Rolling Stone magazine recently previewed its next issue with Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev featured on the cover. Within hours of this cover going public, social media discussions have lit up and comments have poured in. To put it mildly, most of the reactions that I’ve seen so far have been extremely negative. Several stores have decided not to put this issue on their shelves. After all, isn’t the cover of "Rolling Stone" supposed to be reserved for rock stars? How is it possible that a terrorist would get the cover?
Almost certainly, the cover image of Tsarnaev will be prominently featured across a wide range of jihadi terrorist propaganda going forward, including any subsequent issue of Inspire magazine-—the very same English language publication of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula where the Tsarnaev brothers likely learned to build the pressure cooker bombs and detonators that they used in the attacks that killed three, and injured scores. In fact, the Boston Marathon attacks have already been celebrated in the recently released 11th issue of Inspire Magazine. This publication especially lionized Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzokhar’s older brother who evidently led the planning and execution of the attacks, and was later killed in a confrontation with police.
Putting Tsarnaev on the cover of such an iconic mainstay of popular culture may indeed have the unintended consequence of increasing his status significantly—in all the wrong places. Many studies of radicalization and the impact of terrorist propaganda have highlighted the importance of terrorist actions and actors in generating publicity. In terrorist attacks, media attention is quite often an explicit goal. For those who would perpetrate such attacks, the allure of the kind of repute and notoriety that result may be an important factor in drawing them from contemplation toward action. The attacks on the Boston Marathon received massive media attention, as did the resulting manhunt that essentially shut down the greater Boston area. This chain of events has been widely celebrated in jihadi terrorist circles.
Understandably there is significant interest in the Tsarnaevs’ radicalization and trajectory toward terrorism. We want to understand how someone who was by all accounts a popular and well-adjusted student, with many friends, could engage in such horrific violence. As someone who studies terrorist motivations and radicalization, with an especially keen interest in the influence of propaganda in the recruiting process, I feel that it is important for us to learn from this example. Of course this requires good research and investigative journalism. The article, “Jahar’s World” by Janet Reitman is in fact a very well researched and written piece and in my opinion deserves a wide readership.
However, the editorial decision to feature Dzokhar on the cover of "Rolling Stone" will have the unfortunate consequence of directly contributing to future jihadist propaganda. Covering terrorism requires a careful consideration of the consequences of such coverage. After all, one of the central goals of this particularly insidious form of political violence is to generate widespread coverage and media attention that essentially amplifies the impact and consequences of the violence - while simultaneously making its perpetrators appear larger-than-life, of importance and stature. In this case, Rolling Stone created a cover image that jihadist propagandists are going to re-use, re-circulate, and love.