IR Professor Interview Series: Richard English

In the first instalment of the FAR’s weekly interview series with IR Professors, our Analyst Katherine Hasiotis sat down with Professor Richard English, Director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) and Wardlaw Professor of Politics at St Andrews University.  For the unedited version of this interview, you can listen to the full-length audio below.

Image courtesy of Richard English, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Richard English, some rights reserved.

KH: What’s it like to lead the CSTPV?

RE: I became Director of the CSTPV here at St Andrews in 2011 and in terms of what we do as a centre, there are really five areas to that. First is to try to produce original, durable, influential research, so that wherever you are in the world studying terrorism and political violence, you should be engaging with what St. Andrews does. Second, absolutely crucially, you’re building up a body of students at undergraduate, masters, and at PhD level so that the next generation of people who are engaging in all sorts of areas of life, whether it’s scholarly or professional or other kinds will have been people who have a rigorous training in the field here at St. Andrews. Thirdly, we’ve got to make sure that the business works. Fourthly, we want to make sure that there’s an international dimension to what we do. And fifthly, there’s a policy element to it and we want to test our ideas on terrorism and political violence with people involved in governmental agencies or police to check that it’s a credible argument and to have some kind of influence.

KH: How would you define terrorism, as an act of war or a criminal act?

RE: In my last book on terrorism, I argued that it was a species of war. I think that’s the way to read it. I think that probably, most people engaged in non-state terrorism see themselves as engaged in a war. I think it’s a kind of species or sub-species of war. That doesn’t mean that the best way to respond to it is with your own army, I think probably that’s rarely true.

KH: Are there any effective counterterrorism methods?

RE: I think there are. I think there are seven basic principles for dealing with terrorism. The first is to learn to live with it and be realistic that it’s going to go on. Second is, where possible, to address the root causes. The third is to avoid over-militarisation. The fourth is to get high-grade intelligence and interpret it carefully. The fifth is to obey your own legal frameworks of democratically established rule of law. The sixth is coordination with different efforts within your own state and between different states. And the seventh would be to maintain strong credibility in public arguments about it. There’s a lot of effective counterterrorism already, we just don’t hear about it in the news.

KH: The proven instances of a form of successful political violence such as terrorism having their intended effect are few and far between. Why do many groups continue to resort to such means?

RE: I think it’s two main reasons. One is that I think that we quite often think disproportionately about the successful ones, because they become famous. The second thing is, as I’m going to argue in my book on whether terrorism works or not, terrorism might be effective. I think it generally is ineffective at getting its central strategic goals, but it might produce a diluted version of those goals.

KH: Where in the world would you say is the most volatile region?

RE: Pakistan. Pakistan is the fulcrum of a lot of problems because it has such a knock-on effect in terms of violence elsewhere. The Pakistani state is one which is not sufficiently well-organised and coherent to deal with the threat in ways that it would need to be.

KH: You hosted a talk last night. Would you mind telling me a little bit about that?

RE: Last night, we had an academic seminar on Northern Ireland and we had speakers who represented the police and the Northern Irish Office. What we tried to do there is look at what has been achieved in terms of transformation or the peace process. The seminar is really looking at the nitty-gritty of what happens in terms of peace building and conflict resolution in its messiness.

KH: What made you, personally, begin studying the IRA and PIRA?

RE: It’s really my mother’s fault. I was born in Belfast, despite my accent, and my mother was from Belfast, and our family was Irish. When I was a student at Oxford in the mid-1980s, I was interested in studying nationalism and Marxism, how they related to each other and I wanted a case study. Because of having an Irish dimension to my background, I chose the IRA as the case study. And then after my PhD, I went to work in Belfast and really liked it and so worked for 22 years at Queens University, Belfast. The phase during which I was studying the IRA, historically, was also a phase when they were coming to an end in their campaign. So you had world historical change on the doorstep and that reinforced my interest in it. The second thing was that the atrocity of 9/11 happened. The whole world became interested in terrorism in a different way and in particular in questions like “why does terrorism happen? Why does it go on at different levels in different places? How can we stop it?” And so those questions were suddenly ones that were not just Irish questions.

KH: Did growing up in Belfast influence the tenor of your research? Does it help or hinder your research?

RE: I tend to think that whatever your accent or background, the key thing with studying groups like the IRA is to convince them that you’re trying to treat them as you would treat any other serious object of enquiry. And I have found that they have been supportive of my doing the research. The way in which you treat interview evidence, the way in which you measure up the assessments of what they’ve done, are probably more important than background. Where background is important, I think that probably is that, because I was prepared to go and live in Northern Ireland and live there for a long time and get to know where everyone lived, where they drank, where they shopped, where they went to school – that helped me do a certain kind of in-depth research.

KH: What are you currently working on?

RE: The next book is a book called Does Terrorism Work?: A History. What I’m trying to do as someone trained as a historian is to say that the debate on the effectiveness of terrorism or its ineffectiveness should have a historical root to it. An awful lot of what’s been written about terrorism since 9/11 has been written as if terrorism started in the 1990s, but actually it goes back much longer. I’m going to argue that terrorism in any modern recognisable sense really emerges in the end of the 18th century with the foundation of the modern concept of the nation state. It’ll be out in 2016 with Oxford University Press and I’m enjoying writing it. It’s a grizzly subject to write about but strangely enjoyable to do.

KH: Where do you go to find your news everyday?

RE: I read loads of newspapers and the one I trust in the UK is the Financial Times. I find that in terms of world news and analysis, the Financial Times is the strongest of the UK based papers.

KH: What are you currently reading?

RE: Lots and lots and lots. But including, in terms of fiction I’ve got into Richard Ford, so I’ve discovered Richard Ford and his recent novel Canada, which I much enjoyed. I’ve just begun a book by my excellent colleague Dr. Gilbert Ramsay about jihadi culture and the World Wide Web, which is a fantastic new book just published.


If you enjoyed this interview, you can listen to the un-edited audio of the full interview below, or in our Media section.