of 22 different definitional elements.[5]

To avoid this kind of confusion here, a definition of terrorism is used that is most appropriate to the author's point of view. In general, terrorism can be defined as “the threat or use of force by subordinate actors, as a violence strategy that primarily frustrates the existing rule system by spreading fear and fright. Additionally, it tries to undermine the existing system of rule and bring about a basic political and social upheaval.”[6]

2.2. Communication

In the context of this scientific essay, it is sufficient to define the communication process only briefly. Communication is an interpersonal relation.[7] This process consists of four parts: transmitter, receiver, the message and a suitable medium.[8] Against the background of this work, the main emphasis will be on the transmitter and the used medium.

2.3. Mass Media

The concept of mass media communication was defined by Maletzke in 1963: “Mass communication is public (the recipient is not clearly defined), characterized by technical dissemination, it is indirect (spatial and temporal distance between the communication participants), unilaterally and is directed at a dispersed audience (no closed circle of addressees).[9]

In Context to the new mass distribution of communication via computer and Internet, this "aged" definition reached its limits. Therefore, it was expanded by Trappel: "Mass media based on long - term institutionalized interrelationships that use complex communication channels and techniques, and in industrial organizations form according to rules and routines of the society for which it provides meaningful functions for public communication."[10] Thus, Trappel provides a definition that applies to both the conventional mass media and the so-called online media.

Mass media are divided into print media, broadcast media, audio-visual media, sound carriers, communication media and computer-assisted media. Compared to classical mass media, the computer-assisted medium Internet has become more and more important in the last years.[11] /[12] Examples of the incomprehensible reach of new social networks on the internet, are companies like Facebook and YouTube. Facebook currently has 1.8 billion active users[13] and YouTube has already broken the 1 billion mark[14].

2.4. Symbiotic relationship of mass media and terrorism

Mass media serve terrorists mainly in two different ways. On the one hand as an information source, on the other as a tool of communication. The information source means that the news of the media provides terrorists relevant hints for the preparation of an attacks (e.g. details of the targeted objectives). During an abduction, for example, terrorists can gather media information on the state of the search and the reaction of the public - information that is also important for the follow-up activities.[15] This kind of news can be used to optimize their strategy. Using as a tool of communication in this context means that through this medium, the communication with opponents and followers is safely possible. By means of targeted distribution of messages to the press (e.g. video or written news), terrorists can reach many people. Thus, mass media are becoming a safe means of communication for terrorists.[16]

The further function categorized as central in the research literature - to increase the effect of a terrorist attack by media attention (by spreading a diffuse atmosphere of insecurity and anxiety)[17] is considered in chapter three.

But what is the added value of publishing reports on international terrorism and its worldwide attacks for media companies? From an economic point of view, the answer is actually very simple: The more interesting or captivating a product is, the more people or customers want to have it. The news media face a dilemma: on one hand, they are bounded to ethical and moral principles, but on the other hand, they are subjected to the rules of business management (profit-oriented striving).[18] This aspect, however, is not further dealt with in the following scientific essay.

3. Terrorist media communication strategies

For the modern terrorist, it is no longer important how many people he has injured or killed. It has become irrelevant as well how many buildings he destroyed. The significant terrorist’s goal today is to attract the attention of the mass media.

Broadly speaking, there are two main developments which media-oriented terrorism is based on. First, terrorist violence is the most effective means of public access, because people cannot look away when violence is carried out. Therefore, violence is always "able to create a media event", the media cannot ignore violence at all. Furthermore, the modern mass media have "overtaken time and space", they can report from anywhere in the world within a very short time.

To attain media effectiveness, the modern terrorists also use the "Achievements of the West", such as airplanes, bombs and chemical weapons. According to Brosius, there is a kind of "cookbook of terrorism" in which the "ingredients" are explained for a successful terrorist attack. Characteristics which are conducive to reporting, according to Brosius, are the concerns of western victims and terrorist actions like hostages or air piracy, because they give the media time to report "live". Another point in cases like this is the possibility of background reporting. There is a possibility for the terrorist organizations to commit themselves to the attack.[19] The messages of the terrorists are aimed to potential supporters and sympathizers. Additionally, the messages are aimed at the “direct” victims or their environment, to create anxiety and uncertainty (in the mostly western world) and to achieve political change.[20]

I entirely agree with Weichert and Hirschmann, that the modern mass media serve as a perfect “speech tube”[21] to reach these target groups as best as possible. This is the reason why the terrorists need a “communication strategy” that perfectly exploits the “economic laws of the modern media market”.[22]

The possibilities of the terrorists to gain the attention of the mass media are manifold. Techniques include stressing the "negative quality" of an event (e.g. by means of a declaration which makes a hitherto unresolved incident a terrorist attack). Also, the granting of interviews with hostages or terrorists increases the chances of reporting. The direct occupation of a radio station airwaves or the capture of an editor as a hostage is a successful way to attract the attention of the media, too.[23]

Terrorism expert Waldmann finally states that the terrorists know that "without the multiplicative effect of the media, they would be an unknown person."[24] Modern terrorism has adapted itself to the development of mass media. Meanwhile every terrorist organization has got public relations officers and media strategies. With those they try to exploit the mass media.[25] Honestly, terrorism is always in a kind of "win-win situation", because the mere news is sufficient to be considered a success, whether a terrorist action has been successful or not.[26]

To sum up, terrorists certainly benefit from a relationship with the media – and this is not a new age phenomenon, or is it?

4. Historical view on the example of the RAF

4.1. General information about the RAF

The group was founded in the German student protest movement of the 1960s. But the protests of the students had not reached far enough for the members of the RAF. They hoped, by using physical violence, to bring changes in the social and political system.[27] The literature distinguishes between three generations of the RAF. The

most famous members of the first generation were Andras Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof, Holger Meins and Jan-Carl Raspe, who were imprisoned in 1972. In most of the literature, the second generation is placed after the imprisonment of the first. This generation is associated with the so-called "Deutscher Herbst" - the high phase of terrorism in Germany. The third generation, which after 1977 constituted itself, never reached the power of the first two generations.[28] Between 1971 and 1993 at least 30 people were killed in RAF attacks.[29] The last known attack of the RAF was an explosive strike at the newly constructed JVA Weiterstadt on March 27th, 1993.[30] On April 20th, 1998, Reuters in Cologne received an authentically authenticated letter which announced the self-dissolution of the RAF. This dissolution of the RAF was published worldwide in the news.[31]


[1] cf. Appendix, Figure 1

[2] cf. Biermann (2015), online: <http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2015-11/terror-paris-attentate-rekonstruktion-ablauf>

[3] Drosdowski (2014), p. 485

[4] cf. Williamson (2009), p. 38

[5] cf. Schmid & Jongman (2008), pp. 5 ll

[6] cf. Peter Waldmann (2001), pp. 514–518

[7] cf. Watzlawick & Beavin (1967), p. 4

[8] cf. Schramm (1972), p. 77

[9] cf. Maletzke (1963), p. 32

[10] Trappel (2007), p. 26

[11] cf. Esch, online (2017): <http://wirtschaftslexikon.gabler.de/Archiv/54945/massenmedien-v5.html>

[12] cf. Appendix, Figure 2

[13] cf. Grenz (2016), online: <https://de.statista.com/themen/138/facebook/>

[14] cf. YouTube (2017), online: <https://www.youtube.com/yt/press/de/statistics.html>

[15] cf. Glück (2007), p. 23

[16] Ibid., p. 23

[17] cf. Frindte (2010), p. 53

[18] cf. Altmeppen & Karmasin (2003), p. 47

[19] cf. Brosius (2001), online: <http://library.fes.de/gmh/main/pdf-files/gmh/2001/2001-11-a-718.pdf>

[20] cf. Hirschmann (2003), pp. 47–48

[21] cf. Weichert (2007), p. 83

[22] cf. Hirschmann, supra note 21, p. 48

[23] cf. Waldmann (2005), p. 59

[24] Ibid., p. 60

[25] cf. Hirschmann, supra note 21, p. 51

[26] cf. Kaschner (2008), p. 236

[27] cf. Aust (1998), pp. 323–326

[28] cf. Glaab (2007), p. 49

[29] The most prominent victims were chief prosecutor Siegfried Buback, banker Jürgen Ponto, employer president Hanns Martin Schleyer (all murdered in 1977) and Siemens manager Karlheinz Beckurts (1986), Deutsche Bank board spokesman Alfred Herrhausen, (1989) and Treuhandchef Detlev Karsten Rohwedder (1991).

[30] cf. Verlag Der Tagesspiegel GmbH (1999), online: <http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/20-jahre-linker-terror-in-deutschland-eine-bilanz-mit-mindestens-30-todesopfern/92900.html>

[31] cf. Kämpfer (2011), 97 ll


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Title: Communication via mass media by international terrorist organizations. A completely new phenomenon?