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Beheadings as ascendant psywar against the periphery of the coalition supply chain

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If the resolve of US forces are presumed unshakable, three reasons are on offer for the growing volume of beheadings accompanied by rising video production values:

  1. Frighten American and other foreign nongovernmental groups and civilian contractors -- truck drivers and barbers just as much as translators and security personnel -- that complete the extended supply chain that supports US operations in country
  2. Fuel recruitment by portraying jihadists as defenders of the faith
  3. Aid power struggles among jihadists, e.g., al-Zarqawi has never sworn allegiance to bin Laden and runs an independent operation

Comments such as those of Brigitte Nacos at Columbia University are at best insufficient to plumb the visceral, growing impact of these beheadings, i.e., "Terrorism, as I see it, is communications. Without the media communicating what they want to say, terrorism doesn't really make sense." [Note: the next three links take the reader to the individual videos.] While Nick Berg was decapitated on screen, much of the event was indistinct and the camera did not zoom in as it did with the killing of Eugene Armstrong, presenting the viewer with a sustained full-screen visual with high audio that captures every nuance of the response of the victim's body. It is not a sound like any other; it is unmistakable and unforgettable. Of the twelve executed Nepalese drivers, one was beheaded while the others were tossed alive into a pit, singly or in pairs, head-shot, then all laid out as so many sides of beef. Its protracted nature transcended any semblance of a military operation.

I submit that this is intended to go beyond mere communication and into the best of asymmetrical psywar ops by a small group designed to cow, even if indirectly, the actions of a larger force by aiming at its more vulnerable elements.  It is designed to demonstrate absolute dominance on the part of the jihadists while instilling submissiveness on the part of the Iraqi and coalition personnel, and for that I turn to Albert Mehrabian.

Mehrabian developed the Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance (PAD) Emotion Model to describe emotions through a general three-dimensional framework for describing emotions that included Pleasure-Displeasure, Arousal-Nonarousal, and Dominance-Submissiveness plus eight major categories of emotion (exuberant, bored, relaxed, anxious, dependent, disdainful, docile, hostile).

Mehrabian had long done research in nonverbal communication in an attempt to address the "complexity and diversity of nonverbal cues, referents or meanings (e.g., inferences of emotions and attitudes of another based on the other's nonverbal acts) rather than symbols or discrete behaviors (e.g., movements, postures, voice quality)" of communication. Mehrabian discovered that his "coding rules (i.e., relations among symbols, on one hand, and referents, on the other) in nonverbal communication" mapped to the Evaluation, Activity, and Potency factors of the semantic differential model of Osgood et al. Thus Pleasure-Displeasure was the positive emotional correlate of Evaluation, Arousal-Nonarousal the positive emotional correlate of stimulus Activity, and Dominance-Submissiveness the negative emotional correlate of stimulus Potency. Non-verbal aligned with verbal.

"Pleasure-displeasure" distinguishes the positive-negative affective quality of emotional states, "arousal-nonarousal" refers to a combination of physical activity and mental alertness, and "dominance-submissiveness" is defined in terms of control versus lack of control. In PAD space, angry is (-.51, .59, .25) or "a highly unpleasant, highly aroused, and moderately dominant emotional state." Violent extends each axis to (-.50, .62, .38).

To my limited knowledge, most, if not all, PAD research has been on English speakers and, thus, I presume an assumption of literacy. Before proceeding, I suggest readers look at my earlier The media-driven perception void grows between Americans and Arabs for the basics, in part:

When you are raised near Mexico, and travel the third world, you are mindful that the 'gruesome and sensational' to an American readership are the informative norms of many other countries.

To the illiterate and uneducated who often vote their party on a recognized symbol, or for many for whom the wages of work in Iraq are otherwise irresistible, I believe that the jihadist dominance-submission goals of the these images are less directed at the US -- whose news media usually filter out such images -- than at the groups on the margin -- whose media usually print such images in detail. I fell that all three reasons are complementary and all are at play. I can only expect their occurrence to rise.

For Police Recruits, Risk Is Constant Companion
By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post
September 27, 2004

Why Terrorists Decapitate
Friday, September 24, 2004
Associated Press

Beheading video seen as war tactic
Terrorists attacking with grisly images, media experts say
Matthew B. Stannard
San Francisco Chronicle
May 13, 2004

Gordon Housworth



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