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Terrorism has emerged as the greatest threat undermining the safety of nations in the 21st century. The attack by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001, demonstrated the colossal damages that terrorism activities can have on society. These new realities have increased the need to better understand terrorist organizations and their strategies. One strategy that is extensively employed by terrorist organizations is the use of mass media. Media plays an integral part in the strategy of any terrorist organization since it enables these groups to instill a state of alarm and increased tensions as the population prepares for imminent attacks.
The importance of media to terrorist organizations is best articulated by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who calls media publicity the “oxygen” that sustains terrorism (Muller, et al., 2003). With these undertones, this paper will set out to analyze a prominent terrorist organization, Hezbollah, with particular focus on how this group interacts with the mass media. The paper will argue that Hezbollah has been successful in utilizing mass media to achieve its objectives of spreading fear as well as attracting support both locally and internationally.
Hezbollah as a Terrorist Organization
There exist multiple definitions of the word “terrorism” with various nations preferring some definitions over others. The US Department of Defense defines terrorism as “unlawful use of or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives” (Hoffman, 2006, p.38). From this definition, Hezbollah can be rightfully regarded as a terrorist organization since it makes use of violence to gain political influence.
Brief History of Hezbollah
The establishment of Hezbollah can be traced back to the Lebanese Civil War which occurred from 1975 to 1990. Hezbollah emerged as a prominent Shi’a militia group whose aim was to champion the rights of the Shiite population who felt discriminated against by the minority Christian population who controlled key aspects of the government. The status of Hezbollah as a potent militia came about following the invasion of Lebanon by Israeli troops.
This invasion legitimized Hezbollah’s role as a military movement whose agenda was to stop the foreign invasion of Lebanon (Hamzeh, 2004). The prominence of Hezbollah was aided by financial and military support received from the Iranian regime which had just been formed following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This together with the group’s inclination to attack Western targets in Lebanon resulted in the group being regarded as a terrorist organization.
As the Civil War which had resulted in the birth of Hezbollah came to an end in 1989, Hezbollah did not disband but rather made the transition from being solely a militia to joining the political sphere. This transitioning was greatly successful and in the first postwar elections held in 1992, Hezbollah was able to capture 12 parliamentary seats. Since then, Hezbollah has distinguished itself from other terrorist organizations in that it has been able to effectively incorporate itself into the political system of Lebanon. Even so, Hezbollah has adopted a policy of global terrorism with the two primary targets being Israeli and American interests.
Interaction of Hezbollah with Mass Media
Modern-day terrorist organizations are audience-oriented and they rely on on carefully planned out shocking events that capture media’s attention. Weimann (2006) articulates that terrorist activities are styled to serve as messages which are communicated to a wide audience. Hamzeh (2004) documents that as far back as 1984; Hezbollah had a public affair unit whose primary responsibility was to wage information warfare against Israel by recording and disseminating news on the exploits carried out by Hezbollah militants. Hezbollah’s success at attracting media attention both locally and internationally remains unrivaled among terrorist organizations.
The organization holds press conferences through which it reveals its grievances as well as issues threats. The organization is also in constant communication with the journalistic community and it grants direct access to its leaders to renowned journalists to increase its visibility globally. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah who is Hezbollah’s Secretary-General and the group’s leader is a major part of Hezbollah’s public image. Nasrallah is a frequent spokesperson for the organization and he has even been offered opportunities to address the American public in popular shows such as Nightline (Lamloum, 2009).
Hezbollah makes use of film to further gain attention from the media community. The organization provides exclusive footage of its combat operations to media houses that are eager to air these graphic images. Lamloum (2009) highlights that visual media has been one of the most effective weapons used by Hezbollah in its war against Israel. In the War with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah provided many scenes of carnage that was allegedly inflicted by Israeli forces.
By use of gruesome images and reports that highlight the casualties of Israeli forces, Hezbollah was able to get people to be sympathetic to its causes. Since the footage provided by Hezbollah mostly consisted of bombed schools and homes, locals and foreigners alike were enraged at the perceived carnage that Israel was inflicting on women and children. The authenticity of the material provided by Hezbollah results in it being well received by not only the Arab media but also the international media.
The Second Lebanon War in 2006 demonstrated the power that mass media provided Hezbollah. The Hezbollah Secretary General participated in a series of televised interviews during the 2006 war with Israel. He made statements and threats against Israel’s warning of retaliatory action that would follow if attacks on Beirut continued. These messages were aired on many networks internationally, therefore, giving Hezbollah a platform.
The organization was able to manage coverage of its side of the war and it influences the views that foreign journalists held in the entire course of the conflict. While Israel was the greater military power, Hezbollah was able to manipulate the media in such a way that the organization achieved symbolic victory both locally and internationally. Lamloum (2009) states that despite the uncertainty over the military consequences of the war, Hezbollah managed to emerge as the true victor in the conflict due to its command of the mass media. Hezbollah continues to engage the media and as recently as 2009, Hezbollah issued a manifesto that outlined the group’s objectives and worldview.
The internet has become important information dispensing platform due to its wide reach. Hezbollah has endeavored to make use of this medium to complement its traditional media channels. While the internet has been employed by various terrorist organizations to spread propaganda as well as communicate, Hezbollah has exploited this medium better than most organizations. The organization has created multiple websites and made use of interactive platforms to appeal to a wide scope of audiences. Nacos (2006) suggests that “the internet is fast becoming Hezbollah’s most important mass communication tool”
Impact of Media on Hezbollah
Mass media has and continues to play a crucial role in Hezbollah’s existence and since its establishment during the Lebanese Civil War; the organization has continued to capture headlines around the world. Hezbollah has used the media to help project itself as “defender of the Lebanese against foreign invaders” (Wilkinson, 1997). The organization has therefore been able to create again a huge following in Lebanon since it is perceived as a positive force by the local populace.
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The media has been instrumental in the recruiting efforts of Hezbollah. This is because the audience of terrorist attacks doe not only consist of potential victims but also potential supporters whom the terrorists claim to act on behalf. This audience group needs to be impressed by the “exploits” of the terrorist organization. Mass media assists in this by showing the potential supporters that the terrorist organization can deliver on its promises.
Hezbollah has used the media to show people in and outside the Arab world that it can resiliently resist Israeli forces and even defeat them in battle (Hoffman, 2006). Footage supplied by Hezbollah has proved that Israeli forces are not invincible and increased the support of Hezbollah even in Europe. By demonstrating the kind of impact that the group can have in the Middle East, the media has conditioned a large number of young Muslim men for recruitment to the cause of Hezbollah.
Admittedly, the media has increased the need for Hezbollah to engage in even more violent acts and maintain footage of the same. Narcos (2000, p.175) reveals that “since the most gruesome and deadly incidents receive the greatest volume of reporting, media critics have charged that terrorists resort to progressively bloodier violence to satisfy the media’s appetite”. As it is, Hezbollah extensively records its military efforts and offers the same to the media. While Hezbollah reaps benefits from the media, it can be shown that the relationship isn’t one-sided and the media also benefits from the group. Narcos (2006, p.82) states that “the media are rewarded [for broadcasting terrorism] in that they energize their competition for audience size and circulation – and thus for all-important advertising.”
Discussion and Conclusion
Hezbollah has been very successful in using mass media to elicit support both locally and internationally and also wage psychological warfare. Lamium (2009, p.358) extols Hezbollah as being the most “organized and wide-ranging media structure of any Islamist grouping, Shiite or Sunni, in the Arab world”. Without media coverage, many of the terrorist acts perpetrated by Hezbollah would be wasted since their impact would be restricted to the confines of the immediate victims.
This paper has demonstrated that Hezbollah has been able to exploit the power of conventional media outlets and keep up with technological advances to establish global reach. Hezbollah is undoubtedly a media-savvy organization that has been able to harness the power of mass media to champion its causes. By using the mass media, Hezbollah has been able to fulfill its goals of spreading fear. The interaction between Hezbollah and the media has given the organization attention, increased its recognition and provided legitimacy for its agenda.
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Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lamloum, O. (2009). Hezbollah’s Media: Political History in Outline. Global Media and Communication, 5(3), 34-43.
Muller, E.R., et al. (2003). Trends in Terrorism. Alphen and de Rijn: Kluwer
Nacos, B.L. (2000). Accomplice or Witness? The Media’s Role in Terrorism. Current History, 99(636), 174-178.
Nacos, B.L. (2006). Terrorism and International Relations, Washington, DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations.
Weimann, G. (2006). Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press.
Wilkinson, P. (1997). The Media and Terrorism: A Reassessment. Terrorism and Political Violence, 9(2): 51-64.