“Branding is a tool that has no conscience or morality — it can be used for good or bad,” says design writer Steven Heller in his foreword to Branding Terror, a new book that explores the iconography used by terrorist groups across the world. Like consumer electronics companies and soft drinks manufacturers, 21st-century terrorists understand the purpose of brand identity — to create a message, to convey values, to spread awareness — even if those messages aren’t quite “Always Coca-Cola” or Google’s “Don’t be evil”.
Terrorists also, it becomes clear a few pages in, have no conscience when it comes to good design — the general rule of thumb for many seems to be “the more AK47s the merrier”. Yet despite a general penchant for crossed swords, clenched fists and heavy armaments, there are also some surprising exceptions. Al-Qaeda in Iraq have a logo of arms raising a flag that looks like it comes from a trendy graphic novel, while Italian leftist group Brigate Rosse favour something that looks like it was drawn on a fifth-former’s ring-binder. Meanwhile, there are the positively tasteful flags of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, a separatist group in Assam, India, who might consider entering themselves for some kind of design award were they not too busy bombing train stations and shooting bus passengers.
Of course, it’s not a subject to be taken lightly, and while the authors, Artur Beifuss and Francesco Trivini Bellini, go so far as to list each logo’s Pantone colours (as well as chiding Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for having “too many Photoshop filters and options”), they also make sure to outline both the history and aims of each group, and list some of the deadly actions for which they’re responsible. This is an examination of the power of design at its most potent.
Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations (Merrell) by Artur Beifuss and Francesco Trivini Bellini is out on 31 March