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The Psychological Component of Osama bin Laden’s War

By March 25, 2003 No Comments

Osama bin Laden has exercised the right of any aggressor to choose the type of war he is waging, and in this war between Radical Islamism and (as he calls us) “the infidels ”, his choice is revolutionary terrorism. As he will depend on persuasion as well as violence to achieve his goals, bin Laden must be a master of propaganda as well as terror. How else might a relatively small “Non-Governmental Organization” called al-Qaeda, hope to destroy the West’s will to resist and expose Israel to destruction?

Britain’s Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism as “the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”. Although this formulation is close to definitions offered by scholars since the mid-1970s, it omits the widely accepted notion that terrorist violence aims to create fear in a target group far larger than its immediate victims.

Indeed, propaganda and terrorism are identical insofar as they both seek to influence a mass audience in a way that is intended to benefit the sponsor. But while terrorism has a single message — inducing fear and a sense of helplessness — propaganda can influence audiences across a broad range of ideas and ideals. These two components should work like a boxer’s two fists, responding to a single intelligence.

Revolutionary terrorism’s three essential ingredients are leadership, organization, and inspiration, the last being the key cultural-spiritual element. This goes way beyond normal political persuasion. The latter is concerned with concrete issues; it is the stuff of ballot boxes and activities within the existing political dispensation. Revolutionary inspiration transcends the conventional and demands the overthrow of the existing order, existing laws, existing beliefs and ways of thinking and their replacement by some higher truth. This must reveal the beauty of the promised land: it must justify the resort to violence by depicting the incumbent regime as deaf to reason and incapable of reform; it must cast the regime and its institutions as the incarnation of evil, because they stand between the people and salvation; and it must assure audiences that, with good on their side, they will surely overcome. These three themes – virtue, evil, and inevitable victory – dominate terrorist propaganda and are aimed at enemies, neutrals and supporters.

Propaganda works best within a nation, community or religion, because the sponsor understands the predispositions and habitual responses of the target audience. He or she merely has to play upon existing attitudes or grievances and redirect and sharpen them. Communicating with the enemy and the uncommitted calls for sophisticated inside knowledge. Defectors can perform reasonably well, but are unlikely to inspire. It is here that actions speak louder than words.

French philosopher Jacques Ellul argued that effective propaganda can only exist within a tightly disciplined group. “Without organization, psychological incitement leads to excesses and deviation of action in the very course of development. Through organization, the proselyte receives an overwhelming impulse that makes him act with the whole of his being. ” Ellul explained how action makes propaganda’s effect irreversible, how he who acts in obedience to propaganda can never go back. To justify his past action, the recruit must now believe the propaganda because he has broken old rules, values and friendships. The deeper his actions carry him into the world of reverse morality, the more dependent he becomes on propaganda to sustain him.

It is commonly held that, for all its disruptive power, terrorism cannot succeed against a modern democracy. In fact, history demonstrates that terrorism frequently does succeed, at least to a limited degree, by forcing the target regime to accept some compromise settlement demanded by the terrorists. The former colonial powers know this, and Al-Qaeda’s front man, Ayman Zawahiri, reminded the world that the United States had been “defeated ” in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia.

The theory of “the asset to liability shift” explains how terrorists can succeed. At first, the target regime resists terrorist demands, believing the status quo to be an asset worth fighting for. Although the terrorists lack conventional military power to match the regime’s, they may have more at stake. By hanging on indefinitely, inflicting casualties, causing costly damage, and maybe embarrassing the regime internationally, the authorities one day wake up to the fact that their presumed asset is now better termed a liability. It makes sense to be rid of it.

By their own lights, Al-Qaeda already possesses the trio of psychological assets necessary for mobilization and prolonged operations: an evil enemy, as defined by decades of Arab propaganda and reinforced by every Western military action; a virtuous cause, in the form of Jihad to destroy Israel and liberate Arabia; and confidence in inevitable victory in this world or the next. This unity of beliefs exists within an organizational framework that gives radical Islamism’s propaganda great strength.

For the US and allies, the requirement is to develop a trio of ideas and ideals that genuinely reflect the West’s beliefs and are attractive to the vast audience of the uncommitted. This positive response must not be a mirror image of the al-Qaeda hate-filled lies but a positive and honest message that forces hostile propaganda onto the defensive. Direction must be at the same level as the direction of political and military actions, and be mindful of John Steinbeck’s advice that the ideal act of propaganda is to identify one’s own cause with values which are unquestioned.

If I was to be that Director, my first task would be to persuade President Bush to drop all reference to a “war against terrorism” and speak instead of “Bin Laden’s War”. And upon that guilty head I would heap the blame for all the misery inflicted on this suffering world.