Terrorism

13 March 2006


The second seminar in the 2006 series focussed on terrorism. Around 30 people attended. There were representatives from the police, government departments, local authorities, EPSRC and a range academic disciplines in the social and natural sciences. The intention behind the day's discussion was to identify fruitful areas for future research. The following summarises the main points made.

Dr Kiran Sarma
Dr. Kiran Sarma , from the Department of Psychology at Mary Immaculate College University of Limerick, gave an overview of existing research and debate dealing with a) support for terrorism and b) fear and terrorism. He suggested that the psychological determinants of support for terrorism varied both between and within groups and derived from experiences with both the terrorists and their opponents. This complexity means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately identify the "causes" of support for terrorism, and potentially fruitful initiatives that may mitigate against support rationales. He pointed out that in many cases the determinants of support are beyond our control and in others addressing grievances may result in the alienation of some sections of mainstream society. He argued that there is a need to better understand the factors leading to support (and withdrawal of support) for terrorism within various relevant communities within the UK . He also suggested that we need to improve understanding of the methods, language and media that terrorist groups use to try to win support for their activities.

In relation to fear and terrorist activities, Dr Sarma suggested the need for a wide-ranging research agenda which would aim, for instance, to: Understand the relationship between fear and prejudice; establish the relationship between terrorism, fear and forms of support for foreign policy; understand the effects of terrorism on levels of fear; understand how fear might prompt changes in behaviour related to personal and community safety; discover children's responses to terrorist incidents and; determine how emergency services personnel deal with fear of terrorism.

Dr Sarma highlighted the practical difficulties that researchers had faced, in particular before 9/11, in obtaining data from the police and security services

Discussion

Potentially fruitful further directions for research that emerged in discussion following Dr Sarma's presentation included the following:

  • The relationship between organised crime and terrorism
  • The effects that changes in legislation, such as the US abortion laws, could have on activist activity
  • The effects that government reactions to terrorism can have on support for it.
  • The use of 'branding' by governments and terrorist organisations to disseminate definitions of behaviours and groups involved in and responding to terrorist acts
  • The conduct of suicide bombing as a "performance"
  • The reduced capacity of elders to control youth, with the loss of traditional mechanisms of social control .


Supt Phil Trendall
Superintendent Phil Trendall from the British Transport Police discussed the responses to the events of 7/7, including what had been learned and what remained to be learned. He noted that much both in the short term and in the longer term was thought to have gone well. This included: the tube evacuations; body recovery; the recovery of forensic materials; the investigation; media management; and business recovery. What had been found more challenging included: use of mobile phones; managing large scale deployment and effecting detailed plans; funding; the location of the command centre; the use of CCTV; organisational recovery; and 'management of the new normality' (notably dealing with the many reported suspicious/unattended items and anonymous threats). There was a general problem of trying to manage an open mass-transit system safely, with minimal restrictions/controls. Supt Trendall suggested that research was needed in particular on issues of deterrence and reassurance. These include methods by which each can be achieved as well as ways of balancing them, where some deterrence activities (for example screening passengers) may alienate passengers, and where reassurance activities (for example high visibility policing) may not deter some terrorist acts (for example suicide bombers). Supt Trendall also suggested that there may be more scope for learning lessons from previous experience in dealing with terrorism in the UK and from looking at experiences overseas. He suggested that training, partnership, the conduct of exercises, and ongoing evaluation of current practices could all contribute to creating conditions for improved preparedness for terrorist attacks.

Discussion

ACC Giles York of South Wales Police provided an initial response before general discussion. He considered potential tensions between organisations. In particular, when it comes to research the academics' interests in publication may be in tension with the need for secrecy in the work of anti-terrorist organisations. ACC York also talked about the need to engage communities, especially for persistent communications between the police and the various communities served. He suggested that t he police need to entertain and deliver a range of responses according to the particular conditions they encounter, remembering that no one size fits all.

Key points to emerge from the general discussion for a research agenda included:

  • The rational or non-rational foundations for terrorist activity (and what would be meant by 'rational foundations')
  • The feedback effects of responses to terrorist activities on public perceptions of terrorism and on terrorist activities themselves
  • The identification of flags for potential suicide bombers in particular and for terrorist attacks more generally
  • The role of the 'west' and of western definitions in shaping terrorism, community responses to terrorism and terrorist behaviour

Both Dr. Galloway and Professor Speller provided examples of past and current scientific research used to fight terrorism, highlighting the importance of working in collaboration with other disciplines. The continuities between the application of the physical sciences to medicine and to terrorist problems were stressed, for instance in achieving accurate remote detection of what cannot be seen with the naked eye.

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