'Terrorism Studies' And The War On Dissent
By David Miller
7 November 2006
The war on terror has lead to a war on Islam in the UK. The signs of it are all around - in police and MI5 arrests of terror suspects who overwhelmingly turn out to be innocent; in politicians denunciations of the veil or ‘radical imams’ or muslim ‘culture’; in the press and on television, which circulate official lies and add their own racism. The results are all too evident in opinion polls and attacks on Muslims in the UK. An often neglected role in this onslaught is played by academics and think tanks which produce reams of ‘insight’ and ‘analysis’ on ‘terrorism’ and help to provide the raw materials to whip up hysteria in the interests of an imperial foreign policy and a domestic crackdown on dissent. So it was with a certain amount of relief that I attended a conference on ‘Is it time for a Critical Terrorism Studies? ’ in Manchester the other week. At least a ‘critical’ approach might be able to interrogate official definitions of ‘terrorism’, pick apart government propaganda and focus honestly on ‘state terror’, such as the continuing debacle of the occupation of Iraq.
My own presentation to the conference raised questions about defining a ‘critical’ terrorism studies. Is critical terrorism studies somehow an antidote to ‘uncritical’ terrorism studies? In one sense yes, since the dominant mainstream of terrorology is woefully uncritical of ‘state terror’ or perhaps more accurately pro western terror. On the other hand this also indicates that it is not uncritical of what Herman and Chomsky have called ‘retail terror ’. Critical is also potentially a term which undermines its own status by suggesting that mainstream ‘terrorism studies’ is somehow more objective or impartial – something which is dubious, especially given the open commitment of the mainstream terrorologists to western power.
On the other hand there is also a potential for ‘critical terrorism’ studies to be insufficiently self critical in the sense that it may seek to establish a new orthodoxy taking some insights from the mainstream of terrorology and being insufficiently critical of the second term in the phrase ‘terrorism’. A number of ‘critical’ contributors to the discussion persisted to define terrorism only .in terms of non state terror – or narrower anti western non state terror. Needless to say the researcher from the premier mainstream terrorism studies institute in the country, at St Andrews, proposed the latter definition. John Horgan argued that there had already been too much criticism of the orthodoxy. On the contrary, far more is needed until it is shorn of its unfounded credibility and material support. More disappointing though, was that some of the ‘critical’ speakers at the conference found it difficult not to cling to the non state definition of terrorism.
A further issue for me was that the conference was held under ‘Chatham House rules’ – a kind of ‘off the record’ system to protect the powerful. The rules, named after the home of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in central London. The RIIA/Chatham House was one of the earliest and was certainly the most important foreign affairs think tank and elite policy planning groups in the UK. Set up in 1920 by fanatical imperialists among the then ruling class, it has a central role in the British foreign policy establishment, paralleling the Council on Foreign Relations in the US. It has a determinedly atlanticist orientation, emphasised by the fact that its current chair is Dr. DeAnne Julius the former CIA officer appointed by Gordon Brown to the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee in 1997. The rule is designed to protect elite discussions from transparency and accountability and should have no place at academic conferences.
One of the more interesting speakers at the conference was also happy to waive the Chatham House rule. Bob Lambert is at the liberal end of the Special Branch, in its eight person Muslim Contact Unit. He promotes the idea of partnership working with muslim community organisations. He explicitly counterposes this to repressive policing and attacking the muslim commumity in politics, the press such as the assault unleashed by Jack Straw’s remarks about the veil or the ‘terror experts’ who suggest that universities are a hotbed of muslim ‘radicalisation’.
This means he is seen by some in government and the press – including some ‘left’ journalists such as those supporting the Euston Manifesto – as an appeaser of radical Islam. Lambert noted that he wasn’t bothered by the Chatham House rule since he had previously been the victim such rules when the existence of his unit was disclosed – he said – by a leak from the Foreign Office to the press.
Lambert’s view is that the best way to turn young muslims away from jihadist tendencies is to work in partnership with the community and in particular with influential community figures. ‘The only really effective response to this political propaganda – this is political – are leading community figures’, he noted. ‘They are the only ones who can do anything about it’. Lambert highlighted the case of al Qaradawi who he sees as a very effective propagandist against al qaeda. Yet, al Qaradawi and others are subject to ‘character assassination’ in the press and from government sources as well as being the targets of ‘counter terrorism activity’ – from Lambert’s own colleagues.
In discussion Lambert was also clear that recruiting young muslims to the anti-war movement and organisations like Respect also resulted in isolating the Jihadi’s. This, of course, highlights the underlying problem with the whole anti-terror strategy. As Lambert noted – if the political grievances of the muslim community and the anti-war movement were dealt with there would be ‘precious little’ basis for the grievances. The grievances of the 7/7 bombers were plain enough – Iraq, Palestine and the war on terror. In Lambert’s view there is ‘an incredible lack of understanding of muslim communities’ in official circles.
Lambert’s refreshing approach (when compared with his colleagues) directs our attention to UK foreign policy as perhaps the most important single way to tackle ‘terrorism’. Needless to say his views are not widely shared in Special Branch – or to call it by its new name from the 2nd October 2006, the Counter Terrorism Command (SO15). Instead his colleagues in the CTC and MI5 – who appear to be more and more influential in policing matters - prefer spying on Islamic Societies, Palestine solidarity activists and anti war campaigners (as in the Dundee University case) and pressing for university staff to spy and inform on their students on the basis of a dodgy dossier produced by right wing ideologues in the field of ‘terrorology’. I refer, of course to the work of Anthony Glees and Chris Pope whose report ‘ When Students turn to terror ’, has been widely criticised as empirically unfounded and conceptually weak. Nonetheless, one of the universities singled out by Glees and Pope - Dundee – now has Special Branch, and no doubt MI5, officers regularly on campus .
Glees has a history of work on intelligence issues and has run into criticism that past research, on the Stasi, for example, was ‘unscholarly, sensationalist and deeply flawed’ (International Affairs, 79/5, 2003). Chris Pope, is a former student of Glees and Head of Intelligence at the Royal United Services Institute, an officially supported think tank with premises beside the Ministry of Defence Headquarters on Whitehall.
The report was published by the market fundamentalist think tank the Social Affairs Unit , (part of the European wide Stockholm Network of market fundamentalist think tanks) which has a long history of producing this kind of ideological material. At over 100 pages this is a longish report claiming to find evidence of Islamist, animal liberation and British National Party 'terrorism' on UK campuses. The basis of the evidence that there is 'terrorist activity' is simply that people who have been arrested under anti-Terrorism legislation attended universities at some point. The only evidence on Dundee University in the report is the following: ‘Suspected or confirmed terrorists who have studied in Britain in recent years include the lecturers Dr Azahari Husin, 45, who went to Reading University, and Shamsul Bahri Hussein, 36, who read applied mechanics at Dundee. They are wanted in connection with the Bali bombings in October 2002, when 202 people, including 26 Britons, died.’ On this basis there is also evidence of terrorist activity in schools, nurseries and for that matter even in the womb, since all terrorists were once presumably there.
The repressive approach at Dundee is borne out of a panicked lack of knowledge about the muslim community and a right-wing conspiracy theory, mode of operation so characteristic of MI5 and the Special branch, from time immemorial. The mainstream of ‘terrorism studies’ only legitimises such repression.
Unsurprisingly, if alarmingly, the Guardian recently obtained a Department for Education report outlining how lecturers and universities might spy on muslim students.
It suggests ‘checks should be made on external speakers at Islamic society events: "The control of university or college Islamic societies by certain extremist individuals can play a significant role in the extent of Islamist extremism on campus."’ The document ‘gives five real-life examples of extremism in universities. The first talks of suspicious computer use by "Asian" students, [and] … it talks of students of "Asian appearance" being suspected extremists.’
This approach is exemplified in the conduct of MI5’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. In the last couple of weeks it has come under fire for its attempts to fund a research initiative through the offices of the Economic and Social Research Council which would examine muslim communities in Britain. According to the THES, the initiative
provoked a furious response from academics who claimed it was tantamount to asking researchers to act as spies for British intelligence. Critics claimed the move endangered the lives of researchers, particularly social scientists and their sources in Muslim countries, whether working on the project or not. Academics would be asked to "scope the growth in influence and membership of extremist Islamist groups in the past 20 years", "name key figures and key groups" and "understand the use of theological legitimisation for violence".
"Key topics" include "radicalisation drivers and counterstrategies in each of the countries studied" and "future trends likely to increase/decrease radicalisation". John Gledhill, chair of the Association of Social Anthropologists, said:
"This raises fundamental ethical issues. People feel that it smacks of the Cold War use of academics in counter-insurgency activities - essentially using academics as spies."
Discussion at the conference indicated that the FCO/JTAC had originally approached at least one UK academic terrorism studies institute to give the money direct to a research team. But the institute concerned turned this overture down partly on the basis of ethical concerns about whether it was ‘research’ or intelligence gathering. JTAC then seems to have gone to the ESRC with the results just mentioned.
A JTAC representative was at the conference and seems to have been surprised by the level of criticism of government from some participants. Julia Eastman was able to discuss her views in one to one sessions, but it seems that she had been banned by the Foreign Office – even under Chatham House rules – from speaking publicly at the conference.
As can be inferred from those mentioned so far, this was a terrorism studies conference at which ‘practitioners and policy makers were present. Future events will apparently include people from ‘suspect communities’ as they were described at the conference - echoing the title of Paddy Hillyard’s book of the same name (Pluto Press, 1993). The possibilities of a Critical Terrorism Studies depend in large part on how it can meet the challenges apparent at this first meeting.