Branding Terror: Iconography Explained

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ETAFrom Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations by Artur Beifuss and Francesco Trivini Bellini, Published by Merrell Publishers

Without moralising, Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations offers a comprehensive look at the symbolism behind the logos and flags of 60 terrorist organisations...

“This book contains a curious amalgam of the mundane and the extraordinary,” writes Steven Heller in his foreword to Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations. The renowned American design writer goes on to say: “Some of the branding devices are clichéd, displaying too many eagles and guns, in the same way that ovals and stars are overused in American corporate branding: others trigger fear, especially when seen close up… Taken out of context, some are simply enigmatic.”

Artur Beifuss, a counterterrorism analyst for the United Nations, teamed up with art director Francesco Trivini Bellini to write Branding Terror, explaining that  “with numerous active groups around the world (several of them having a similar ideology and the same goals), "branding" and "marketing" become important elements of the terrorist group’s overall strategy.”

Without moralising, Beifuss and Bellini offer a comprehensive look at the symbolism and design principles behind the logos and flags of 60 organisations, from the Taliban to the New People’s Army, and others that have made their way onto various governments’ terrorist lists over the years. Below, we present some excerpts explaining the iconography of several groups...

(Above) Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA)
“The group was founded in 1959 with the aim of establishing an independent Basque state, based on Marxist principles … The axe represents the armed struggle that ETA has been prepared to use in order to achieve its goal of an independent Basque state; the snake represents politics, a second means by which the group has tried to realize its aim.”

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghred (AQIM)
“The group’s objective of establishing a Sunni caliphate [theocratic pan-Islamic government], guided by sharia law is illustrated by the quotation from the Qur’an… the sword references the early jihad of Muhammad, while the assault rifle represents contemporary jihad. The phrase shown on the Qur’an legitimizes jihad.”

New People’s Army (NPA)
“The [Community Party of the Philippines] uses no logo, but its military wing, the NPA uses two. The one used most frequently, a black-and-white image, has as its central element a group of three people – one of them a woman, differentiated by her dress – each holding an AK-47 assault rifle. This symbolizes the armed struggle by all member of the population and reflects socialist ideas, according to which everybody should be treated equally.”

Federazione Anarchica Informale (FAI)
“An umbrella insurrectionary anarchist organization established in Italy in 2003…The five-pointed star [symbolizes] the unity of all nations. The arrow pointing towards the same spot stand for the FAI’s composition of various groups, called a nucleo, ands their collective effort to replace the Italian governmental structure with anarchy.”

Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero De Octubre (GRAPO)
“The GRAPO flag is a modified version of the flag of the Second Spanish Republic (1931 – 1939). The three colours represent the territories of the former Crown of Aragon and the regions of Castile and León, and thus symbolize a new era for Spain in which no part of the country would be excluded. The GRAPO variant contains a red five-pointed star that stands for the Marxist-Leninist ideological foundation of the group.”

Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF)
“On the LVF flag the Red Hand of Ulster (with open thumb) refers to the group’s aim of self-determination and its fight against Irish nationalism. The motto underneath it points to the LVF’s roots in religious faith and reinforces its objective of independence from the Republic of Ireland. The inclusion of the St George’s Cross… is indicative of the group’s loyalty to Britain in the Northern Ireland conflict.”

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)
“The red colour of the PFLP logo and flag hints at the group’s Marxist-inspired ideology… Red also symbolizes bloodshed and war, and indicates the PFLP’s commitment to armed struggle in order to realize its aims. The arrow pointing towards Palestine is in the shape of the Arabic letter ‘jeem’, the first letter of the word jabha, Arabic for ‘front’. It… indicates the PFLP’s support from non-Palestinian insurgent groups, such as the German left-wing guerrilla group Rote Armme Faktion.”

United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC)
“The [AUC] was founded in 1997 as an umbrella organization of independent far-right paramilitary groups in Colombia. Its objective is to protect the economic interests of Colombian economic elites and local communities threatened by communist-inspired insurgent groups… The image of a man seeding a field is a metaphor for reclaiming land occupied by left-wing radical groups.”

Kahane Chai
“The [group’s goals are] rooted in extremist Jewish ideology—of restoring the biblical land of Israel by annexing all the disputed territories of Israel and forcibly removing all Arabs, and creating a Jewish theocracy… The six-pointed Star of David symbolizes Kahane Chai’s Jewish identity. The group’s flag has a yellow background… a reminder of the patch Jews were required to wear in Nazi Germany… The clenched fist conveys courage, strength and militancy.”

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
“… [The LTTE] was formed in 1976 with the objective of seizing control of north-eastern Sri Lanka from the Sinhalese (predominantly Buddhist) majority so as to create an independent Tamil state… The yellow roaring tiger on the LTTE flag… is a symbol that is deeply rooted in Tamil culture, symbolizing the martial history and national upheaval of the Tamils. It represents heroism, militancy, and patriotism…”

“Before it took power in Afghanistan in 1996, the Taliban used a plain-white flag, featuring no image or writing. In Islam, the white flag… is usually a flag of administration… when it gained control of the Afghan government, the Taliban modified the white flag, adding the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith, in black writing as a reinforcement of its Islamic identity.”

Branding Terror is available now from Merrell.

Text by Ananda Pellerin

Ananda Pellerin is a London-based writer and regular contributor to