The media and 'experts' in terrorism

This article was first published on Discover Society

When Tarik Kafala, the head of BBC Arabic, advised staff not to use the term ‘terrorist’, he excited a ripple of (mostly) disapproving comment in the press. The BBC was ‘branded “mad” by critics‘ in the Daily Mail. But Kafala was only reaffirming a longstanding BBC policy. The Corporation’s current editorial guidelinesput it this way: ‘The word “terrorist” is not banned, but its use can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened. We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as bomber, attacker, gunman, kidnapper, insurgent and militant. We should not adopt other people’s language as our own.’

The term ‘terrorist’ is obviously value-laden, not least because it has no settled definition in international politics. As Kafala went on to argue: ‘terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word.’

But it’s not just the UN and the BBC; in academia, the exact meaning of terrorism has been argued over for decades. Almost every survey of the field notes the difficulty of agreeing a definition; in the end, the term is imprecise and usually describes nothing more than political violence of which the user disapproves.

As a result, academic studies of terrorism have remained highly politicised, and prospective ‘experts’ find themselves caught between scholarly approaches and the demands of the main ‘users’ of terrorism expertise: government and security agencies.

Reflexive experts?

Some academics working in the terrorism studies field have recognised these difficulties. Marc Sageman, a former CIA field officer and qualified psychiatrist and sociologist, provoked vigorous debate in the field when in 2014 he referred to a post-9/11 ‘explosion of speculations with little empirical grounding.’ As he puts it, ‘new findings’ on terrorism, ‘are not debated in the academy in a collegial way, but on television and the internet as arguments to advance political agendas. The voice of true scholars is drowned in this hysterical cacophony of political true believers.’

This problem was brought into stark relief in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack when Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, notoriously described Birmingham as a ‘no-go’ area for non-Muslims.

There were many illustrations of the impact of this spurious sort of expertise in the aftermath of the attacks, from the rise in attacks on Muslims across France to the recent questioning of an eight-year-old boy for ‘glorification of terrorism’ after he declared that he was not ‘Charlie’.

Journalists have a responsibility to avoid contributing to this. But those seeking apparently more respectable sources of expertise on terrorism face a serious problem: many ‘experts’ are linked to highly conservative, sometimes anti-Muslim funding sources, or to military, police or intelligence organisations.

In both cases, this raises questions about their objectivity and independence. In the best available study Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’, Lisa Stampnitzky notes that ‘there is little regulation of who may become an expert, and, emblematically, experts have themselves complained that the field is filled with “self-proclaimed experts.”‘

The rise of the think tank is one factor exacerbating the issue. This general trend well summarised by Tom Medvetz in his pioneering study, Think Tanks in America: ‘the growth of think tanks over the last forty years has played a pivotal role in undermining the relevance of autonomously produced social scientific knowledge… effectively limit[ing] the range of options available to more autonomous intellectuals, or those less willing to tailor their work to the demands of moneyed sponsors and politicians.’

If this highlights a worrying encroachment on social science, squeezing out those working in the universities, it might also be pointed out that there is no clear line separating think tanks from academia. The blurring of the boundary is certainly evident in relation to terrorism expertise.

One example is the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College London, the most prominent UK centre for terrorism studies. We have been criticised as describing Peter Neumann and his team as ‘manufactured experts’, or part of a ‘shadowy neocon/Zionist network’. We did not, in fact, use the words ‘manufactured’ or ‘shadowy’. But we do think that there are serious questions to be answered about the ICSR group’s political associations, as well as the lack of transparency over the centre’s sources of funding.

Staff at ICSR include (or included until recently) a former ‘Islamist’ who worked at the Policy Exchange where a report alleging that UK Mosques were selling hate literature was withdrawn after the BBC discovered that receipts on which it was based were not genuine. Another also worked at Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion, a think tank accused of stirring up Islamophobia. A third was a founder of the Henry Jackson Society, the leading UK neoconservative think tank.

Two of these experts at the ICSR have written for the Gatestone Institute, an anti-Muslim outfit which is so extreme that it until recently listed the blogger ‘Fjordman’ as a ‘distinguished scholar’. Fjordman – the pseudonym for the blogger Peder Jensen – was an inspiration for the Norwegian anti-Muslim mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 people in the Utoya massacre in Norway. Among the other UK authors on the Gatestone website are Douglas Murray and Alan Mendoza of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS).

Gatestone seems to be almost entirely funded by the Abstraction Fund, a conservative foundation run by Gatestone’s president Nina Rosenwald, recently described as the ‘sugar mama of anti-Muslim hate’. Abstraction funds a number of other extremist think tanks, and provided funds to the Henry Jackson Society in 2011. Perhaps there is some explanation for the ICSR’s association with Gatestone, but if so, we have not heard it. It is certainly difficult to reconcile expertise in terrorism with any such association.

Gatestone seems to be almost entirely funded by the Abstraction Fund, a conservative foundation run by Gatestone’s president Nina Rosenwald, recently described as the ‘sugar mama of anti-Muslim hate’. Abstraction funds a number of other extremist think tanks, and provided funds to the Henry Jackson Society in 2011. Perhaps there is some explanation for the ICSR’s association with Gatestone, but if so, we have not heard it. It is certainly difficult to reconcile expertise in terrorism with any such association.

Our research shows that the ICSR has received donations from a number of conservative foundations, but is not transparent about its funding. This is a wider problem in the world of think tanks and policy making. In December, research by Spinwatch led the Henry Jackson Society to withdrawing from two All Party Parliamentary Groups rather than disclose some of its donors as Parliamentary rules require. Both HJS and the ICSR have been funded by the Atkin family who sold their baby-feeding business Avent for £300 million in 2005. Their foundation gave HJS £380,000 between 2009 and 2013, while Kings College and ICSR have received over £700,000 from Atkin family foundations since 2007, according to reports lodged with the UK Charity Commission. The family have also donated to the controversial Jerusalem Foundation, which is reported to be engaged in developments in settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.

This association perhaps not surprising. The ICSR was set up largely as the result of the efforts of a London based American businessman Henry Sweetbaum, best known as a former chairman of the DIY retailer Wickes. Sweetbaum ‘became concerned‘ about proposals for an academic boycott of Israel and offered funding to the LSE and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, to ‘cooperate on a project that would challenge the boycott.’ LSE declined and later Sweetbaum turned to Kings College with the help of conservative academic Lawrence Freedman and thus, according to Sweetbaum, the ICSR was born.

Aside from a lack of transparency more reminiscent of a think tank than an academic institution, one conclusion that can be drawn is that the apparent motivations of those involved in setting up the centre do not suggest a disinterested pursuit of expert knowledge.

Back to basics
Clearly, we need to be more transparent and honest about these problems. The good news is that there are plenty of rules of thumb out there for putative experts and journalists to use; they just have to stick to them.

In 2009, the Ethics Council of the National Union of Journalists produced a useful guide to dealing with terrorism experts. We would certainly endorse their principles. Above all, the guide suggests that journalists should:

  • Ask about the expert’s qualifications and why their opinion should be given particular weight.
  • Check how the expert’s work is funded.

It is important that once these questions are asked, that the answers are shared with the public. The BBC has recently been criticised in The Lancet for not adequately informing its audience of the links between think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the tobacco industry. The dangers of dealing with terrorism expertise are much the same.

The more journalists endeavour to live up to their own editorial policies and share with the audience more explicit information about the voices given access to millions of homes, the better informed will we all be.

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