Fighting Terrorists on the Marketing Battlefield

As the battle against terrorism evolves, it's going to take more than firepower to defeat radicals and fanatics. Understanding how these organizations operate, communicate and how to combat their new strategies will be the key to victory.

As Western military and intelligence agencies fight radical terrorist groups, it will take more than firepower to win the battle of ideas being fought in the digital battlefield.  Surprisingly, some agencies are now looking to marketing models proven in the business world to help them reduce the incentives and motivations to support, join and tolerate terrorism.

However, in order for them to succeed, it is important first to understand how terrorist organizations operate and how this influences their communications. Second, counterterrorism agencies need to find new ways to identify and reach those susceptible to radicalization. And third, they need to be creative in combating the communications strategies of terrorists.

Terrorist CEOs

The scholar Bruce Hoffman recently commented, "Terrorist leaders have become increasingly like CEOs, adopting the leadership and organizational practices of leading companies." This shift toward a decentralized structure, where terrorist cells are a loosely structured network of clusters, is the model of efficiency and flexibility. Al-Qaida, with cells operating in more than 60 countries and connections to several terrorist groups sharing a common ideology, is a perfect example.

Localized Marketing for Terrorists: Hamas

Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) provides a great example of how terrorist organizations market themselves in the 21st century. Classified by the U.S. State Department as a “designated foreign terrorist organization” and ranked number one worldwide by Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT) in terms of “Frequency of Attacks in 2003,” Hamas runs a sophisticated and creative online presence.

While the main Hamas site is in Arabic, it has links to sister sites in English, French, Farsi (the national language of Iran), Urdu (spoken in Pakistan), Russian and Malaysian. Each link and its contents are different and designed with the local target populations in mind.

This localized approach to marketing enables Hamas to use its online presence to provide detailed information on:

• The history of Hamas

• Hamas-sponsored activities

• The social and political background of Hamas

• Biographies of leaders, founders and heroes

• Information on ideologies and aims

• Criticism of enemies

• A news service linked to the Hamas Press Office

• Maps of the areas in dispute

• Statistical reports of daily operations

• Tallies of dead martyrs and enemies

• Downloadable material for children, including magazines and ring tones

• Recruitment

This is a slick marketing and communications operation oriented toward hot-button issues that rivals those of the Fortune 500. While the visual images may be of radicals committing terrorist acts, make no mistake: It is a sophisticated online marketing machine designed to win the hearts and minds of the disaffected.

The Internet plays a massive supporting role for these groups by facilitating their communications and streamlining their operations. The speed and power of the net to shape perceptions and influence opinions makes it a vital tool for terrorist organizations.

The ease with which terrorist groups can maintain an online presence decreases the need for the soapbox, as the Internet now reinforces and multiplies the message of the few through tech-savvy virtual media teams using videos, soundtracks and websites containing emotional and graphic images. We now live in a complex, multimedia environment where individuals, groups and populations are targeted by sophisticated online psychological operations.

A March 2004 report, by Gabriel Weimann of the United States Institute of Peace, highlights some innovative ways terrorist groups use the Internet to drive every aspect of their business:

Psychological Warfare: They use the Internet to deliver threats and disseminate multimedia content designed to create fear and panic, as seen in Iraq. A senior U.S. intelligence officer recently told USA Today that nearly all insurgent groups in Iraq have media teams posting statements and creating videos and Web broadcasts.

Data Mining: They use a sophisticated array of open-source technologies, including search engines and website analytics, to collect intelligence on enemies and potential recruitment and funding targets.

Fund-Raising: They leverage Internet user demographics and online front groups to execute aggressive funding drives, collecting vast amounts of money through difficult-to-track online payment systems.

Recruitment and Mobilization: As it is with Fortune 500 companies, the Internet and advanced technology provide them with powerful tools for recruiting and mobilizing members through integrated communications.

For example, the late Al-Zarqawi’s media team recently released a 46-minute live action video titled "All Religion Will Be for Allah" available in both Windows and Real Player, with download options matching viewers’ bandwidth. This video supported regular content, including video clips of operations, an online news service, and the monthly magazine Thurwat Al-Sinam--The Camel’s Hump.

Planning & Coordination: Terrorist groups take advantage of new technologies such as encryption, voice over IP and secure messaging systems to improve the ease, speed and cost of their communications. This enables the sharing of information such as training videos and manuals, enhancing their planning efforts and agility in an ever-changing environment.

Internet Indoctrination

The recent arrest of 17 terrorism suspects in Canada was part of a continuing, multinational inquiry into suspected terrorist cells in at least seven countries. The investigation began as separate probes in different countries, focused on what authorities believed were localized cells of militant Muslim young men. Authorities believed the men in these suspected cells shared an interest in radical ideology on the Internet and in local mosques and training camps.

The Internet was an integral part of the group’s indoctrination and operations. Michael Wilson, the Canadian Ambassador to the United States, said, "The Canadian end of the investigation had been going on for nearly two years, and authorities believed the Internet-savvy suspects did much of their communicating online, where they also developed their radical ideology."

The good news is that the very technologies and techniques that are being used to spread the ideology of terrorism can also be used to combat it. Before that can happen, however, government agencies need to understand first the psychographic profiles of those susceptible to recruitment, and second the messages that are affecting them. They also need to understand how these individuals are influenced--what channels are meaningful to them, whom they listen to, the effect of peer networks, etc.--in order to learn how to reach them most effectively. Here is where they can learn from both the business world and their enemies.   

Getting Creative

Osama bin Laden and the late Al-Zarqawi owe much of their success and notoriety to their brand of charismatic leadership and entrepreneurship. However, the instant replacement of Al-Zarqawi following his death also shows that terrorist groups have succession plans just like corporations, with another leader ready to quickly step up with the same powerful propaganda machine in full support.

On the other side, governments and their spokespeople cannot be the only ones fighting the terrorists. One effectively placed video clip can find its way into the hands of several thousand opinion leaders who, in turn, can reach millions. That makes it possible to make a difference.  

Look at the increasingly innovative ways that companies talk to the consumer in today’s corporate world. Every day, business marketers fight a battle against an audience that has more and more tools available (Tivo, iPods) to tune them out. Instead of relying on the 30-second ad buy, marketers are turning to bloggers, musicians, video game producers and even fashion designers to shape perceptions and get their messages heard. Counterterrorism agencies need to take similar creative approaches in targeting their messages to potential terrorist recruits.

So how do we think outside the box in the same way Al-Zarqawi and his media-savvy supporters did? Sometimes it helps to look at other industries and learn from their successful techniques and approaches.

Video Games

Sammy Studios, a startup video game manufacturer faced with a limited marketing budget, no previous fan base and no previous games, wanted its first game to be in the Top 10 games of the year.

How did Sammy do it? It created a .org community website that was managed by an individual host who chatted on boards, personally answered e-mails and posted news notes. The website was designed to have a one-to-one feeling and provided three distinctive kinds of content to members:

  1. Ongoing flow of exclusive previews to tease the visitor
  2. Community features such as message boards, polls, chats, pictures
  3. Evangelism rewards--young males are a competitive bunch, and were awarded redeemable points for recruiting members

The result? Several thousand hard-core fans led to the sale of millions of the games during the launch.

Mobile Phones

Nokia, a major mobile phone manufacturer, faced the double challenge of launching a new and complex phone to a skeptical multichannel consumer.

Its approach was to create an "Evangelism Campaign" where it actively targeted and recruited the bloggers most popular with its target audience. The bloggers were asked to test out the new phone and post their feedback and photos on their blogs. The phone manufacturer carefully managed the balance between blogging and commercialism and made no requests for advocacy.

The result? Several blogs were in the Top 15 sites for generating traffic to Nokia’s site, while coverage in the online media reached millions of people.  

Public Health Programs

The British government needed to educate young people on the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but traditional warning messages were being ignored as the holiday party season approached.

The government’s approach was to hire a media firm to produce an interactive, entertaining viral game. The "12 Days of STD" was targeted at human resources professionals who could forward it to employees within their organizations.

The result? From an initial mailing of 34,000 HR professionals, the government achieved a pass-on rate of 4.5--an estimated total of 445,000 viewings. The following year the viral campaign went even further, as the game reached more than 2 million people and generated significant press and online coverage.

Marketing 101 for Terrorist Recruiting Targets

So how does marketing 101 help us develop an effective response to the terrorist marketing arsenal?

A person’s decision to join, support or tolerate terrorism is a "high involvement decision." For example, before an individual forms a long-lasting belief about supporting al-Qaida, he will go through a multistage decision-making process.

In the multistage process, a network of participants communicates and shares information with the individual, meaning the credibility of the information source is critical. For example, a government spokesperson on the 10 p.m. news carries less credibility with a well-educated, tech-savvy 25-year-old than the creator of his favorite blog.

This is what makes it difficult when people become radicalized; message vehicles challenging the tenets of the group are strictly censored. Simultaneously, the isolated individual gets bombarded by cause-related information such as lectures and literature as his isolation increases and his critical thinking decreases.  

In a recent BBC report, the United Kingdom’s highest-ranking Asian police officer, Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, said: "The simplistic antiwestern messages of extremist organizations, advocating closed and hostile views of other religions, could be attractive to vulnerable young people."

Without access to alternative information sources, it is more difficult and costly to reach these individuals. However, if counterterrorism agencies understand the process, it is still possible to identify the stages where the target is still open to alternative ideas and counter opinions.

So how can approaches from the business world--such as chat rooms and viral and evangelism campaigns--be applied in the real world by counterterrorism agencies?  

Effective responses will vary from place to place, but here are the bare essentials of a marketing campaign:

  • Involve local clergy and the participation of law enforcement.
  • Mobilize the community.
  • Employ street-smart outreach workers.
  • Develop a message that will be heard and understood.
  • Promote changes in behavior through a public education campaign.

This same method of understanding international terrorist groups can be applied to combat other criminal threats on the national and local levels--such as street gangs--and hopefully reach those in need before it’s too late.

David Steven is director of marketing with Memex Inc., the leading worldwide provider of intelligence management and analysis solutions for law enforcement, military intelligence and commercial organizations. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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