Rise of the terrorist professors

Throughout academia, the study of terrorism is booming. But in reality, argues Kevin Toolis, these "

After every atrocity, every shooting, every bomb, the television studios are filled with a new breed of expert - the counter-terrorist academic, with his pat soundbites. In our baffling, violent world, the terrorism expert, discreetly hinting at access to cryptic intelligence material, is the high priest, able to discern within the entrails of atrocity a fingerprint and a culprit.

At best, "counter-terrorism" is a rehash of very old-fashioned political studies with a bit of fortune-telling thrown in. At its worst, it is a bogus intellectual justification for authoritarianism, military repression and neoconservative Islamophobia.

In academia, terrorism studies are the new, new thing and graduate programmes are springing up like an intifada across the western world. The lecture theatres are filling at the Inter-University Centre for Terrorism Studies at George Washington University in the US capital, at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliyya, Israel and at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The counter-terrorism academic conference circuit is tight and incestuous, and features such figures as Professor Paul Wilkinson (St Andrews), Professor Walter Laqueur (Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC) and Dr Bruce Hoffman (ex-St Andrews, now at the Rand Corporation, Washington).

Then there is a web of private corporations, institutes and guns-for-hire contractors that have sprung up to service the post-11 September era. It is often difficult to disentangle the supposedly academic institutes from their lucrative private sponsors or from explicitly neoconservative Israeli or Washington think-tanks.

A private conference this month at the Royal United Services Institute in London is billed "as the UK's most important gathering of counter-terrorism minds". Delegates will pay £412 for the day to hear Wilkinson and, inevitably, an ex-SAS man, Major General Arthur Denaro, speak on the dangers to the world of terrorism. In the conference programme would-be delegates are further enticed by the promise that a "senior Whitehall adviser" - a man from MI6 - will appear. Unsurprisingly, the sponsors Olive Security (bodyguards/security) and Global Risk Strategies (kidnap/ransom and corporate risk assessment) seek to profit from post-11 September paranoia.

This blurring of boundaries between the academic study of counter-terrorism and the private security trade is nothing new. One of the fathers of British counter-terrorism studies, Richard Clutterbuck, supplemented his salary from the University of Exeter with some amateurish spying against the animal rights and anti-apartheid movements in the mid-1980s. Posing as an academic interested in conflict, Clutterbuck interviewed the Animal Liberation Front founder Ronnie Lee and passed the material back to Control Risks, an insurance risk assessor on whose board he sat. The company then sold this "intelligence" to a consortium of British pharmaceutical companies targeted by animal rights activists.

From its very origins, counter-terrorism was a sullied sub-academic doctrine fused from cold war hatreds and the last counter-insurgency struggles of empire in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Ireland. For propagandists such as Brian Crozier, a figure long associated with the hard-right fringes of MI6, every guerrilla movement - the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the African National Congress or the IRA - was part of Moscow's assault on the west. The young Gerry Adams and the middle-aged Yasser Arafat, it was suggested, both took their orders from the KGB. Terrorism was a sub-game within the east-west struggle. In this global contest, Israel and apartheid South Africa were both viewed as strategic assets of the west. The counter-terrorist solution to revolt was always the same: military repression, assassinations, torture programmes and state-licensed killing squads.

Defining a group as "terrorist" automatically delegitimises both its methods and its political aims. As an academic discipline, counter-terrorism is still exclusively devoted to sub-state groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah. State terror is ignored. Counter- terrorism remains a study by the state, in the form of selected academics and a few police and military figures, of the enemies of states. The objects of study - "terrorists" or their political representatives, whether Irish or Arab - are never invited to contribute. In 30 years of conflict in Ulster, no British counter-terrorist academic produced any significant or insightful analysis of the IRA.

The glamour side of counter-terrorism comes from the notion that part of the research draws upon classified or privileged information from either surveillance or interrogations of terrorist suspects. Given that police interrogators are rarely sociologists, it is questionable whether such material, delivered second-hand, can provide any telling insights on the future political strategy and tactics of any terrorist organisation. Although some counter-terrorism experts claim to conduct interviews in the field with terrorist group leaders, such effort remains a rarity.

To understand today's counter-terrorism industry, we need to look back to the 1970s. Then, the PLO carried out a series of terrorist acts, including the killing of 11 Israelis at the Munich Olympics and several plane hijackings. The most significant incident was the 1976 Entebbe hijacking, in which Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu, brother of the future Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was killed when the Israeli army staged a successful operation to rescue the hostages. The Entebbe rescue, made into two Hollywood films and several books, was hailed as a model counter-terrorist strike.

Binyamin Netanyahu, one of the most significant figures in the creation of the ideology of counter-terrorism, founded the Jonathan Institute in memory of his brother and organised two seminal international anti-terrorist conferences.

The first was held in 1979 in Jerusalem and, according to Netanyahu, "exposed . . . the full involvement of states in international terrorism, and the centrality of the Soviet Union and the PLO in fomenting and spreading it". He quoted the former chief of Israeli military intelligence General Shlomo Gazit, who revealed that "Arab terrorists participated in 50 different military schools, some 40 in the Soviet Union itself".

These observations, from Netanyahu's introduction to a 1986 collection of papers, Terrorism: how the west can win, perfectly encapsulate both the ideological roots of latter-day counter- terrorism studies and the uses of supposed intelligence material to shore up a subjective, factually spurious, premise. As we now know from the WMD fiasco in Iraq, "intelligence" is rarely detached from the aims of the political leadership that controls its public dissemination.

Netanyahu, a vivid, brilliant propagandist and player on the Washington diplomatic circuit, sought to convince American conservatives that the sectional interests of the Israeli state were identical to those of the western democracies. He was largely preaching to the converted. Many of the names of contributors to the second Jonathan Institute conference, held in Washington in 1984, reappear as neoconservatives in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. They include Jeane Kirkpatrick, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Ledeen and Bernard Lewis.

As prime minister, Netanyahu adopted counter-terrorism as the ideology of the Israeli state. Every Palestinian act of resistance to Israeli occupation was characterised as an act of terror. Every Israeli brutality was justified as a necessity in the war against terror. "Terror" became an abstract noun, an entity to be crushed by military force, not a people to be negotiated with. Today, Israeli government spokesmen use the same language to justify killings of Palestinian civilians in military operations. "It is perfectly legitimate to study different terrorist groups and their methods for similarities, weaknesses or strengths," says the historian Dr Meir Litvak, of the Moshe Dayan Centre in Tel Aviv. "But if you apply the word 'terror' to every act of resistance then you undermine your own argument."

Israel, with its tactics of targeted killings, pre-emptive bombings and all-encompassing security checks, remains the model of the counter-terrorist state. Almost all western counter-terrorist academic centres are closely linked to Israeli institutions such as the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, whose executive director, Boaz Ganor, is a political ally of Netanyahu's. Israeli research into groups such as Hamas can be extremely insightful but it can also be corrupted by the prevailing Islamophobia of the Israeli security establishment. Academic counter-terrorism becomes just another weapon in the war against Arabs and a means to vindicate the assassination policies of Ariel Sharon's Likud government. The boundary between academic research and black propaganda is again blurred.

In the wake of 11 September 2001, American neoconservatives such as Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle incorporated the Israeli counter-terrorist model into US foreign policy. The US superpower conceived of itself as besieged in every arena by the amorphous global Islamic conspiracy of al-Qaeda - a minuscule organisation which, 11 September aside, had killed just over a hundred American citizens in terrorist incidents spread over a decade. Counter-terrorism, including the "pre-emptive" strike on Iraq, became US foreign policy.

In Iraq, America is back at the hard beginnings of counter-insurgency theory: a weakened, illegitimate, colonial-style military occupation scrabbling to contain an ever-widening native uprising. But President George W Bush does not need the counter- terrorism experts to tell him what to do. He just needs a few history books and the insight to understand, as the old European empires finally did, that the only option is a graceful exit.

Kevin Toolis is the New Statesman's terrorism correspondent

This article appears in the 14 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Escape from UKIP