Terror Magnifiers

These theatrical attacks have a strange hold over the human imagination and can create a unique sense of terror that dwarfs the normal reaction to natural disasters that are many times greater in magnitude. For example, in the 2004 Asian tsunami, more than 227,000 people died, while fewer than 3,000 people died on 9/11. Yet the 9/11 attacks produced not only a sense of terror but also a geopolitical reaction that has exerted a profound and unparalleled impact upon world events over the past decade. Terrorism clearly can have a powerful impact on the human psyche — so much so that even the threat of a potential attack can cause fear and apprehension, as seen by the reaction to the recent spate of warnings about attacks occurring over the holidays.

As noted above, the media serve as a magnifier of this anxiety and terror. Television news, whether broadcast on the airwaves or over the Internet, allows people to remotely and vicariously experience a terrorist event, and this is reinforced by the print media. While part of this magnification is due merely to the nature of television as a medium and the 24-hour news cycle, bad reporting and misunderstanding can also help build hype and terror. For example, when Mexican drug cartels began placing small explosive devices in vehicles in Ciudad Juarez and Ciudad Victoria this past year, the media hysterically reported that the cartels were using car bombs. Clearly, the journalists failed to appreciate the significant tactical and operational differences between a small bomb placed in a car and the far larger and more deadly vehicle-borne explosive device.

The traditional news media are not alone in the role of terror magnifier. The Internet has also become an increasingly effective conduit for panic and alarm. From breathless (and false) claims in 2005 that al Qaeda had pre-positioned nuclear weapons in the United States and was preparing to attack nine U.S. cities and kill 4 million Americans in an operation called “American Hiroshima” to claims in 2010 that Mexican drug cartels were still smuggling nuclear weapons for Osama bin Laden, a great deal of fearmongering can spread over the Internet. Website operators who earn advertising revenue based on the number of unique visitors who read the stories featured on their sites have an obvious financial incentive for publishing outlandish and startling terrorism claims. The Internet also has produced a wide array of other startling revelations, including the oft-recycled e-mail chain stating that an Israeli counterterrorism expert has predicted al Qaeda will attack six, seven or eight U.S. cities simultaneously “within the next 90 days.” This e-mail was first circulated in 2005 and has been periodically re-circulated over the past five years. Although it is an old, false prediction, it still creates fear every time it is circulated.

Sometimes a government can act as a terror magnifier. Whether it is the American DHS raising the threat level to red or the head of the French internal intelligence service stating that the threat of terrorism in that country has never been higher, such warnings can produce widespread public concern. As we’ve noted elsewhere, there are a number of reasons for such warnings, from trying to pre-empt a terrorist attack when there is incomplete intelligence to a genuine concern for the safety of citizens in the face of a known threat to less altruistic motives such as political gain or bureaucratic maneuvering (when an agency wants to protect itself from blame in case there is an attack). As seen by the public reaction to the many warnings in the wake of 9/11, including recommendations that citizens purchase plastic sheeting and duct tape to protect themselves from chemical and biological attack, such warnings can produce immediate panic, although, over time, as threats and warnings prove to be unfounded, this panic can turn into threat fatigue.

Those seeking to terrorize can and do use these magnifiers to produce terror without having to go to the trouble of conducting attacks. The empty threats made by bin Laden and his inner circle that they were preparing an attack larger than 9/11 — threats propagated by the Internet, picked up by the media and then reacted to by governments — are prime historical examples of this.

In recent weeks, we saw a case where panic was caused by a similar confluence of events. In October, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) issued the second edition of Inspire, its English-language magazine. As we discussed in our analysis of the magazine, its Open Source Jihad section pointed out a number of ways that attacks could be conducted by grassroots jihadists living in the West. In addition to the suggestion that an attacker could weld butcher knives onto the bumper of a pickup truck and drive it through a crowd, or use a gun as attackers did in Little Rock and at Fort Hood, another method briefly mentioned was that grassroots operatives could use ricin or cyanide in attacks. In response, the DHS decided to investigate further and even went to the trouble of briefing corporate security officers from the hotel and restaurant industries on the potential threat. CBS news picked up the story and ran an exclusive report compete with a scary poison logo superimposed over photos of a hotel, a dinner buffet and an American flag. The report made no mention of the fact that the AQAP article paid far less attention to the ricin and cyanide suggestion than it did to what it called the “ultimate mowing machine,” the pickup with butcher knives, or even the more practical — and far more likely — armed assault.

This was a prime example of terror magnifiers working with AQAP to produce fear.

Propaganda is a Psychological Operation. Regular PSYOP’ers are not permitted to disseminate counterpropaganda to the American domestic target audience. Irregular PSYOP’ers with unencumbered 1st Amendment rights who are themselves part of the American domestic target audience suffer no such restrictions.

This excerpt from Separating Terror from Terrorism is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

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