by Artemis Karabassi, researcher of the unit «Defense & Security»


Living in an era where the media are an integral part of people’s lives, it would be unwise to deny or to attempt to separate the role of mass media from terrorist actions. The rapid development of technology which reached its peak mainly in the second half of the 20th century has influenced massively all fields of international society and provokes their rapid alteration. For instance, according to Peresin, one of the most noticeable consequences of society which has transformed “is its openness as well as ever faster and greater availability of information”[1]. This fact has been massively exploited from terrorist groups which realized very quickly the vast importance that mass media has, in order to fulfil their objectives. Taking into account the most common critics and statements by several experts, it is obvious that for the most of them, the media are either “the terrorists’ best friend”[2] or as Margaret Thatcher once well said, “the media provides the oxygen of publicity on which terrorists depend”[3].

So far, several scholars have reached the conclusion that there is a symbiotic interplay between media and terrorism, as both tradition and modern types of media have supplied terrorists with all sorts of “oxygens” which are indispensable for them to keep breathing efficiently. However, scholars such as Michel Wieviorka rejects this interactive relationship between the two entities [4]. Therefore, the relationship between mass media and terrorism has turned into a subject of ongoing discussion among researchers and experts.

The present article supports the opinion that media are utterly necessary for the success and the existence of terrorism, as they supply them with all sorts of “oxygens” that allows them to keep breathing. To prove the aforementioned argument, this article will mention different types of mass media as well as real-life events which depict that terrorist groups cannot survive without media.


Before moving forward, it is indispensable for the purpose of this article to define the term terrorism. According to Schmid and De Graaf ‘terrorism’ is described as the combination of violence and propaganda; where violence is aimed to injure and kill innocent people, whilst propaganda aims to persuade and create an atmosphere packed with fear through the media speculation of terrorist actions [5].

Since the 9/11 attacks, scholars started to explore and to analyze more extensively the role of media in connection with terrorism, as they realized that the publicity of the terrorism acts had a huge impact on public opinion, on government decisions and on democratic values. Since then, several experts have come to the conclusion that despite the differences that exist among terrorist groups, all of them have a mutual factor: terrorists do not commit their actions randomly. In other words, terrorist’s mutual aim is not the real victims, but what they really seek is their actions to produce as much publicity as possible, in order to target and influence the people who are watching; the audience [6].

For this reason, terrorism has frequently characterized by several experts as “propaganda by the deed”[7]. In particular, the last decade’s terrorism propaganda attracts the attention of millions of viewers. They know better than anyone else that the gap between them and the audience can be only bridged through the publicity of their actions, and the tool that can deliver this aim are the media [8]. As Brian Jenkins properly remarks “terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening, not a lot of people dead… I see terrorism as violence for effect. Terrorists choreograph dramatic incidents to achieve maximum publicity and, in that sense, terrorism is theater” [9].

In other words, terrorists select precisely the field, the timing and the location for their crimes, in order to attract media’s attention and to spread their massage worldwide. The wider and more extensive the media coverage of terrorist attacks will be, the greater power and efficiency their actions will gain, as their message will reach a vast audience, creating an impact far beyond what their actions would have in the absence of the media coverage. Without constant media coverage, it would seem fair to argue that just few people would be aware of terrorist activities, the actors that commit them, and the reasons why they commit them. For instance, the attacks on America soil “were a perfectly choreographed production aimed at American and international audiences” [10]. The fact that the attacks took place in US territory and especially in places with vast importance such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was enough to draw media’s attention.  Terrorists usually choose to target symbolic places, in order to create a climate filled with fear and uncertainty for the future. Indeed, observing the results after the 9/11 attacks their messages spread fear and altered dramatically people’s behavior and their way of living elsewhere in west. Based on Nacos findings, after the occurrence of 9/11, “53% of the U.S. population changed their plans, including not going to work that day. In the days after, 9 in 10 worried about more terrorist events happening and about being a victim of a future attack”.

One the other hand, for the mass media organizations the coverage of terrorism actions consists of a boundless source of “sensational and visually compelling news stories capable of boosting audience/readership figures”.More particularly, especially after the 9/11 attacks, it has been asserted that media and chiefly modern media cover only news which has to deal with something unusual, dramatic and alarming; news and events that have to do with “terrorist acts, blood and the horror of the victims” are this kind of news that media, especially today, tend to focus on in order to attract more viewers. Traditional media namely television and new media like internet focus more on the image and on the actions rather than on the information of the events and thus they provide little space in which the audience can process and judge the information that they get. The tactics that especially new media tend to use in order to present the events more dramatic and thus more appealing to the audience, spread sentiments such as fear, hate and horror into the audience. This can, as a result, cause divisions between the respective government and its citizens who believe that its policies are ineffective to secure its people from terrorist attacks. What follows from the above is that the way that media tends to report the news and to communicate with the audience tends to benefit dramatically the objectives of terrorists. As Combs properly remarks “terrorism reacts to and uses the media in a fashion similar to that in which the media reacts and uses (to sell papers) the terrorist events”.

In other words, media has an active and an important role in terrorist events, a role that generates benefits for both sides. Both media and terrorists have mutual interests and both of them have profits from terrorist attacks. For instance, terrorists gain publicity through which they achieve the most of their core objectives such as recruitment, legitimacy, financing, expanding and of course to destabilize their enemy by spreading everywhere terror and fear. On the other hand, mass media benefit financially and also gain more power and fame as they publish news of mass interest. Both of these parties are engaged in a symbiotic relationship which generates multiple benefits for both sides.

Nevertheless, as Combs points out this does not mean that anyone truly assumes that “media plan or deliberately suggest terrorist attacks to groups or individuals”. What the most experts have argued since today, is that the ways that media have chosen to communicate with the audience and to cover events in order to be more appealing to the viewers have arguably transformed media into a fundamental weapon for terrorists which supply them with oxygen, without which terrorists would not be as efficient as they are today [11].

It is also worth mentioning that according to Nacos there is a “Triangle of Political Communication” that terrorists attempts to gain access into by drawing media’s attention. According to his viewpoint, obtaining access in this triangle is the “ultimate aim for terrorists”. This so called “Triangle of Political Communication” is consisted by the communication among the audience and the government where the media seems to be the only vehicle which can provide direct communication between these two entities. Hence, terrorists exploit and manipulate this triangle assuming that only if they commit terror acts will attract media’s attention and thus their messages will be noticed by both the government and the public. Therefore, by committing acts of violence, terrorists expect the media not merely to focus on terrorism attacks but also to highlight the political messages behind these actions. As Schmid and De Graaf accurately point out “for the terrorist, the message matters not the victim”.

However, the objectives of terrorists are not solely restricted to draw the attention of the audience and to spread elsewhere their massages. Besides that, “terrorists strive for recognition, for respectability and legitimacy in their various target publics”. But more importantly, by using the mass media terrorist groups strike  to “mobilize, incite and boost their constituency of actual and potential supporters and in so doing to increase recruitment, raise more funds and inspire further attacks”, as Wilkinson remarks.

In particular, terrorist leaders attempt to legitimize their actions and media helps them in this task as through the media  they have the opportunity to speak directly to people’s mind by sharing with the audience a positive understanding of why they are carrying out these acts. By having the force of history by their side and by using the power of media, they accomplish to motivate thousands of young people elsewhere, who in their turn they commit terrorists acts. And today all these objectives can be easily achieved through the use of new media.

Additionally, terrorist groups exploit also new types of media for funding purposes. According to Jacobson, the core methods that terrorist tend to exploit internet for funding purposes is through criminal activity and more importantly through charities and NGOS. For instance, several existing charities have been established with the explicit purpose to provide financing to terrorist groups while other “charities are infiltrated by terrorist operatives and supporters and co-opted from within”[12]. Hence, all these charities, which are tightly-linked to terrorist groups, have created wed sites and profiles in the social media through which they openly advertise their activities and they call their followers to make donations. Also, an alternative way to convince individuals to contribute financially is by using the infamous narrative that the individuals who are unable to go and fight for Jihad, they have as a religious obligation to support them financially.

So far, both old and new types of media have supplied terrorists with oxygen from whom terrorists tend to depend. Nevertheless, the traditional media which involves TV, newspapers and radio has more limited usage for terrorists due to the fact that it does not allow any direct communication with the audience and instead media companies are arbitrated between them and the public.

On the other hand, social media do not contain any barriers of communication as through them terrorists have the chance to communicate directly with their target groups. In other words, social media have excessively facilitated the tasks of terrorism groups as through them they can promote their agenda, they can reach everyone in any geographical region and also it takes only couple minutes to spread their news and their messages around the world. As Hoffman properly remarks the progress of technology and namely the progress of media has contributed to a point at which “terrorist themselves can now control the entire production process: determining the content, context and medium over which their message is projected and targeting precisely the audience they seek to reach” [13].Also, the new media such as the Internet has become a fundamental tool for terrorists as it provides them a number of different functions which are vital for terrorists in order to continue to breath.  As Mantel notes, Internet attracts terrorists for exactly the same reason that everyone else is appealed to it: “It is inexpensive, easily accessible, has little or no regulation, is interactive, allows for multimedia content and the potential audience is huge. And it’s anonymous”

Nowadays, terrorist groups are using social media namely Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and YouTube as well as the “Deep Wed” and the “Dark Wed” as a method of propaganda, funding and recruitment. For example, Telegram is one of the most infamous messaging application among terrorist groups as through the encrypted code that it provides they can communicate anonymously and therefore they can attract and recruit more people distantly via this application [14].

Additionally, according to the “Dark Web project” of Arizona’s University, which closely monitors terrorist content in Internet, it evaluates that “there are more than  50,000 such Web sites, discussion forums, chat rooms, blogs, Yahoo user groups, video-sharing sites, social networking sites and virtual worlds”. These web sites have longstanding contributed in the distributing content which mainly includes “videos of beheadings and suicide attacks, speeches by terrorist leaders and training manuals”, which may come from a few hundred sites [15].


As it has been mentioned above, with the evolution of the social media terrorist have found new ways to advertise their activity through the freedom of social media. New media and above all social media has penetrated our daily lives as means of communication and receiving the information as nowadays we base most of our knowledge on what they report and advertise on their accounts. One of the first and most infamous organizations that exploited social media is Al- Qaeda, which was also called Cyber-Jihad that have been found extensive use of the Islamic rhetoric on the social media [16].

However, nowadays the biggest threat comes from ISIS, a terrorist group that exploits massively the social media and according to experts it uses the most sophisticated methods of new technology. “ISIS is now fighting an online cyber war” [17], in which they are publishing high quality videos and its members manage online platforms and applications through which they strike to radicalize and to generate a new generation of cyber jihadists. This method has allowed ISIS to disseminate their terrorism propaganda and their messages to a million online supports worldwide. It has been asserted that ISIS through the most popular online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, attempts to attract thousands of followers so as to recruit its groups with more young supporters. In particular, as Awan explains “this is being done through images and the streaming of violent online viral videos filmed and professionally edited that are targeting young and impressionable people”.

For instance, according to Whitehead there have been more than 750 Britains who are fighting alongside ISIS in Syria conflict[18]. All of them have been influenced through online videos and generally by the use of internet and social media through which terrorists have the chance to communicate directly with their followers and to approach a wider audience, without which they could not have the chance to reach them. A good example is the recruitment video of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s leader who “has called for Sunni youths to fight for ISIS” [19]. In particular, in this online video he states that “I appeal to the youths and men of Islam around the globe and invoke them to mobilize and join us to consolidate the pillar of the state of Islam and wage jihad against the rafidhas (Shia), the safadis of Shi’ites” [20].

Furthermore, according to Berger “Twitter has been transformed into ISIS megaphone”, in the sense that ISIS controls thousands of twitter accounts through which they communicate and update  their followers about their operations  and generally they exploit it in order to promote “ISIS brand” although some of these accounts have  been suspended today [21]. ISIS members also encourages its followers to tweet hashtags which represent ISIS, which creates the hashtag gain greater publicity on Twitter. This has as result to generate the production of almost 45.000 tweets a day, and their hashtag to be in the top trend [22]. Additionally, Klausen claims that web platforms like Twitter are being exploited by ISIS members in such away in order to create a false impression that their group is more capable than it is in reality [23].


To sum up, in the light of the above, it is obvious that terrorists have a deep association with both modern and traditional media. It is also apparent that while the media have undergone substantial alteration due to technological progress, terrorism has also shifted in the same way by trying to adapt on the new forms of media in order to achieve their core aims. It can also be said that while traditional media has in most cases provided terrorists with the oxygen of publicity through the widespread coverage of their terrorist actions, new media such as Internet have supplied them with all kinds of oxygens, which allow them to breathe more efficiently.   In other words, new media has provided them with all different types of oxygen without which things would be completely different nowadays, as terrorist groups such as ISIS would not have been as effective and powerful as they are today. However, by having identified the ways in which terrorists tend to use media today, it could be also argued that this is one of the most essential steps for adopting effective counter terrorist measures and imposing regulations which could make terrorists starve from oxygen.


[1] Peresin, A. (2007). Mass Media and Terrorism. Croatian journal for journalism and the media, p.22.

[2] Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside Terrorism. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.183,

[3] Thatcher, M. (1985). Speech to American Bar Association («we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend»)

[4] Wieviorka, M. (1993). The Making of Terrorism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.43.

[5] Schmid, A., Graaf, J. (1982). Violence as Communication: Insurgent terrorism and the Western Media. 1st ed. California: Sage Publications. p.32.

[6] Jenkins, B. (1981). The psychological implications of media-covered terrorism. Santa Monica: RAND.

[7] NACOS, B. (2004). Accomplice or Witness: The Media’s Role in Terrorism. CURRENT HISTORY.

[8] Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside Terrorism. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.205-6.

[9] Jenkins, B. (1981). The psychological implications of media-covered terrorism. Santa Monica: RAND.

[10] NACOS, B. (2004). Accomplice or Witness: The Media’s Role in Terrorism. CURRENT HISTORY.

[11] Peresin, A. (2007). Mass Media and Terrorism. Croatian journal for journalism and the media, p.22.

[12] Jacobson, M. (2010). Terrorist Financing and the Internet. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33(4), p.356.

[13] Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside Terrorism. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.197.

[14] Andreeva, E. (2011). Role of media in 21 Century terrorism. Young Scientist, 54(2). pp.67-57.

[15] Mantel, B. (2009). Should Web Sites That Promote Terrorism Be Shut Down?. [online] Available here. [Accessed 30 Nov. 2009].

[16] Izberk-Bilgin, E. (2012). Cyber-Jihad: Islamic Consumer Activism on the Web. Advances in Consumer Research, 40(1), p.532

[17] Awan, I. (2017). Cyber-Extremism: Isis and the Power of Social Media. Society, 54(2), p.138.

[18] Whitehead, T. (2014). 700 Britons fighting in Syria terror groups, warns Hollande. [online] Available here. [Accessed 23 Nov. 2018].

[19] New Delhi Times (2015). Is Supporters in France: The Jihadis Next Door. [online] Available here. [Accessed 23 Nov. 2018].

[20] Awan, I. (2017). Cyber-Extremism: Isis and the Power of Social Media. Society, 54(2), p.138.

[21] BERGER, J. (2015). Tailored Online Interventions: The Islamic State’s Recruitment Strategy. CTC Sentinel, [online] 8(10). Available here. [Accessed 19 Nov. 2018].

[22] Farwell, J. (2014). The Media strategy of ISIS. Survival. 56(6).pp. 49-55

[23] Awan, I. (2017). Cyber-Extremism: Isis and the Power of Social Media. Society, 54(2), p.138.