How the changing media is changing terrorism

Jason Burke writes: Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old petty criminal, spent much of the last 36 hours of his life crouched over a laptop in his small apartment in the south‑western French city of Toulouse. It was March 2012. Outside, armed police and journalists gathered. Merah reheated frozen food in a microwave and checked his weapons. He spoke with negotiators and described how he had travelled to Pakistan a few months earlier to receive some desultory training from a faction linked to al-Qaida. He also explained, incoherently, why he had killed seven people over the previous two weeks in a series of shootings. But most of the time, Merah worked on his computer.

Just a few hours before he was killed by armed police after a sustained firefight, Merah finished editing a 24-minute video clip. It was a compilation of images from the GoPro camera that he had attached to his body armour before each of his killings. GoPro primarily caters to practitioners of extreme sports who wish to obtain point-of-view footage of their adrenalin-charged exploits. Merah had filmed his preparations, the murders themselves and his motorbike getaways. His first three victims were off-duty soldiers, two Muslims and a Catholic. The others, a rabbi and three children, had died when he had attacked a Jewish school. The images showed how Merah had chased and caught one of those children: eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, who had hesitated for a second when others ran, reluctant to abandon her school bag. Merah grabbed her by the hair, changed his weapon when the first jammed, and then finally shot the girl in the head.

Roughly 24 hours after police located Merah and surrounded his building, he managed to slip through a gap in the security cordon. He did not take the opportunity to escape. Instead, he walked to a postbox, deposited a package containing a USB stick with the video on it, and then returned to his home to await his own death.

The package he dropped into the postbox was addressed to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network. Merah was confident that al-Jazeera would broadcast the material because, in his words, it constantly showed “massacres and bombs and suchlike”. In fact, al-Jazeera did not show any of the clip because, the network said in a statement, Merah’s images did not “add any information” not already in the public domain and breached its ethical code.

The network’s decision did little to diminish the stream of horrendous violence that has been disseminated by Islamic militant groups and individuals in recent years. Since Merah’s death, the use and broadcast of graphic and violent images has reached an unprecedented level. Much of this is due to the emergence of the Islamic State (Isis), which launched its campaign to carve out an enclave in eastern Syria and western Iraq at around the time Merah was planning his killings. But much is also a result of the capabilities of the new technology that Isis has been able to exploit. [Continue reading…]

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