Paris attack creates challenges for universities

The mobilisation of policy-makers and people at large marches through Paris last week is a significant manifestation of the impact of the Paris terrorist attack. The question now is how these events will affect university life in general and international recruitment at European universities in particular.

In the aftermath of the mass murder of 77 people in Oslo in 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik, universities and research organisations have sought further understanding of the event and undertaken research on the effectiveness of the government’s response and preparedness to deal with political terrorism.

But senior researcher Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment has raised the question: “Who is going to fund research into political extremism?” Hegghammer argues there is a strong imbalance in the kind of research that had been financed after the events in Oslo.

“Much funding has been allocated to research,” he says “But the majority of the projects have been on the consequences of and the readiness for terror attacks. Only minor amounts have been allocated to research on the actors doing the terror acts.”

In fact, only two out of 46 projects listed on the web-page of the coordinating group for research on July 22 are devoted to investigating Breivik himself or other right-wing extremists.

Hegghammer notes that in the Norwegian Research Council’s strategic programme for ”social security” the aim is to increase knowledge of the threats, dangers and vulnerability, and how unwarranted events might be prevented and crisis management improved while observing basic human rights. He says the word “readiness” is used 24 times, while “Islamic” is mentioned only once and the prefix “right-” is not to be found at all.

“We need further knowledge about the potential attackers, which radical groups have the greatest potential for violence, which goals they will target, not only how to handle the catastrophe when it is here,” he says.

In any case, Norway’s experiences with politically motivated terror might be of limited value in understanding the events in Paris in 2015. Anders Behring Breivik acted alone and, even if he had major international connections, the court proceedings would never disclose that he had accomplices in Norway or abroad.

Research questions of relevance to the Paris terror attack are more extensive, most of all because there is a direct link to the terror movements of Al Qaeda. But then issues of state intervention to prevent terrorism might overtake research tackling issues such as understanding and preventing religio-political extremism among Muslim youth. And, not least, the difficult question of how states are integrating their migrants.

The events in Paris will also generate a plethora of other research questions such as the role of political satire, freedom of speech, political mobilisation against terrorism and many other issues.

How an “open society” responds to the threats of political-religious terror acts is under discussion in several European states. British Home Secretary Theresa May, speaking in London last month on the drafting of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, said:

“Since I became Home Secretary, I have excluded hundreds of people in total from Britain. Seventy-four organisations are presently prohibited because they are engaged in terrorism. I have refused or cancelled 29 passports to disrupt the travel of people planning to engage in terrorist-related activity overseas. The Security Service believes that since the attacks on 7th July 2005, around forty terrorist plots have been disrupted”.

The UK legislation includes measures to intervene in schools and colleges to prevent student radicalisation, and to undertake reporting of students “if they have concerns of being drawn into extremism or terrorism”; to stop extremist speakers from being given a platform at universities and for academics to report students if “they were becoming withdrawn, reserved or showing [certain]other personal traits”.

University of Oslo rector, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, told University World News: "Who is to be held responsible for these important questions not being the subject for further research? What transpired in Norway in 2011 and now in Paris clearly shows the demand for research within the realms of the humanities and social sciences.”

Ottersen said Norway’s government and research council were responsible for allocating sufficient support for researcher-initiated projects within these broad fields because they were important in their own right and constituted “society's safety net”.

“Now we understand that the Norwegian government intends to allocate funds specifically for research on terror and extremism. The University of Oslo, for one, boasts research environments that are highly qualified for this task. Here we will arrange one or several `after Paris' seminars in the same way as we arranged `after 22/7’ lectures.”

Professor Basia Spalek*, director of research and development assist trauma care at the University of Derby, told University World News: “Both Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi [two of the Paris terrorists] were orphans brought up in foster care, French nationals of Algerian descent. These brothers raise a number of questions for future research, as there are similar patterns in other cases of violent extremism.

”The absence of a coherent family structure, family migration and questions that this raises for identity and a sense of belongingness, the use of violence and the role of a charismatic preacher – these seem to be clear pathways to terrorism that require further investigation."

Spalek said the role of or absence of family in relation to radicalisation was a key area to explore. Being orphans and being fostered would imply that the Kouachi brothers had an insecure attachment base, developed through childhood, and the charismatic preacher that they met may have played on their insecurities, providing them with an attachment figure, "a replacement parent so to speak”.

"At the same time, since the Kouachi brothers were of Algerian descent it is likely that members of their family would have experienced trauma in relation to the conflict and significant social injustice there,” she said.

”Trauma within families is another key area for research on radicalisation in the future. Exploring connections between gang membership, criminality and radicalisation is also a key research area given that these also seem to be relevant in a number of cases of terrorism.”

But Spalek said that gaining access to undertake sensitive detailed research would be hugely challenging in the current political and social climate. It would be very difficult for independent researchers to gain access to extremists and their families, particularly in cases where individuals were in prison on terrorism-related offences.

She said it was also very difficult for researchers to get funding that focused more on the psycho-analytic and psychotherapeutic aspects of radicalisation, "given the dominance of security-led discourses in terrorism studies research”.

Dr Maura Conway, a senior lecturer in international security at Dublin City University and an expert on terrorism and the internet, said increasing pressure was being brought to bear on social media companies regarding their role in hosting increasing amounts of violent extremist and terrorism-related content.

”This is reflected in the statement emanating from the EU ministers of justice and interior meeting in Paris on 11 January in the wake of the Paris attacks, but also in recent comments by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and other leaders,” Conway said.

She is also the principal investigator of VOX-Pol programme.

She told University World News: ”VOX-Pol is convening a workshop at Central European University in March to discuss the complexities of violent online extremism in ways that respect free expression, privacy and security.

”This in the context of developing a better understanding of the ways in which the internet is governed and the role of technology companies as political intermediaries.

"The aim of the workshop is to bring together researchers and stakeholders from industry, civil society, policy and academia to wrestle with these issues and help set the agenda for research and practice at the intersection of online extremism, internet governance and freedom of expression.”

* Basia Spalek is author of Counter-Terrorism: Community-based approaches to preventing terror crime (Palgrave Macmillan) which examines community-based approaches to counter-terrorism through an analysis of the notions of community, partnership, engagement, gender and religion in order to shed new light on the potential of, and drawbacks to these approaches. In the book, Spalek stresses the need for policy-makers and practitioners to reflect on the effectiveness of the initiatives that they are engaged with, particularly in relation to how community-targeted or community-focused they are.