In recent decades, political terrorism, particularly terrorism associated with Middle Eastern causes and issues, has had a political impact out of all proportion to the cost it has inflicted in lives and physical destruction. This discordance between material and political effects indicates first, that political terrorism is essentially symbolic--that is, communicatory--in nature, and second, that under at least some conditions, terrorism can be a highly effective form of political communication.
This study therefore addresses two closely related questions: How does political terrorism achieve its communicatory effects, and what conditions are required if the message communicated is to accomplish its desired results? In seeking these questions, a historical methodology has been adopted, evaluating source literature related to communications and terrorism.
This study finds that the primary indicator of the effectiveness of a terrorist operation is not the material damage done or the lives taken, but its association with a clear political message. A specific contrast is drawn between Palestinian- and Iranian-associated terrorist operations, both of which have been highly effective in gaining publicity for their sponsors' respective goals, and terrorist operations associated with Libya's Moammar Kadafi, which have gained personal publicity for him, but have not substantively furthered his causes. It is argued that Kadafi's actions have failed to further his causes, because those causes are themselves too ill-defined for either antagonists or potential supporters to grasp and respond to his objectives.
This contrast supports the conclusion that the essential feature of effective terrorism is a sharply-defined message. Terrorism is indeed a medium of communication, and however dramatic the presentation, it fails to communicate effectively if the message itself is unclear.
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