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UK University departments & think tanks specialising in ‘Terrorism studies’
28 April 2004

Traditionally, academic study relating to issues of security have been the domain of military academies such as the Royal Military College of Science (RMCS) , Shrivenham and a select number of university departments and think tanks working under government patronage. The latter has included the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), many of whose distinguished linguists and brightest pupils since 1917 have glided effortlessly between their tutorial classes and various bureaux of intelligence in Whitehall ministries. Since September 11, the increased availability of funding from government has prompted a gold rush in the academic community to develop courses and programmes in the area of ‘terrorism studies’. Funding from the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) under its ‘New Security Challenges Research Programme’ has enabled various universities, including St Andrews and Bristol to launch wide-ranging and ambitious ‘homeland security’ projects.

There are both well-established units as well as the more entrepreneurial spirits now at work. The ‘old school’ includes the RMCS’s ‘Resilience Centre’, which aims to “to provide Risk and Security management training for Government and Corporate Business, in order to improve the UK reaction to emergency and disruptive challenges”. Its Director is Colonel (Retd) Ivar Hellberg, former defence attaché in Indonesia. In an article in the Journal of the Institute of Civil Defence and Disaster Studies (ICDDS) in 2002, Hellberg offered these reflections on his former patch: Indonesia should accept the Pancasila (a Hindu word meaning five principles for social justice) notwithstanding its overwhelming Muslim population; secondly, the “re-emergence” of the mainstream Islamic group the Nahdatul Ulema presented a threat to Indonesia’s post-Suharto “fledgling democracy”.

A ‘Programme for Security in International Society’ is based within the Centre for International Studies at the University of Cambridge. The programme’s director is Peter Cavanagh, while the Centre itself is headed by Professor James Mayall. Amongst its doctoral students is Ronen Bergman, a former intelligence correspondent of Ha’aretz. Bergman’s research is on Israeli intelligence and military involvement in Africa, yet in 2002 he was diverted to spend time “investigating the secret channels through which Hamas is funded” (source: Cambridge Alumni magazine, No. 37, 2002). The Centre strives for a neutral posture and has appointed the American-Palestinian Professor Yezid Sayigh as Academic Director.

The ‘old school’ includes the ‘Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence’ at the University of St Andrews, established in 1994. The Centre possesses a unique database on terrorist incidents going back to 1968, based on collaboration with a US think tank (‘the RAND-St Andrews database on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict’). Bruce Hoffman, the founder of the Centre is now a vice-president of Rand and chief of its Washington office. The current chair of the Centre’s advisory board is Professor Paul Wilkinson, who began his career as an education officer in the RAF. Professor Wilkinson has obtained funding from the ESRC for research on the domestic management of terrorist attacks in the UK. Director of the Centre is Magnus Ranstrop, a specialist on Lebanon’s Hizbollah and a CNN expert on Al-Qaida. Ranstrop maintains that in the past “surveillance in the UK of Islamists was at best patchy” and that there has “an almost absolute failure to recruit individuals to tap into the Islamists' inner node”. Ranstrop is a special advisor to the Met Police.

The well-respected Professor Eric Grove is based at The Centre for Security Studies (CSS) at the University of Hull. Professor Grove has not been chary in deflating the excessive hype on episodes such as the ‘Ricin’ scare in January 2003 and introducing a sense of proportion. Unfortunately the media often exercises its own self-censorship and critical voices can be edited out.

At Kings College, London, the Department of War Studies has established a ‘Conflict, Security and Development Research Group’ and it runs an MA in the field of intelligence and international security. Visiting Fellows at Kings include Dr Peter Neumann, a Leverhulme Early Career fellow, who is evaluating “terrorism from a strategic perspective” for a forthcoming book. The LSE is caught up in a turf war on the subject between Professors Halliday in the International Relations Department and Tim Newburn, the director of the Mannheim Centre for the study of criminology.

The University of Bristol’s innocuous sounding Governance Research Centre houses the ‘Global Islam, Identity Politics and Governance Research Group’, that has a project ‘Securitizing Terrorism in Europe: Representing Islam and North Africa in European policy and the media’. The aim is to analyse, “through an integrated set of theoretically informed empirical questions”, the post 9/11 security dilemma.

“Specifically it will critically explore state constructions of so-called ‘Islamic terrorism’ and policies to combat this new security challenge; media representations of the threats and security policies; and the impact of both on Muslim communities…this research will make a significant theoretical and empirical contribution to better constructing more effective security policies in Europe and North Africa so that they take into account the relationship between and the effect of the construction of threats and the impact of policies on the multicultural societies they are designed to protect”. The research team includes Dr Frederic Volpi and Dr Jutta Weldes from the Department of Politics at Bristol and Prof. Bryan Turner from Cambridge.

In addition to the academic sector, ‘terrorism studies’ are of interest to a number of think tanks and curious hybrid bodies that straddle the defence and civil worlds. In 2002, The Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies (RUSI) departed from its traditional focus on defence matters to establish a ‘Homeland Security and Resilience Research Programme’. An outcome is a partnership with Jane's in a new co-publication called the RUSI/Jane's Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor, launched in Summer 2003. Other activities relating to UK-based ‘terrorism studies’ will be a forthcoming conference ‘Rail security – two months on from Madrid’.

The rush to capitalise on topical events prompted the normally staid RUSI to provide a platform to Dr Rohan Gunaratna for a book launch in 2002. Gunaratna claims affiliation to a diverse band of think tanks including fellowships at the St Andrews’ Centre, where he completed his PhD, but also the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel and the Institute of Strategic Studies, Pakistan. Many of Gunaratna’s claims on Al-Qaida are being increasingly questioned within the intelligence community.

Struggling for recognition against these heavyweights is the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies (BCISS) at the University of Brunel. Its staff includes Professor Anthony Glees, an expert on the East German Stasi files, and Dr. Philip H.J. Davies, who has spent several years at the University of Malaya and has specialist knowledge of “intelligence policy and analytical methods for elements of the Malaysian intelligence”. Glees has recently played-up trends in the UK: “the extent to which radical Islamist ideas may well have been brewing in British universities will come as a shock to people in years to come”. He has called for on his fellow academics “to create a political culture that gave more support to the intelligence and security agencies in defending liberal democracy….political correctness made it difficult for academics to attack Islamic fundamentalism” (reported in The Times Higher Educational Supplement, 9th April 2004). Glees’s Centre is about to launch the first MA in Intelligence and Security Studies from Autumn 2004. Will future agents be keen to replicate Stasi’s excessive surveillance and documentation in the UK setting?

The academic community will face competition from the recently privatised SLIP – the Security, Languages, Intelligence and Photography college. The sensitive nature of the privatisation forced the Ministry of Defence to bar European firms from entering the contest but it is expected that the company ‘Qinetiq’, a ‘public private partnership’ headed by Sir John Chisholm, a software projects manager in the consultancy Scicon in the 1970s, will have a prominent role in its future dispensation. The US venture capital firm Carlyle Group has a 33 per cent stake in Qinetiq.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews too has a unit monitoring and researching ‘terrorism’ issues – albeit not 'state-sponsored terrorism’ - headed by Michael Whine. In 2002, Whine wrote that “It must be stated, however, that Islamists have been more effective in their coordination and networking than have the far right…Because it has been so individualistic and random, it has taken on a self-destructive and nihilistic character. Islamists, even without state backing, have coordinated terrorism transnationally in pursuit of pre-determined goals. Criminal activity by Algerian Islamists in Canada and the UK to finance terrorism in a second country, while retaining command and control in a third country, indicates a sophisticated level of networking which so far the far right has been unable to achieve”. Whine has been in the forefront of BoD insinuations that “anti-Semitism now comes from Islamists”.

‘Terrorism Studies’ are an opportunistic development though thus far there have been few voices to question the methodological foundations, ethical dimensions and aspects of academic independence and governance in this new field of ‘terrorism studies’.

An exception is Tim Newburn of the LSE: ‘I do think there is an issue about the extent to which we assume the world has changed. I'm not convinced by the arguments that we now face something that we might regard as super-terrorism with a reach and a power and a likelihood of inflicting damage that is completely different from the things we faced before 11 September. Neither do I agree with the even more dystopian picture of entire nation states now under threat from the new terrorist activities. One of the reasons I feel sceptical about those arguments, apart from the lack of evidence, is the relatively recent history of terrorism. What tends to happen is that we are presented with the idea that we face a new and terrible threat, which necessitates the introduction of emergency powers and the expenditure of vast amounts of money, and then in time we face a normalisation of those powers.'

The possibility of bias and misreading of Islam and Muslims within this new discipline was first raised by Dr Beverley Milton-Edwards at the Centre for Study of Ethnic Conflict at the University of Belfast in September 2001. An advocate for western governments to enter into negotiation with Palestinian groups, she observed that “It is very difficult terrain in which to open up debate and serious academic research. There is a lot of Islamophobia…”

Meanwhile we await the whistle-blowers to provide instances of academic integrity being compromised in order to reinforce donors’ policy predispositions.

© salaam.co.uk, april 2004

Links

  • RMCS’s Resilience Centre http://www.rmcs.cranfield.ac.uk/ddmsa/resilience/index_html/view
  • Hellberg on Indonesia http://www.icdds.org/downloads/Alert%20April%202003%20part%202.pdf
  • For Yezid Sayigh and his view of the Oslo agreement, see http://www.hanitzotz.com/challenge/69/talk.html
  • For Brunel’s BCISS, see http://www.brunel.ac.uk/research/BCISS/
  • On Dr Beverley Milton-Edwards, see http://education.guardian.co.uk/academicexperts/story/0,1392,558582,00.html
  • For a media profile on Professor Paul Wilkinson, see http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/academic/intrel/research/cstpv/pdffiles/The%20Sunday%20Herald.pdf
  • ESRC’s funding http://www.esrc.ac.uk/esrccontent/researchfunding/securitychallengesprog.asp
  • On Rohan Gunaratna http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/07/20/1058545648013.html http://www.sangam.org/ANALYSIS/Sachi_9_12_03.htm http://www.ntu.edu.sg/idss/Perspective/research_050215.htm
  • On SLIP http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,6903,925317,00.html
  • For an article by Michael Whine of the Board of Deputies see http://www.ict.org.il/
  • ‘The New Terrorism’, January 2002 and insinuations against Muslims see http://cbn.org/CBNNews/CWN/032604europe.asp

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