Fighting the war on terror with communication

When terrorists strike their mission is to cause maximum mayhem. They hope that their anarchy sends messages to their target audience and the world. Sam Karanja Managing Director Hill+Knowlton Strategies East Africa thinks that terrorists should also be sent a strong message.

Much has been said about how Kenya’s security mechanisms were caught unawares before, during and after the Westgate attack.

Let’s hypothesie about the build-up to the Westgate attack. The choice of Westgate was not random - it represented the bastion of capitalism, a place  where Kenya’s middle class, nouveau-riche, celebrities, politicians’ families, diplomats and expatriates congregate to shop, dine, get entertained and socialise. Saturday is obviously peak time – a period that the affluent get time to spend their hard earned cash. The attractiveness of the mall as a terrorism 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 Defence.

The rigour 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 organisations 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 globalisation 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 organisations are competing with individuals, bloggers to break news. One shudders to think what would have happened around the audacious Twin Towers 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 Towers 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 and they were simply airbrushed out and forgotten. High powered camera-phones were fewer and the pervasive and abundant social media platforms were in 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.

Obviously, there is no sense of control when it comes to spreading the dreadful message. However, 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.

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. 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.

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 labelled 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

Terrorism is global and so is communication. Governments should ingrain counter-terrorism communication guidelines to 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. And individuals should exercise a multi-dimensional view of terrorist communications and acts. This is the most difficult but sensitisation for online users can bear results. Counter those messages the Kenyan way. Don’t perpetuate the terror. Be the editor.