ATbar Creating a Citizenry Prepared for Terrorism: Education, Media, and Public Awareness

Creating a Citizenry Prepared for Terrorism: Education, Media, and Public Awareness

01/06/2005 | by Pries-Shimshi, Yael  

Theoretical Background

Modern Terrorism

Modern terrorism has political, national, ideological, religious, social and economical motivations. These goals lead to the tactics of indiscriminate murder, as well as extortion, kidnapping, etc to accomplish certain aims. In order to achieve the desired political goal the terrorist must first achieve a vital intermediate goal, which is the creation of an irrational and prolonged sense of anxiety among the target population. In most cases the terrorists are not after the death of any particular person, but merely wish to create fear and demoralization in a much broader population than among those targeted in an attack. Through the target population, terrorists strive to pressure governments to surrender to their political demands (See figure 1).[i]

Terrorist organizations choose their objectives randomly and indiscriminately in order to amplify the feeling of anxiety of terror. Thus, the message conveyed to the public is that anyone, at any given time, at any given place, might be a casualty of a terrorist attack. This form of threat undermines the sense of stability and security needed to maintain normal civilian life. Routine daily activities, such as going out to eat, using public transportation, etc., become fraught with complexity. One must first take into consideration the danger of being attacked and estimate what needs to be done in order to avoid a possible terrorist attack scene. The daily routine is undoubtedly mixed with an insurmountable measure of anxiety.[ii] This disruption of daily life, results in severe damage to the foundations of the state, with the result that public opinion can be expected to pressure decision-makers to surrender to the terrorists’ demands. This, of course, ultimately advances the terrorists’ political objective.[iii]

It is only after understanding these components of terrorism that one can begin to mitigate the effects of terrorism. Terrorism thrives on (substantiated or unsubstantiated) fear within the targeted population. In order to connect the targeted population to the terror attacks, terrorists have successfully used various means to disseminate their messages, as well as the effects of their actions to a population much larger than that directly impacted. The media is the most utilized entity for this purpose. Without the media, terrorist could only immediately impact a limited number of the targeted population.[iv] The media has the capacity to multiply the impact of terrorists and further their message in a way that terrorists are themselves incapable of projecting. Therefore, it is essential that further investigation occur to explore how the media interacts in the realm of terrorism.

Psychological Flowchart

Terrorism and the Media

In modern democratic societies, mass media plays several different roles, it conveys information to the public, interprets events, and brings (or removes) issues to the public agenda. Under these circumstances, the media plays a substantial role in influencing and shaping public opinion, and hence governments’ decisions. The mediate also serves as a mediator between the public and the leadership. In democratic societies, this link is crucial in both creating essential oversight of the leadership by including more public input in decision-making. Thus, in this regard, the media can be central layer in the strategy of modern terrorism.[v]

Terror groups seek to attract local and global attention to their problems, as well as establish a platform to convey messages and present their ideologies and objectives. According to Bruce Hoffman, in some cases terrorist organizations attempting to perpetuate an ideology and a following can only remain relevant in so long as they remain a news story.[vi] For their part, terrorist organizations use the media in three different capacities to attain distinct yet intertwined objectives. First, the dissemination of prerecorded materials specifically video testaments of suicide terrorists glorify the terrorists in their supported communities, thereby elevating their prestige and societal appeal. Organizations can use the terrorists’ last will and testament as recruitment tools to enlist other suicide bombers. Furthermore, such videos also instill fear and intimidate the targeted population by making them plainly aware of the perpetrators of violence, and the inability of the security services to prevent their actions. Video declarations or messages by terrorist leaders also serve to intimidate the targeted population since they generally carry threats or propose generally conflated, ultimatums about future attacks.[vii] As a strategy, terror organizations also participate in interviews with media organizations. When the media interviews representatives from terrorist organizations, they provide a platform for them to convey their message simply and directly, which can soften or spin their actions or objectives to a uncritical public. When this option is not available, terrorists also fax in or publish manifestos or communiqués which attempts to heighten their visibility and notoriety. Finally, coverage of public demonstrations, such as parades and funerals, raise the specter of terrorist organizations through the media. Public demonstrations serve to simultaneously strengthen a terror organization’s base of support and increase the anxiety among the targeted population. This greater public visibility gives the terror organization further attention to convey their ideas. As noted, each of these tactics is designed to reach different audiences.

On the other side of this discussion, the media has its own interests. The media considers terror attacks good news segments that sell well – they have drama, blood, tears, heroes and human-interest stories. Therefore efforts are made to cover attacks as quickly, and in as much detail as possible, often broadcasting live footage from the scene of the incident. Likewise, the proliferation of media outlets and the diversity of channels and newspapers create competition over the audience that fosters a tendency to set aside all considerations, whether psychological, moral, or ethical.[viii] To this end, terror attacks mean ratings, or as Yaakov Peri claims: “TV channels, as did the newspapers, sensed that blood is ratings.”[ix]

Consequently, the mass media and terrorism are intertwined with each other and their interests often correspond. This assertion is in no way intended to imply collusion between the media and terror organizations, rather that they have a symbiotic relationship regarding terror attacks. Hoffman even likens the medium of television to a vacuum “waiting to be filled…[and] susceptible to terrorist exploitation and manipulation.”[x] Both the media and terrorist organizations are interested in as many spectators as possible – the first are after the ratings, the second are after the exposure for their actions and aims for the purpose of gaining support and sympathy among the audience (though, not necessarily the same audience). Therefore, the media often plays right into the hands of terrorist organizations. The human-interest value of the attack, where the media explores the “background” of the victims, creates further viewer interest. The media’s disproportionate reportage of attacks (relative to the attack’s actual physical impact) amplifies the attack’s dimensions and hence the image of the perpetrating organization and its activists. Repeated broadcasting of the horrific footage from the scene, accompanied by interviews with witnesses, emergency teams, and wounded, supplemented by phrases such as, “It looks like a severe attack…” “on a large scale…” “of unprecedented caliber…” equates to a kind of re-enactment of the trauma, further amplifying the psychological and emotional impact of the attack. This hyperbole amplifies the effectiveness of the terrorists’ campaign of psychological warfare, an essential component to further their goals. Terror attack coverage can create a tunnel vision scenario, where viewers only see the repeated coverage of terror attacks, thereby losing perspective about other news and focusing only on the singular event.[xi] Gabriel Weimann goes as far as to note that terrorism is growing in its sophistication by adopting common psychological warfare techniques once only used by governments.[xii] Instead of using their own apparatuses to further its goals, terror organizations have successfully manipulated mass media outlets.[xiii] As a result, media coverage has a central role in the intensification of fear and anxiety that further undermines a sense of personal security among the public.[xiv]

Positive Aspects of Terrorism Coverage

While media coverage can amplify the targeted public’s fear and anxiety, conversely it can also contribute to the public good depending on the manner that it addresses terrorism. Within this framework, the media has a clear opportunity to utilize its resources to mitigate the effectiveness of terrorism by creating hostility towards terrorist organizations, compelling decision-makers’ attention to the topic of terrorism, and raising public awareness about terrorism. The emergence of this “media-oriented terrorism” has forced the media to reevaluate its editorial and reporting principles to “minimize” terrorists’ capacity for media manipulation.[xv] Finally, the latter option, increasing the public’s attention to the realities of terrorism, helps diminish the success of the terrorists’ psychological warfare against the targeted population.

“A Nation on the Road” Project

When the media constructively engages in educating the public on terrorism, the results can improve societal understanding of terrorism. One project that demonstrates the effectiveness of the media on public awareness occurred in January 2005 in Israel. Through a program entitled, “A Nation on the Road,” an Israeli new channel decided to broadcast car accidents exactly like terror attacks. The project originated from a decision to bring the subject of traffic accidents to the top of the public agenda in order to diminish them and prevent them. The project documented traffic accidents shortly after they occurred and included breaking news of accidents live from the scene and the broadcasting of gruesome wreckage. The interviews with eyewitnesses, rescue teams, casualties and their families in the hospitals complemented the footage. All of these actions mimicked media coverage immediately after a terror attack.

The basic assumption of the producers of “A Nation on the Road” was at the moment of a terror attack, life comes to a standstill: the nation holds its breath, grasps onto every bit of information, and awaits the dreaded news of casualties. The entire media enterprise focuses solely on the attack. Everyone joins in an atmosphere of national reflection and mourning. On the other hand, car accidents occur every day, sometimes several times a day, and has a yearly death toll is far higher than terror attacks. Yet, do not receive nearly the same level of public attention that terror attacks garner. To the contrary, the public accepts road fatalities with an attitude of complacency.[xvi]

By using similar media coverage of car accidents as is used during terror attacks, the project hopes to raise the public awareness to traffic accidents their causes and severe consequences. The project aims to lessen public apathy about this more deadly phenomenon. From the public safety perspective, the public becomes more aware about the risks of traffic accidents, triggering a desire to reduce them. Secondly, by treating traffic accidents with the same level of attention as terror attacks, the media is able to establish a degree of situational relativity that the terrorists seek to eradicate. The media can therefore frame terror attacks as a (rather unfortunate) element of everyday life, rather than a life-stopping event for the targeted population. This can weaken the terrorists’ goals further by mitigating the spreading of fear to the targeted population.

Understanding modern terrorism strategy and the media’s central role in it raises the need to find means to strengthen the public’s fortitude to addressing the psychological damage of terrorism, and to diminish the irrational anxiety of terrorism. To this end, several suggestions are presented herein to highlight possible methods for educating the public against terrorism.

Strengthening Public Fortitude in Coping with Terrorism

Education and Advocacy

A program aiming at helping the public cope psychologically with terrorism should focus primarily on a comprehensive explanatory and educational policy to change the public’s attitude towards terrorism, diminish the level of irrational anxiety, and work towards strengthening the morale and sense of personal safety in light of the substantiated threat. This policy will help to prevent terrorists from disrupting the nation’s daily life, and will lessen the impact of terrorism on political stances and processes.[xvii]

Knowledge is power, and this tenant is at the core of this educational policy. It can be presumed that the anxiety of terrorism can be diminished by providing knowledge and means of treatment to the targeted population. The public must understand that terrorism is psychological warfare, and that their steadfastness is the key to winning the battle. Modern terrorist strategy places the civilians on the front of the war against terror – armed forces may do a great job, but if the public is afraid of terrorism, we can win the battle but lose the war.

One example of such a program is the Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) education project, which consolidates a plethora of explanatory activity aimed at neutralizing the “terrorism strategy” and diminishing the anxiety and psychological affect of terror.[xviii]

This activity includes the following components:

· Development of lectures, seminars courses, and continuing education programs for various target audiences in Israel, aiming to teach the facts about terrorism. Example curricula include: an introduction to terrorist organizations and their methods; the real extent of the threat of terror in comparison with other causes of death (car accidents, for example); manipulation of the media and public opinion by terrorist organization; the civilian’s role in the war against terror, and more. The contents of this activity and its adaptation to various audiences is the subject of a special “terrorism and education” forum comprised of former armed forces personnel, academic staff, education specialists and psychologists.

· Educational activity - lectures, seminars, courses, and continuing education programs for various target audiences, including high schools (students and staff); police units; armed forces; soldiers and high ranking officers in the IDF and the Border Police.[xix]

Changing the Way the Media Covers Terrorism

In a democratic society, the media must continue to be a reliable real-time source of information. Nonetheless, media bodies must be aware of the natural tendency to amplify the anxiety of terrorism, thus becoming an asset for terrorists. The media should take an active role in neutralizing the psychological damage caused by terrorism by adhering to a set of pre-determined guiding principles on how terrorist attacks should be covered. The media has routinely refined their editorial standards to cope with changing realities to prevent “terrorist exploitation.”[xx] This self-policing should be understood as intra-industry initiative rather than an external imposition which could be misconstrued as a latent form of censorship.

The media should refrain from close-ups of terrorist victims, and diminish the coverage of extreme anxiety and expressions of panic. They should also avoid broadcasting tapes edited by the terrorist organizations and limit interviews with terrorist activists. In order to prevent the recycling of trauma, repeat broadcasts of the dreadful footage from the scene of the attack should be avoided, and the manner of reporting by news anchors should be altered to minimize public panic.

On a broader level, the media should maintain a balance between the coverage of a terror attack and its resultant damage and the coverage of other events taking place on the same day. Coverage of the terror attack should be as short as possible, and the live broadcasts should be terminated as soon as the exact and detailed information of the attack is delivered. A society that suffers frequent terror attacks should aspire to resume routine life as soon as possible, and by doing so to diminish as much as possible the psychological damage that the terror organizations aim to achieve by the terror attack.[xxi]

Changing the Manner of Public Warning

As mentioned, one of the ways to deal with terror psychologically is by reducing irrational anxiety among the public. Whereas the suggestions put forth thus far are reactive in nature to terror attacks, proactive approaches are also available to prevent terror attacks. The circulation of information, specifically warnings of impending terror attacks can help the targeted citizenry prevent or prepare for such attacks. However, the question then arises regarding the effectiveness of terrorist alerts in a low anxiety-level atmosphere? For instance, Israel has moved from a state of publishing hardly any terror attack warnings to sometimes publishing 30 per day. Too many warnings can cause apathy and a disregard for the warnings among the public. Such widespread indifference occurred with the Israeli public leading up to the October 2004 terror attacks in Taba, Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula, a popular tourist destination for Israelis during the fall holiday season. After receiving a flurry of warnings, many Israelis ignored them, with deadly consequences. The Israelis had been warned repeatedly about impending attacks that never materialized. Therefore, when the Taba attacks occurred, many Israelis were caught off-guard, despite the numerous warnings.[xxii]

To reconcile the poles of extreme apathy and anxiety, a need exists to find the proper balance between a constant state of fear among the public and adequately preparing the public to prevent the next terror attack (or at least diminish its damages) by delivering the relevant information. One concrete suggestion is to reduce the frequency of warnings issues to the public.

Aside from the frequency of terror attack warnings, the nature of the warnings themselves should be taken into account. Publishing a vague and non-specific attack warning can be counterproductive. For instance, an alert signaling an impending suicide attack in central Israel, with no indication of exact location and no information of the time of the attack, is not effective and only generates unnecessary fear among the public.

The system of color-coding in the U.S. suffers the same problems. Other than the fact that when the color changes from yellow to orange the civilians know that the level of alertness has risen and they should worry, it provides very little focused information on the nature of the warning and its meaning. This sort of warning only creates concern and anxiety without properly defining the problem (what, when and where), and will only make the next warning less effective.[xxiii] A more appropriate scale to gauge and convey threats is imperative to better educate and inform the public.

A warning should be focused in terms of time, location, possible outcome, and should be accompanied by practical instructions as to how the public should react. The broader and more vague the warning, the greater the chance that the public will ignore it. Additionally, such warnings create more unsubstantiated, general fear among the population. By lacking specificity, the warnings become a paralyzing mechanism rather than an educational tool.

Also, warnings and statements of a threatening nature on behalf of terror leaders should be given to the public in a clear and reassuring manner in order to avoid false panic. The media’s tendency for sensationalism in these instances should be moderated. A demonstrated need exists for the media to report such developments, however this coverage should be measured with a degree of editorial caution.

Public Campaigns

A few nations around the world run campaigns calling for increased alertness of the threat of terror while maintaining a daily routine and have established special hotlines. Civilians are given a number to call in order to report suspected objects or behavior. These campaigns run on television, radio, written press, subway billboards, and street billboards. Such efforts integrate the public constructively in the fight against terrorism by empowering them to recognize potential threats.

In Australia, the government distributed a special booklet, written in 31 languages to all households across the continent explaining terrorism in order to bring it up on the public agenda.[xxiv] The expansive Australian program underscored the reality that terrorism affects everyone and that everyone can help prevent it.

In London, a similar campaign used the slogan “If you suspect it, report it”.[xxv] The London Metropolitan Police launched the aggressive campaign to more vigorously educate the citizenry about maintaining their vigilance about suspicious activities or objects not only in public areas, but also in their neighborhoods.

These campaigns encourage public awareness of terrorism, supply the public with much-needed information to understand the phenomenon, and since knowledge is power, they actually provide the public with the means to cope with the threat-induced irrational anxiety.

Exercises and Simulations

Another way for the public to deal with the threat of terrorism is through exercises and simulations held by local authorities, in cooperation with emergency and rescue units, as well as nationwide exercises held by the military and police.

In June 2004 a large scale exercise was held in Israel simulating a suicide bombing in a soccer stadium, and included the evacuation of casualties and further treatment in hospitals. The simulation included the participation of police, M.D.A. (the Israeli ambulance corps), and a hospital in central Israel.[xxvi]

These exercises tested the organizational level, readiness, and professional ability of the security forces to handle a mass-casualty terror attack. These drills and their publicity has the added value of calming the public by showing that effect and well-prepared mechanisms are on hand for handling these situations if needed – a fact that in itself has a psychological effect that diminishes anxiety in the public. The participation of the media in these simulations allowed the public to see the efforts at work to prepare for possible terror attacks.

This paper addressed two main subjects relating to public awareness and terrorism. The first deals with the post modern terrorism's strategy and the primary role of the media in the strategy. As was illustrated, in many cases, media coverage can intensifies fear and anxiety, and further undermines the sense of personal security of the public. This sense of irrational anxiety among the target population can facilitate terror organizations in achieving their ultimate political goals. As a result, a state can use a number of means to prepare the public to deal with the psychological ramifications of terrorism, as was suggested in the second part of the paper.

The first initiative involves education and advocacy. This track is based on the rationale that once civilians learn about terrorism, its characteristics and methods, they will better prepared to cope with the fear and anxiety of terrorism, and will not be a tool in the hands of terrorists.

Two other means presented involve changing the media’s coverage of terrorism and the system of terror alerts. The solution is for the media to exercise greater restraint, in order to avoid overtly aiding terrorism. With regard to terrorism alerts, it is important that these be more specific, and that they not contribute to anxiety among civilians, but rather help to diminish it. Public information campaigns are another method of increasing alertness and raising the public awareness of terror.

The last suggestion involves conducting drills and simulations of all agencies responsible for public safety. These drills have an important reassuring effect by diminishing and neutralizing fear and anxiety of terrorism among the general population.

Empowerment of the citizenry, through educational initiatives and campaigns, creates a powerful counterterrorism tool for furthering public understanding of terrorism and mitigating the effectiveness of terrorism

A nation facing the threat of terrorism should not stop at training its soldiers, but should also guarantee its citizens’ preparedness to deal with terrorism and its psychological ramifications. In this way, it may not only win the battle against terror, but also the war against it.


[i] Boaz Ganor, The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers, (Hebrew) Mifalot Publications, The Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, 2003, p. 225.

[ii] A Phenomenon which Dr. Ganor entitles as "Personalization of terror attack". More about this phenomenon see in: Ganor, The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers, (Hebrew) , p. 230

[iii] Boaz Ganor, "Terror as a Strategy of Psychological Warfare",

[iv] Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Columbia University Press: New York, 2006, p. 174.

[v] Boaz Ganor, "The Media's Role in the Terror Strategy",

[vi] Hoffman qtd in Weinmann, Gabriel. Terrorism on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenge. United States Institute of Peace: Washington, 2006. p. 47.

[vii] Ganor, Boaz. The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers , p. 242.

[viii] Ibid. p. 26

[ix] Yaakov Peri, "Coping with Terror in the Era of Open Media" (Hebrew) Zevet, p. 22

[x] Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Columbia University Press: New York, 2006, p. 179.

[xi] Ibid. p. 175.

[xii] Weinmann, Gabriel. Terrorism on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenge. United States Institute of Peace: Washington, 2006. pp. 35-8.

[xiii] Ibid. pp. 37-8

[xiv] Ganor, Boaz, "The Media's Role in the Terror Strategy",

[xv] Weinmann, Gabriel. Terrorism on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenge. United States Institute of Peace: Washington, 2006. p. 42-3.

[xvi] "Medina al Hakvish" (Hebrew), 11.1.05,,2506,L-3031417,00.html 

[xvii] Ganor, Boaz. The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers (Hebrew), p. 243

[xviii] In the following article the author recommends that the United States should adopt an education program similar to that organized by ICT: Jonathan B. Tucker, " Strategies for Countering Terrorism: Lessons from the Israeli Experience", Journal of Homeland Security, March 2003, pp. 18-19  

[xix] The Educational Project of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, ICT.

[xx] Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Columbia University Press: New York, 2006, p. 200.

[xxi] For additional information, see Ganor, Boaz, The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers (Hebrew), p. 217 and pp. 301-303

[xxiii] Batya L. Ludman, “Israel Leads in Making Terror Warnings Effectives”, 

Jonathan B. Tucker, “Strategies for Countering Terrorism: Lessons from the Israeli Experience”, Journal of Homeland Security, March 2003.



[xxvi]  (Israeli source)

For more examples see:  see also: 

see also: 

see also (taken from Israeli news source) :