The performance of terrorism

It is an image we won’t forget: of what appears to be the US journalist James Foley being decapitated by an Islamic State militant.

Alas this type of disgusting and gruesome act fits the historic pattern of acts of terrorism from across the political and religious spectrum: the ‘propagande par le fait’; the idea that the performance of the crime is as important as the level of violence executed. It has been a common staple of terrorist activity for over a century.

Propagande par le fait has historical roots in early anarcho-terrorism. The Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane in his ‘Political Testament’ (1857) wrote that, ‘ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around’. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin later took the idea in his 1870 work ‘Letters to a Frenchman on the present crisis’, stating that ‘we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible of propaganda’.

This strategy, pursued as terrorist action, was intended to provoke the masses to revolt through spectacular acts of resistance and defiance, to shock and shake public opinion, or to rouse ones own troops. The act itself was part of the propaganda.

One of the earliest examples of propaganda par le fait took place in 1886, in Haymarket Square in Chicago. In the ‘Haymarket affair’, as it became known, US anarchists bombed a labour demonstration that was taking place in protests of dire working conditions and wages. The attack was intended to rouse the workers and result in revolution against the establishment. Letters found on one of the anarchist’s desks, Johann Most, cites the concept of propaganda par le fait as justification prior to planning the attack:

‘The existing system will be quickest and most radically overthrown by the annihilation of its exponents. Therefore, massacres of the enemies of the people must be set in motion.’

Examples abound from across the spectrum. The most murderous far-right terrorist in US history, Timothy McVeigh – who was responsible for 168 deaths in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 – still saw his actions as striking a blow for liberty: ‘I am sorry that these people had to lose their lives. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s understood what the human toll will be’. He was inspired by The Turner Diaries – a novel often referred to as the Bible of the Neo-Nazi scene –wherein a series of spectacular terror attacks wake up the masses.

Propaganda par le fait is often considered necessary by terrorists because of what they perceive as oppression of ‘their’ people. All else is considered to be collateral. The argument runs that Muslims, the White Man, the working classes, whoever – have been forced into a position of dulled submission, unable to recognise what is really going on.

And so to the current crop of brutal, violent terrorists. This propaganda par le fait has always been part of al-Qaeda’s modus operandi, although it is rarely commented on. Create an act of terror as gruesome as possible, and then ideally have it as widely seen as possible. Certainly, Osama Bin Laden’s hope was that 9/11 would ‘help the [Islamic] nation to wake from its slumber’.

And so followed a series of acts – which the terrorists themselves always claim they do not want to do but have been left with little choice – the 2002 Mombasa attacks of an Israeli-owned hotel and plane; the Madrid train attack in 2004; the 2005 London underground bombings. These targets are chosen in part because of the dramatic effect that results from attacking them.

Regrettably, beheadings are not new either. Mohammad Boyeri stabbed Theo van Gogh eight times before cutting his throat and nearly decapitating him in a busy street in Amsterdam, out of revenge for the depiction of radical Islamists in his film. There was also the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002,  the film of which showed his decapitation with demands from his captors warning that if Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were not released, they would repeat the act.

And last year, who can forget the young Michael Adebolajo holding a bloody meat cleaver, carefully and rationally explaining to a passerby why he’d just murdered a soldier on a busy road? His decision to remain on the scene immediately after the attack allowed him to make statements to cameras that would be watched by the nation.

Like the killing of James Foley, there was no intention of this attack to be hidden; they wanted this act on every television channel, every front page of the newspapers and every platform of social media. Like ‘John’, the IS militant, Adebolajo was full of anti-Western ideas. His aim would have been – in his horrible twisted logic – to wake people up.

This murder is the latest terrorist attack to express its hate-fuelled message into the performance of the attack itself. Sadly it will not be the last.