Communicating with the Terrorists and Their Supporters

by Jayne Seminare Docherty, September 19, 2001

“Go back to work; it will send a message to the terrorists.”

“We need to send a message to the terrorists and all who support them and give them succor.”

These and similar ideas are circulating widely in the press. They deserve careful examination.

Clearly, we cannot communicate with the individuals who perpetrated the attacks of September 11. So, if we talk about communicating with the terrorists, we have a wider audience of “potential perpetrators” in mind.

But what do we want to say to them, and how can we say it so that they will be able to hear it?

Any act of communication involves:

  • The message we want to share.
  • The channel through which the message is sent.
  • The recipient who must decode the message.

To send a well-crafted message that can actually be heard as it was intended, we need to pay attention to all three elements: message, channel, and recipient.

Thus far, the attention of our officials seems to be focused only on the message and the channel of communication. Little or no critical or analytical attention has been given to the message or recipient. Consequently, we don’t know whether the message will actually be heard correctly, and we don’t know whether the message will have its intended effect.

The message is usually framed as, “Do not attack the United States, or you will suffer dire consequences!”

The channel usually takes the form of something that most of us do not normally consider a means of communication: a military attack, assassinations of key individuals, or other uses of force.

The recipient remains a vague and shadowy figure, perhaps shaped more by our assumptions than by careful analysis of the actual persons.

What are the unspoken assumptions about the proposed recipients of our messages? There is no single answer to this question.

Option One: We Assume the Recipient is a Rational Actor

The reasoning here is that our intended audience will weigh the costs and benefits of attacking the United States, determine that the costs are too high, and refrain from taking the action.

The Problem: We probably cannot create a punishment adequate to deter an individual willing to commit suicide in order to attack an enemy.

Option Two: We Assume the Recipient is Blindly Following a Charismatic Leader

Some policy makers and security specialists are advocating the assassination of terrorist leaders or a surgical assault on the “terrorist headquarters.” They reason that the followers will collapse into confusion once we break down the relationship between the charismatic leaders and the individuals trained to carry out terrorist attacks.

The Problem: This is a thinly veiled modification of claims about brainwashed cult members. However, past experience tells us that individual members of groups that are motivated to actions by revolutionary religious beliefs are not brainwashed cult members. In many cases, the persecution or assassination of their leaders simply confirms their suspicion that their beliefs are justified, their enemies are evil, and they should continue their fight. New leaders emerge and the organization may splinter into groups that are even more unpredictable and more difficult to track.

Option Three: We are Making Incongruent Assumptions about the Recipient

We may be crafting a mixed message that is based on incongruent assumptions about the recipient of the message. In order to gather public support for military actions or assassinations, policy makers may present a portrait of the terrorist as a crazed lunatic. At the same time, the internal logic of their proposed message and channel for delivering the message works on the assumption that the recipient is a rational actor.

The Problem: Neither assumption is accurate. The terrorists or potential terrorists are not crazed lunatics; they are passionate revolutionaries motivated by deeply held beliefs. They are perfectly capable of making rational choices about how to accomplish their ends (e.g., using weaknesses in the security system, box cutters, and civilian aircraft to stage a military-style assault), but they are unwilling to apply a cost-benefit reasoning process to the establishment of their goals.

Before jumping to the conclusion that a violent attack will deliver our intended message to potential terrorists effectively, we need to clarify our understanding of the recipients of the message.

See: What Motivates the Terrorist or Potential Terrorist?

Jayne Seminare Docherty, PhD, is the professor of Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.