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Terrorist e-Autobiographies: An Underexamined Form of Online Propaganda?

Terrorist e-Autobiographies: An Underexamined Form of Online Propaganda?
17th August 2020 Simon Copeland
In Insights

Whilst terrorists have long been noted as proficient writers, their autobiographical accounts have traditionally been viewed sceptically as after-the-fact justifications of their actions or, possibly even more cynically, as a means for those with limited career prospects to make money. The Internet changes this dynamic. With anyone, including active members of terrorist groups, now able to publish and distribute accounts of their lives almost immediately to a potentially huge audience, the nature of the medium changes. Sitting at the intersection of literary work, propaganda, and occasionally, manifesto, internet-published, e-autobiographies have been produced by jihadists, lone-actor terrorists and foreign fighters.

Although personal or biographical stories have been widely used in terrorist publications, e-autobiographies are distinct outputs in their own right. These works usually take the form of PDFs that provide a detailed account of the author’s life from birth through to their engagement in political violence, and potentially beyond. The content of such texts has understandably been of great interest to researchers; like conventional autobiographies providing a unique insight into the minutia of daily life within terror groups or access to the mind of perpetrators of violence. Without the input of professional ghost-writers, editors, proof-readers, and publishers those distributed online may present a more authentic account than their commercially available counterparts.

The form of these self-published texts is also interesting, revealing much about the intentions and cultural influences of those who produce them. With no formal publisher or stylistic conventions, terrorists are considerably less restrained than most to present their accounts as they wish. This makes the great lengths they go to imitate the form and aesthetics of conventional autobiographies all the more remarkable. Almost all include front covers, dedications, forewords and photographs.

Some go even further. American domestic terrorist and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, for example, includes an effusive ‘about the author’ section in his e-autobiography drawing on the language of promotional material seen on conventionally published autobiographies in proclaiming that ‘Rudolph has never before spoken about his case’. Similarly, the front cover of self-published account of American foreign fighter, Omar Hammami, mimics the font and style of the ‘breaking news’ features of US news broadcasters, reading: ‘Exclusive: US JIHADIST UNVEILED’. In producing autobiographies for dissemination via the Internet, terrorists then appear to seek legitimacy, not only for their actions or causes, but also for the value of their accounts as both literary works and as stories that the wider public have an interest in reading.

There is also no set model as to how these texts are distributed. Many are posted on websites sympathetic to the author’s political cause, and are freely available to anyone who wishes to download them. Others have been sent out en masse through email lists. Eric Rudolph initially released his autobiography from prison through a specialist online self-publishing platform that allows authors to receive payment from their work. Federal prosecutors – seeking to hinder the distribution of a text that contained considerable detail about his attack planning – used a clause in his plea agreement to argue that he could not profit from selling his life story. However, doing so has proven counterproductive with the text having been made freely available online as a result.

E-autobiographies also present a particularly effective propaganda tool for terrorist groups, often resonating strongly with target audiences in a number of unique ways. Rather than merely presenting arguments to convince a reader of the legitimacy of a cause, autobiographical narratives invite the consumer to directly immerse themselves in the worlds of others. Research has shown  that this transportation, or the act of being lost in a text, in turn, shapes the real-world views of readers upon their return.

This illusion of intimacy with others’ stories is particularly prevalent where the reader sees the protagonist as sharing a similar background, characteristics or situations. For those toying with the idea of travelling to Syria, for example, e-autobiographies provide a means to access the realities of those who have ‘been there and done it’, whilst at the same time intrinsically merging one’s own ideas, beliefs and past experiences into these accounts. Terrorists’ actions are, at least in part, inspired by the stories they have heard and the ones they imagine will be told about themselves.

E-autobiographies present a unique form of terrorist-produced material; their content and form warranting analysis in their own right. That said, there has been little examination of them as a distinct entity that overlaps with, but is necessarily different from, terrorist propaganda. Doing so may reveal more about the role of narrative in making political violence an attractive or necessary proposition for many individuals.

Simon Copeland is a researcher within the Legal Innovation Lab Wales, a £5.6M initiative within Swansea University’s Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law that is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.