‘Branding Terror’ and the Art of Propaganda

Dawn Perlmutter is the Director of the Symbol Intelligence Group and one of the leading subject matter experts (SME) in symbols, symbolic methodologies, unfamiliar customs and ritualistic crimes. She designed and developed Jihad-ID, a symbolic database of the signs, symbols and identifiers of global jihad.


Branding-Terror-HR21Branding Terror, The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations is a new book that claims to present an objective analysis of terrorist symbols. The authors, Odessa-born, German Artur Beifuss, a former United Nations counter-terrorism analyst, and Italian professional graphic designer Francesco Trivini Bellini, produced a beautiful but biased reference guide for members of the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Merrell, the book’s publishing company, specializes in art, fashion and gardening books, which should be the first clue that the information in this counter terrorism reference guide is problematic. The book’s 60 beautifully illustrated emblems, accompanied by a symbolic analysis and description of each group’s ideology, have a decidedly anti-American, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian liberal bias that only serves to perpetuate the propaganda issued by the very terrorist organizations that are included in the book.

Beifuss and Bellini are more fascinated with the branding, marketing and visual communication of the terrorist groups than with the ugly realities of what these symbols represent. The book smells of political correctness, beginning with its disclaimers and apologies for the terrorist groups represented in the book, making it clear that the selected emblems were the result of a combination of designated terrorist lists from five countries.  As if compensating for having to have to include so many Palestinian terrorist organizations, the authors perpetuate anti-Israel bias in their analysis of five Palestinian group symbols that include the map of Israel in their logo (Palestinian Islamic Jihad p. 173, Palestinian Liberation Front, p. 255,  Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine p. 263, PFLP military wing p. 265 and the PFLP General Command p. 271). In each emblem the authors neglect to identify the obvious image as the map of Israel and choose to refer to it as an outline of Palestine. It is difficult to imagine that Beifuss, who worked for the United Nations as a counter-terrorism analyst, would not be aware of the fact that depicting the map of Israel as Palestine proliferates this classic anti-Semitic propaganda. This is reinforced by their descriptions throughout the book of the perception of Israel as occupying Palestine.

Political correctness is also evident in Beifuss and Bellini’s analysis of the emblems of Islamist jihadist terrorist groups, particularly their choice to camouflage the meaning of very significant concepts such as jihad, dawa, sharia and the phrase “Allahu Akbar.” The phrase “Allahu Akbar” appears in three emblems in the book and in each symbol the authors refer to it as the “takbir” which they define in their glossary as ‘The Arabic term for the Arabic phrase Allahu Akbar (“god is the greatest”) used by Muslims as an expression of faith; in prayer; in times of distress; and to express celebration or victory, determination or defiance” (p. 329). The terrorist organizations in the book that used this phrase in their emblems include: the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is linked with the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi; The Caucasus Emirate, the Chechen group that is likely affiliated with the Boston Marathon bombing; and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which committed numerous suicide attacks, killing dozens of civilians. The phrase “Allahu Akbar” in their emblems does not represent a benign expression of faith, it represents the battle cry of the Mujahideen before, during or after they are killing the enemies of Islam.

The Kahane Chai logo, the only Israeli symbol in the book is depicted by a clenched fist inside a Star of David and is described as conveying courage, strength and militancy and illustrating “the violent means Kahane Chai is prepared to use in order to achieve its objectives” (p. 195). Similarly, the clenched fist depicted in the emblem of the Northern Ireland group, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, which interestingly also sits within a six-pointed star (that represents the six counties of Northern Ireland) is described as meaning “courage, strength and militancy, and symbolizing the UFF’s commitment to the use of violence” (p. 305). However, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad emblem that contains two clenched fists, two rifles, the dome of the rock and the map of Israel, are interpreted as justifiable and benign. The fists and rifles are characterized as “a protective frame for the mosque and thus the Palestinian nation; these elements also refer to the group’s militancy and its commitment to jihad in order to liberate Palestine from perceived Israeli occupation” (p. 173).

There are two clenched fists in the emblem of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which are described as representing “unity and resistance” (p. 103). The other three symbols in the book that have clenched fists all are holding a rifle and are all Iranian groups. In the logo of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the clenched fist holding a rifle is described as standing for armed resistance (p. 149); the fist holding an AK47 in the emblem of the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq is described as a symbol of the group’s militancy (p. 199); and the fist holding the rifle in the logo of Hezbollah is described as emerging “from the letter known as ‘alef’, the first letter of the word Allah” (p. 147). Violence is only associated with the Israeli and Irish emblems, both of which do not have any weapons in their logo.

Anti-Americanism is evident in the authors’ description of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is characterized as “a reaction to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq” (p. 53) instead of as the U.S.-led Coalition Forces. The authors also neglect to mention the dozens of beheadings carried out by al-Zarqawi’s group and misidentify the imagery in the al-Qaeda in Iraq symbol. An image of a hand with the index finger pointing up is described as “a fist with the index finger pointing up to God” (p. 55) and interpreted to simply mean “legitimizing the militant struggle” (p. 55). They do not expand on that very prevalent image of the hand with the index finger pointing up that is found in numerous Salafi jihadist groups and represents their willingness to be killed, attaining martyrdom and entrance into Paradise.

The book “Branding Terror” essentially sugarcoats the jihadist threat by applying a biased interpretation of the emblems, minimizing the iconography of martyrdom and sanitizing obvious violent indicators, such as the black flags of jihad and swords that are depicted in many of the Islamist logos. The sword is described throughout the book as a premodern weapon that represents the historical struggle in early Islam. Two crossed swords in the emblem of the Indonesian group Jemmah Anshorut Tauhid are described as indicating “JAT’s commitment to jihad. As a pre-modern weapon, the sword is linked to early Islamic jihad campaigns; it is also associated with the purity and nobility of early Islamic heroes. By using swords as a design element JAT confers legitimacy on its jihadi activities, and portrays them as a modern extension of historical jihadi campaigns” (p. 187). There is no reference at all to the swords’ significance in representing “the sword verses” in the Quran, which jihadists use to justify their violence or that they represents Jihad by the sword (jihad bis saif), which refers to armed fighting in holy war.

The foreword, written by former New York Times art director Steven Heller, sets the tone for the liberal bias and functions as a disclaimer for the liberal sin of producing a book on terrorism. The first sentence reads: “Any irregular fighting force can technically be seen as a terrorist organization,” and in the next paragraph he writes, “Terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on one’s perspective).” On the same page Heller says, “Those whom we call terrorists, even the most ragtag rebels, wherever they reside, usually have a cause they are fighting for” (p. 7). This is quite an apologetic foreword to a counter-terrorism reference book. The introduction is even more indicative of the biased and/or bad research in the book, for instance, when the authors describe a cute story about how an Italian amateur football club appropriated the Hezbollah logo for their team in order to frighten their adversaries, and neglect to reveal that the choice also fit in with the center-left Italian government’s policy of encouraging Middle Eastern radicals.

Merrell, the book’s publisher, claims on its website that “Branding Terror does not seek to make any political statements; rather, it offers insight into an understudied area of counter-intelligence, and provides an original and provocative source of inspiration for graphic designers.”  The statement that this book’s aim is to be a source of inspiration for graphic designers is truly obscene and makes it clear that the authors have no concept of what these symbols represent. These groups are not selling cereal; they are selling fear and their “brand” is backed up by murder, suicide attacks, beheadings and bombings. They are not misunderstood freedom fighters, or peaceful protestors — they are mass murderers. Sugarcoating the violence minimizes the threat, and referring to their emblems as “brands” also diminishes the seriousness of their violent ideologies.

It is important that these symbols represent a threat to both the public and to law enforcement so that terrorists can be identified. The authors should stick to producing art books, as they have no training in the significant subtleties of the subliminal and covert imagery contained in terrorist propaganda. Unfortunately, the media is now peddling this book as if it is another coffee table fad. The Huffington Post describes how the authors are deconstructing symbols of 60 global terrorist groups, and, more disturbing, the Times of Israel has given it a glowing review without realizing the anti-Israel content. Beifus and Bellini do not demystify the visual imagery of terrorism, they just undermine the threat.

Palestinian Group Symbols

Palestinian terrorist group symbols in the book Branding Terror that have a map of Israel in their logo. The map of Israel is identified as an outline of Palestine in the new book.

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  • Sam

    Excellent article! This review shows in-depth knowledge and expertise.

  • Hard Little Machine

    So Macy’s will carry Hezbollahwear next to the Polo rack?

  • Egyptsteve

    The purpose of the book is to analyze the imagery used by militant groups — not to analyze, apologize for, or polemicize against the groups themselves, or to survey their causes or history. You are blaming the authors for not writing the book you would have written, instead of reviewing the book they actually did write.