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After Utøya

‘Terrorism’ research has questionable public benefit

Senior policymakers in Norway predict that last month’s attacks are likely to revive the study of right-wing extremism. On page 25 of this issue, Tore Bjørgo, former head of research at the Norwegian Police University College, says the field has been overshadowed by the study of Islamist terrorist incidents. Another commentator tells us that spending on terrorism research needs to come into line with that in countries such as the UK.

We think that, as Norway begins the journey back from one of its darkest ever days, the country’s policymakers should certainly study the approaches of countries such as the UK. But they should also absorb their lessons before committing hard-earned cash.

It is true that after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US and the 7 July 2005 attacks in London the then Labour government in the UK invested significant sums on the study of international and domestic Islamist terrorism. If you happened to be in academic sociology or political science, these were boom years. Academics were invited to join individual government departments on short but lucrative contracts. Ministers needed regular briefings and research-funding councils were given the money to create long-term research programmes.

As a result of all of this investment, the UK’s universities today boast an impressive array of research centres with such titles as Centre for the Study of Political Violence; terrorism think tanks have sprung up where none existed and there are probably several universities’ worth of newly-minted PhDs who claim expertise in the subject.

But the question Norway must honestly ask before it chooses to do likewise is: why do you need research in this topic? Does the scale of right-wing terrorism demand more research? Or is it better dealt with by more vigilant policing and more diligent intelligence gathering?

That research into terrorism and political violence is neither monolithic nor well-established would suggest that investment is needed. On the other hand, researchers are the last people you should ask for ideas on preventing terrorism. That’s because the lack of agreement, even among the field’s top names, and the poor quality of the available data make it hard to form an evidence-based judgement.

When UK government departments hired researchers to help them after the London bombs of 2005, the government’s policy response was already being shaped. Crudely put, this policy was that Islamist terrorism was not to be dealt with as a criminal activity alone, and that it should involve studying (and often interfering in) the lives of ordinary citizens who happened to be Muslim, for fear that such people might one day become terrorists. Researchers who agreed with such an approach were given both funding and access to top policymakers. Those who disagreed were politely listened to, then shown the door.

The early signs are that Norway’s policymakers are under no illusions and understand that no amount of research would have stopped the Utøya attacks. No doubt they will come under pressure to change this line but, for now, we remind them that political ideology must never define the direction of research in any field, no matter how sensitive.