Exploiting Political Crises: How Terrorists’ Polarize the Public and Garner Support in their Propaganda Campaigns

By Mor Yachin & Rebecca Wilson

In a world marked by political unrest and turmoil, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the most polarizing and contested conflicts in history – one that offers tremendous persuasive power to extremist propaganda. Groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have become increasingly adept at producing propaganda to exploit political chaos, manipulate narratives, and spread false information, inherently deepening societal divisions, and mistrust.

Similar accusations have been levelled against the state of Israel, making its characterization a contentious and debated issue. Nonetheless, radical Islamic groups have become adept at exerting control over the narrative to shape public perceptions, justify their actions, and further their goals. Perhaps most significantly, they shift the focus from their own atrocities, obscuring the reality of who they really are – terrorists.

Defining terrorism or violent extremism has been rigorously debated for over a half-century, with still no international consensus of its exact meaning and applications (Berriew, 2007). In academia, scholars have worked to overcome the United Nations definition impasse, and after decades of consulting with experts in the field of terrorism, (Schmid, 2023) has developed a revised academic consensus which includes the following:

1. Terrorism refers, on the one hand, to a doctrine about the presumed effectiveness of a special form or tactic of fear-generating, coercive political violence and, on the other hand, to a conspiratorial practice of calculated, demonstrative, direct violent action without legal or moral restraints, targeting mainly civilians and non-combatants, performed for its propagandistic and psychological effects on various audiences and conflict parties;

2. Terrorism as a tactic is employed in three main contexts: (i) illegal state repression; (ii) propagandistic agitation by non-state actors in times of peace or outside zones of conflict; and (iii) as an illicit tactic of irregular warfare employed by state- and non-state actors (Schmid, 2011).”        

Among the various definitions of terrorism (including the aforementioned) a primary factor is the exploitation of propagandistic and psychological effects. Violent extremist organizations often leverage existing divisions within society, such as religious, ethnic, or political fault lines, to exacerbate tensions and promote chaos during political turmoil. By aligning themselves on one side of a divisive issue, they position themselves as defenders of a specific group or ideology – fostering a formidable sense of identity among potential sympathizers.

In 2015, ISIS heavily relied on portraying themselves as the ‘defenders of freedom’ for the Syrian people against the brutal Assad regime. Speckhard & Ellenberg (2022) conducted an in-depth analysis, revealing that the majority of the 245 interviews with former members showed that their ‘hatred of Assad’ was a primary factor motivating them to join ISIS. Similarly, Al Qaeda has consistently leveraged the value, sanctity, and nobility of the Palestinian cause to gain legitimacy and credibility in Arab and Islamic societies. This has been used to successfully influence public perceptions, rally support, and evoke emotional responses, as well as justify the group’s presence, media discourse, terrorist acts, and recruitment of new members (Hoffman, 2019).

Both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are neither unique nor inherently different from previous terrorist organizations witnessed in world affairs. Hamas has worked to demonize Israel through exploiting Israeli-Palestinian tensions in their propaganda for decades. In its own words, the groups’ goal is to “liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project.” Among the most salient themes in Hamas visual propaganda is that of “resistance” (Seo, 2014).

Social media has profoundly shaped the landscape of warfare and information dissemination, eroding the boundaries between civilian participation and conventional notions of direct involvement in hostilities (Fisentzou, 2019). In this article, we examine a few instances of mis/disinformation produced by Hamas and spread by various media sources compared to verified evidence of the same situation(s) to illustrate the ways in which terrorist propaganda is used to exploit political chaos and manipulate audience support.

Financing from Qatar’s royal family provides news conglomerate Al Jazeera freedom from the usual market pressures facing cable news in the Middle East market. As an alternative to the censored state media typical of the region, Al Jazeera’s reporting has angered powerful regimes like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain who accuse Al Jazeera of inciting terrorism (Laub, 2017). A study comparing Al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict during the 2008/2009 Gaza conflict and one year later, suggest that both networks used framing mechanisms to highlight Palestinian perspectives over Israeli ones and position Palestinians as victims of Israeli aggression. The networks regularly described Palestinian casualties and showed images of Palestinian grief, provided more voice to Palestinian sources, and personalized Palestinian deaths (Elmasry, Shamy, Manning, Mills, & Auter, 2013).

In the current conflict, Al Jazeera’s reporting and the social media of Hamas continue to present one-sided mis/disinformation. Despite Human Rights Watch verification using satellite imagery and open source analysis and ICC statements claiming serious crimes committed by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza (HRW, 2023), Al Jazeera X (formerly known as Twitter) sought to manipulate evidence of an image of a burned baby. Titled, ‘From a sick dog to the charred body of an Israeli child’ experts reveal evidence of Israel using artificial intelligence (AI) to manipulate support (Twitter, 2023). According to experts and the company behind ‘AI or Not’ (an AI detection tool), the image of the dog is an AI-generated image, while the image of the baby is likely real (The Observers, 2023).

Similarly, on October 17, a missile hit al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, where thousands of civilians were seeking medical treatment. Hamas media blaming Israel was quickly picked up and disseminated by news sources like CNN, NBC, and the BBC, who shortly thereafter had to retract their stories after substantial evidence (including a recorded conversation between Hamas terrorists) demonstrated it was a PIJ (a group aligned with Hamas) missile that had gone astray (Robertson, 2023).

Conversely, on October 13th, Hamas released a video of Israeli children captured in Kibbutz Holit aimed at characterizing Hamas terrorists as considerate and careful in their Kibbutz raids in attempt to mitigate growing evidence to the contrary. The footage depicts Hamas terrorists gently handling small children with care (Nesi, 2023), despite verified evidence of children’s beds and cradles covered in blood (Gutman, Sweeney, Perlow, & Hutchinson, 2023).

Yet when has any terrorist group really fulfilled the promises of their propaganda? ISIS didn’t free the Syrians from the Assad regime; rather, they threw LGBTQ+ individuals off rooftops, burned pilots alive, beheaded Americans, British, and Japanese journalists (among others), and kidnapped and raped members of  communities they opposed (Global Terrorism Database (GTD), 2023). Al Qaeda and its’ splinters and affiliates have never engaged in efforts to negotiate better lives for the Palestinians; rather, they bomb the twin towers, attack the USS Cole, kidnap UN employees, and conduct hundreds of suicide bombings (GTD, 2023). Hamas today is in Gaza, kidnapping and taking hostages, beheading and burning people alive, and bombing hospitals.

Working toward a solution that provides human rights and security for all people in the region is imperative. However, this is not done through supporting or providing impunity to a terrorist group, no matter what they claim in their propaganda. Propaganda is just that – a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group – it’s hallmark of political terrorism in justifying acts committed based on the worthiness of a larger cause. If we look at the histories and tactics of terrorist groups, their goals and actions are rarely aligned with the greater cause they exploit.

Mor Yachin, is a Ph.D. Candidate and Presidential Fellow with TCV at Georgia State University and a communication researcher specializing in media effects.

Rebecca Wilson, Ph.D. is a Limited-Term Lecturer of Psychology at Georgia State University and violent extremist researcher specializing in the influence and impact of terrorist propaganda.

Image Credit: PEXELS