Video Games Don't Create Terrorists But Jihadi Ideology Does
by DR. WALID PHARES
January 28, 2011
As someone familiar with videogames and have been monitoring Jihadi terror strategies for the last 30 years, my findings about the links between both phenomena are clear: Videogames, per se, do not create Terrorists but Jihadi ideology does. I am reasserting this equation because of an online debate that was provoked by a report aired by Russia Today (RT) TV this week in the wake of the Terror attack against Moscow’s Domodedovo international airport that left dozens of casualties, which hinted at the similarities between the massacre and a videogame produced in the United States last year. The RT report prompted significant criticism by the video-gaming community online who in general refuted the allegation that this particular game could inspire real world terror against the Russian airport. Usually I wouldn’t have been part of this open clash of arguments but because of couple footages aired in the RT report I found myself somewhat in the middle of it, unsolicited. In this piece I’ll be explaining my two cents and leaving the real debate to its experts.
“The bloody scenes of the Moscow attack are reminiscent of what can be seen in a year-old computer game, the scenario of which controversially involves a character who is urged to kill civilians in an imaginary Russian airport. In the mission dubbed “No Russian” the player goes on a terrorist rampage, helping to massacre civilians in a fictitious Moscow airport. It may have seemed too gruesome and tragic ever to come true.”
So far the report attempts to make a direct link between people who have played the game and those who have perpetrated the actual attack on Moscow’s airport. Obviously such a charge is global, and generalizing, even though the scenes in the game and in the terror attack are at first sight, comparable. The critics, mostly from the US but many other countries counter-charged that a game by itself is not responsible for bloodshed in any particular country. This heated discussion has to be backed by research, data, psychologists and social scientists. The direct relation between a video about war, strikes, and in general terms violence, and acts of violence in the real world is a discussion that needs its own experts, assuming the equation is about individuals who play games and individuals who commit acts of violence.
My only finding here is that although “individuals” could be inspired by scenes of violence from a particular game and could perform a copycat act (and there were similar cases over the past decade), this would less likely apply to terrorists. For in my own observation and research, videogames do not create terrorists, ideologies do. However my major findings with regards to the link between videogames and Terrorism are about the ideological manipulation of games, all games and all ages. In my decade and a half observation of Jihadi use of video gaming I saw multiple examples that are illuminating. Some had to do with video production and other have to do with the use of videogames produced by companies. In the first set, we’re all very familiar with the computer games created by Hezbollah and Hamas. They are available online. Some Salafist groups have also produced theirs. These aren’t commercial series but they are part of the organizations’ propaganda machines. Children and young adults are encouraged to watch them and play so that they harden their convictions. This has nothing to do with regular videogames produced by companies for the purpose of entertainment. The Jihadi videogames are aimed at real world killing with very precise characterizations. While the war-like videogames such as “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” “Rise of Nations” or “Counter-Strike,” even though very graphic and in some cases silly, are just games played by teens and older people. They aren’t directly and ideologically inciting and aren’t connected to real world organizations.
Another hypothetical finding, more difficult to prove, was built on years of monitoring. Many players including in games I watched for that particular purpose, signaled the presence of teams of Jihadists online who would enter an ongoing live game and act if they were training. Since most of these videogames connect with internet, people from around the world “play together.” In many instances teams of players injected themselves in the game and conducted several “operations.” One of the indicators has been the “talk” and the “narrative” used by the groups: it matched the Jihadi narrative. They often cited current events as they “played” and used terminology used in Salafi chat rooms or Hezbollah discussion groups online. So can we say that Terrorists or militants use games produced for the purpose of entertainment? Of course they can and of course they do. Haven’t Jihadists used paintball gaming in Virginia to train for real terror? The 2002 indictment by a US court of a group of members of Lashkar Taiba led by Ismael Royer is just the brightest example of the use of games for the purpose of Terror. The Jihadists perform these trainings like all militaries worldwide, only it is in the goal of attacking civilians too.
One has to note though that Terrorists, including Jihadists, would use “closed circuits” to virtually train. Absolutely: We’d assume that most of the training occurs in LAN or Local Area Network, as is the case with regular militaries. But keep in mind that “testing tactics” with “other combatants” is also part of terror training. Entering an ongoing online game is perhaps one of the best psychological training for Jihadi groups who are already indoctrinated and have already connected as a group: Simply because they are meeting “the infidel” online before they meet them in the real world. Hence it explains the repetitive military orders and ideological terms used in some of the games we watched online over the decade. But here again, one needs the full resources of Government to be able to track these activities.
To go back to the story, my findings served as a background analysis when I was asked by RT to comment on the possibility that individuals could have been inspired by “Call of Duty” (an American produced game) scene “No Russian” to perform the massacre in Moscow. My expanded answers in the long interview were clear: Games (any warfare or violence game) could eventually influence a crazy guy who may go on a rampage, but games do not create terrorists. And those who attacked Moscow’s airport (the people who decided, prepared, and executed) aren’t isolated gamers but part of an ideologically motivated network. In several other interviews that evening I argued that Jihadists both originating from the North Caucasus and beyond are waging a war not just on Russia but on the US, Europe, India and parts of the Muslim world.
Obviously watching the scenes in the videogame and comparing it with the real attack is chilling but one cannot establish a direct connection between a videogame produced in the US and an attack in Russia. Rather the connection is between the videogame and Jihadi use, worldwide. That’s what I told RT that night but the quotes didn’t help readers follow my comprehensive analysis. The cut which was aired and published missed the large explanation and selected the following:
“Indeed it is a trouble to look at the game and reality. The issue is we need to know if terrorists or extremists are using these videos or DVDs or games to basically apply the model,” Walid Phares, Director of Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said.
“I think those who have been radicalized already – that is supposed in this case jihadists, Al-Qaeda or other kind – they look at the games and say these games will serve them to train,” Walid Phares added.
But nevertheless the statement was clear enough to underline my central notion that Jihadists “use” games for training.
“Russia Today’s report, which emphasized that the video game was made by Americans, included an interview with Walid Phares, a Fox News terrorism analyst, who suggested that terrorists might be using virtual games like this one to train for real attacks. “I think those who have been radicalized already — let’s suppose in this case jihadists, Al Qaeda or [some] other kind — they look at the games and say these games will serve them to train,” Mr. Phares said.
He introduced me as a Fox News terrorism analyst although I wasn’t flagging this ID in my interview with the Russian TV. This shows clearly that the New York Times was troublemaking in its feud with Fox News. I am a proud analyst-expert for Fox News but the NYT emphasis was irrelevant as I was conducting an interview with RT. That’s a first evidence of the reason behind the New York Times meddling in this discussion. They don’t like the notion that I am exposing the Jihadi ideology and their tactics. Mackey tried to misuse my statements which precisely meant the opposite of his charge. It is not out of context, as the Times lack journalists who know the minimum about Jihadism. The last writer who understood the ideology of the Jihadist was A.M Rosenthal who resigned years ago.
This branding of my statement as an “endorsement” of the RT argument, while I was arguing otherwise, triggered a chain reaction in the blogosphere –which was amusing and educational- with many video-gaming bloggers unhappy with my distorted comment, thinking wrongly that I am arguing that this videogame “Call of Duty” is an inspiration to the Moscow attack by some player. I wrote this piece to set the record straight and reiterate my point: games don’t create terrorists; the latter are the ones who use games to enhance their capacities.
In this piece I also achieved two goals: One is to educate my readers about the real use by Jihadists of video and cyber training and two is to admonish the New York Times “trick” and warn readers from drawing conclusions too fast at the reading of this media’s production.