recollect your thoughts
don’t get caught up in the mix
’cause the media
…is full of dirty tricks
Robert Stethem’s body slapped against the pebbled macadam of Beirut’s International Airport as the engines of TWA Flight 847 were brought to a whirring stop by the dark Mediterranean air. Stethem, a diver in the United States Navy, had been a passenger on the Boeing 727 when it was hijacked en route from Athens to Rome by two terrorists tied to various factions within Lebanon.
Stethem was already in bad shape when Flight 847 landed in Beiruit. Earlier during a refueling stop his hands were bound with bungee cords and he was dragged from the airplane for a beating severe enough to break every one of his ribs, a successful attempt to persuade the authorities to refuel the terrorist-controlled plane.
After Stethem’s beating the authorities caved, allowed the plane to be refueled, and it proceeded to skip around the Middle East and North Africa before finally coasting to a stop around two in the morning on one of Beirut International Airport’s runways. At this point the terrorists demanded that reinforcements be allowed to board the plane, but Lebanese officials balked. To prove that they were serious about getting their reinforcements, one of the terrorists pulled Stethem from his seat near the front of the airplane. Moaning from the agony caused by his shattered ribcage being dragged across the floor to an open door on the aircraft, Stethem was shot in the back of his head and tossed unto the tarmac waiting below.
This was enough to convince Lebanese authorities to allow the reinforcements to board the idling Boeing 727. A dozen men got on the plane, but of the twelve bearded boarders only one really bears mentioning.
Imad Mugniyah, who’d been instrumental in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks not even two miles away, ordered the seven passengers who’d been identified by their IDs as members of the American military to be rushed out the back of the plane into trucks along with four more who had Jewish-sounding names. The trucks slipped into the Beirut suburbs, TWA Flight 847 slipped into the early-morning light, and Robert Stethem’s life slipped into memoriam.
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TWA Flight 847 rings with none of the notoriety of Pan Am Flight 103 or United 93. And some would say that’s the way it should be, because when it comes down to it Flight 847 ended with almost everyone going home safe. As it will be later explained, this misses the entire point.
For now, however, there is yet another international flight that connected through Rome that’s not mentioned in the same breathe as the most notorious international flights. But it was much more critical to the development of modern Islamic terrorism than any of those more notorious and remembered flights. And almost any other event, really.
July 22, 1968 marks what is generally considered the advent of modern, international terrorism – the hijacking an El Al flight en route to Rome. This hijacking was set apart from the eleven other hijackings that’d already occurred that year, and every single hijacking before it, in that it wasn’t one of the “seemingly endless succession of homesick Cubans or sympathetic revolutionaries from other countries commandeering domestic American aircraft simply as a means to travel to Cuba” occurring so often at the time.
It was the start of a new trend. And it’s no coincidence that the world’s first television satellite had been launched into the thermosphere by the United States that same year.
Although the express purpose of the hijacking was to coerce Israel into a prisioner-exchange, El Al’s airplane was targeted because it was Israel’s national airline and so served as “a readily evident national ‘symbol’ of the Israeli state” which was “specifically and deliberately targeted by the terrorists.”1 For the first time, the hijacking of a commercial jetliner was an act of Symbolic Terror. The El Al Flight was hijacked by members of the PFLP, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – then one of the six groups which made up Yasir Arafat’s PLO. Diverted to Algiers, the passengers on board waited while the Israeli government negotiated with the terrorists.
This, in and of itself, was a momentous occurrence, because up until this point the government of Israel had refused communication with any element of the PLO. By forcing communication, the PLO proved its mettle to the people of Palestine and so it was instantly made the preeminent resistance group in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
This “de facto recognition” was fueled by the fact that the terrorists had discovered that “they had the power to create major media events – especially when innocent civilians were involved.” In the words of the PLO’s chief observer at the United Nations, “the first several hijackings aroused the consciousness of the world and awakened the media and world opinion much more – and more effectively – than 20 years of pleading.”2 As with most discoveries, others soon caught on to this novel modus operandi and soon airplane hijackings were the new black on the runways of this modern fashion of terrorism.
The major international media coverage created by these copycat hijackings inspired Black September, a group inside of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to take 11 Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Their assault further delineated the divergence of Symbolic and Tactical terrorist attacks as the events during what become known as Black September marked a further enhancement of Symbolic Terror.
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It began just before five in the morning, as eight members of Black September broke into the Israeli athletic dormitory – killing two of their targets on the way in and managing to take nine hostages. The dorm was quickly cordoned off by police as the terrorists issued their demands, threatening to kill one Israeli hostage every two hours if their demands were left unmet.
It was during this time that the black ski-mask would become synonymous with the terrorist, as one of the members of Black September was made forever a symbol of terrorism – preening in his mask on the balcony of the Israeli dormitory in front of the rolling television cameras. Finally, after fifteen-hours of terse negotiations and the bating of much of the world’s breath, German negotiators brokered a deal that met Black September’s demand for safe passage to an Arab country.
The terrorists, as per their demands, were moved to the airfield of the nearby German airbase of Furstenfeldbruck via helicopter. As two members of Black September moved to inspect the airplane meant to carry them to Cairo, sniper bullets raced in and took down three of their targets. In the ensuing pandemonium all nine remaining athletes lost their lives and all but three of the terrorists were killed.
Again, it’s not that there was no element of Tactical Terror – the alleged goal of the attack was to secure the release of 236 Palestinian prisoners and five German terrorists. However the attack laid heavier on the balance as Symbolic Terror, as the purpose of the operation, “according to Fuad al-Shamali, one of its architects, was to capture the world’s attention by striking at a target of inestimable [symbolic] value (a country’s star athletes), in a setting calculated to provide the terrorists with unparalleled exposure and publicity (the top global sporting event).”3 Granted the word “symbolic” has been added to Shamali’s explanation, but it’s about impossible to argue that the value any star athlete brings to a country is at all tactical.
Even though the attack ended with none of the PLO’s demands being met, it “provided the first clear evidence that even terrorist attacks which fail to achieve their ostensible objectives can nonetheless still be counted successful provided that the operation is sufficiently dramatic to capture the media’s attention.”4 And capture it did, as the events of the Munich Olympic games were covered by over 4,000 print or radio journalists and 2,000 television reporters – resulting in an estimated 900 million people in 100 different countries being held spellbound and waiting with a collectively held breath for the events to unfold on their television sets.
The potency of this event was not imbued only because the Olympics are the world’s grandest stage, but because in the early ’70s the mini-cam, the battery-powered video recorder, and the time-base corrector were invented. These portable devices first allowed reporters to broadcast live transmissions from any point on the globe. And the first of those points for many of them was Munich, from where they sent live transmissions into the homes of the world’s television viewers.
For hundreds of millions, the attack at the Olympic Games was not happening thousands of miles away on an entirely different continent. It was happening in their very own living rooms.
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Somewhere around a quarter of the world’s population is estimated to have at least been aware of Black September’s Munich attack, with most of them made aware of it by the television playing in their living rooms. Along with the Holocaust it’s the only real-life event to be turned into a big-screen movie by Steven Spielberg. The PLO’s intelligence chief explained well that a landmark act of Symbolic Terror had been achieved: “world opinion was forced to take note of the Palestinian drama, and the Palestinian people imposed their presence on an international gathering that had sought to exclude them.”5
Following this act of Symbolic Terror came the thud of international opinion, which was “virtually unanimous of its condemnation of the terrorists’ operation.” Many thought that the PLO had “irredeemably tarnished the righteousness of their cause in the eyes of the world,” and so at first Munich was seen as “a stunning failure and a grave miscalculation, generating revulsion rather than sympathy and condemnation instead of support.”6 But the terrorists of the PLO weren’t too worried.
Time, as it so often is, was on their side.
Just a week after Black September hijacked the Munich Olympic Games, the PLO released a communiqué to a Beirut newspaper gloating that nothing, not “a bomb in the White House, a mine in the Vatican, the death of Mao tse-Tung, an earthquake in Paris” could’ve “echoed through the consciousness of every man in the world like the operation in Munich.” The PLO understood the potency of the Symbolic Terror, going on to write that Black September’s assault had been “from a purely propagandistic view-point, 100-percent successful” since it had been “seen from the four corners of the earth.”
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And in the coming weeks the potency of Symbolic Terror was driven home even further, as thousands of formerly apathetic Palestinians rushed to join the terrorist organization. This collision of countervailing events was later paralleled following al-Qaeda’s bombing of the US Embassies in Africa.
Revulsion often can’t but help to beget fame.
Eighteen-months after Black September took not even a dozen Israeli lives came Yasir Arafat and the PLO’s proudest moment. In one of the more surreal gatherings of the UN General Assembly, since the appearance of Khrushchev’s erstwhile shoe, Yasir Arafat was invited as a guest speaker. He became the first guest speaker in United Nations history to show up at the General Assembly looking like a mangy hungover ferret brandishing a semi-automatic pistol. After his gesticulating address the PLO was granted special observer status, and by the end of the decade the PLO would have diplomatic relations with fourteen more countries than Israel. All of this with the death of only eleven men.
In the following years, the PLO would begin a rash of tactical suicide bombings against the Israeli state – exemplifying that once a persecuted minority terrorist group gains legitimacy and followers through Symbolic Terror it will switch to Tactical Terror to attempt to start turning the wheel of Political Terrorism. Which began to turn in Palestine and is still grinding haltingly away today, as each act of violence leads to reprisals by the Israeli government which draws more Palestinians to the extremist cause. Although it continues now under different names, they all owe their heritage to the PLO.
But perhaps more important than the impact within Israel and Palestine, was the example the PLO had set for the world. Munich’s horrible violence hadn’t just been watched live in living rooms across the globe, in the months that followed it was re-aired countless times – helping the contagion of terror to catch on and encouraging imitators.6.5 And so since inside of four-years “a handful of Palestinian terrorists had overcome a quarter-century of neglect and obscurity” and “achieved what diplomats, statesmen, lobbyists and humanitarian workers had persistently tried and failed to do” the rest of the world was quick to take note. Within a decade the number of discrete groups committing acts of terrorism either on the international stage or against foreign targets in their own nation had more than quadrupled.7 All of this change after just fifteen-hours of terror.
Fifteen-years-old at the time, Osama bin Laden watched the events of the ’72 Munich Olympic Games unfold on his television with the rest of the world. But it wasn’t until several decades later that he would groom and unleash his own ghoul. One that he snatched from the propagandist Pandora’s Box opened on that cold March tarmac, and which left the scent of cordite as the only hint of eleven lives.
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America’s first personal experience with this method began thirteen years later, in 1985, minutes after Robert Stethem’s shattered body gave up its final traces of warmth to the chilled macadam pressed against it.
Once the trucks carrying the hostages, all American males, from TWA Flight 847 reached their destinations somewhere within Beirut’s suburbs the terrorists issued their demand: the hostages would only be freed when 776 Shiites held in Israeli jails were released. Because of the seeming tactical nature of this demand it would seem that it’s an act of Tactical Terror, however this is one of the cases that serves well to trace out the fact that Tactical Terror and Symbolic Terror in fact lay on the ends of a spectrum. The most important point in proving that this instance of terrorism is evenly balanced is that, although it’s easy to forget, at the time of the hijackings Hezbollah was still coalescing as a group.
Today it’s widely held that the 1983 bombings of the Marine barracks were carried out by Hezbollah, but this is an oversimplification. As it was mentioned earlier, training for the attacks was provided by both the Syrian and Iranian armies, as were the plastic explosives used in the attack. And the attack itself was ordered from Tehran. Hezbollah, as a discrete group at the time did not yet exist as it does now. In fact, it took well over a decade for responsibility to be either claimed or ascribed to Hezbollah – for a very long while we weren’t sure who had carried out the attack, and no one claimed to have done it.
Elements that would eventually become a part of Hezbollah, but which in 1983 didn’t have a singular group identity, did execute the attack. But they didn’t act on their own and would’ve been incapable of carrying it out without the training and materiel supplied by the Syrian and Iranian armies. And so in 1985, Hezbollah was still struggling to define itself and gain support within Lebanon, necessitating an act of Symbolic Terror to help win adherents to flesh out the group’s ideological framework. The release of prisoners would’ve been a tactical victory, but that demand was more a moral justification for violence.
All that said, what this attack tells us most about isn’t the debate around whether it was more an act of Tactical or Symbolic Terror. It was, like all acts of terrorism, a bit of each – but more importantly it was a watershed event which totally shifted the media-driven calculus of context and perception which all acts of terror are perceived by. What the hostage situation following the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 changed lies outside this spectrum, and within the cameras, editing rooms, and eventually living rooms of America.
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Within days of the hostages being taken by Imad Mugniyah and Company, the three major American television networks – ABC, NBC, and CBS – deployed a “small army of reporters, field producers, editors, camera crew and sound technicians” to the scene of the Breaking News. Beirut’s American population had grown over the course of just a few days by eighty-five, all employees of the three major networks. This sent a clear message to the American public, that “no other news of any significance was occurring anywhere else.”8
As the days went on, the networks justified the presence of their personnel in Beirut by creating “news” to justify their continued heavy presence in Beirut. What emerged was a gross imbalance between soft human-interest stories mostly covering the hostages’ families back home, and coverage of real issues such as the Reagan administration’s efforts to reach a resolution.
Over the course of the seventeen-day crisis almost five-hundred discrete segments were aired by the three major networks, for an average of almost twenty-nine a day. Each evening during the seventeen-day crisis about two-thirds of every networks flagship news story focused on the hostage crisis, and regular programs were interrupted at least eighty times by news bulletins or special reports.9 In contrast, Munich lasted only fifteen-hours. And perhaps more indicative of the importance of this attack wasn’t just the sum total of the coverage, but the tone that coverage was taking.
The Reagan administration was eventually pushed by the American public to compel Israel to release 756 of the imprisoned Shiites, due in part to the tone of the media coverage. Combined with the soft human-interest stories that were creating news when there really was none, was the tone of the commentary which “repeatedly and unthinkingly equated the wanton kidnapping of entirely innocent airline passengers… with Shi’a militiamen and suspected terrorists detained by Israeli troops.”10
The bias of the major news networks became so wanton that a running joke among journalists was that NBC actually denoted: the Nabih Berri Company, Nabih Berri being the leader of the militia whose men were being held by Israel. This biased tone was not just a mistake made by the major American media networks. It was, for the first time, the result of the concentrated and well-planned effort by the terrorists. The terrorists intentionally manufactured a “perverted form of show business”11 through spin-doctors who met with American journalists. These spin-doctors, many of whom graduated with media studies degrees from American colleges, wove a polished PR campaign that was consciously and successfully aimed at manipulating media coverage of the event.
Hijacking, the fate of Flight 847 demonstrated, didn’t have to be confined to airplanes. By hijacking the media the terrorists were able to bring a crisis into the living rooms of every Americans for the better part of a month. Terrorism as “a violent act that is conceived specifically to attract attention and then, through the publicity it generates, to communicate a message” was brought against America for the first time with TWA Flight 847.12
And unlike the media coverage of the Munich Olympic Games, which was in comparison rather fleeting and taken for granted by the PLO, the extended coverage of this hostage crisis was engineered and manufactured by the terrorists who carried it out to both target a specific audience and be drawn out as long as necessary. Munich showed that the modern mass media had the potential to be an invaluable tool to the terrorist, and Flight 847 proved that the terrorists could actively work to use this tool to carve out perceptions that would be carried to the world.
This wasn’t lost on Osama bin Laden. He not only took the lessons from Munich and the hostage crisis that followed the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, he was – as the events following 9/11 bear out – their most attentive and inventive student.
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Well before al-Qaeda began to exist as just a shackfull of men loosely aligned around Osama bin Laden somewhere within the mountains of Afghanistan, bin Laden was keenly aware of shaping his image in the media. He knew that “the image of the rich boy living the life of the fighting solider played well in the Middle East among potential donors and recruits,” so he “carefully managed documentaries filmed of him to show him in the best light.” He also took pains to cultivate journalists who he saw as influential.13
And once Al Qaeda began to gain momentum from its operations against the invading Soviet forces, bin Laden wasted no time in harnessing one of the most potent and timeless tools of the terrorist. The nom de guerre is one of the most sinister and menacing concepts international terrorism has brought to the world. A “war name” gives a terrorist instant recognizably, and somehow makes him tougher and more menacing. A terrorist becomes something more than a man when he is given a moniker that captures the impact and deviousness of his attacks.
The most notorious nom de guerre of the twentieth century is probably Carlos the Jackal, the ruthless Spanish hitman. Born Illich Ramirez Sanchez, he’s responsible for assassinations and bombings in London, Paris, Vienna, and across the Middle East. Within this narration there’s been Omar Abdul Rahman, who had one of his blown-off hands replaced with a menacing hook, and who has been referred to as the Blind Sheikh. Even Osama bin Laden had been known alternatively as the Sheikh, the Head, the Lion, and the Old Man.
But one nom de guerre stands out when it comes to discussing Al Qaeda’s unstoppable commitment to the imperative of terrorizing by twisting the arm of the mass media mercilessly behind the world’s back.
Even before 9/11, bin Laden demonstrated his commitment to use the multifaceted lenses of modern communications to terrorize en masse by christening a terrorist with a nom de guerre that would make him perhaps the most important and heralded general in bin Laden’s unholy war against the West. Few have heard the name of a man many would consider al-Qaeda’s most capable terrorist, the man put in charge of bringing bin Laden’s violent revolution to an international audience.
The nom de guerre of the terrorist mastermind responsible for crumpling the West’s will to resist the revolutionary bloodletting that bin Laden is intent on enacting through manipulating and controlling the entirety of the world’s media will forever quicken the pulse and tighten the guts of all who hear it.
He was born with the name of his fathers. But, after swearing his oath of fealty to bin Laden and being appointed Al Qaeda’s chief press officer, he will be known forevermore to the world as:
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Al-Qaeda’s efficacy in manipulating the media isn’t at all bound by what kind of a job Abu Reuters manages to do. Following the attacks of 9/11, bin Laden’s right-hand man, Iman al-Zawahiri, spoke against al-Qaeda operatives being killed in silence, and explained that “by using modern communications the vanguard in self-imposed – and more secure – exile can reach out to the population at large without the possibly compromising, and lengthy, process of mobilization through grassroots organization and activism.”14
This conscious shift away from seeking to recruit new members in person and gain support through face-to-face interaction, and instead using modern communications to appeal to every one of the world’s Muslims at once suddenly changed al-Qaeda from being a group of men like every other terrorist organization and into an ideology.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the 3/11 attacks in Spain that followed 9/11. As mentioned earlier they were a direct response to one of bin Laden’s polished and well-produced messages that was manufactured for the mass media and which used September 11th as a potent source of legitimacy.
In the wake of that September day, al-Qaeda established a monopoly on media manipulation that has eclipsed the practice of merely hijacking the media that the early modern terrorism of the 1970s and ’80s practiced. Bin Laden had moved past this practice by actually creating and disseminating his own media. Exactly how he was able to do this has a lot to do with the nature of media itself. And, to a less-empirical but just-as-relevant extent, on the characteristics of the audience that bin Laden and the jihadists emerging in the currents left swirling around his grandest successes are attempting to harness with their messages.
Once they’re examined in full, it becomes obvious that neither bin Laden nor the prides of the societies he seeks to unite in his war against the West will be muzzled without a violent and bloody struggle.