Theming for Terror

Published in Poetics, 2018

Recommended citation: Alexander B. Kinney, Andrew P. Davis, Yongjun Zhang. 2018. "Theming for terror: Organizational adornment in terrorist propaganda." Poetics.

Research has shown that adornment strategies such as “theming” are a prominent and patterned phenomenon in institutional organizational life. Scholars have yet to investigate if, and how, ex- tra-institutional organizations such as terrorist organizations similarly utilize theming as a strat- egy to signal to their primary consumer base: recruits. To remedy this, we utilize a variety of computational topic modeling techniques built from Latent Dirichlet Analysis (LDA) to analyze a corpus of propaganda aimed at Western audiences. Drawing on the markets-as-politics paradigm we show how Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State organization (ISIS) maintain similar strategies of signaling global illegitimacy while cultivating distinct themes of terrorism in an effort to differentiate themselves from one another. We argue that terrorist organizations use propaganda to signal distinct organizational identity, even while broadly operating under the umbrella identity of Islamic fundamentalism. This focus on extra-legal organizations elaborates upon fundamental assumption of markets-as-politics and problematizes prior research asserting that strategies utilized by terrorist organizations to convey meaning are fundamentally the same.