The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations

They may have logos but can terrorist organisations really be thought of as brands?

Branding Terror has an urgent title and, at first sight, an irresistible premise. We are increasingly encouraged and inclined to think of every kind of product, organisation or event in terms of branding and brand values.

If anything can become a brand, if branding knows no moral boundaries and can support any kind of endeavour, good or bad, then why couldn’t it be applied to the mission and goals of the people we deplore as terrorists?

Of course, the terrorists see their causes in a different light: as a fight for freedom, or as the enaction of God’s will.

This is the first book to collect the iconography, the logos and flags, of terrorist groups – an “understudied subject”, say the authors. Counter-terrorism analyst Artur Beifuss and creative director Francesco Trivini Bellini are playing with fire here and they naturally proceed with caution, taking their designations of terrorist organisations from official lists drawn up by the United States, the EU, Australia, Russia and India. They avoid condemnatory language, preferring to concentrate on careful description as an aid to understanding. Their survey makes no claims to be a complete round-up of terrorist organisations since only groups with some form of visual emblem can be included. Branding Terror has a stern, black, leather-look cover and the forbidding air of a specialist handbook intended for use in the field by intelligence service operatives. No one could accuse the authors or the publisher, Merrell, of attempting to glamorise the subject.

The book details the visual output of 65 organisations, each one presented in the same crisply formatted style. First comes a short introduction, followed by a list of usually three representative outrages – truck bombings, suicide bombings, attacks on tourists, and so on. Then the logo is shown in colour and as a line drawing with labels pointing to key features of the iconography; a short text supplies further information about the image’s meaning. It comes as no surprise (though it’s still interesting to see) that certain devices are used repeatedly, particularly by the Islamist groups that dominate the book: assault rifles (often an AK-47), swords, the Qur’an, the shahada (Muslim declaration of faith), the globe, and the mosque. With leftist or communist groups, the five-pointed star is just as common as these images. Raised fists are popular and occasionally a less familiar device occurs: the tiger (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka), the axe (ETA, the Basque separatists), or the dove (Aleph, a Japanese group originally called Aum Shinrikyo, which mounted a gas attack in Tokyo’s subway).

All of this exerts a queasy fascination, but is it accurate to call these visual devices “branding”? Beifuss argues that the visual manifestations of identity – name, motto, dress codes and logo – are vital to an organisation’s influence and success. Any branding expert would agree. “It is therefore strategically important for a terrorist organisation to dedicate resources to narrowing the gap between its identity and its image, as seen from the viewpoint of its audience.” It would be highly illuminating to see evidence that terrorist groups think in such terms and to hear about the “resources” they allocate, but naturally enough no terrorists are available for interview about their visual aims. Nor do we learn anything about the artists or designers who produced these devices – this is the ultimate example of that much-cherished professional ideal: anonymous design. Any conclusions can only be suppositions based on the content and appearance of the designs and on the contexts in which they appear, though even this is a hazardous path.

Since the terrorists clearly weren’t going to be supplying hi-res images of their logos, this visual material could only be sourced online. That makes it easy to retrace the authors’ steps and see where the evidence most likely came from. Sometimes it would appear to be from Wikipedia, which is problematic because the site tends not to give the sources of these images (the person who uploaded an image cannot be regarded as the source). The sharply linear ETA logo found on Wikipedia is a redrawn image completely different in spirit from the crudely painted versions seen elsewhere online. Yet this is what the authors show. Because the quality of images in website news reports and photos tends to be poor, all the logos have been ‘retraced’ – in other words re-created – for printing in the book. This gives them an evenness of line, a balance, and an impression of visual control that they lack in reality; the authors even supply Pantone codes.

In his foreword, Steven Heller singles out the flag of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, a yellow star in a red circle against a green background, for being “as professionally impressive” as any examples in Branding Terror. None of the sources online are anywhere near as polished, though, and I found other cases where the book’s designers had cleaned up and improved rough and ready originals to a misleading degree.

What Google also reveals is that there are often far fewer images of these logos in circulation than one might expect if the aim was to brand a terrorist group using visual means. In truth, most of the ‘logos’ are not really logos at all by any professional definition – they are far too fiddly. Initially intrigued by the startling claim in the book’s title, I ended up thinking that “branding terror” was a misnomer and a category error, an attempt to graft a marketing precept born of capitalism’s promotional needs on to the activities of groups and belief systems fundamentally at odds with such purposes and ploys. Visual representation and symbolism existed long before branding became our watchword and it clarifies nothing to bend all phenomena to fit our conceptual frameworks and terminology. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the two most globally publicised and fearful names in contemporary terrorism, use only the calligraphic flourishes of the shahada on a plain background. There is no logo or brand.

Nevertheless, one has to wonder what fully branded terrorism would look like and how much cognitive dissonance it might provoke. There’s a small hint, perhaps, in the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) logo shown as an historical aside. The West German Baader-Meinhof gang members, the subject of books and films, are almost folkloric figures now. In the RAF logo, the bold white letters float over a submachine gun within a big red star. It’s like something from an album cover and it exudes an ambivalent sense of menace and cool. It could easily be a brand.

Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations, by Artur Beifuss and Francesco Trivini Bellini, is published by Merrell; £24.95.

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