Jon B. Alterman
of kidnappings and beheadings flowed out of Iraq this summer,
it was easy to assume that Iraq had fallen into a state of primordial
chaos. The brutal forces of tribalism and barbarity appeared
to be triumphing, and the modern appeared to be giving way to
Such a reading
misses much of what is important in present-day Iraq. What is
happening is not a return to a premodern past, but a blast forward
into a postmodern future. In fact, many of these kidnappings
and beheadings are best thought of as made-for-television events;
a calculated set of actions and images directed toward influencing
a mass audience. In this way, the audience is often more important
than the action itself, and the symbolism is inseparable from
the strategy. Missing this vital point can lead to precisely
the wrong response.
All of the
kidnappings carried out in Iraq do not fall under this rubric.
Indeed, the overwhelming majority are never reported, and they
are the sorts of criminal enterprises that emerge out of lawlessness.
They are opportunistic, private efforts to make a buck, and
they can be controlled through effective policing.
another kind of violence is becoming more common in Iraq. Increasingly,
kidnappings and executions are carried out with elaborate staging
meant to demonstrate the power of the kidnappers and the weakness
of the kidnapped. Startling images find their way onto videotapes,
satellite television, and streaming Internet video. The most
important audiences for these messages are the Iraqi and Arab
publics, who often see themselves as being surrounded by a feckless
and passive leadership. While many Iraqis are dissatisfied with
the status quo, the groups under arms articulate the public's
grievances and take action to force others to address them.
They show themselves to be men of action and not mere talk,
men who take to the ramparts rather than huddle and hide.
and executioners embody the frustration of their audiences and
project a commitment to strength and a demand for respect. They
do not seek to construct a detailed political plan for their
nation's future, and they have no desire to win majority support.
The goal, instead, is to win the committed support of a small
fraction, the grudging support of some more, and the indifference
of most. Their embrace of anonymity suggests the strategic nature
of their goal: a narrowing political arena rather than a broadening
one. They seek to paralyze the majority out of fear and to compete
in a battle between zealots.
light, their heavy appropriation of the slogans and symbols
of the past is mere window dressing that gives roots and a feeling
of authenticity to what is fundamentally a forward-looking message.
Historical references serve to cloak rather than explain and
to justify rather than convince. On the international stage,
the goals are different. There, the kidnappers seek to weaken
foreign governments' commitments to remaining in Iraq. Seeing
the current Iraqi interim government as dependent on foreign
forces, the kidnappers and executioners seek to raise the perceived
risk (and thus, the perceived cost) of continued involvement.
They seek to play the hoped-for foreign exodus in two ways:
first, as a demonstration of Arab strength in the face of international
might, and second, as a way to weaken the current Iraqi government
and pave the way for their own increased influence in the country.
these actions are so clearly directed toward being represented
in the mass media, and because their true measure of success
is how the viewing public interprets them, a counterapproach
that relies primarily on the tools of the military or law enforcement
is insufficient. Instead, those seeking to defeat these movements
need to gain a better understanding of those same audiences
and to fashion countermessages that resonate with them. Doing
so should not be hard, given the stark departure that the behavior
of such groups represents from long-held norms of conduct in
Iraq and further afield in the region. The greatest mistake
would be ceding the authenticity card to such provocateurs and
fighting a battle with them on their terms. Such a battle would
almost certainly be lost. One can be under no illusion that
winning a battle for the hearts and minds of Arab publics will
be sufficient to make these insurgent threats go away. Eliminating
the violence and lawlessness will still require an extraordinarily
large measure of intelligence, military, and law enforcement
resources. By the same measure, however, the mere use of those
resources will be insufficient without a simultaneous campaign
to target those same audiences that the terrorists are targeting.
that not only gave birth to modern media but also presided over
the creation of media events, it would be ironic if we were
not to recognize them when we saw them.
Alterman is director of the Middle East Program at
the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington