No place of terrorism

January 15, 1999

How should British universities counter claims that they are breeding grounds for terrorists, asks Paul Wilkinson

Reports that several of those arrested in Yemen in recent weeks are British students have led some commentators to claim that United Kingdom universities are breeding grounds for terrorists. In reality, there has not been a single case of a terrorist campaign being launched from a UK university since the upsurge of modern terrorism in the late 1960s. There was no UK equivalent of the Red Brigade, the Red Army Faction or the Japanese Red Army campaigns of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Britain's far more lethal Republican and Loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland were predominantly of working-class origin, very few having received the benefits of higher education. With one or two exceptions, such as the assassination of Unionist politician and law lecturer Edgar Graham, Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster have been largely immune from terrorist violence.

The most worrying threat of political violence on British campuses in recent years has resulted from the spillover from conflicts abroad. In the 1980s there were serious clashes between pro-regime Iraqi students and supporters of the opposition groups, with frequent complaints of intimidation, and angry confrontations between rival factions.

Terrorist organisations with cells in the UK are not so foolish as to compromise their covert activity by operating openly on campuses. And for fundraising and weapons procurement, they generally depend on organisations under their direct control or, in some cases, on state sponsors.

The two types of extremist organisations that are very active in universities, especially in the larger city campuses, are the political and propaganda wings of terrorist groups, such as Sinn Fein and the political wing of Hamas. They are engaged primarily in trying to win over bright young people, to recruit them into active militancy and to indoctrinate them.

A leading example of the latter is Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), an international extreme Islamist movement committed to creating a unified Islamic state throughout the Muslim world. It is bitterly hostile not only to the United States and Israel, but also to almost all existing regimes in the Islamic world. Although it regards the Jews as its prime enemies, it is also bitterly opposed to Hinduism and to Western ideas of democracy and women's rights.

HT has been particularly active in London and has, through its aggressive methods of protest, created tensions in the student unions on a number of campuses. Yet organisations such as HT have not, as far as we know, ventured into terrorist activity. They are strident and intimidating to those they target, and they represent a worrying strand of fanaticism, intolerance and hate propaganda.

However, most university student unions and societies should be strong enough to counter their influence and to ensure that the pluralism and freedoms of opinion and expression that are such great strengths of British academia are upheld.

Although it can be shown easily that the picture of UK universities as a breeding ground of terrorism is an absurd distortion, university authorities do need to be on their guard against outside organisations involved in organising, funding and arming terrorist campaigns abroad, using British campuses as recruiting grounds.

It is widely known that a number of major foreign terrorist organisations use London and other UK cities as safe havens and bases to create an extensive support structure for terrorism. This is by no means confined to Middle East groups: terrorist groups active in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and many other countries also use this modus operandi.

In the light of this growing trend towards the internationalisation of support structures of terrorist organisation, the government's move last September to make it possible to prosecute those who conspire in the UK to commit acts of terrorism abroad is to be welcomed. There would need to be sufficient evidence to gain a conviction in a British court. The rights of the accused will be protected under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, and there is no question of extraditing the accused to regimes where rule-of-law safeguards do not exist. The best way for democracies to combat terrorism is by using the rule of law and not by scaremongering or by finding scapegoats among ethnic and religious minorities.

Universities can best contribute to the strengthening of democracy and human rights by ensuring that they remain, in Disraeli's phrase, "a place of light, of liberty, and of learning". The best antidote to political extremism and violence is freedom of thought and expression, which is vital to the wellbeing and creativity of British universities.

Paul Wilkinson is chairman of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, St Andrews University.

* Are British universities breeding grounds for terrorists? Email us on 16.

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