Terror: When Images Become Weapons

19 April 2021

Terror: When Images Become Weapons, 19 April 2021

by Francesco Begoglio Errico / Photo credits: European Eye on Radicalization

Through a historical and artistic framework, author Charlotte Klonk explains in Terror: When Images Become Weapons how images of terrorism are used by traditional Western media, depending on the technological capabilities of society in any given historical period. The author uses the Rapoport model, which distinguishes four waves of terror: the anarchist wave, the anti-colonial wave, the New Left wave, and the religious wave. The author illustrates all but the anti-colonial wave in her book and exposes ethical problems posed by images of terror.

Terrorism Coverage in Late 1900s

By using concrete examples, this chapter discusses how visual representations of terror events in the media usually follow the same patterns according to a predictable sequence of representation that began to emerge towards the end of the 20th century. These patterns emerged following various attacks carried out by different groups, like the Russian anarchist group Narodnaya Volya which assassinated the Tsar Alexander II in 1881 with the aim of overthrowing the regime; the Irish republican group Clan na Gael or United Irishmen which, between 1881 and 1885, carried out a continuous campaign of attacks using bombs in England with the aim of instilling permanent fear in the population instead of assassinating private targets such as government officials and heads of state; and French anarchists who carried out numerous attacks in the early 1980s in Paris.

These anarchist groups adopted many tactics and strategies which became characteristic of modern-day terrorism, such as the use of delay bombs and the choice of targets which held powerful symbolic value. These groups, especially the Clan na Gael, believed in the assumption that the media would amplify the attacks, and this was due to the emergence of the illustrated press around the mid-century which involved the use of artists who created sketches based on eyewitness reports.

Much like today, these illustrated reports were tailored to different readerships. For example, the middle-class Illustrated London News usually refrained from publishing images of attacks from the 1880s onwards. Instead, the more popular publications like L’Univers illustrè and Le Petit Journal always tried to reconstruct the events as dramatically as possible. However, there was one rule which was applied and can still be seen today: the media generally did not show images of their own country’s injured and dead.

Generally, a typical pattern can be traced by looking back at these illustrated reports: the first pictures of the destruction (either with or without victims) were swiftly followed by images that showed active reactions to the horror and were thus meant to reassure (the deployment of police and rescue workers). Finally, images of the perpetrators’ arrests and sentences were shown.

How Hostage Crises Were Covered in the 1960s

For governments, the media and the public, abductions and aircraft hijackings pose far greater challenges than bomb attacks because their outcomes are always uncertain, and everyone involved is under enormous pressure. While images released immediately after a bomb attack provide a stable framework that helps the public realize what just happened, kidnappings often last for days, weeks or even years, and the situation is much more unpredictable and volatile.

Until the early 1970s, a surprising number of political abductions were successful, especially in Brazil and the Dominican Republic where governments obligingly negotiated with rebels. However, countries whose governments had adopted a strategy of principled intransigence soon saw the first casualties, as was the case of US security adviser Daniel A. Mitrione in Uruguay. The killing of Mitrione was claimed by the Uruguayan Movimiento de Liberaciòn Nacional group or Tupamaros, but the government was blamed for refusing to negotiate.

Like other radical movements in Latin America, the Tupamaros had the support of large parts of the population, but the news of the murder of an innocent person soon altered public opinion. In response, the Tupamaros began releasing images that showed their hostages in good health and in humane conditions, like the images of Claude Fly or Sir Geoffrey Jackson.

Although these photos initially served as proof to families and governments that the hostages were still alive, the targets of this new strategy were primarily the people of Uruguay. By doing this, the group tried to regain their popularity by demonstrating “humane” behavior.

In particular, the photograph of Jackson contains an element that would become quite common in the iconography of hostage photos during the years that followed. An improvised version of the Tupamaros’ logo was drawn on the wall behind the hostage. In order to include the logo in the picture, the hostage was positioned with his head lowered down, clearly demonstrating the skewed power dynamics of the situation. With this simple visual language, the Tupamaros established a convention that far-left urban guerrillas in Europe would adopt a few years later.

Red Army Faction (RAF)

In the autumn of 1977, the Federal Republic of Germany experienced a wave of abductions conducted by the Red Army Faction (RAF). A particular example was the kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer, the President of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations. The kidnappers soon discovered that their hope for a swift resolution was actually an illusion. The government was left with little scope for manoeuvring after the group killed four people in order to kidnap Schleyer.

Initially, the captors relied on an image strategy that was successfully employed by the Red Brigades (BR) and the June 2 Movement, which was to humiliate the captives. This strategy consisted of taking a polaroid photo of the kidnapped displaying his poor condition, which created a strong contrast with the official images of the kidnapped — those of Schleyer in this case.

The first polaroid image of Schleyer was not immediately made public. So, for the first time in the history of hostage-taking, the RAF sent video messages directly to news agencies at home and abroad. In the meantime, the German government had negotiated a similarly unprecedented news blackout with the German Press Council. For these reasons, the captors reconsidered their strategy. They took a second Polaroid image showing a composed Schleyer wearing a suit with his hair neatly combed. However, it soon became clear that the government could not be blackmailed, and the attempt to win public sympathy and create a wave of public compassion for Schleyer became a failed strategy. By implementing a news blackout, the government made it difficult for the RAF to achieve its goal.

In the agonizing tug-of-war between the RAF and the government in the autumn of 1977, it became clear how unpredictable the reactions to images could be in such situations. In fact, each picture that bypassed the news blackout and reached the public had an effect that neither the government nor the kidnappers could control.

Beheading Videos in the Early 21st Century

In the early 21st century, digital recording devices and the internet offered new ways of publishing images which presented new opportunities for terrorist groups to spread their propaganda. It was not long before radical jihadists embraced these new opportunities, having previously tried in vain to release their images via traditional Western media outlets from the 1980s onwards in countries like Bosnia, Algeria and Chechnya.

When the American-Israeli journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan in January 2002 by an organization associated with al-Qaeda, not a single Western news organization would broadcast the video. The perpetrators then uploaded it to the internet for all to see. From then on, perpetrators did not even bother dealing with Western media, and simply posted their images and videos directly online.

In the spring of 2004, the first video of this kind was posted online, showing the shooting of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, an officer of an Italian security company, who had been kidnapped by the Mujahideen Green Brigade of the Prophet in Iraq. At the time, even the anti-Western Al Jazeera news channel refused to broadcast it. Two months later, another video emerged showing Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi decapitating the American, Nick Berg, with a knife. In the following six months, seven more videos of beheadings were uploaded to AQ’s Al Ansar website. In these cases, the Western media only published excerpts of the recordings—omitting the actual killing.

Ten years later, in August 2014, the Islamic State tried to build on this dubious success by uploading a video showing the execution of the American, James Foley, to the video portal YouTube. Most social networks immediately deleted the video and, in the UK, it was banned altogether. At the time, Western media published the video as a pixelated still image. Despite this, a British survey revealed that around 2 percent of the population had searched for, found and watched the video in its entirety, which suggested that the jihadist strategy of publishing its material directly on the internet and on social networks was successful.

However, while the execution videos from Iraq showed blurry and shaking images from hand-held cameras, IS videos had high production value. The beheading of James Foley and the execution of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasabeh were carried out not for any other reason than for public fame and notoriety.

The public desecration of the kidnapped individuals’ bodies in jihadist videos of the early 21st century aims only at demonstrating revenge, increasing the perpetrators’ fame within their own camp and instilling fear in their enemies. The medieval tradition of pittura infamante — defamatory images used to publicly humiliate people — re-emerges with greater cruelty than ever before in these videos and the internet and social media have played a central role in this violent strategy that links al-Zarqawi’s videos to videos of the self-styled caliphate.

Government-Imposed Media Bans

As this book demonstrates, the publishing of terror images serves the interests of the attackers. Therefore, it presents a particular moral dilemma for concerned societies, which have no choice but to share news of an attack.

Caught between empathy with the plight of the victims and refusal to give in to extortion, governments have occasionally taken steps to limit the circulation of images. A few examples include the measures taken against the Tupamaros by the Uruguayan government between 1967 and 1973, which banned any reports of their acts of terror and even prohibited the mentioning of their name in the press. Another is that of the British government, which also strictly regulated reporting on Irish terror organizations during the 1970s and prohibited direct interviews with activists in 1988. There is also the case of the US government, which after the 9/11 attacks urged the media not to give a platform to Osama bin Laden’s news and video messages; and finally, the German government, which during the RAF abductions imposed similar restrictions, especially during the abduction of Schleyer. However, it is important to highlight that in every single instance where media bans were enforced or negotiated by governments, they touched on the right to freedom of expression. Thus, they have always been problematic and controversial in Western democracies.

The Power of the Internet

What is evident is that the internet has made it more difficult for governments to control violent images. Mainstream media is no longer the only platform for disseminating powerful images and, in fact, the internet has taken a leading and far less predictable role. The first instance of this was on July 7, 2005 when the BBC published an image taken by a citizen on a mobile phone of the London underground attack — the image was then picked up in the international press.

After this, the dissemination of non-professional videos and photographs after an attack became normalized and was just another example of how the most recent technological developments have made terror images more effective. However, societies are increasingly holding social media users accountable, rather than just the platforms themselves. Social media users are no longer just considered to be recipients, but they now contribute to the production and circulation of images. The world “prosumers” has been coined to describe this new category of people.


In conclusion, the development of the illustrated press in the 19th century gave modern terrorists an effective platform to spread fear to the masses. Then, the invention of the polaroid and video camera in the 1970s — which enabled kidnappers to circulate instant photographs of hostages quickly and without risky detours via a laboratory — helped them increase pressure on governments. Finally, the internet gave attackers opportunities for forms of self-presentation that, until then, would have been impossible to circulate to a wider public.

This book effectively documents — using numerous images published over time by the western media — how terror images spark reactions that often cannot be predicted, neither by the attacker, the government, the traditional media or society. It also illustrates how the age of social media has turned consumers into prosumers and has blurred the lines as to who bears the responsibility for the dissemination of violent images.

Certainly, with social media terrorists can “go on stage” and “perform” gaining instant notoriety. The first case of this was in June 2016 when an attacker in Magnaville killed two French policemen. The attacker posted live footage of himself and his victims on Facebook, while negotiating with members of the special forces. Then, in March 2019, a terrorist gunned down 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The gunman live-streamed his attack on Facebook, behaving as if he were a soldier from the video game Call of Duty.

These examples in the book show us how modern-day terrorists can effectively exploit social media to further their cause and gain instant fame. This development leaves society with several important questions: How should we interact with such images? How can we combat the spread of violent videos? These are some of the challenges that we are confronted with, and that media companies and governments are grappling with, and this book equips readers with a good foundation to begin to answer these questions.

European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.

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