Study of terrorism steps up to new level

June 22, 2007

Research into terrorists’ methods and motives is gaining funding and status. Rebecca Attwood reports

Research into ­terrorism, which was once conducted in the “cracks and crevices” between established academic disciplines, is now entering a golden age, according to expert Andrew Silke.

By its very nature, the study of terrorism cuts across many disciplines, including politics and international relations, security studies, psychology, sociology, history, economics, anthropology and religious studies.

But where knowledge used to be scattered across departments, universities are increasingly bringing academics together to launch centres of expertise.

Terrorism studies is now a stand-alone subject, with universities establishing specialised degree programmes and academic posts.

The sheer volume of work being produced in the English language alone is impossible to keep up with, said Professor Silke, head of terrorism studies at the University of East London.
But while levels of research may have risen dramatically, he argued that the current state of literature is “extremely skewed”.

One article in ten now centres on suicide terrorism, and research focuses massively on Islamist terrorism, his analysis of the long-established international journals Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism shows.

The amount of work about chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons has doubled since 9/11, although this is mainly due to the levels of funding that exist for this area in the US.
According to Professor Silke, some academics are pushing for the creation of a sub-discipline of suicide terrorism studies.

“Six years ago there was only one book on suicide terrorism —now there are 40. If you look at databases of suicide attacks, most have been carried out since 9/11 so the attention is probably warranted,” he said.

There has also been a decrease in research on the historical ­context.

“I think that’s a disturbing trend if it continues; 9/11 was the most destructive terrorist attack in recent history, so you do expect a lot of attention to go on it, but I think if you stop looking at historical cases you are in danger of missing lessons from the past,” he said.

Paul Wilkinson, professor of international relations at St Andrews University, founded the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews — the UK’s oldest centre of research to have a focus on terrorism — in 1994. He also co-edited the journal Terrorism and
Political Violence from 1989 to 2006.

“As an editor, you try to preserve a balance and proportionality in covering these things, but it is not always easy,” he said, citing the quantity of articles submitted in popular areas.
He believes there are fields that need more research, including the impact of the War on Terror on human rights.

“Unless we recognise that we are trying to protect democracy, security and the values of the rule of law and human rights then we might as well hand over to the terrorists,” he said.

Richard Jackson, senior lecturer in international politics at Manchester University, helped set up the British International Studies Association Working Group, Critical Studies on Terrorism, because he felt that the study of terrorism has been locked in myths. He has also helped establish a new journal, Critical Studies in Terrorism , the first issue of which is due to be published in the
spring of next year.

“It is designed to compete with the two more orthodox journals that exist,” said Dr Jackson. “We are trying to integrate or bring together critical approaches with more orthodox accounts. In the past, the two have been very divided.”

Dr Jackson disagrees with academics who say there is a new kind of terrorism that requires dramatic responses and argues that too many of the new terrorism scholars are not sufficiently rooted in the old terrorism ­­literature.

He said: “There is a tendency to think that 9/11 is a new kind of ­terrorism and we don’t have to understand old terrorism to understand the new terrorism. In my view, that’s completely wrong.”

Critical Studies in Terrorism will also recognise the problematic nature of the terrorism label. Some academics prefer not to use the term.

Jan Selby, a lecturer in international relations at Sussex University, said: “I work on a number of areas that arguably relate to ‘terrorism’, I don’t use the word ‘terrorism’ to analyse these issues however, and I don’t think it would be helpful to do so. I think there are scores of people like me, working on issues relating to terrorism, who don’t use the term because they find it either analytically unhelpful or politically dangerous.”

Dr Jackson agrees that many scholars are unhappy with the word. He said: “‘Terrorism’ is not really an objective socially scientific term, it is more of a political judgment.”

But according to Professor Silke, as long as these problems are acknowledged it is better to use it. He said: “It is a heavily loaded term. But the media and the general public are going to continue to use it regardless of what academics do.”

Since September 11, 2001, funding councils have launched a number of major initiatives, including the Economic and Social Research Council’s Domestic Management of Terrorist Attacks, funded by £300,000 from the research council, which resulted in more than a hundred papers.

According to a new book, titled Homeland Security in the UK , there is still a “major question mark” over whether the country is adequately resourced to deal with an emergency situation.
Other major funders include the European Union and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. More than £1.3 million funding has just been awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the EPSRC, the ESRC and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure to three new projects that aim to rethink ways of countering terrorism in public places.

Some funding schemes have been controversial. Last autumn a £1.3 million ESRC and AHRC programme, jointly funded by the Foreign Office on “Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalisation”, was pulled after academics claimed it was tantamount to asking researchers to act as spies for British intelligence and warned it could endanger the lives of researchers.
Bob Brecher, reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University, who is organising a conference titled Interrogating Terror , fears that funding can be too prescriptive and based on a particular approach.

He said: “I’m concerned that there’s a danger that funding is earmarked for very, very specific projects. It is quite clear that certain views and answers would be welcome and others would not be.”   


Experts at Bangor University are developing a radical new way to detect explosive materials and even extract toxic chemicals from the air using nano-scale technology.

The university is the only one in the UK involved in a European-funded 26-partner project to develop the hi-tech sensors, which would be capable of detecting a wide range of toxic agents that could be used in a chemical, biological or terrorist attack.

Designed for public spaces such as airports, the system will provide early warning of the presence of explosive materials.

In the case of airborne toxins, it will also be able to extract and decontaminate the air ­supply.
Maher Kalaji and Bangor’s electrochemistry and sensors group have patented the concept of ­a nano-scaled biosensor using genetically modified enzymes.

Professor Kalaji said: “We can produce a system that constantly monitors the air for a wide range of materials. The basic concept exists. With the partners we will extend the capability to detect more materials and detoxify the air.

“The system will provide managers of public spaces with early detection of explosive or other agents within the space and with a means to remedy any airborne toxins.”

The four-year European Sixth Framework project, which involves four UK businesses, will be funded with £6 million. Around £212,000 will go to Bangor’s school of chemistry, where two new research posts are being ­created.

Other universities are also working to devise new sensor techniques.

Leeds and Bradford are investigating whether scanning with terahertz waves — as opposed to X-ray, for example — could make it easier to detect drugs and explosives during security checks. Researchers from Lancaster, Manchester and Liverpool universities, meanwhile, are developing a prototype scanner capable of sensing hidden explosives through a combination of visual scanning methods and nuclear technology.


Psychologists studying how crowds re­act after a terrorist attack say their work shatters the myth of “mass ­panic” in emergencies.

A multidisciplinary team of academics from Sussex, St Andrews and Nottingham universities have been looking at ways to ensure safe mass evacuations, funded by a three-year grant from the Economic and Social Re­search Council.

As well as interviewing survivors of the Hillsborough disaster, September 11 and July 7 a well of a number of shipwrecks, the team of psychologists, engineers and computer experts created models and roleplay simulations.

Chris Cocking, re­search fellow in the department of psychology at Sussex University, said: “Our research has destroyed the myth of ‘mass panic’. We found that people co-operate when­ever they are able to. If they don’t, it is usually because they are physically unable or in shock. People co-operate with strangers and sometimes risk their lives to help.”

Many officials do not trust to trust crowds to behave sensibly, Dr Cocking said. But clear information about a threat and escape routes could help evacuation, he said.

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