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Silencing urban terror like dead-end streets

The Burj Jacinda Adern

OPINION: “A belief is a lever that once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life. Are you a scientist? A liberal? A racist? These are merely species of belief in action. Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behaviour; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings. Once believed, they become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behaviour.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith


Brands are fantasies feeding our ideals of lifestyles. Remove the fantasy and all you have is an unremarkable commodity doomed to forgetfulness and lack of appreciation. This is exactly the rationale behind New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, when vowing to never utter the name of a gunman who live streamed on Facebook the shooting of 50 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch last week. By omitting the terrorist’s name, Ms Arden helped stop any fantasy around his persona and, eventual branding.

Looking at terrorist organisations as brands may seem trivial but doing so allows us to dissect and understand the elements and organising principles that make them who they are. It can also show how they connect to the followers and sympathisers who enable their existence and growth; particularly in the age of social media.

According to legal scholar Richard Hasen:

“There certainly were hate groups before the Internet and social media. [But with social media] it just becomes easier to organise, to spread the word, for people to know where to go. Social media has lowered the collective-action problems that individuals who might want to be in a hate group would face. You can see that there are people out there like you. That’s the dark side of social media.”

This is not a new idea though; the book Branding Terror creates a comprehensive catalogue of terror brands.

In its introduction co-author of the book, Artur Beifuss, posits: “Terrorist groups are no different from other organisations in their use of branding to promote their ideas and to distinguish themselves from groups that share similar aims.”

Brands, as the universal currency of modern-day capitalism, don’t need visas to cross borders, just the ability to communicate. Likewise, terrorist organisations use branded assets to promote their ideas and distinguish themselves from groups that share similar aims.

Besides the fact it happened in a city, why write about a massacre on a publication concerning urbanisation, real estate, sustainability and related themes?

It turns out that the culture of a city – just as much as its infrastructure – drives its value and feeds the ideals and fantasies of those buying land, moving in for a job or trying a year away to share new experiences with the kids.

A part of this culture are urban legends, popular stories deemed true (often not the case though) that quickly spread through the numerous and interconnected networks interweaving the urban fabric.

From the “Boston Marathon Bomber”, to LA’s “Manson Family” – both having stamped cover stories for The Rolling Stone – or 2014’s “Sydney Siege”, cities are invariably branded by those carrying out terror attacks. And, when it comes to getting attention and shocking the crowds, there are no better stages than cities.

Almost two years ago I went to Berlin and during a city tour I suddenly found myself, with the rest of the touring group, standing on the most generic, unattractive parking lot.

We were told that was the site where Hitler committed suicide. The exact spot of the burial remains unknown, and the lack of signs contribute to avoiding the risks of unwanted public glamorisation.

Even though Berlin still feels the damaging effect from World War II reputation, reparations and restitutions, the current “city brand” is one that exalts cosmopolitanism, hedonism, underground cultures and techno.

Of course, memories from the Holocaust are alive and intrinsic to the city. Yet, the efforts made to keep perpetrators as unidentifiable as possible has certainly paid off.

Looking back at the “Sydney Siege” that happened inside a Lindt store, the unspoken truth lies in the power of the IS brand; not Lindt nor Sydney. Otherwise, why, as evidenced by hostages’ footage, would the gunman Haron Monis explicitly request the IS flag?!

Due to a lack of hard evidences, it’s possible to assume Monis had no direct links to IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or the terrorist group itself and that he was no terrorist but an unhinged criminal. However, what Monis certainly demonstrated was a deeper emotional connection to what IS stands for. Or else, he could’ve requested for some Taliban or Hezbollah “memorabilia” to represent and validate his intent and possibly, sense of identity.

The group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS has been building its brand quite effectively. It began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, then transformed itself into the Islamic State in Iraq, then moved on to ISIS, and, in its most recent iteration, it now calls itself the Islamic State (IS). The fact that ISIS has changed its name yet again shows that its leaders know the power of a brand.

For some psycho with a killer instinct, what could be more engaging than being part of an “axis of evil”? Even former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan publicly recognised that George W Bush’s speech was just plain stupid.

Removing a brand’s equities – from their names to symbols and any other perceived intangible value – is a good beginning to diluting their “mojo” and turning them into meaningless commodities.

A “de-branding” effort led by prominent Muslims in the United Kingdom, where at least 500 individuals have gone to fight in Syria, happened through a letter to then prime minister David Cameron encouraging him to call ISIS the “Un-Islamic State (UIS),” as an accurate and fair alternative name to describe this organisation and its agenda.

The goal was to distinguish ISIS from peaceful Muslims and make clear that its claims to legitimacy are false. Moreover, calling it IS confers a degree of validity to the group’s aspiration to statehood.

A possibly better alternative is to use the denomination “foreign terrorist organisation”, as officially designated by the Secretary of State in the USA, when publicly referring to a specific terrorist organisation.

New Zealand’s PM has set the tone for other state leaders and the media. Hopefully denominations like “white supremacist groups” will earn a WSG acronym, suppressing its appeal and commoditising its meaning.

Dark sites in the city need special treatment.

Moreover, cities all over the world have so-called “dark sites”, places where tragic or sinister events occurred. How to address those? It’s one thing to visit Count Vlad Dracul’s castle in Transylvania, but something completely different would be to tour the sites where Ted Bundy – now a Netflix movie – committed his atrocities. If these sites are abandoned, the practical solution is to demolish or re-develop. Psychologically and culturally, however, the stakes are very different.

Dark sites occupy a prominent position in the urban landscape, attracting curious visitors and urban explorers. They also exert a powerful psychological influence, generating urban legends and providing a physical repository for fears and anxieties. So, what do we do with these most sensitive of abandoned spaces?

In Gloucester, the home of murderers Fred and Rose West was flattened by authorities who removed the rubble and crushed it at a secure site – partly to prevent morbid souvenir-hunting but also, as the BBC puts it, “as a way of expunging the sense of evil linked to the place.” But even then, the empty space acquires an eerie presence.

Terrorism is not a source of human violence, but merely one its inflections.

Ignorance, injustice and social contrasts are hatred and aggression’s culprits.

But from being angry to actually killing people for the sake of making proselytised justice, it takes a lot of indoctrination to inculcate such a belief.

Terrorists do what they do because they believe in what the terror brands they bought into, say. For some it’s about racial purity, for others a one-way ticket to paradise… both completely irrational arguments.

It is rare to find the behaviour of human beings so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been so reluctant to accept this explanation? It could be because the brand lens has not been put in equal weight to other perceptions.

Although family values, education and foreign policy play crucial roles, marketing tactics and strategies have tremendous social power.

As written by Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, on the book The New Digital Age (co-authored with Jared Cohen), it is “possible to mobilise local virtual communities to reject terrorism and demand accountability and action from its leaders”.

By omitting branded narratives, names, their symbols and ambassadors (that is, martyrs), the terror proposition may eventually become an ignored, dead-end street. The stuff from urban legends…

Sérgio Brodsky (L. LM, MBA) is the founder and principal at Surge. Follow him on twitter: @brandKzar.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. Spinifex may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient in a hostile environment and essential to nurturing biodiversity and holding the topsoil together. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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