As the Sydney siege shows, jihadis flourish even without publicity

Armed police are seen outside the Lindt Cafe, Martin Place in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Armed police are seen outside the Lindt Cafe, Martin Place in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Every time there is a terror-linked attack in a safe country – whether two weeks ago in the UAE or the siege in Sydney – two criticisms are made of the politicians and the media. The first is that they leap to conclusions: in neither case is it clear what inspired the attacks and whether there were links to ISIL or other terror groups.

But the second, related, criticism is that both groups give these actors too much publicity, thereby both rewarding their crimes and bringing them to the attention of a wider public. Such criticism is levelled even on topics that are clearly in the public interest.

Last week, during a global counterterrorism conference organised by the Abu Dhabi-based anti-extremism organisation Hedayah, one participant asked whether by focusing on ISIL, the media had given it too much attention and therefore pushed people to join it.

Certainly, the media and politicians can make too much of extremist groups, their actions and their spokespeople. But at the same time, both groups can also make too little of the extremists’ views.

In the case of ISIL, the oxygen of publicity wasn’t fuelling the fires burning in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the international media and policymakers paid too little attention to ISIL during the months when the group was growing and cementing its position in Raqqa in Syria and western towns in Iraq. That did not stop recruits joining ISIL. The lack of any oxygen of publicity did not choke off its appeal.

This was the point I made during a speech at Hedayah’s conference. The propaganda machines of these groups are thriving regardless of the attention or lack of it from the mainstream media – because the media, any media, regardless of its reach, does not own the means of dissemination of information. Those who are susceptible to the views of extremists are, in any case, not listening to the officially-approved narratives. They are literally tuning the mainstream out.

The propaganda of ISIL and other extremists groups is unseen propaganda. It occurs in places across the technology spectrum that most journalists and politicians are simply unaware of: message boards, messenger apps, sprawling websites. There is an entire shadow world of views and arguments and histories and narratives.

Far from focusing too much on what the extremists are saying to each other and those listening to their views, we are actually focusing too little.

What has happened, in fact, is that media and politics have limited themselves to thundering about the smoke of explosive views – the furious vitriol, the lofty declarations, the bloody beheadings – without looking at the substance. But it is the substance that needs to be tackled.

Ignoring the arguments of extremists has not made them go away. The threat of self-radicalisation, whereby people expose themselves to extremist literature and views has not ended. Radicalisation can occur without meeting in person.

The solution to that is more journalism, not less. More reporting, not less. By addressing the arguments, including religious arguments, that are being used to radicalise, these views can be pulled out of the shadow world. That will, at least, offer a counter-narrative where, at the moment, no credible alternative is being offered to seductive arguments.

Only by doing that can the real task of undermining and overwhelming these narratives be accomplished. Undermining them by understanding what is being said and overwhelming them with an alternative view.

That will take a more connected effort involving politicians, the media and religious leaders. But it will also require a recognition that very little has been done to understand why extremism is flourishing. For 10 years, the media and politicians have done their best to ignore the real roots of extremism – and instead of going away, the phenomenon has grown.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: December 15, 2014 04:00 AM


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