The Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism is an international body – accredited by NATO – of military and civilian expertise in the field of counter terrorism, aiming to assist NATO in its understanding of terrorism and methods to combat it. In its first full year of operation, the CoE DAT received funding for two Advanced Research Workshops: the first to look at the traumatic effects of terrorism; the second to understand the triumvirate of the media, terrorists and the population that is targeted. Up to this point, the Centre's activity, both in its five-day courses or its two-day International Symposium, had been a unilateral activity, looking at a wide variety of terrorism related issues. The added responsibilities of conducting a workshop in accordance with NATO's criteria pushed the content of its activity beyond predominantly military training at the operational level to an academic, inter-disciplinary approach.
For this workshop, 'Media: Vital Ground for Terrorist Operations' held on 6–7 June 2006 in Ankara, Turkey, the approach was to bring the experiences of western media, military media operations experts and contemporary academic expertise in terrorism together. As the title suggests, the workshop commenced on the premise that in contemporary conflict, – 'war amongst the people'
Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force (Penguin Books, 2005, London), p. 3.
Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force (Penguin Books, 2005, London), p. 3.
The stated objective of the workshop was 'to understand ways that terrorist organisations use the established media to increase the awareness of their ideological goals, and how this may manifest in the Caucasus Region'. This objective fixed the debate in two ways. Firstly, though most of the presentations considered the threat of Islamic international terrorism, the PKK or the insurgency in Iraq, the organisers felt that it was important to focus the discussion during the latter stages of the workshop on a specific region. This served to concentrate the composition of the participatory audience to Caucasian, Central Asian and SE European countries. This use of Turkey's geographic and cultural proximity to the Caucasus Region, in order to raise awareness of terrorist use of the media to these countries, served NATO's continued diplomatic outreach into the region. Secondly, to limit the scope of the workshop, 'established media' was seen as those media with recognized editorial control, and therefore does not include the Internet (except for the homepages of the established media). The workshop was also based on the assumption, challenged by some, that the media can achieve changes of public opinion in the long-term, rather than cause brief fluctuations because of the public's emotional response to a terrorist incident.
The workshop was composed of five sessions, over two days, with each session building on the understanding reached in the earlier sessions. The first session, ‘The Evolution of the Media's Coverage of Terrorism’, was non-specific and looked at the bilateral relationship between media and terrorism, and how this has changed over time and, furthermore, how the media itself has evolved as a result of technological advancement. As modern terrorism is intended to influence the local and international political processes, the influencing of public opinions through mass media – the most efficient means of shaping politics – is vital for terrorists. Therefore a modern terrorist organization needs to understand the operation of the local and international news media and to speak in their language(s). The terrorist organization will try to cater for journalists and columnists, to supply them with continuous information, news items, photo opportunities, in order to achieve its goals.
The second session entitled 'The Dynamics between Terrorism, Public Opinion and the Media' was specific, and looked at this triumvirate within the context of regional issues and legal constraints upon both governments and the media. The international media's coverage of the PKK was questioned as to why it was not as detailed as other contemporary instances of terrorism were, especially during the first decade of separatist violence. The use of appropriate news media was discussed, looking at the phenomenon of Al-Jazeera in detail as a means to influence Arab public opinion by western governments. The idiosyncrasies of hostage taking in Iraq were also studied and, as in the case of televised hostage-takings, it appears that spreading the video, and hence the message, is often more important for the hostage-takers than achieving the political demands required for release of the hostage. Furthermore, the tactic of hostage taking reveals that Iraqi insurgents have a 'public relations' campaign intended to affect audiences inside and outside Iraq. Indeed, video footage of hostages had proved successful in forcing world leaders to withdraw troops from Iraq, preventing international firms from participating in reconstruction efforts, and instigating rallies against the occupation of Iraq in the hostages' countries.
‘The Struggle between Governments and Terrorist Organisations for International and Domestic Public Opinion’, the title of the third session, looked at an area where the initiative has traditionally lain with the terrorist. The media's increasingly global reach and its strong democratic potential for social and political engagement have led to some academic and governmental concern that terrorist groups may employ this useful tool to distribute information, promote ideas and publicize their activities. To counter this 'abuse' of the media, the ethical balance, codes of conduct and legal constraints that the 'Free Media' observe in varying degrees around the world were discussed. In an examination of some of the proactive attempts by legitimate authorities to combat terrorism, the British and American governments' struggle, during the course of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, to successfully harness the potential of information and the media was focused upon. Lastly, the balance of media's coverage of terrorism was addressed: whilst media coverage can amplify the public's fear and anxiety of attack, if well managed and informed, it can increase public awareness of the topic and ways to limit its effects.
The tactical considerations of the media's coverage of terrorism were addressed during the fourth session 'The Security Challenge to the Media Dealing with Terrorism'. This session looked at how media personnel are threatened by terrorism and the challenges of reporting in this environment; the role of the military was also discussed as a source and as a host for embedded media. The responsibilities of the press during conflict, journalistic values such as objectivity, and the relationships among the press, the public and the government, were all explored. Questions were raised regarding the media's own protection. Should the media risk the balance of their coverage by obeying the limitations as an embed in a trade-off for their own security? If the media seek to report independently on terrorism, who should provide protection?
The final session, 'Focus on the Threat of Terrorism to the Caucasus and the Media's Coverage of this Danger', examined the internal and external terrorist threats to the stability of the Caucasus by focusing on both how the Caucasian governments could reduce this threat in the region and the part that the media could play in this reduction. The ongoing conflict in Chechnya continues to destabilise the entire region and provides a focus for radicalised Muslims around the world, who perceive it to be another example of the repression of the Muslim people. The role of the media in promulgating both the terrorist threat and cause, and the tensions between attempts to impose media controls on the one side and the ferocity of subsequent attacks on the other, were considered key to a possible solution.
The natural frictions that exist between the media and the military provoked great discussions about the roles and responsibilities of the media during the discussions on the first day. Opinions varied, though were predictable considering the national experiences of terrorism. The lack of a common definition for terrorism was seen as an obstacle by many to portraying, and therefore condemning, organizations as terrorists. This symmetrical approach in politicizing the government's response has limited utility and is short sighted. Labelling its foes as terrorists may assist in legitimizing the government's actions against a non-homogenous and politically violent part of its population in the short term, but it will not address the long-term 'root causes'. Furthermore, contemporary terrorist organizations will happily oblige in using the vocabulary of violence, deliberately seeking the classification of terrorism, to spread both fear and their message further.
It seems that the priorities of government, its military and counter terrorism agencies and the media are difficult to reconcile, one requiring secrecy for the security of its intelligence and operations, the other requiring free access to information to fulfil its public duty. An extant argument to limit the freedom of the press is shrouded in transparent phrases such as 'ethical balance' and 'responsible journalism'. Yet the response from the journalist community is no more complex: based on values of freedom of reporting that have since been overridden by other priorities, namely deadlines and ratings. It is ironic that one journalist, in arguing for greater coverage of a chronic domestic security threat, asks why the foreign press did not seek to cover his country's struggle, in effect, wishing to dictate the news agendas of other nations to satisfy his country's national agenda. Such opinions make it quite clear that what journalists, military and academics refer to as the concept of free media are irreconcilable, and a consensus was not reached.
The dynamic between governments and media is not solely about control, and all the speakers did not wholly miss this point. Rather than seeking to impose the terms used by journalists, to restrict their movement with embedding as an unfortunate by-product of ensuring their safety, or to impose restrictions on press coverage, governments can seek to use more proactive, intelligent approaches. No government, with its agencies, can immediately counter the media impact of a terrorist attack. The terrorists have gained the initiative and have temporarily seized the 'vital ground'. The issues of the use of a long-term campaign in the media in informing the public of what to do in the case of terrorist attack, and how to help victims in the immediate aftermath were analysed. Anecdotal evidence of those communities better prepared for attack, such as Israel, are noted for the public reaction to an incident: people do not run away in fear from the site; instead they run to the site to assist in any way their training allows. It was demonstrated that a community bonded by purpose, its fears allayed by practical information, will be more resilient to terrorism. If governments seek imaginative and informative ways to utilize the media to educate their public, they are more likely to enjoy strategic success. Concurrent to this, the media should be encouraged to ensure that it reports without emotion or sensationalism. In short, the established media should report, and not entertain.
These recommendations would not be well received by journalists, even those with international reputations for accuracy and trustworthiness. Our keynote speaker was from one such organization, having reported from the Beslan school siege in 2004, he was most suited to speak at this workshop. An edited transcript of his speech is the last entry in this book. He likened his work to intelligence gathering, piecing together the tactical picture to gain insight. All networks claim that they provide 'analysis' from this tactical picture, stressed by deadlines and an immediate demand for breaking news. In truth, journalists have an unenviable job, similar to that of the military commander, who has to clarify the tactical picture in order to make decisions that will directly affect the success of his mission. His error will lead to tactical failure, and perhaps operational difficulties, but he will have received considerable training to increase the chances of his decisions being the right ones. However, the journalist is unlikely to have had military training. Such a journalist, with limited scope to cover a wide area, can only report on his or her immediate environment, and may portray the tactical incident as the operational picture, due to ignorance, time pressures or inaccurate information. Worse still is the phenomenon that the media's very presence may trigger the terrorist attack itself, blurring the ethical picture immensely.
This is an immediate requirement for media networks to acknowledge that much of their coverage is local, a snapshot of often intense suffering, that does not summarize the operational picture nor does it provide the much claimed 'analysis'. Military media operatives are equally at fault for not providing accurate and useable summaries to the journalists, to assist them in providing perspective to their stories. Military deployments do have a limited capacity to engage with local or international media, but this engagement is seen as a lower priority to the military objective in hand. Slowly, many commanders have realized that tactical success – very much in their gift to achieve – will not lead to operational success in contemporary operations unless the media have access to and publicise this success. Strategic success, by its very nature a political outcome, requires informed public opinion, which can only be achieved with the involvement of the media. The content and coverage of the media cannot be changed in a democratic society, so it must be embraced in its current, occasionally flawed, form. Therefore, if the media is an underutilized asset that requires assistance to achieve the balance that it craves, it should merit greater resources at the government's disposal. This would ensure that the established media is in a position, if it chooses, to counter the terrorists' message.
Maj. Peter CORCORAN, COE-DAT, Ankara