At this writing, American contractor Paul Marshal Johnson may face a gruesome death at the hands of his al-Qaeda captors. The image of a blindfolded Johnson accompanied by a message demanding the release of terrorists in Saudi custody, seen around the world, is classic terror theater. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups depend on the media to get their message across to three vital audiences.
The first audience is composed of potential supporters throughout the Middle East and around the globe. The kidnapping of Paul Johnson, like the videoed decapitation of Nick Berg, demonstrate that despite setbacks suffered in Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda is still in the game. Well-publicized acts serve both to raise funds and recruit new members. While al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas share a number of goals, they also compete for quality recruits and funding. Al Qaeda recruits world-wide.
The second audience is the targeted people.Westerners working in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East are the primary audience for the Paul Marshal Johnson kidnapping video. The message is that despite Operation Iraqi Freedom, the work done by Saudi security services, and the power of the American and Saudi armed forces, every Western worker is vulnerable. A primary responsibility of any government is to insure the safety of its citizens. Terrorists aim to erode our confidence in the government’s ability to do that.
The third audience is international opinion. The message for the world is two-fold. First, al-Qaeda will engage in the most savage forms of violence to achieve its goals, including slaughtering innocent civilians. Second, if the terrorists are willing to go to these kinds of extremes, perhaps their message is worth considering and maybe their grievances are legitimate.
Today’s terrorism is theater in which terrorist directors script roles for two kinds of players: victimizers and victims. As in Hollywood or on Broadway, the success or failure of the production depends on promotion and advertising. The media plays the key role as the stage upon which the drama unfolds. The script aims for the heart and the gut. “My name is Nicholas Berg, my mother’s name is Suzanne, my sister’s name…” The appeal is to our fears with the objective of eliciting a behavioral response satisfactory to the terrorists; the withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East, the exodus of Western workers from Saudi Arabia.
Terrorism is an asymmetric approach in Information Age warfare. It also is a logical and rational effort the goal of which is to create fear and foster chaos among the targeted audience.
Americans working or traveling abroad die every day as a result of accidents or criminal acts. The difference is that their deaths are not scripted, recorded and televised. If they were, Americans might well abandon travel altogether. The psychological effect the terrorists aim for is not unlike that experienced over a quarter-century ago when Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” became a major motion picture. Despite the statistical probability of being eaten by a shark rivaling that of being struck by lightening, anyone who saw the movie thought about sharks whenever they ventured into the surf in that summer of 1975…and for many summers thereafter. When one of Benchley’s characters, an ichthyologist, explained that the shark did not make moral choices; it only swims, eats and makes baby sharks, the seeming randomness of the attacks added to the terror. The shark’s innocent victims included a beautiful young skinny dipper, a couple of fishermen, a young boy and, finally, a crusty old shark hunter. Since anyone venturing into the shark’s domain was a potential victim, many people simply stayed out of the water after seeing “Jaws.”
While today’s terrorism often seems as random and unpredictable as Benchley’s shark attacks, terrorists act logically and rationally to achieve specific goals. Furthermore, unlike their predecessors from the nineteenth century through the 1970s who targeted the politically powerful, figures like Tsar Alexander II of Russia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, modern terrorists prefer killing ordinary citizens.
Because terror is an instrument in psychological warfare, knowledge is strength in opposing terrorism. The more we know about al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the better. Intelligence is the key to taking action before the terrorist can act. Pre-emption, not reaction, is the best course to follow in fighting terrorism because if you are reacting that means they have acted and innocent people have died.
War remains, as Carl von Clausewitz defined it nearly 175 years ago, “an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.”The primary asymmetric approach used by terrorists is psychological warfare. World War IV, being acted out on a world stage from Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the Philippines and on the evening news globally, is a war of wills in which knowledge plays a key role. Fear, like the shark we imagined lurking beneath that next swell, has its greatest effect when we let our imaginations run wild. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher of war wrote of the power of knowledge, “Know your enemy and know yourself and in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”Knowledge coupled with bold action will bring down the curtain on the theater of terror.