ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Here, tucked among the grey stone walls of this 600-year-old university, in a modern, glass-walled building, is the world-renowned Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence — as up to date as a suicide bombing.
Although Europe has long been accustomed to terrorism, in a way the United States has not, with the IRA in Britain, Basques in Spain, and left-wing radical gangs in Germany and Italy, after 9/11 terrorism and political violence took on a new dimension with the ever-present prospect of mass destruction on a previously unheard-of scale.
The center’s director, Max Taylor, believes that the new terrorism, borne on the wings of globalization, is here to stay and will not just stick around for a generation or two and fade away, as have some of its predecessors. “We need to be professional in our response to terrorism,” he says — thus the need for terrorism to be studied and analyzed in a careful, systematic way.
His center, Europe’s oldest for examining political violence, recently began offering a master's degree in terrorism studies. It also offers a certificate in terrorism — a shorter, 16-week course instead of the usual three-year master’s program.
Taylor’s students, about 125 at any one time in the master's program, come from the security services of many countries — including the United States, as well as the police and armed forces. Taylor says that for some of the more clandestine services, the exact nature of a student’s day job may not be revealed.
A student may come to this small college town on the North Sea for his or her studies, or, if they prefer, the whole course can be done on the internet. This means that many of the center’s students are on active duty somewhere. Taylor had one student on a navy ship who did all his work for the master's course at sea. The equivalent of the dog-ate-my- homework excuse can be: I am sorry, professor, we are about to be deployed against a Taliban-held village and I am going to be late with my paper. Tragically one of Taylor’s students, a British soldier in Afghanistan, was recently killed in action.
By a happy coincidence for the center, St. Andrews University recently chose a terrorism expert to be its new Principal and Vice Chancellor, Harvard’s Louise Richardson whose book, “What Do Terrorists Want?” has become a classic. She is the first American and the first woman to head this ancient center of learning, the third oldest in the English-speaking world.
The center holds frequent conferences, often attended by top security service and armed forces personnel. The head of MI5, Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence service, for example, addressed a January gathering here.
This week Taylor is presiding over a conference called: “The Globalization of the Conflict in Somalia.” One counter-intuitive paper, presented by Peter Henne of Washington’s Georgetown University, for example, questioned the assumption that all militant Islamist organizations are a necessary part of Al Qaeda’s network. The paper stressed the often overlooked local political factors in Somalia, the difficulties Al Qaeda has in establishing itself in the local context, and “the lack of definite unity between Somali groups and Al Qaeda.”
Taylor stresses the “rigid independence” of the center, without any government controls, which makes it attractive to independent scholars and security personnel because everybody knows the boundaries.
Taylor, who grew up in Yorkshire, was educated in Wales and spent years advising the police in Northern Ireland, says there is a profound difference between the way Europeans look at “the management of terrorism” compared to the United States. In the U.S. there is a tendency to stress the military, with slogans such as “war on terrorism,” while Europe stresses a more civilian response. The argument raging in the U.S. over whether terrorists should be tried in civilian courts or military courts would be inconceivable in Britain, according to Taylor.
“The front line against terrorism is the police,” Taylor says. The intelligence services can provide the information, but it’s the police who are finally responsible for getting the job done.
Some terrorism experts in the United Kingdom think that their government being in lockstep with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan is a mistake, and indeed the British government seems more inclined to seek a political compromise in Afghanistan than the Americans.
Taylor noted that one of Britain’s main tasks now is coming to grips with home-grown domestic terrorism, often springing from its large Muslim immigrant population, especially among Pakistani immigrants. There is an ongoing debate on whether the U.K. has made a mistake in its multi-cultural approach to immigration — to let every community do more or less what it likes within the bounds of the law. This has led to the isolation of immigrants, many of whom have their brides and imams imported from Pakistan and never even learn the English language. They never feel they are a part of British culture.
Americans used to feel smug that their Muslims were much better integrated than Britain’s, and thus inoculated against the virus of terrorism. But now, with multiple incidents of American citizens going off to jihads in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, “you have exactly the same problem as we do,” Taylor says.
Politicians feel they have to do something, take some action in the face of terrorist acts, and their responses are not always well thought out. That’s where Taylor’s center comes in. Taylor said that most of the draconian actions and suspensions of civil liberties tried in Northern Ireland during the troubles, had proved to be costly and counter-productive mistakes. The same could be said about America’s response to the suicide flights into New York’s twin towers.