Modern warfare is defined by ambiguity—and with it, soldiers (and training) have had to adapt. Posted online this week, a U.S. Army document guides soldiers through the rigors of recognizing terrorist and insurgent groups in the wild. Not through weaponry or language, but through branding.
Written by the U.S. Army Training And Doctrine Command in 2009, this 60-odd page document (PDF) was designed to function, in the words of its creators, as “a hip pocket” reference book for soldiers in the field. Categorized by geography, it groups the logos and insignia of “insurgents, terrorists, paramilitary, and other militant groups worldwide.” That includes everything from photos of Russian mafia tattoos to Hezbollah logos, as well as a thorough auxiliary list of branding from the “media wings” of each group. It’s a visual taxonomy of terror.
The idea of “branding” insurgency is certainly nothing new. Crime and terror organizations have been borrowing ideas from corporations about graphic design and messaging for years—just ask David Friedman, a designer and photographer responsible for assembling this collection of terrorist logos. “I got to wondering what member of the terrorist organization got to design it, and what tools he may have used,” he told Gizmodo over email. “Did they have a copy of Adobe Illustrator? Or was it done freehand? The idea that terrorists actually have to work on their branding was intriguing.”
Friedman’s list splits logos into visual categories: Stars, animals with multiple heads, crossed guns, and the like. Incredibly, his collection got so much global attention that he ended up contacting the FBI after a thread about acquiring bomb-making materials sprang up in the comments section.
It turned out that, as a recruiting tool—especially an online one—iconography such as logos and even colorways have become incredibly important. “Their logo looks like it could be for a college sports team,” he says of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, pointing out its similarity to Louisiana State University’s football logo.
Unlike Friedman’s approach, the U.S. Army’s guide splits logos into geographic categories. According to Artur Beifuss, author of the new book Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations, it isn’t the most effective way to familiarize soldiers with the signs and symbols of the enemy. “Splitting up the groups by continent might be helpful,” he explained to Gizmodo, “but it hides the fact that most of the groups are transnational and its supporters are active on all continents simultaneously—be it with or without logo.”
But figuring out a way to familiarize thousands of armed forces with an ever-changing menagerie of organizations and alliances is a difficult task. “The research work done is great and they have logos in there that are not that easy to find,” Beifuss said. “However, the document does not give any context to the logos/tattoos. Nor is it comprehensive.”
The same basic problem has spurred the Army to develop sites like Fort Irwin's National Training Center, where 15 simulated towns give soldiers a chance to practice operating in confusing, often visually-ambiguous urban settings. That means hiring actors to play "roles" like local street food vendors and children. The whole point is to immerse soldiers in a realistically ambiguous field environment—where they won't have time to, say, pull out their "pocket guide" to terrorist iconography.