Fighting the war on terror with communication

When terrorists strike their mission is to cause maximum mayhem. They hope that the anarchy sends messages to their target audience and the whole world. On the other hand, the war on terror is also about sending counter messages to the anarchists.

By Sam Karanja

A lot has been said about how Kenya’s security mechanisms were caught unawares before, during and after the Westgate attack. Security matters are best left to the trained combatants but there is a new battlefront that all are caught up like a deer in the headlights.

Let’s hypothesize the buildup to the Westgate attack. The choice of Westgate was not random. Westgate mall represented the bastion of capitalism. A mall where Kenya’s middle class, nouveau-riche, celebrities, politicians’ families, diplomats and expatriates congregate to shop, dine, get entertained and socialize. Saturday is obviously peak time – a period that the affluent get time to spend their hard earned cash on family, spouse and friend. The attractiveness of the mall as a terrorist target went a notch higher when you consider that it is purportedly owned by Israeli businessmen. The choice of a target is therefore not a one dimensional exercise. The place, the people and the time are chosen; carefully. One might imagine that the terrorists have a matrix that builds on the significance, impact and lasting message. Westgate is not alone. Examples abound.

The Beslan School siege in 2004 and the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai eerily resemble the Westgate attack. However 9/11 perhaps demonstrates the matrix at its best. The targets were picked carefully....

The World Trade Centre was a mammoth, unique architectural feat. The Twin Towers visually dominated the New York skyline. Fundamentally, it was a symbol of commerce – a mascot for capitalism and as the name denotes a place the world trade was consummated. The other target, the Pentagon is the icon of the US military might. The Pentagon is not just a building; it is a synonym, the heart-beat of America’s Department of Defense.

The rigor of planning the attacks is also accompanied by the commensurate meticulousness in communication or propaganda. In 2001, video news releases exclusively shared with select global media organizations were in vogue. The videos always precipitated an attack. The messages were consistent and at times could have been dismissed as religious mutterings from the usual jihadist fanatics.
But in 2012 and beyond social media has provided multiple and ubiquitous platforms with an ability to reach out to nations and individuals simultaneously. The fact that there is continuing globalization of communication means that messages and terrifying visuals can permeate quickly. Recipients receive the intended message in the targeted language and form. In essence there is no gatekeeper. Media organizations are competing with individuals, bloggers to break news. Everyone wants to be an influencer, the first to break news, the most knowledgeable. One shudders to think what would have happened around the audacious Twin Tower and Pentagon attacks in the era of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Control of messages and visuals around a terrorist attack is fundamental in limiting the shock and fear that forms the basis of these attacks. During the Twin Tower attacks, there were images of what were known as jumpers – terrified folks who chose to jump out of the building. The American establishment and media were naturally reluctant to show those images. Those images were simply airbrushed and forgotten. High powered camera-phones were fewer and the pervasive and abundant social media platforms were at their nascent stages.
The Westgate attack happened in the era of social media platforms. In addition to planning the heinous aspects of the attack the terrorists demonstrated their intimate knowledge of the new media platforms and how to use them to heighten the ferocity of their attack. Tweet after tweet displayed mayhem and consistency in messaging. Their Twitter account was shut down several times but each time they revived it with new feeds.
As the counter-terrorism Kenyan forces’ battle with the terrorists raged inside the mall, there was a bigger battle being fought outside. The terrorists had the world’s attention and they knew it. Media houses fell over each other trying to show the carnage and describe the goings-on in painstaking detail. Bloggers and individuals shared pictures often accompanied by the usual OMG expression. Social media only helped to spread the shock and terror. Both professional journalists and citizen reports unwittingly became purveyors of the frightening messages disseminated by the terrorists.

Obviously, there is no sense of control when it comes to spreading the dreadful message. However, I submit that government establishments, mainstream media, bloggers and users of social media platforms must understand the objectives and communication tactics of terrorists. This will help in defeating the terrorists.
The Chinese General and Military Strategist Sun Tzu stated: It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
Most security organs have rigorous master plans put in place to combat terror. However, communications experts will forever question whether there is a communication/messaging plan that is attached to this military and on-field combat tactics. I submit that such a plan would be difficult but not unachievable. Difficult because in military speak information is shared on a need-to-know basis which lends itself to control and ultimately success. However, terror involves civilian populations yet this population is not as ‘disciplined’. They want information. They seek news. They receive the news which numbs them into inactions followed by emotions and reactions.
The positive reactions from Kenyans after the attack were a pointer towards what we need to do to use communication to counter terrorism. Kenyans chose to fight back the religious messages that pitted Islam versus other religions such as Christianity and Hinduism. They correctly labeled the attacks for what they were – criminal, evil and inhuman. They went further and ignored anti-Somali sentiments that were creeping in. They chose to celebrate the heroes. The picture of a police man half crouching, a baby partly held by an AK-47 became the poster image of the Kenyan security forces. The other was a young Kenyan Somali who rescued many shoppers including a young girl whose photo was widely circulated. Incidentally, one of the country’s leading freelance news photographers risked his life by entering the mall and snapping away whilst accompanied by his son – a budding photographer in his early 20’s. The two were embedded into the first batch of policemen and armed civilians that fought the terrorists. Kenyans fought back with positive messages.

Terrorism is global and so is communication. Two major approaches require retrospection and action. Firstly, governments need to ingrain counterterrorism communication guidelines that should kick in immediately a terror attack is confirmed. These guidelines would require the buy-in of the media. It should not be an exercise in muzzling the media but an exercise in co-operation. We need to balance the need for information and countering terror messages. Secondly, individuals should exercise a multi-dimensional view of terrorist communications and acts. This is the most difficult but sensitization for online users can bear results. Counter those messages the Kenyan way. Don’t perpetuate the terror. Be the editor.

Sam Karanja is the Managing Director Hill+Knowlton Strategies East Africa, a leading PR and Communications consultancy based in Nairobi.

Images used: courtesy