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De-Branding Terror

Looking at terrorist organisations as brands may seem trivial, but doing so allows us to dissect and understand the elements and organising principles that make them what they are.
December 22, 2014, 1:30am

Photo by Menendj [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

During last week's deadly siege in Sydney, Man Haron Monis reportedly made two demands: an audience with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and that an Islamic State flag be brought to him. So despite the current debate over whether the Sydney Siege was an act of terrorism or lunacy, there can be no argument over the power of the IS brand.

Given the evidence, it's probable Monis had no direct links to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or the terrorist group itself. It's also apparent that he was an unhinged individual with a history of criminality, rather than a terrorist in the general understanding of the term. However, what Monis certainly demonstrated was an acute emotional connection to what IS stands for.

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Looking at terrorist organisations as brands may seem trivial, but doing so allows us to dissect and understand the elements and organising principles that make them what they are. It can also show how they connect to the followers and sympathisers who enable their existence and growth; particularly in the age of social media.

This is not a new idea; the book Branding Terror creates a comprehensive catalogue of terror brands. As its co-author, Artur Beifuss, posits in his introduction, "Terrorist groups are no different from other organizations in their use of branding to promote their ideas and to distinguish themselves from groups that share similar aims." Brands, as the universal currency of modern-day capitalism, don't need visas to cross borders; all they need is the ability to communicate. Likewise, terrorist organisations use branded messages and channels to expound their ideologies.

The group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has been building its brand very effectively. It began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, then transformed itself into the Islamic State in Iraq, then moved on to ISIS, and, in its most recent iteration, it now calls itself the Islamic State (IS). As Beifuss says in his book "a group's name, motto, dress codes and logo are also very important manifestations of its identity," and the evolution of the IS name speaks to this idea.

As more and more people from all over the world answer the IS call to arms, suppressing the appeal of terror brands could become crucial. Removing a brand's equities, from their names and symbols, to any other perceived intangible value, rather than adding to it (as George W Bush did with his "Axis of Evil" speech) could be a start.

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A recent 'de-branding' effort came from prominent Muslims in the United Kingdom. It's estimated that at least 500 individuals have left the UK to fight in Syria. This prompted community leaders to encourage Prime Minister David Cameron to refer to IS as the "Un-Islamic State (UIS)." The goal was to distinguish ISIS from peaceful Muslims and make clear that its claims to legitimacy are false. Moreover, calling it IS confers a degree of validity to the group's aspiration to statehood.

Another example is the use of the term Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), as officially designated by the US Secretary of State, when publicly referring to a specific terrorist organisation. However, depending on governments to tackle this issue alone may not be in the spirit of today's interconnected world.

With a reported total of over 3.3 billion internet users around the world, according to Internet World Stats, there's a growing opportunity for tech-enthusiasts and companies alike to improve people's quality of life by advancing their connectivity. Moreover, with such a large online segment, as written by Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, on the book The new digital age (co-authored with Jared Cohen), it is "possible to mobilise local virtual communities to reject terrorism and demand accountability and action from its leaders".

A hypothetical example: a chocolate brand, such as the café at the centre of Haron Monis' horrific attack, could develop an online plug-in or app that would substitute terror brands and their respective messages with chocolate recipes or promotional vouchers. This tactic could, simultaneously, contribute to de-branding terror as well as enhance the company's digital branding. Chocolate is not the antidote for terror and most businesses are not charitable organisations, so thinking in business terms seems like a good starting point to acting in social terms.

Terrorism is not a source of human violence, but merely one its inflections. Ignorance, injustice, and social contrasts also contribute towards hatred and aggression. But from being pissed-off or engaging on some fist-fight to actually killing people for the sake of a belief, it takes a lot of indoctrination. As Sam Harris writes in his book, The End Of Faith, "A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person's life. Are you a scientist? A liberal? A racist? These are merely species of belief in action."

Removing the beliefs, the branded narratives, symbols, and ambassadors (i.e. martyrs), the terror proposition becomes a lot less appealing. Although experiences, education, and foreign policy play crucial roles, marketing tactics and strategies have the power to commoditise terror brands, decreasing their awareness, disjointing their engagement, and reducing the number of individuals who are converted into such deadly ideological purchases.

Follow Sergio on Twitter: @brandKzar