Symbolism of terrorism

A propaganda poster from the First Intifada

Terrorism, in some of its definitions, serves to communicate a message from terrorists to a target audience (TA). By extension, symbols play an important role in such communication, through graphics that the organizations use to represent themselves, as well as the meaning and significance behind their choice of targets.[1]

Symbolism of terrorist groups

Terrorist organizations use graphic marks and insignias as symbols to represent their ideology, purpose, and goals.[2] These insignias are replete with meaningful symbols that communicate the message, purpose, history, and goals of the organizations. As such, they contribute to the creation of unique organizational culture.[3] A few databases exist which catalog the symbols used in terrorist images and propaganda, the most prominent of which are the International Terrorist Symbols Database and the Islamic Imagery Project. Also exist the academic research "Terroristica"[4].

International Terrorist Symbols Database

The International Terrorist Symbols Database is a compilation of insignias from terrorist organizations put together by the Anti-Defamation League. Published on their website, it features profiles of thirty different symbols from groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and others. Not all of the groups discussed are officially recognized on the U.S. State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, yet they all have references to attacks made by the organization. Each image profile contains a description of the insignia, an explanation of the symbols involved, and a detailed history of the organization's history, ideology, goals, leaders, and major attacks. Below are examples of a few of the terrorist images included in the database, along with the corresponding analysis of the symbols involved in the image.[5]

Al Qaeda in Iraq

One of several emblems used by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the adjacent image depicts a gray globe positioned in a black background. On top of the globe is an open Quran, from which a rifle, a fist, and a flag emerge. The yellow writing beneath the globe may be translated as "Monotheism and Jihad."

The flag represents Al Qaeda in Iraq's goal of creating an Islamic caliphate,while its color denotes the death and the militant means the organization is willing to take to achieve this goal. The rifle and fist are also symbols of militancy. By positioning these symbols on top of the Quran, the image communicates the foundation of their mission in Islam, while the globe indicates their worldwide ambitions for their goals.[6]

The color green has represented Islam since its founding. Consequently, the green coloring of the central image indicates the organization's tie to Islam. Similar to the symbolism used by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the rifle represents commitment to militancy, while the globe indicates international involvement and ambition for their goals. The Quran indicates both a foundation in Islam, and their goal to found an Islamic state that encompasses Lebanon and Israel. Finally, the Islamic verse, which is from the Quran, bolsters support for their activities by citing a verse that celebrates and supports those who fight for Islam.[7] The database does not analyze the symbolism of the seven-leafed branch,

Muslim Brotherhood

The emblem of the Muslim Brotherhood depicts two cross swords beneath a red Quran, both of which are placed within a green circle that sits in a brown square. Inscribed on the Quran is the phrase, "Truly, it is a generous Quran." Below the swords reads, "Be Prepared."

Once again, the color green, as well as the presence of a Quran, symbolizes the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Islam. The presence of swords indicate militancy, yet the choice to use them in the place of guns symbolizes the Muslim Brotherhood's connection to the historic Islam. The motto "Be Prepared" references a verse in the Quran that warns Muslims to be prepared to fight enemies of God.[8] The analysis does not discuss the quote on the Quran.

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

The central figure of the image is a yellow tiger, which is surrounded by a ring of bullets and crossed by two rifles. The script both around the tiger, in Tamil, and below the tiger, in English, reads "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam."

Eelam is Tamil for the Island of Sri Lanka, which the groups seeks to liberate from the control of the Sinhalese majority. The tiger is a culturally important animal that symbolizes heroism, militancy, and patriotism. Its centrality in this image indicates the desire of the Liberation Tigers to be self-determined and independent. The bullets and rifles indicate their employment of violence as the means to achieve these goals.[9]

The Islamic Imagery Project

The Islamic Imagery Project is a report published in 2006 by the Combating Terrorism Center, a division of the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy. At the most basic level, the report is meant to be a practical exploration of the meaning of various jihadi symbols in order to better understand, and counteract, jihadi thought and the influence of these organizations. The forward to the report cites the powerful role “pictures, motifs, and images,” as well as the emotions they evoke, play in gaining a better understanding of the message and purpose of jihad terrorist groups.[10] The preface explains that the authors intend to extend the study of imagery beyond the realm of art history, into modern symbols of violent jihadi groups, which they cite as the primary method these groups promote and reinforce their ideologies:

“Visual motifs accomplish several objectives for jihadi propagandists. First, they create a mental conception of reality for their audiences. The use of carefully edited images evokes existing emotional or historical memories, eliciting an emotional response that may be conscious or subconscious…. Secondly, they help the author, or propagandist, communicate a message, which is often a visual argument for something or against something. Texts and language, including imagery, provide interactive ways for jihadis to engage the ideology itself.”[10]

Critics of the project have deemed it oversimplified, arguing that much more study has yet to go into a symbolic analysis of terrorist imagery.[11] Others have deemed it the best interpretation, in English, of imagery used by terrorist groups.[12]

The document is a catalog of the 100 most common motifs in jihadist visual propaganda that the Combating Terrorism Center deemed significant. These motifs are sorted into five categories: Nature; Geography, Political Symbols, and States; People; Weapons, Warfare, and the Afterlife; Other. An example of a symbol from each category is provided below.

Nature: the Moon

The moon is an extremely important symbol in Islam which has astrological, religious, and spiritual significance. Jihadi imagery typically simplifies this complex symbol, using to evoke the notion of the divine and a connection to Islamic identity and, for full moons in particular, the afterlife. When paired with images that reference martyrdom, the moon suggests that there will be a heavenly reward for the martyr. In the example image on the right, the presence of a white horse and clouds around the man's portrait indicate that he is a martyr, and the moon evokes the benefit he will gain for his sacrifice in heaven.[10]

Geography, Political Symbols, and States: Inverted Currency

Inverted currency is a symbol that seeks to undermine typical power structures of Western countries. Currency is understood by many terrorist groups to represent Western materialism, power, and dominance. It is also an extremely powerful cultural symbol in the West, one that is closely tied to the national identity.[13] Consequently, the inversion of currency by terrorist groups, as seen in the example at right, is a symbolic way of transferring the power of Western nations to the terrorists. By replacing Benjamin Franklin with Osama Bin Laden, the image seeks to symbolically argue that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have the power to undermine basic sources of American power, and turn the United States against itself.[10]

People: Women

Woman are commonly a symbol of masculine honor, pride, and purity. They are often depicted as innocent victims that jihadi efforts need to protect from dominance and abuse by the West or other enemies. Often, women are depicted in images as innocent and helpless victims of anti-Muslim oppression, and in need of protection. The intended effect is to create a sense of anger and need to protect one's pride and honor, in order to spur the audience to anger supporting or aiding the jihadi movements. Women are also portrayed as martyrs, in order to make Muslim men feel a sense of shame and oppression that their women are forced to fight against an oppressive force. In this way, it serves to shame men into action as much as it celebrates the sacrifice of the women martyrs.[10]

Weapons, Warfare, and the Afterlife: Modern Weapons

Modern weapons reinforce the violent nature of jihadi warfare and symbolize the use of military technology to gain power and accomplish goals. The Islamic Imagery Project argues that depictions of modern weapons often serve to exaggerate the military technology contained by jihadi groups. They also serve as symbols for modern jihadi victories, such as the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, reminders that jihad resistance can overcome Western military dominance. Individuals pose with them to represent their association with and loyalty to the jihad movement, and helps them to construct their identities as participants in jihad. As such, they are understood as heroic symbols of participation in resistance to anti-Muslim oppression.

Other: Clasped Hands

A depiction of clasped hands symbolizes unity among the various jihadi groups and the Muslim community at large. The first example, at the right of the page, is an image published by Al Qaeda that uses handshakes to depict unity between Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups, creating a symbolic connection that ties various branches of the jihadi movement together. The clasped hands in the second example illustrate unity of the Muslim community as a whole. Each of the arms is a slightly different shade, representing the desire to bring the mission to bring the mission of specific jihad movements, which are often nation-based, to the international Muslim community.[10]