It is true that Paris looks like a battlefield, awash with the tears of witnesses. The videos shot on mobile phones are also reminiscent of war reporting. For terrorists, the enemy is the people or the individuals with whom they believe co-existence and fraternity are impossible. The enemy is not so much those whom we hate, nor even those we want to destroy, but rather the people whose existence does not matter to us. This is precisely what IS intended to demonstrate.
However, it would be wrong to describe their actions as acts of war. They are acts of terrorism. Terrorism is not strictly speaking necessary for those who are able to wage war militarily or economically. On the contrary – traditionally it is the tool of those who do not have the necessary resources or opportunities. Terrorism is used when there is no direct way to topple a regime, when there are no tactical, financial or military resources to destroy the apparatus of state, and generally when not enough tools of conventional warfare are available. Terrorism is the weapon of the poorly armed. This is part of the fascination that it sometimes holds. It is also the reason why it is so shocking when it breaks out: a danger that seemed distant or slight suddenly becomes real and sometimes fatal.
Terrorism as a communication tool
So what is the aim of terrorism? Contrary to what the term suggests, the aim is not to instil terror as such. Terror is not the final objective of terrorists, but rather just a means to an end. Terrorism may also have the objective of evoking anger, disgust or sometimes even admiration. Strange or inappropriate as this may seem to its victims, terrorism is above all a communication tool, a rhetorical technique. Its primary aim is to communicate a message and to influence the emotions and opinions of those on the receiving end. Bodies are attacked to reach the hearts and minds of the enemy who is targeted: even if a politician is killed or a factory is destroyed, the terrorism is not aimed at the target itself but at the public, who will be distressed by the murderous operation.
Terrorist acts may target people, places or infrastructure. However, unlike military targets, their targets are used as metonyms.1 War cares little for human lives, as they are just bargaining chips. Terrorism does not care about them at all, as they are just a means to attract followers. For IS the shootings in the Bataclan in Paris represent a new version of the execution videos they have posted from distant countries. These execution videos are in fact no more and no less than a particularly effective a tweet. In a way, IS is using death to buy media visibility in the same way that an advertiser pays for advertising space.
In this sense, IS is no less “idolatrous” than the people they had killed inside the Bataclan: if weapons talk, it is so that God can speak through selected images. Staging what some analysts and jihadists describe as “organised savagery” has a greater value than its direct content. The merciless fight for religious purity does not just involve playing with the rules of the society of spectacle, but in fact observing them. If death is the terrorists’ profession, these killings are just an episode.
Communication to serve an end
Having considered the rhetorical function of this terrorism, it is useful to reflect on what IS hopes to obtain from Western public opinion.
The IS statement claiming responsibility for the terrorist attacks of 13th November 2015 declares “Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign, as long as they dare to curse our Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), and as long as they boast about their war against Islam in France […]. Indeed, this is just the beginning. It is also a warning for any who wish to take heed.” These words are intended to communicate the convictions of IS’s political programme to the public. However, they also have a strategic objective and an element of showmanship. These intentions are expressed mainly to influence the perception of those receiving the message and to change their reaction to the political choices presented to them.
Firstly, IS wants to convince a Western audience that they are at war, and this statement is all the more dangerous because it is true. It is true because France, along with other countries such as Belgium, has been waging war on IS for several years now, in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.2 Whatever the reasons, good or bad, for engaging in this conflict, the public can now see that it is not just something covered on the TV news or as a budget item. It is a real conflict, with casualties, complex causes and almost inevitable impasses. War cannot be waged without risk. This rhetoric also aims to confront French political leaders and the public as a whole with an impossible dilemma, a choice between two bad solutions. In this case, the terrorist attacks of November 13th aim to convince people that the war against IS is both counter-productive and unjust but the war that IS is waging against the West is inevitable. Terrorist acts are intended to give the impression that one can only choose between making war and refusing to do so, and that each of these two options is doomed to disaster.
Secondly, IS wants to silence people. For example, unlike the terrorist acts of the Years of Lead3, the terrorist attacks of November 13th were not intended to sway public opinion in favour of the ideas espoused by IS. The recording claiming responsibility for the terrorist attacks does not call for insurrection among Muslims in France, nor does it call on them to join the ranks of IS. It does not call on the heathens to convert either. In fact, the terrorist attacks are not intended to convince or indoctrinate people, but to impose the political analysis of IS.
On one hand it is a reminder that dialogue is possible between warring parties: we are supposedly not just engaged in a conflict of values or interests, but in a decisive full-scale war between two foreign and entirely separate forms of humanity. This war forces everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, to choose a side. The nature of the situation would also mean that this choice would be absolute and definitive.
At the same time, these terrorist attacks aim to paralyse political discourse. In fact, silencing people does not necessarily mean cutting off all communication: it is sufficient to transform communication into indistinct noise. Thus the Paris terror attacks have various benefits for IS. They may even use terror to transform public debate into strident discord. They would then revive the oldest suspicion about the democratic ideal: that the government of all in the interests of all is just a layer of empty words hiding the reality of power relations and private interests. In this way, those who IS regard as fellow believers are encouraged to conclude that democracy is an impotent and nihilistic farce. Those who regard themselves as ‘autochthonous’ French would implicitly be forced to choose a stronger, more hard-line regime. The terrorist attacks might succeed in making the French “enemy” unite in clamour and uproar, revealing what IS believes to be its true face, as IS shapes it in its own image. The shootings aim to show that liberal democracies are moral and political charades and to make them adopt the IS political discourse: acclamation, inevitable war and transparent virtues. Thus IS chose to attack cartoonists and subsequently to shoot young people in bars or at a concert venue because these are symbols and the decisive historical factors4 behind what IS denies and rejects at the same time: the idea that free and democratic public spaces enable expression of differences, individual development and rational and egalitarian universalism.
Their rhetoric is therefore not just intended to convince people of something, but also to make them act in the way the speaker wants: it is intended to make people believe in shared convictions, to make people forget that the interests they believe they are serving enable us to serve ours, or to condition people to react instinctively in a desired way. In this sense, the terrorist attacks of November 13th are above all a communication tool.
This means we should now consider what is said and done over the coming days. From IS’s perspective, François Hollande’s declaration of war in front of the Congress of the French parliament is not just the first milestone on the road to defeat for the French President, but the first stage in his conversion to the rhetoric of ‘jihadism’. His declaration fits with IS’s world view: a virtuous caliphate is waging a constant war against the hypocritical and violent West. It also fits with IS’s political vision, according to which a society must necessarily choose between protecting freedoms and protecting the collective. Whether one considers them to be illegitimate or appropriate, an attack on liberties or a necessary step, the hunt for the enemy within, calls to bolster the anti-terrorist arsenal and the choice of sweeping political measures are exactly what the terrorists are waiting for.
This article was originally published by CRISP on the 18th November here.
1 A metonym is a stylistic technique involving designating an object or an idea using another term
that is similar: the packaging to represent the contents, a part to represent the whole, an individual to represent the species.
2 An Islamic state was officially declared on 29th June 2014. However it was officially founded as a political,
military and terrorist organisation in 2006. In addition to the countries listed above, IS is active in other countries where the French army is deployed, such as Afghanistan and Cameroon.
3 The “Years of Lead” is a term used to refer to the 1970s and 1980s when, particularly in Italy and Germany,
there was a rise in far-left political terrorism on the one hand, and the far-right on the other.
4 As shown by Jürgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), the modern
public sphere is closely linked to the development of open physical spaces, such as including fairs, cafés and clubs, which favour exchanges between individuals and later the emergence of the press.