‘It’s all about design these days,” said Artur Beifuss, co-author of a book about branding.
Beifuss sounds like he might have experience in corporate marketing or advertising, maybe for a multinational company like Coca Cola, Nestlé or Google. But he doesn’t. Instead, he has worked for the United Nations as a counter-terrorism analyst, specializing in Islamic variety.
By watching thousands of horrific videos (“It’s not a nice job”), he came to realize that in our era, brand identity is important not only to commercial entities, but also to organizations that operate in the markets of insurrection, kidnapping, suicide bombing and beheading.
Terrorism may be a bloody business, but it is still a business.
Beifuss has co-authored a new book, “Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations,” together with his colleague Franceso Trivini Bellini, a professional graphic designer and creative director.
The Odessa-born, German Beifuss, 30, met the Italian Bellini, also 30, when they were both living for a period in Amsterdam, and they decided to pool their talents to create a reference guide to the visual identities of the world’s terror organizations.
“Branding, marketing and the visual communication of ideas and messages are tools that are used not only by corporations and political parties. Every organization that tries to put a message across, to influence an audience and to stand out in a highly competitive sector, or even to mark a claimed territory… needs a well-defined visual identity,” Beifuss writes in the introduction to the book.
Whether they are sophisticated in their branding attempts or not, all terrorist groups are aware that their logos and flags are key instruments in both planting fear and encouraging allegiance.
The fruit of Beifuss and Bellini’s joint 14-month effort is a black, leather bound reference guide aimed, according to Beifuss, at a general interest audience, as well as graphic designers and members of the intelligence and law enforcement communities. It’s not a book a layman would read per se, as much as something they would keep on a coffee table or on a readily reached shelf for occasional consultation, especially when one of these terrorist organizations makes the headlines.
“Terrorism is a bloody business, but if you are scared of it, it’s not a good way to deal with it,” Beifuss explained about his and Bellini’s intention to make the information accessible to everyone.
“We do not mean to make a political statement. It’s a delicate topic, and we don’t want to be seen as taking sides,” says Beifuss, who spoke with The Times of Israel from The Hague, where he is on temporary assignment at the United Nations before returning to Berlin, where he has recently been working in journalism and on other writing projects.
The authors were careful not to compile their own lists of insurgent and terrorist organizations, but rather opted to use lists of designated terrorist groups established by the United States, the European Union, Australia, Russia and India.
“Terrorism is defined by the legislation of the respective governments… an organization must be deemed to pose a threat to the security of its citizens and to engage in terrorist activities, which include planning and preparation,” the authors explain in their introduction. The United States and Australia list only foreign groups.
Given the focus of the book, terrorist groups without logos or flags didn’t make the cut.
Bellini worked to visually breakdown each of the 65 terrorist groups’ logos, identifying their individual elements in a black-and-white outline. He also provides the exact values of the colors involved, referring to the Pantone, CMYK and RGB systems used by graphic design professionals.
A first reaction to seeing the color values charts might be to think, as Steven Heller, former Art Director at the New York Times, writes in the books’ foreword, that “the extreme violence committed in the name of these logos makes writing about them in terms of aesthetics or production values seem silly and irrelevant.” The juxtaposition is jarring, but it’s worth getting over it in order to appreciate what can be learned.
Beifuss’ job was to conduct mainly open-source research to verify and validate the origins of the logotypes, and succinctly write up the history, ideologies and capabilities of the organizations. The multi-lingual Beifuss used his knowledge of Arabic, Russian, German, Spanish, French and English to do the research, and to help Bellini in translating the wording on the logos and flags.
“They’re all very aggressive, out-of-context suras from the Koran,” Beifuss notes about the wording on Islamic groups’ logos.
He needed outside assistance with other languages, including Hebrew. “When it came to the Kach and Kahane Chai logo, I turned to Hebrew-speaking friends for help,” he said in reference to the banned racist and terrorist organization founded by the assassinated Meir Kahane and the similarly banned breakaway group led by his son Benyamin Kahane.
“Branding Terror” goes no further than this, providing no overall analysis of the book’s subject, or a comparing or contrasting among logos and the organizations they represent.
“I didn’t want readers to perceive the logos through my eyes. That’s why I kept things very technical,” Beifuss offers by way of explanation.
He also says it is always difficult to generalize, but in conversation with a reporter, he agreed to share some of his broader observations. For instance, while most logos of European groups have stars on them to symbolize the left-wing nature of their insurgencies, the logos of Middle Eastern groups are more likely to feature geographical landmarks like the Dome of the Rock or a map of Palestine.
Many logos, especially those of terrorist organizations in the Middle East and Central Asia, show images of weapons, symbolizing the drive to reach aims through armed struggle.
“They usually use the weapons that are the ones used by the army of their respective country,” Beifuss says. Sometimes they depict the weapon of the country or group they are against, as can be seen from the M-16 (a standard issue IDF semi-automatic assault rifle) on the logo of the Palestinian Izz Ad-Din Al Qassam Brigades, part of Hamas.
“The groups that include swords are trying to give historical legitimacy to their struggle — or jihad, in Islamist cases,” he says. This can be seen, for instance, in the logos of the Gaza-based Army of Islam and Hamas.
“A map is a key element to localize the area to be liberated,” the author notes. The same is true of landmarks like the Dome of the Rock. In general, left wing Palestinian groups have not included the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic symbol. But there have been exceptions, with some left wing groups using the symbol to attract Muslims.
“In a dense situation like Palestine, with so many competing groups, it’s all about attracting followers,” says Beifuss.
At first glance, all the Palestinian terrorist organization’s logos seem to share the same colors (green, black, red, white, a bit of yellow) and iconography, but a closer look reveals that subtle distinctions in images and wordings are meant to help a group stand out in the crowd.
In Beifuss’ eyes, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas are standouts when it comes to Middle Eastern terrorist branding.
“They look like they are the only ones with professional media departments,” he says. “There is no question that Hezbollah’s logo was done by designers, and that they are using it as part of a sophisticated communications strategy.”
Its reach is amazing. In a bizarre twist on the ubiquitous corporate sponsorship we see in athletics, Beifuss pointed to a 2008 news item about an Italian amateur soccer club that printed shirts for its players with Hezbollah’s green assault-rifle logo. The team also changed its name from Carioca to Zassbollah — a combination of Hezbollah and the last name of the team captain, Luigi Zasso.
“The team had appropriated the Hezbollah logo in order to frighten its adversaries and to make them understand the extent to which it was prepared to fight to win a match.”