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How the West is helping ISIS wage its psychological terror campaign

In the late 19th century, Johann Most argued that the violence of an anarchist group’s retaliation against the established state order should be publicized because “we preach not only action in and for itself, but also action as propaganda.”

This strategy has since been dubbed “propaganda of the deed,” and has helped to steer and amplify the agendas of a variety of asymmetric actors across time and space. Interestingly, few have considered this tactic in light of global terrorism.

This is notable given that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda’s senior leaders have confessed to exploiting the mainstream media’s coverage of terrorist attacks to fuel fear and subvert Western hegemony with the ultimate goal of provoking an overreaction by Western states.  


Internally, the propaganda of ISIS’s al-Rumiyah English language magazine is used to sustain and fuel the ideological indoctrination of prospective and active sympathizers. Externally, ISIS arguably relies upon the West’s unwitting publicization of “action as propaganda” to influence the Western response to its attacks.

Globalization and the diffusion of both information and misinformation via social media have compounded the effectiveness of propaganda of terrorism with even failed or low-casualty attacks garnering significant media attention.

This has cultivated the perception that we are walking targets for terrorism’s seizing. While ISIS attacks produce, on average, far fewer casualties compared to past al Qaeda attacks, there is a growing fear that terrorism poses an existential threat to the American and Western European way of life.

In other words, the physical and psychological effects of ISIS attacks are no longer as interdependent as they once were. Rather, terrorism’s pathos-infused, psychological effect threatens to steer the United States’ counter-ISIS response more profoundly than the physical damage inflicted by its attacks.

As soft-target attacks continue to expand the very definition of terrorism around the globe — in airports and restaurants, Christmas markets and concert halls, boulevards and nightclubs — far-right political candidates are seizing the opportunity to respond passionately.

The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and France’s Marine le Pen proclaim that the sheer survival of Western civilization faces an existential threat from Islam. Wilders ran his platform on the campaign promises to “stop Islam,” ban the Quran, tax the hijab, and shut down all mosques.

Le Pen pledges to protect France from the “two totalitarians” of globalization and Islamic fundamentalism. President Trump tells a similar story, with his original executive order on immigration and latest extreme vetting proposal linked by the claim that the United States’ greatest national security threats share a Middle Eastern epicenter.

When these policies are evaluated in context with propaganda of the deed, the most important consideration is whether such policies…

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