Recycling violence: How maps about terrorism fail to round up the argument

By Rodrigo Bueno Lacy, Henk van Houtum & Kevin Raaphorst


The truncated picture

When it comes to maps about terrorism, there is a pervasive cartopolitical misrepresentation.

Predominantly, maps depicting terrorism tend to zoom into either the ‘Middle East’ or ‘the West’. The visual construction of these regions as geopolitical realities justifies their cartographic dissection and this, in turn, manifests itself in dramatic material consequences (Said 1978, p. xii). The selective focus on either region offers an incomplete sight of the circular violence that is recycled between Islamic terrorism and what in the Middle East is perceived as Western terrorism.

The Orientalist mapmaking of Islamist terrorism

Maps focused on ‘the Middle East’ advocate the one-sided view that terrorism is something that happens there, grows there and is overall a culturally specific production of Arab-Muslim societies. The assertion of these cartographic texts is that the source of Islamist terrorism can be not only geographically but also culturally located.

The map of ISIS crafted by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), an American think tank of neo-conservative orientation that promotes an aggressive foreign policy, is a good example of this kind of misleading cartographic argument (see Figure 1). The maps imagined by ISW have provided the basis for a great deal of cartographic representations of ISIS all across international media (link in Dutch).

ISIS ISW
Figure 1. The cartopolitical construction of ISIS. Source: Institute for the Study of War (ISW)

By creating a neatly demarcated area of ISIS-controlled territory as depicted in maps like these, the chaotic territorial gains of a violent insurgency are invested with the cartographic rank of a state. This visual manufacture, in turn, renders the area portrayed and the populations contained by it as legitimate targets of state-led bombings.

The meticulously demarcated territory of ISIS becomes the visual extension of the callous foreign policy discourse contending that airstrikes can be conducted with the precision of a ‘surgical operation’: If ISIS can be charted with mathematical accuracy, then bombings can surely be conducted with mathematical accuracy too—so goes the logic. This is an illusion. Neither the geopolitical situation pictured on these maps nor the foreign policy they advocate exists outside of their cartographic representation (link in Dutch).

A political map is unavoidably a political statement. Maps that locate ISIS in the Middle East conceal ISIS’ wider network (see Figure 3). By obscuring the role of terrorist cells in, say, both Europe and America, these maps conceal the responsibility that Western countries also bear for  Islamist terrorism. European and American radical Islamists provide ISIS with invaluable technical support—in the form of translation and IT skills to spread ISIS propaganda in the West—and the main means to perpetrate their terrorist attacks in Europe and the US—Schengen and American passports as well as inside knowledge about the countries where ISIS plans its most high-profile attacks. 

An escape from this misleading cartographic objectivity of terrorism requires the proliferation of maps. We need to create maps that break away from the straitjackets of conventional cartography. We need to be able to visualize what these maps hide, particularly the emotional charge that endows the geopolitical dramas that these maps aim at representing with all their geopolitical force: the violence, the suffering but also the connections and the familiarity. 

Jihadists from Europe
Figure 2. A slightly more critical map: ISIS is also in Europe. Source: The Economist

The inexplicability of terrorism

On the other hand, an example of the kind of cartographic statements that tend to suggest that Europe is merely a victim on which Islamist attacks are perpetrated is a map of Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe crafted by the German Press Agency (DPA) (see Figure 3).

The visual composition of maps focused on ‘the West’ sends the unspoken message that terrorism is unpredictable, acts like an untraceable phantom and takes place in a scattered number of locations around Europe and the US—usually big metropoles like New York, London, Madrid and Paris, which are targeted for maximum symbolic impact.

The suggestion that Islamist terrorist attacks are random and that Western countries are helpless victims stokes the phobic perception that the large territorial extensions of the US and the EU are vast vulnerable targets of unpreventable terrorist attacks. Such inexplicability of terrorism provides it with its power to spread fear and, in turn, it is precisely this paranoia which leads voters in liberal democracies to betray their most fundamental principles and support ‘whatever-it-takes’ measures in order to forestall further terrorist attacks—think of the Patriot Act or the state of emergency introduced by Hollande after the attacks on Paris in 2015.

Islamic terror attacks in Western Europe (23.03.2016)
Figure 3. Selected Islamist terrorist attacks and attempts in EU countries. Source: German Press Agency

Giving in to fear

Paradoxically, it is maps like the ones shown above—together with the fear-mongering and war-raging populist discourse that usually accompanies them and which reaches a new peak after each terrorist attack—that stoke the fear that terrorist bombers intended to spread in the first place. These maps act as visual bombs that detonate larger waves of fear after the terrorist attacks have taken place.

The panicked attitude and the desire to eradicate the ‘phantom of terrorism’—ie, a spectre whose frightening power derives from its its other-worldly nature—is the source of much of a state-led terrorist discourse that promotes sweeping bombings of Arab-Muslim societies as a sensible way to fight Islamist terrorism.

Ironically, it is precisely these bombings which beef up the anti-Western discourse on which Islamist terrorist organisations depend to recruit ever larger numbers of members and justify ever more radical terrorist attacks in both the West and the Middle East.

Both, maps focused on the West and maps focused solely on the Middle East, locate entire victimhood or entire responsibility on one side only. Through these cartopolitical depictions, victims acquire the whole moral high-ground while the perpetrators are endowed with the most despicable intentions.

This extremist othering is part of a larger discourse on which both Western terrorist states and Islamist terrorist groups draw to promote each other’s mutual dehumanization. It is by depriving our enemies from their humanity that we get to feel comfortable about conducting the most heinous acts in the form of either state-led bombings across Muslim-Arab societies or Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe.

Maps showing only either the Middle East or Europe fail to take into account that Islamist terrorism is also a product of ‘Westernisation’ and that Islamist terrorism thrives on the same violence that has been injected into Muslim-Arab societies through decades of life-disregarding bombings and invasions.

What goes around comes around

When Russia started bombing Syria, a Russian plane was shot down by ISIS. When France started bombing Syria, ISIS hit Paris, since Turkey opened its air bases to the coalition bombing ISIS in Syria, Istanbul has been targeted. The allegedly omnipresent and untameable ghost of Islamist terrorism is rather the very reliable and sadly predictable material response to very specific material aggression in the Middle East.

Some countries in the EU have seen the worst Islamist attacks on their territories over the last 15 years, which have been precisely the years during which the same EU Member States have been participating in invasions or bombings of Muslim-Arab societies—eg, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria—as part of the American-led colonization of the Middle East within the frame of the war on terror.

Crucially, terrorism is neither unexplainable nor unpredictable. State-led terrorism by the West is perceived in the attacked Muslim-Arab countries as murderous and despicable an ideology as the Islamist terrorism promoted by the likes of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is regarded in the West.

Paradoxically, Western and Islamist fundamentalisms are growing stronger fueled by their own retaliation logics. Extreme politicians in the West on the one hand and Islamist groups in the Middle East on the other are taking hostage entire societies by promoting discourses that lead them to self-harming actions. Their bombs feed a violent discourse that requires continuous death in both their societies and those of their enemies to survive. The more bombs on each side, the more supporters ready to bomb the other side.

To be precise, the amount of violence experienced in invading Western countries constitutes but a fraction of the violence that is experienced in the invaded countries of the Middle East. Expressing subject matter such as human suffering merely in numbers dehumanizes the issue: although numbers show the relativity of violence, they do not make justice to the geopolitical meaning of its frightful contrast. We argue that by adding an artistic element such as a blood spatter we are able to represents the issue more truthfully—keeping the red spots proportionate to the amount of civilian casualties. Additionally, by letting the blood spill unto the legend we aim at making explicit the strong metaphorical relation between the abstract annotation and the concrete human suffering depicted on the map.

RecyclingViolence_old_Blood_Final
Figure 4. Recycling violence. Mapmakers: Mark Reij, Rodrigo Bueno Lacy, Henk van Houtum & Kevin Raaphorst

Click here to download mapNCBR_Map-Recycling Violence

Hence, in the map above (Figure 4) we have tried to bypass the limitations of the conventional cartography on Islamist terrorism by designing a cartopolitical statement that shows the circularity of the violence that fuels Islamist and western extremism.

The violence that is sown by Western armies in the Middle East is later recycled as violence in the metropoles of the US and the EU—and vice versa.

What goes around comes around.

Further readings

  1. Al-Azmeh, A. (2001). Civilization, Culture and the New Barbarians. International Sociology, 16(1), 75-93.
  2. Bueno Lacy, R., & Van Houtum, H. (2015). Lies, Damned Lies & Maps: The EU’s Cartopolitical Invention of Europe. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 23(4), 477-499.
  3. Prestholdt, J. (2009). Phantom of the Forever War: Fazul Abdullah Muhammad and the Terrorist Imaginary. Public Culture, 21(3), 451-464.
  4. Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. London: Penguin.
  5. Van Houtum, H., & Van Naerssen, T. (2002). Bordering, Ordering and Othering. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 95(2), 125-136.
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