What Do Terrorists and Tesco Have in Common?
Apr 30 2013
The Hezbollah logo. (Image via)
Imagine Hezbollah's leadership gathering around a screen in a Beirut graphic design studio to shout about which hue of green they want their logo to be. It might seem an odd scenario, but the importance of branding to terrorist groups hasn't changed in centuries and still remains a vital part of their overall package. All the weapons and wailing in the world don't mean shit without a pretty logo.
Because while bomb threats, suicide attacks and political assassinations do a good job of drumming up that initial wave of fear, it's the logos stuck up on flags and billboards that stick in people's minds. Obviously, the slogans aren't quite as catchy as your average high street retailer – al-Qaeda's “And fight them until there is no more disbelief and worship is for Allah alone" doesn't trip off the tongue quite like "Every little helps" – but they all have the same effect. Only one happens to be advertising death, the other very reasonable prices on carrots.
Artur Beifuss, a former United Nations counter-terrorism analyst, teamed up with his friend, art director Francesco Bellini, to dismantle the iconography of various terror organisations around the world for their beautiful book, Branding Terror. I wanted to know what a logo can tell us about the terrorist group it belongs to, so I caught up with Artur to find out.
The Hamas logo deconstructed and analysed. Image courtesy of Merrell Publishing. (Click to enlarge)
VICE: Hi Artur. So what did you learn about terrorist logos while putting the book together? Are there particular themes running through a lot of them?
Artur Beifuss: Yeah, there are often similar elements: crossed rifles, maps, books, animals of prey, flags. The weapon symbolises their belief in armed struggle. If they add a pre-modern weapon, like a sabre, then it's most likely a historical reference to the pre-modern fight. This is a way to remind us about a historical cause and, at the same time, legitimise their violence historically. Wording most of the time is from a holy book –- in the case of Islam, it's believed to be the word of Allah, which legitimises their actions religiously. A map either locates the group or tells us something about the direction of their fight.
Another very interesting way to locate the group is from them using the specific rifles of the respective national army. For example, the Federazione Anarchica Informale (FAI) [Informal Anarchist Federation] logo features two Berettas – the SC70 and SC90 – used by the Italian army. The RAF [Red Army Faction] logo features the German Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun.
The Tamil Tigers logo. Image courtesy of Merrell Publishing.
Okay. So how do all these elements align with the groups' ideologies?
Colours are very important. Red, for example – more often than not – represents a socialist or communist ideology. Green often stands for an ideology rooted in Islam. The more elements the group uses, the better they can communicate their ideology to the target population or potential new followers.
How important is a logo to a terrorist group? As much as it is to, say, a high street brand?
Theoretically, a terrorist group isn't different from a high street brand in terms of their branding needs, and a logo is a part of that. Both need to differentiate from other groups or brands. The follower or customer should be able to recognise what you as a group or brand stand for. Islamist? White-supremacist? Left-wing Marxist? Or Left-wing Maoist?
So they're very important, essentially?
Yeah. Terrorism is primarily audience-oriented. It's not just an act of physical violence, it’s psychological warfare. It’s a strategy to change people's behaviour, not only by using violence, but also playing with their fear. Theoretically, terrorism must produce such a level of intimidation within the target population that they respond to the terrorists' demands or objectives.
The Ulster Freedom Fighters logo. Image courtesy of Merrell Publishing.
Can you give me an example?
Imagine you're wandering around Beirut and all of a sudden you see a Hezbollah logo. And then you see a couple more. What do you do? Seeing the logo as a sign would tell you what to expect: Hezbollah controlled territory. Perceiving it as a symbol of terrorism, you immediately should start feeling fear and become anxious. Maybe you even turn around and go back to your hotel.
So the logos are a communication tool.
Exactly. Logos serve as a communication and marketing tool. Critics could say that marketing and branding are so-called Western concepts and at odds with many groups' aims, especially when we speak about Islamist and communist groups. But I would disagree – branding is a neutral tool. As Steven Heller, who’s the former art director of the New York Times, puts it in his foreword to my book: "A logo is an essential point of contact between any organisation or movement and the public." Logos serve as badges that bind disparate individuals into a powerful and unified group.
Do you have any insight into the creation of the logos?
In some instances, I've been able to track down the name of the designer. However, I wasn't able to independently verify this information. On top of that, terrorist groups don't usually make information about their members public, since the association of a person with the group – designer or fighter – would result in them being detained in prison or being put on the radar of law enforcement agencies.
The Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) logo. Image courtesy of Merrell Publishing.
Are there any particular logos in your book that stand out to you?
I personally find the Hezbollah logo remarkable. It is perfectly designed, done by a professional designer. It is well referenced and brings their message and brand promise across. Above the logo in red it says, "The Party of God [the literal meaning of 'Hezbollah'] will be victorious." It's taken directly from the Qur'an.
It does look pretty cool. Are there any instances where terrorist logos have been adopted by others?
Yes, apparently this Italian amateur league team changes their name every year. In 2008, they decided to name themselves "Zassbollah", a combination of "Hezbollah" and the captain's name, Luigi Zasso. They also adopted parts of the logo – the upward lifted arm holding a rifle and the globe in Hezbollah's logo was replaced with a ball. I watched an interview with one of the players on Al-Manar, Hezbollah's TV channel, and he said that they decided to adopt the name because they were influenced by the strong fighting spirit and by the spirit of resistance. For them, it wasn't a political matter, just a way to inflict fear on their opponents.
Crazy. What's the most important thing you’ve discovered from making this book?
A logo sometimes says more about the self-understanding of the group than a 20-page document from a think tank or government. Sometimes.
Okay, thanks Artur!
Branding Terror is available now and you can get it here.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements
Some of the groups mentioned here doing their thing:
Watch - Hezbollah's Propaganda War