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De-escalating and Uniting: How to Communicate Following a Terrorist Attack

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— 4 minutes reading time

Above: Mourners display candles after the Taliban attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed 141 in January 2015.

Marta Lopes,
Strong Cities Network

While all eyes across the Atlantic were focused on a historic election on Tuesday, Europe was waking up to another day of mourning. The shooting in Vienna on Monday evening threatens to spread across Europe the tensions that have been rising in France over the past few weeks.

Since the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty in Nantes on 16 October, designated as a terrorist attack, France has faced a series of incidents that are threatening the increasingly fragile relationship between the Government and French Muslim communities. French President Emmanuel Macron’s public response to the attack led to protests and the boycotting of French goods across the world. As tensions rose, it became difficult to prevent further violence. On 22 October, two Muslim women were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower in what is being investigated as a racist incident. On 29 October, three people were killed in Nice in a stabbing designated as a terrorist attack. Later that day, police shot dead a man who was threatening them with a gun in Avignon, France, and a guard at the French Consulate in Saudi Arabia was injured in a knife attack.

Communicating in the aftermath of a (suspected) terrorist attack is an incredibly difficult task, but one that political and community leaders in particular have a duty to get right. Over the past few years, extensive research has demonstrated how extremist and terrorist groups capitalise on world events to further their agenda.

The highly emotional environment that follows a terrorist attack, combined with the amplification opportunities offered by social media, represents a particularly fertile ground for reciprocal radicalisation and has the potential to inspire so-called copycat attacks. The tragic attack upon Muslim communities in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019 was followed by calls for revenge from the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and subsequent shootings in other parts of the world inspired by the Facebook livestream and writings left behind by the perpetrator.

Leaders at all levels of government have a duty to take an active role in de-escalating tensions and fostering an inclusive and united environment for an effective post-attack recovery. This is not a straightforward task, and it is important to draw lessons from responses over the past few years. For instance, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has become a leading figure in effective and compassionate communications following her response to the terrorist attack in Christchurch (see case study box).

To this end, this December, the Strong Cities Network will launch a toolkit to guide local leaders and local authorities in their response following an incident. In the current context, we wanted to highlight some of the good practices we have identified on how to communicate to foster unity.

Communications in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack should be guided by three principles:

Firstly, leaders should keep messaging apolitical. While it will be important for political leaders in particular to ensure there is a healthy debate around the potential political ramifications and any legislation needed, the immediate aftermath needs to focus on the victims and build solidarity across the population.

Secondly, anyone communicating needs to beware of unintended glorification. The content of post-attack communications bears the risk of amplifying terrorist messaging or creating a ‘cult of personality’ or martyrdom around the perpetrator(s). For example, many news outlets pointed to the so-called ‘manifesto’ published by the perpetrator of the Christchurch terrorist attack, which is believed to have inspired copycat attacks in the U.S. and Europe.

Thirdly, local leaders need to show a united front and adopt a common and ideologically neutral message. This will mitigate the risk of ripple effects from the attack, including attempts to avenge victims through violence, or harass or commit hate crimes against individuals who may share the perpetrator’s background or are perceived to support their cause.

There is no doubt that the tragedies that hit France and Austria will exacerbate existing tensions and serve the agendas of extremist groups on all ends of the spectrum. The protests taking place in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh demonstrate the international impact of national crises. In this environment, it is ever more important for local leaders, no matter how removed they feel from these events, to reach out to their communities and address any underlying concerns that might feed into extremist narratives.

CASE STUDY: Prime Minister Ardern’s communications following the 2019 Christchurch shooting.

1)    Resist war rhetoric: Ardern’s statements focused on the New Zealand population and communities affected,  giving almost no platform to the perpetrator himself. This lies in contrast to other incidents, where the official response has been more militaristic or reactionary and therefore heightened feelings of fear and antagonism in the general public. It is important to recognise the profound sense of violation and anger people experience after an attack, but this should not be made worse by inflammatory statements from officials (e.g. those boasting of government retaliation through warfare or crackdowns on civil liberties).

2)    Avoid saying the perpetrator’s name: Ardern made a point of referring to the shooter in the abstract, to avoid glorifying him or creating a sense of martyrdom in his actions. While the primary aim was to avoid rewarding him with notoriety, which many attackers long for (especially those radicalised and operating online), this strategy also avoided creating an “us” versus “them” narrative.

3)    Unite people through a global call to action: while admitting that white nationalism is a growing issue in New Zealand (even though the perpetrator was in fact an Australian citizen), Ardern encouraged all nations to respond and create an environment where such ideologies cannot flourish. Through initiatives like the Christchurch Call, she “succeeded in othering the terrorist, but not by treating him as an emissary from a hostile outside world; indeed, she [] succeeded in describing the tragedy in both national and global terms.”