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A shifting enemy: analysing the BBC’s representations of “al-Qaeda” in the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 attacks

Critical Studies on TerrorismJournal abstract

This article seeks to explore how the BBC made sense of the al- Qaeda phenomenon in its flagship “News at Ten” bulletin during the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 attacks. Using Critical Multimodal Discourse Analysis, it shows how the BBC’s representations function as a dynamic and continually shifting site upon which a range of fears, identities, discourses and forms of knowl- edge and power struggle and contend, and through which a number of different “al-Qaedas” manifest themselves. In particular, three shifting modes of visual and verbal representation are identified within the BBC’s coverage which each correspond to a separate understanding of al-Qaeda: the “Islamic” mode, the “Personalised” mode and the “Elusive” mode. These representations both draw upon and challenge the dominant discourses surrounding Islam, non-state terrorism and the identities of terrorist suspects, providing audiences with a variety of often conflicting ways of seeing and speaking about this entity. As such, the article provides insight into the complex nature of the BBC’s representations of al-Qaeda during its coverage of the September 11th 2001 attacks, and shows how such complexity serves, albeit inadvertently, to legitimise the far-reaching counterterrorism policies that were enacted in the aftermath of these attacks.

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