Terrorism as collective communication

By Kevin R. Betts

Recently, intelligence surfaced about several dozen Muslim militants with European citizenship training for attacks that may involve European capitals. These reports are especially worrisome because unlike previous threats, this most recent one involves individuals with unrestricted access between training grounds in Pakistan and various European countries. Western officials are currently advising vigilance among those living and traveling in Europe as attempts are made to dismantle the threat.

Research on terrorist threats like the one captured above have surged following the shocking attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Is it possible to make sense of these threats using this research and improve counterterrorism efforts? Recent work by Fischer, Fischer, Weisweiler, and Frey (2010) suggests that we can. They presented a collective communication model of terrorism (CCMT), which “proposes that terrorism is a complex process of collective dialogue between terrorists and potential victims about political/societal issues and aims…” Their model is an extension of the classic communication model, which comprises a sender, a message, and a receiver. In the CCMT, the terrorist as sender possesses attributes that influence the nature of interactions with the receiver. These attributes may regard cultural origin and motive for the attack, among others. The victim of terrorist threats is the receiver in this model, and also possesses various attributes that influence the nature of interactions. The message in this model may concern political or social issues, and is communicated through a threat or attack committed by the terrorist on to the victim. Fischer et al. (2010) extend this basic model further by considering ways in which the receiver interprets and responds to the message. For instance, victims may respond in ways that are conflict-escalating or deescalating, either of which communicates a new message to the terrorist. This often results in a cyclical process whereby the sender and receiver continuously switch roles sending opposing messages.

What is the implication of this research for counterterrorism efforts? If terrorists and victims simply take turns communicating opposing messages, then no solution can be reached. For counterterrorism measures to be effective, genuine understanding of the motives behind terrorist threats is necessary. Why do today’s terrorists feel hatred toward their victims? Why do they see violence as an acceptable medium of communication? By answering these questions, we may be able reduce the number of future threats, and respond more appropriately to those that still emerge.

Read more:

Dozens of Europeans in terror training (MSNBC)

Fischer, P., Fischer, J.K, Weisweiler, S., & Frey, D. (2010). Terrorism as collective communication: The collective communication model of terrorism (CCMT). Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/9, 692-703.

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts

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One response to “Terrorism as collective communication

  1. Pingback: On the effectiveness of intergroup apologies | Social Psychology Eye

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