In my previous blog post, I explored how al Qaeda’s “fans” or Jihobbyists contribute to the movement through online media production and applied it to al Qaeda’s Inspire Magazine. At the beginning of the post, I mentioned the notion of a “Fan-attack”, or an individual attack showing allegiance or appreciation for the movement’s aims, with reference to events in Boston.
Within a couple of weeks of posting the article, two lone wolf or “fan-attacks” happened closer to home: here in Ottawa and in Quebec.
The events in Ottawa and Quebec were not the old terrorism spectaculars of 9/11 and Mumbai, but the act of individuals who, for whatever reason, chose to represent ISIS through their attack (and eventual death). The losses from these attacks were tragic, but compared to other attacks, the number of casualties were low. Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau targeted symbols of the Canadian military and democracy. Though disturbing, the attack did not send a significant strategic blow to Canada, but like most terrorist attacks, a psychological one; for example, major resources or infrastructure were not targeted by the attacker. Conducting an attack in a public memorial site or a strip mall creates a greater sense of insecurity as it presents the conflict as moving from a battlefield to sites of everyday life.
These events were not carefully crafted and orchestrated terrorism plots by ISIS, but the actions of supporters or “fans” demonstrating their allegiance to ISIS’s ideas. Zehaf-Bibeau was not “Among the 93” “radicals” being monitored by Canadian intelligence who either intended to, or have traveled to fight abroad. Though Couture-Rouleau was one of the 93, he was unable to travel to Syria. Therefore, neither of them even received training from ISIS; Bibeau and Rouleau were for the most part, self-recruits. With ISIS’s ideology being condemned by the Islamic community, individuals like Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau often develop their own radical views online. In the words of Muslim youth counselor Muhammad Robert Heft, they receive guidance from “Mufti Yahoo” and “Sheikh Google”, so-called “experts” with limited religious knowledge who present groups like ISIS as a just countercultural movement with a religious ethos.
ISIS has a significant presence online and on multiple social media platforms where supporters can connect and contribute to the movement by ways of media production or attacks. Attacks conducted by supporters contribute to the movement’s narrative. For example, after the Ottawa shooting, ISIS supporters took to Twitter and praised Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions and presented the shooting as an attack on a nation rather than the act of a deeply disturbed individual. This small-scale attack is incorporated into ISIS’s narrative as part of their wider strategy including the defence of the newly established Caliphate from enemies, when there is no concrete connection to Bibeau’s actions and ISIS’s situation in Iraq and Syria.
In my previous post, I discussed the actions of al Qaeda’s “fans” using Jenkins notion of convergence culture, where audiences no longer have a passive relationship with media producers, but a more active one that involves repurposing old media and collaborating with other fans to impact media production companies. A similar interactive relationship can not only be seen between terrorist organizations and their “fans,” but also terrorist groups and mainstream media organizations, both through traditional media coverage and online platforms.
These small-scale attacks and the way politicians and media outlets discuss them are illustrations of scholar Mahmood Eid’s concept of Terroredia, which is outlined in his edited collection Exchanging Terrorism Oxygen for Media Airwaves: The Age of Terroredia. According to Eid, Terroedia refers to the “interactive, codependent, an inseparable relationship” between terrorism and media. Acts of terrorism and the coverage of the event are exchanged for the mutual benefit of each party; terrorist groups get the publicity and attention they need to survive and the media outlets receive wider reach and more air time.
From the perspective of media outlets, the aim in most cases is not only to inform the public, but to create a significant story. This may involve framing the event as a larger threat than it appears to be (this comparison of the shooting coverage provides an interesting example). This in turn benefits the organization being represented through the attack, who may or may not have contributed resources into its planning and orchestration. Media coverage is important for any terrorist organization. Coverage is so important that in their English-language magazine Dabiq, ISIS has a page dedicated to Western media coverage of their organization using statements from politicians and other officials to present themselves as a “real threat” (Al Qaeda also used similar tactics in Inspire). Terrorist groups not only aim to receive media coverage, but reuse and re-purpose the narratives from news coverage to make their organization look stronger.
Rather than existing separately, mainstream media and terrorist group’s media companies share an interactive relationship. Many have defined the “battle” against ISIS or their devoted fans as a “battle of ideas”, which has given rise to online initiatives trying to limit the groups appeal. Not only are online “fan cultures” sites of understanding terrorist movements and their supporters’ involvement, they can also be a forum for combating their ideas. Lone-wolf and “fan-attacks” are unpredictable and difficult to control. The coverage of terrorist movements and the individuals that act on their behalf is a complex issue. While media outlets need to provide information to the public, it is important to be mindful of the way these events are discussed and how this can feed into a larger interactive system where information can be re-purposed by terrorist groups, their fans, or even policy makers for their own aims.
Nadia Hai is a PhD student in Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication in Ottawa, Canada. Her current research area of interest is how extremist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS produce online media to appeal to Western, English- speaking audiences. She completed both her Bachelors and Masters’ degrees at the University of Calgary. Her Master’s Thesis The Rhetoric of Terrorism: A Rhetorical Analysis of Inspire Magazine focused on Inspire, al Qaeda’s online English-language magazine and the rhetorical strategies used by the authors to make the movement more appealing to Western Audiences.