Expert Gives al-Qaeda a 'B' for Communication

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Sunday, 29 August 2010


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A clearer message?

The use of violence as political communication by al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States, is "nothing to write home about," says messaging expert Franklin Symms.

The rogue band of Islamic discontents muddied its message on September 11 by making a host of elementary "grammar" errors, says Symms, a communications professor at Harvard and author of a forthcoming book on the topic, Violence as Communication: A Grammatological Reader (Alfred A. Knopf).

"What al-Qaeda had was a very clear opportunity to spread its message about western interference in Muslim countries but by the standards of using violence as communication, the group would by no means get an A," says Symms. "In fact, it would be a clear case of grade inflation to give them even a B, but they got some things right. So, all things considered, I would give them a B-, maybe a B if I were in a good mood on grading day."

Al-Qaeda's biggest "grammar" error was its selection of the World Trade Center, says Symms, who has provided consulting for other entities that have used violence as communication, among them Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories of Israel.

In Symms' analysis, the Statue of Liberty would have been a far better choice from the standpoint of message clarity, because the statue was a gift from one western country to another, continues to have a link to that country (with the Jardin du Luxembourg replica in Paris), and is a cultural meme with a very clear identity about the role of political freedom in the United States.

The "communicational shorthand" of the twin towers at the time of the attack, by contrast, was never particularly clear, leaving al-Qaeda's message open to a vast array of interpretations, Symms says.

"Was it an attack on the United States or the West? Was it aiming at international corporate influence of western companies or of global political institutions? Of course, we know what al-Qaeda's answer is, but only because the group had to release a follow-up message that listed what it wanted from the west. Well, from a communication standpoint, having to send out a release that explains what your last communication meant is all but admitting that your previous message was poorly communicated. Imagine having to turn in an essay explaining to your professor what your essay was supposed to mean! I know I have a lot of students that would love to do that, but, as I tell them, you might as well wear a neon sign around your head that says, 'I suck as a communicator' if you do that. In a word, al-Qaeda sucks as a communicator."

In its various standard (i.e., non-violent) communications, al-Qaeda has said its attack was in protest of the presence of U.S. troops in Saudia Arabia, American support of Israel, and sanctions against Iraq after the Gulf War. But some experts say the real motive was retaliation against the west in general and the U.S. in particular for humiliating the Islamic world by the measure of global cultural dominance.

Symms says al-Qaeda's other uses of violence as communication rate no higher than the twin towers attacks. He points to the coordinated attacks in 1998 on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 264 people, as a case in point.

"Do we really have a clear message of what al-Qaeda intended with those attacks?" asks Symms. "To this day we still say 'we believe' they meant this or 'we believe' they meant that. By what standard can you call it a good use of violence as communication if a dozen years later no one is really clear what the whole point was?"

Experts on the attacks say they believe they were intended as revenge for American involvement in the extradition of members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But these same experts also say the extradition issue might have just been a cover for al-Qaeda's real goal, which was to lure the United States into Afghanistan, which, ultimately, it did.

"What we have in the final analysis is a group that enjoys a global platform for communication but that squanders that platform time and time again, says Symms. "It's like an international bestselling author who, despite enjoying commercial success, can't seem to convey what he really wants to say. Sure, readers like the sex and the action, but those aren't the main motivations of his work. His motivations are deeper, but he's struggling to get that message out. That's what we have with al-Qaeda, and for that reason, they really need to go back to school and get some remedial training in their use of violence as communication."

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