Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Sunday, 30 November 2008

The age of 'celebrity terrorism'

By Paul Cornish
Chairman, Chatham House's International Security Programme

Quite apart from the scores murdered and the hundreds injured, what the Mumbai terrorists really wanted was an exaggerated - and preferably extreme - reaction on the part of governments, the media and public opinion.

In these terms, the attackers received as much attention as they could possibly have hoped for, and the Mumbai outrage can only be described as a very significant terrorist success.

The attack received saturation coverage in the world's media from the outset.

A soldier stands in front of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai
The attacks were a strike at the city's symbolic buildings

Almost within minutes, television screens showed harrowing scenes of pools of blood where people had died or been injured, hotels ablaze, Indian army snipers firing at distant targets, and CCTV images of the attackers.

Especially disturbing, hostages and survivors reported that certain nationalities had been identified by their passports and taken away for execution.

No matter how obscure, every detail of this multi-point, sustained attack was soon being pored over by terrorism experts, trying to fit the carnage in Mumbai into one template or another.

Unanswered questions

So the speculative - and often tendentious - questioning began.

What were the tactics of the terrorists? What weapons did they have and where could they have got them? How much planning and preparation would have been necessary for a military-style operation of this sort? Who were the terrorists - where were they from and what did they want?

Who was the mastermind behind the attacks? And did the attacks have the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-style operation. Was it all part of the global jihad against the West?

This is precisely how terrorism is meant to work - the terrorist's action must always be complemented by the target's reaction in order to complete the scene.

How the attack is carried out, and what is done to whom, matters no more - and often rather less - than the way the attack is received, and the impact accorded to it.

The impact has indeed been instant and extensive, reaching into the worlds of politics, business and even sport, and on all levels - internationally, regionally and nationally in India.

Adding meaning

But, for all the horror of the Mumbai attack, there might have been much less to it than first met the eye, and a hasty and exaggerated response might have played more of a part, and given more meaning to the attack than it should.

Nobody appears to have heard of the Deccan Mujahideen - perhaps because they have never existed.

Perhaps it was not so difficult after all to plan and execute this attack: small arms and hand grenades are not hard to find, boats are scarcely specialised equipment, and Mumbai is a vast, open city with more than enough soft targets.

These individuals indulge in terrorism simply because they can, while their audience concocts a rationale on their behalf
Perhaps we do not know enough about where the perpetrators are from, because they could have come from almost anywhere?

The terrorists were willing to show their faces on CCTV. Was this suicide for martyrdom - as in New York and Washington in 2001, and London in 2005 - or suicide for celebrity, as in Columbine in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2007?

And perhaps so little is known of the terrorists' cause, because they simply did not feel the need to have one.

The attack in Mumbai was obviously planned - but "military-style planning" (whatever that means) is probably not necessary for the mass murder of unarmed and unsuspecting civilians going about their business in crowded railway stations and restaurants.

This could also have been a plan which had a large gap where mission, cause or vision statement ought to have been.

But no matter. The terrorists might have assumed, quite correctly as it happens, that the world's media and the terrorism analysis industry would very quickly fill in any gaps for them.

Writing the narrative

The character of modern terrorism is widely understood to have been shaped by a mid-19th-Century idea known as the "propaganda of the deed" - a strategy for political change in which the message or cause is contained within, and expressed by the violent act.

In a novel twist, the Mumbai terrorists might have embarked on propaganda of the deed without the propaganda in the confident expectation that the rationalisation for the attack - the narrative - would be provided by politicians, the media and terrorism analysts.

A TV grab from Indian television
The Mumbai attacks have dominated the airwaves
If so, then Mumbai could represent something rather different in the history of terrorism, and possibly something far more disturbing even than global jihad.

Perhaps we have come to the point where casually self-radicalised, sociopathic individuals can form a loose organisation, acquire sufficient weapons and equipment for a few thousand dollars, make a basic plan of action and indulge in a violent expression of their generalised disaffection and anomie.

These individuals indulge in terrorism simply because they can, while their audience concocts a rationale on their behalf.

Welcome to the age of celebrity terrorism.

The invitation to the world's D-list malcontents reads as follows: No matter how corrupt your moral sense, how contorted your view of the world, how vapid and inarticulate your ideas, how talentless you are and how exaggerated your grievance, an obsessive audience will watch your every move and turn you into what you most want to be, just before your death.

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