'I want to see how terrorists use PR'

I was an officer in the Regular Army for 14 years, and one of the things I became interested in during my military career was international terrorism. For my Masters dissertation, I wanted to analyse terrorism in the context of PR theory and see whether modern-day terrorists use PR.

I've had rather a curious life, I suppose. After leaving the Regular Army in 1993 (and then joining the Territorial Army), I worked for the medical relief charity Merlin, where I first became involved in PR. In 1995, I was asked to go to Bosnia, and once there, the chap looking after media operations left and I was asked if I'd replace him. I was already interested in how people perceive an organisation and how organisations relate to people, which is at the heart of PR.

In 2000, the Army asked if I would develop the doctrine for working with the media. This was in the wake of Kosovo, where there were 3,500 journalists milling around. I then helped to establish the Army's new Defence Media Operations Centre. As I'd become so involved with PR by then, I felt it would be helpful to further my studies.

For my dissertation, I decided to focus on al-Qa'ida. First I took the public statements made by the al-Qa'ida leadership, mainly Osama bin Laden, and did a discourse analysis. I looked at both written and verbal statements to see how language was used - especially words such as jihad ("holy war") - and then tracked this over time. In the mid-1990s, the focus was on Islam as a rejection of the West, but as time went on, the rhetoric became more anti-Western and with more references to the US.

I then searched for words such as jihad in the databases of five newspapers and broadcasters, including The New York Times and the Gulf News, to plot their frequency. What I found was that nobody made any mention of Bin Laden or al-Qa'ida until they started to blow things up. In 1996, Bin Laden declared jihad against the West and not a single newspaper mentioned it. In 1998 there was a further declaration and again there was no mention in the Western media I looked at. It only began to be mentioned when embassies in Africa were attacked, but the point at which al-Qa'ida really took off was 9/11. This planted in the Western media a discussion about Islamic issues. Al-Qa'ida has reawakened the West to the Islamic world. As an exercise in PR it's been hugely successful.

What I've concluded is that terrorism is a combination of message and violence, and to be successful you need both. I've also found that the way PR is usually defined - as a way to generate good will - is wrong. Organisations also use PR for ill will.