[published: April 15, 2009]
When the 1970 Dawson’s Field hijackers held a press conference announcing their intentions, they established the media battleground for modern terrorism.
Thirty one years to the day before two planes were flown into two buildings as part of the world’s greatest publicity stunt, Richard Nixon tried to mitigate another terrorist PR triumph.
Earlier in September 1970 five planes had been hijacked as they passed through the Middle East. Three were taken to the former colonial British Royal Air Force base of Dawson’s Field in the Jordanian desert which had temporarily, and rather excitingly, been rechristened “Revolution Airport” by the Palestinian Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
As the world’s media gathered to watch the spectacle and governments across the globe cranked into action to try to release the 310 western hostages, Tricky Dickie used 9/11 1970 as the launch pad for a global crack down on air piracy and the launch of the Federal Air Marshal scheme. It is the date when previously military x ray machines were moved to civilian airport use.
It’s a blessing of history – though his detractors might say a shame — that he didn’t live long enough to see the far greater terror unleashed by items that could pass though them.
What the affair of Dawson’s Field shows us, however, is the point at which revolutionary behaviour switched itself on in a big way to the possibilities of PR and the use of the emergent mass media for its benefit. PR joined the revolutionary arsenal to further its political ends.
The PFLP for example set a revolutionary precedent at Dawson’s Field when it held press conferences. Try explaining that level of media handling to Paul Revere. Or his horse.
Nixon’s response – his statement on September 11th offering the ultimately and tragically pointless commitment to end hijackings – was his government’s attempt to engage with the Palestinians in a media guerilla war. The next day the PFPL blew up the empty hijacked planes on Dawson’s Field. Iconic images of the explosions and the burning fuselage were beamed around the world.
Guess who made the front page.
Nixon lost the PR battle of September 1970. The ransom demands were met, the hostages were released and the PFPL, unheard of the month before, were known everywhere.
This brings me back to the introduction to this article which many will find uncomfortable reading. But tell me, who had heard the now ubiquitous name “Al Qaeda” in August 2001?
The attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon on 9/11 where conceived, planned and executed as a PR stunt. It was decried as terrorism. The actions of maniacs, the evil behaviour of those without reason. But to call it these things is a self-defeating act of naivety, dogmatism and, probably, panic.
Al Qaeda is not stupid. That much surely is self evident by its ability. And as for whether Al Qaeda is evil or maniac or beyond reason, I shall invite the vitriol of the political right by saying that is a matter of perspective. Were the IRA evil in their campaign to liberate Northern Ireland, or the Zapatistas, are they evil in looking for autonomy in sections of Mexico? Do the Palestinians have horns beneath their hair when they launch rockets at Israel? How about the French or Polish Resistance of the Second World War? Did they whisper their instructions to one another with forked tongues?
Terrorists are revolutionaries from the perspective of the establishment. They are not evil. They have an agenda. An ideology. Their actions may be abhorrent to us, but they are real, they are motivated by human thoughts and desires. Al Qaeda are, by action, belief and deed just at the rather extreme end of the revolutionary scale.
This is a distinction that the newly appointed Principle and Vice Chancellor of St Andrews University, Scotland, is keen to point out. Herself attracted, though not compelled, to joining the Irish Republican Army as a youth, County Waterford-born Dr Louise Richardson caused controversy in the US (where she was teaching at the time) with the post-9/11 slap in the face to reactionary politics: “What Terrorists Want.” This book set out the key point that revolutionaries or terrorists, what ever you want to call them, want, primarily, attention for their cause.
Anyone driven to armed struggle is already on the edge of what comfortable people may define as reasonable behavior. And for some, using the deadly PR calculus that “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” they need to be noticed far outweighed the need to be loved (or, in the case of Al Qaeda, even understood).
In his 1989 book “Political Terrorism” Grant Wardlaw points out: “Because of their numerical inferiority it is important that terrorist groups indulge in dramatic and shocking violence if they are to be noticed. Television in particular is no longer a medium which simply responds to terrorist events, it is an integral part of them.”
Remember these words were written in 1989, not 2001.
Wardlaw also points out what I believe to be true, that the increasing awareness of the Mass Media in the 1960s and 70s started to manifest itself in the quantifiable terms in the number of terrorist, or revolutionary, incidents. Indeed awareness of figures from the US Department of State and other sources shows that the number of international terrorist incidents has risen from 150 in 1968 to 528 in 1972, to 635 in 1985 to 651 in 2004.
Wardlaw again: “Because of the vast, instant audience that can be conjured up by television, terrorists have learned to stage manage their spectaculars for maximum audience impact. This is at least partly the reason for the dramatic increase in the occurrence of hostage and siege situations in the past few years.”
The televised events on that corner of desert known to us as Dawson’s Field certainly fit this mould and the success the PFLP was able to achieve through their media strategy marked a watershed in revolutionary behaviour.
Speaking in a recent television interview Bassam Abu Sharif, the PFLP spokesman at the time of the Dawson’s Field incident, said: “We were fighting for a just cause, there had been the bloody occupation of our land by force, and our people and (because of Dawson’s Field) the whole world was now paying attention to us. We wanted to force the average European or American to question ‘why are they doing this?‘”
He could have been an advertising executive talking about an ad campaign.
Certainly Dawson’s Field was the starting gun to a new way of fighting against the system for a cause. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, just 24 months on from Dawson’s Field, the media savvy Palestinians were back, this time under the intentionally sensationalised Black September brand.
As the opening ceremony got under way the Israelis in particular had something to prove. Just 27 years had passed since the holocaust and many of the athletes had lost relatives to the Nazis. There was, in short, already significant media interest in the Israeli team’s presence. What happened next retained enough popular interest 33 years on to be dramatised in the 2005 Spielberg film Munich.
Over the course of September 3, 1972 what would be later called the Munich Massacre saw eleven Israeli Olympians and coaches and one West German policeman killed. Five of the Black September terrorists died in a botched police ambush. Three survived. Media interest was again raised to the Palestinian cause.
Of course one significant feature of the new media-conscious terrorism is the threat it posed to the public. Victims of the Munich Massacre may have been Israeli but they were not soldiers, not politicians – they were just the closest to the media and the best way to make a story. Killing them was the best opportunity to attract the cameras and widespread interest.
This phenomenon is mentioned by Wardlaw who draws attention to another event earlier in 1972. On May 30th, the obscure far-left Japanese Red Army (JRA) dispatched three of its members to Lod airport in Israel. “They were not planning to kill anyone in particular,” Wardlaw wrote, “but rather anyone at all who happened to be there. When the shooting and explosions had stopped there were 27 dead and 76 wounded, a large number of whom were Puerto Rican Christian pilgrims. Hardly important pawns of international power politics. For the most part then terrorism is aimed at the audience, not the victims (except where an assassination is designed to remove a particular individual from power for example). Indeed, as has been claimed often, terrorism is primarily theatre.”
I believe that these principles, of attracting media attention by orchestrated high-profile and indiscriminate attacks, can be seen in the events of 9/11 and more recently in Mumbai. These events are photo opportunities orchestrated by extremely media-aware individuals.
What started at Dawson’s Field was just the awareness of this power. Those revolutionary organisations who have grasped the significance of Dawson’s Field have reaped the “reward” of publicity while those who didn’t have fought in the dark.
Many commentators have remarked that the insurgents and revolutionaries of Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea fought for years, decades sometimes, without mention or world wide awareness. Yet one day at the Olympics, or a week in the Jordanian Desert brought a small band of Palestinian extremists to global attention. In the same way it took three planes, a half-dozen guys and some box cutters to make Al Qaeda the brand they are today.
Of course as the school of revolution by media brought more success it brought more students. The Munich Massacre was watched the world over but especially in Germany itself by the young leftists of the Baader-Meinhof gang or Red Army Faction (RAF). Having formed in the late 1960s, they began a wave of violent activity across West Germany in 1975 using the principles of courting maximum media attention learned from their Palestinian comrades. Statements were released using key messages, branding and an awareness of the workings of the media. Principles more commonly associated with press or advertising work became revolutionary skills as vital as bomb making or marksmanship.
Even the eventual disbandment of the RAF in 1998 was completed by press release to Reuters: “Almost 28 years ago, on 14 May 1970, the RAF arose in a campaign of liberation. Today we end this project. The urban guerilla in the shape of the RAF is now history.”
But perhaps the most successful acts of European terrorism were carried out by the IRA. The IRA’s struggle against the British can be traced back centuries but took on new resonance in the new media age. In that most propitious year to this subject, 1972, the streets of Londonderry in the west of Northern Ireland ran red as British paratroopers fought back with disproportionate force against a civil rights protest that had become infiltrated with the IRA. Thirteen people, seven of whom were teenagers, were killed instantly. Five of the wounded were shot in the back. In total 27 were shot. Dozens of witnesses including journalists present on the day have testified that not one of the wounded or killed was armed. The event was not staged by the IRA as a media event but the heavy handedness of the British was used with West Wing effectiveness to boost the Republican cause. The image of Catholic priest Father Daly carrying his blood stained handkerchief as a white flag to extract the mortally wounded Jackie Duddy from the fighting was, in particular, used everywhere and acted as the greatest recruiting sergeant the “provos” could have ever asked for. The British, chastised internationally, lost their moral high ground for the next 20 years.
It has emerged that the IRA was horrifyingly efficient in its media handling, grooming and rewarding journalists who wrote favourably about the republican cause with extra stories, exclusives and insight into the workings of the terrorist movement. Conversely those journalists and papers that annoyed the group were shut out. The work was coordinated by Danny Morrison, former director of publicity for Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing. In 2003 The London Times reported Morrison as saying: “We wanted to control everything. If journalists wanted access to the IRA they had to come through us and then we get into a relationship and quid pro quos develop. If people got exclusive stuff from us, then you had a relationship with them where you would say, ‘Now we have a very important statement coming out tomorrow morning, so don’t let us down here,’ and so our story would maybe run as the top item.”
Almost every group that has donned a balaclava since the 1970s has done so not so much with the Armalite and the Ballot box (as the IRA were fond of saying to the media) but with a copy of Tench and Yeoman’s “Exploring Public Relations” in their back pocket. (Armalite is a US gun manufacturer that became notorious when it was used as a brand name in the IRA’s strategy).
And then of course we come to the biggest photo opportunity of all: The ultimate expression of media revolutionary terrorism that started 39 years ago in the Jordanian desert.
The World Trade Center had been bombed before, unsuccessfully, by Al Qaeda, in 1993. It was a potent symbol of not just American might and self assuredness but capitalism itself. The location of the buildings at the core of one of the world’s largest cities ensured an audience and cameras. The fact that there were two towers made certain that if the first strike were not caught on film the second was a certainty. The collapse of the buildings and the apocalyptic scenes that followed gained media attention and notoriety that could not be valued in advertising terms. Later attacks on the London Underground in 2005 or the Madrid train bombings were smaller but no less publicly focused attention-seeking events.
In the asymmetric War on Terror, events such as the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 show the limited capability of the jihadist revolutionaries to engage in military terms. The path of modern revolution is fought not on the battlefield but in the living rooms and chat rooms of people observing violence around the world.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of this and the inevitable future of the media revolutionary is the Zapatistas of Mexico, who stood up to the Mexican government in military terms in 1994 and lost. Having had this more conventional revolutionary door closed to them, however, they have instead resorted to what the New York Times has referred to as the first “post modern” revolution. Under their spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) is more likely to use a web cam and an interview than it is plastic explosive. Although Subcomandante Marcos’ numerous webcast polemics reveal him wearing traditional balaclava and bandoleer, the organisation has come a long way from the PFLP model.
Perhaps the greatest expression of this is the range of media “weapons” Marcos is able to deploy. Rage Against the Machine has sold millions albums worldwide and won numerous awards for their brand of grunge rock hip hop. They are less well known for supporting EZLN but routinely perform in front of the organisation’s flag. The EZLN are able to ride the Trojan horse of disaffected youth. This endorsement, Subcomandante’s charismatic use of rhetoric and the EZLN’s literally infectious use of new media are more difficult for the Mexican government to challenge than bombs or bullets.
The global demand for news and information that has created the international non-stop media is the new landscape of the world and it is in the nature of good guerilla fighters to use what ever landscape they have to their advantage.
But the awareness brings no resolution. Despite their media coup, all the more appealing because of the bloodlessness of Dawson’s Field, the PFLP have not brought peace or autonomy any closer to their homeland. It is still the case that terrorism, whether using the media or the AK47 is still unlikely to move governments or create anything but horror and torment.
Perhaps indeed all that can be forecast is that the precedent set by 9/11 will one day be surpassed by an even greater spectacle. Perhaps it is being planned as I type, with the thoroughness of a marketing campaign, to attract the biggest headlines, the most horror, the most attention, the greatest ROI.
David Grocott studied to be an archaeologist before moving into journalism. A lengthy stint on newspapers is behind him and, older if not necessarily wiser, he now writes about what interests him. He lives in Colchester, England and can be reached at Grocott1977@hotmail.co.uk. His last piece for Last Exit examined the strange East German nostalgia for the DDR.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
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