“From bin Laden to Facebook” in Garmisch, Germany

Outside the lecture hall at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

Inside hall while staff prepares for lecture

I walked into the room and looked around. It was large. Each desk had a headset. I walked to the front where the podium was. It was flanked by two huge monitors on either side. It was like a mini United Nations.

I tested the two microphones. The officer who was briefing me pushed a button and the podium surface descended. The mics were on so everything we said was amplified in the room. It was a good sound system. No echo. I looked above me, and there were three translator booths.

The officer said, “we’re loading the slides and video now. If someone asks a question in a different language, pick up this headset and it will be translated for you.”

He showed me how to work the buttons on the side of the podium for the slide presentation. He took out a slim pen-pointer and said, “if you need a laser, you have to push this hard then point.”

I stood at the podium and realized I was too short. I asked, “would you have anything I can stand on so that even for a short while, I’ll be the tallest person in the room?”

He laughed. Leigh Ann Truly (I really love her name: in Tagalog, Ms Truly is Binibining Tapat!) said, “how about this?” and pointed to the little box that led to the stage. The officer picked it up and brought it. I stood on it. Perfect.

This was my own private FGD (focus group discussion) – a way for me to test and get feedback on some of the ideas I’m including in my new book. The audience, I was told, are top and mid-level officers and officials who focus on counterterrorism.

The title of my presentation is the title of my book: FROM BIN LADEN TO FACEBOOK. It is my two worlds coming together – terrorism studies and media – more specifically, social networks and how information and ideas spread through a population to win converts.

I study terrorism because I am fascinated by what motivates people to become terrorists. Why is their cause worth killing innocent civilians? Why would they want to kill themselves?

In the past, officials tried to answer these questions by looking at individual people. Analysts say this man was tortured, abused – but if we look broader, often times, we find that terrorists are ordinary people. They could be anyone.

I went from individual psychology to studies of group dynamics – groupthink – and to networks. I looked at the application of these theories to the networks created by Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda. I even applied lessons I learned from running the news organization of ABS-CBN. I focused on the three waves of evolution of the same terror network in Southeast Asia.

They accepted the thesis, were excited and receptive to the ideas in the presentation. An officer from Georgia wanted to focus more specifically on how the Asch experiments can explain radicalism, but another officer from the United States explained that it was only a small part of the experiments focusing on groupthink.

The questions they asked there and in the following seminars were thought-provoking, among them: What is the outlook for mass media in the future? How can we use this from a CT perspective? What do you do when Twitter misinforms and misleads? What is the role of journalists in conflict situations today? How would you rate how governments are using the new technology?

I then asked questions: How many of you are on Facebook? Twitter? How do you use networks in counterterrorism strategies in your countries? What role does media play in your country? How do you think it will change? How has your work changed in the past decade?

After intense discussions, we stepped outside the hall to an amazing view. The Marshall Center is in Garmisch, Germany at the base of its highest point at Zugspitze.

From the top of Zugspitze

It was an amazing week. Now time to write.

View from my Balcony

This entry was posted in Internet, Journalism, Leadership, Living Life, Terrorism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to “From bin Laden to Facebook” in Garmisch, Germany

  1. Jun Medina says:

    After you're done with you sabbatical writing a book, I hope you find your way back in Philippine journalism.

    Yes, Ressa, honest and dedicated people like you could make a difference.

  2. LadyInRed says:

    Just finished reading "Three Cups of Tea," and I'd be interested in your assessment of that book's premise that education may make the difference in the spread of radical Islam. The book comments that the success of extremist schools in countries with dysfunctional education systems comes because many of their students are jobless & economically deprived, and admire war because it is the only occupation they can possibly adapt to. Schools built by Greg Mortenson (the subject of the book) help counter that by giving students a balanced education and the tools to pull themselves out of poverty.

    • Maria Ressa says:

      Unfortunately, Mortensen's been discredited by recent findings. I think there was a 60 Minutes expose which showed his claims were exaggerated.

  3. Gigi says:

    Very nice. Keep the posts coming.

  4. likeeagles says:

    terrorism is driven by extremism in one's belief . it wont stop til someone still believes on it. i have been a part of counter terrorism campaign and a follower of Christ , and believes all these leads to biblical prophesy.

    In counter terrorism, more focused should be given on Humint Operations. develop more dedicated and honest officers.


  5. quicksilver says:

    Aw, you on a box made me laugh. =) But I'm sure once you started speaking, you started growing several feet. =) I am fascinated by terrorists, too. (Is that creepy?) I'm also afraid of them. Bid Laden, an Arab man, people with bombs strapped to their chests — those are our stereotypes of how terrorists should be..but really, it's evolving — they could be your next door neighbor, remotely launching missiles or shutting down government systems from their computers, and you'd never know. It's very difficult to wrap one's mind around why they do what they do – so I want to say thank you for going out there and doing the hard work of helping us find answers.

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