His answer to terrorism lies not in war
"We must try to find ways of dealing with terrorism in the dangerous world we live in," says Paul Wilkinson, "which do not actually spark off a war that could lead to a set of chain reactions of a truly disastrous nature."Skip to next paragraph
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Professor Wilkinson is a widely respected British terrorism expert. He is professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. In his most recent book, "Terrorism Versus Democracy," he argues (as he has for three decades) that terrorism should and can be effectively combated in ways that are compatible with the laws and values that operate in liberal democracies.
The phrase "war on terrorism" was, he says, understandable as a response to 9/11, "but if you use a phrase like that, it does create an expectation among some people that there is a solution to terrorism that is entirely military."
Wilkinson is not a pacifist, and says well-trained military forces sometimes must be used to attack terrorists when police forces cannot cope. But the better way to tackle the problem is "by the less glamorous, less dramatic form of counter-terrorism - through intelligence, good intelligence-sharing, getting such good information on the intentions and plans of the group that you can intervene before they carry out their attacks."
These, he argues, "are the patient and ultimately safe ways of dealing with such terrible crimes."
Wilkinson, who speaks quickly, logically, and calmly, is not some dusty, detached academic. Since 1989, he has directed the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews, and is now chairman of its advisory council. He serves as a consultant to governments including his own, the United States, Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, and Australia. He is currently heading a two-year research project funded by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council on Britain's preparedness for future terrorist attacks.
A sense of proportion about the threat is vital, he says.
"I always point out that although terrorism is an evil and lots of people unfortunately lose their lives - including many civilians - through terrorism, it is not as terrible an evil as major wars in which hundreds of thousands and possibly millions can be killed.
"We have to be very careful," he says, "that we do not bring about those wider and more terrible conflicts of potential mass annihilation in the process of trying to suppress terrorism. That would be a tragic folly."
On this basis, he adds his voice to those of other terrorism analysts concerned that a war on Iraq by the West is bound to work against, not for, the world's "war on terrorism." He does not predict an intensification of terrorism merely as a "short term" result: In his estimation, Al Qaeda remains no "minor threat" but "a very big problem." A more urgent problem than Iraq, in fact.
He also maintains that Iraq and Al Qaeda are separate issues. "Al Qaeda does not depend on Iraq, and would continue in business regardless of what happens in the conflict."
But Al Qaeda will exploit a war on Iraq, a Muslim country, using it to excite even greater enmity between the United States and the Islamic world, gaining recruits for its ruthless jihad. Wilkinson is certain there is no real evidence of any partnership between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Before 9/11, Wilkinson edited a book on the need to deal more effectively with aviation terrorism. He still believes security in the air, though improved in some ways, is far from perfect.
Terrorists will doubtless use or target civilian aviation again, he says, not to mention the maritime sphere, diplomatic facilities, and so on.
He emphasizes that the study of terrorism must be carried out within the larger framework of international relations. To make war on Iraq now will look to the Muslim world like unprovoked aggression by the West - even if it is based on "a Utopian vision" of a reordered, democratized Middle East.
He calls that vision "curiously grandiose," and likens the desire to reshape the world in the West's image to the desire of some Muslim fundamentalists to do just the opposite. "But the world, you know, isn't like that," he says. "The world is full of diverse interests and countries and groups, and religious groups which have their own values and desires and expectations."
The arrogance of the US position, he fears, is due to "a virtually fundamentalist, hawkish group" taking the driver's seat on antiterrorism policy.
In fact, he says, a war on Iraq "may simply deflect the efforts of the major Allies" from their attempts to beat terrorism.
Wilkinson does believe that formerly terrorist organizations can become legitimate, if they decide to enter politics and abandon violence. "Terrorism is an activity. It's not a permanent state of mind," he says. "Most of the significant perpetrators have also had political fronts, social and economic activities, guerrilla war, simultaneously."
"Some Basques, some Irish, some Palestinians have abandoned [terrorism] and decided to enter into a political process," he says. "Some have stood by the idea and have become legitimate political players.
As to whether the West is making progress against terrorism, and Al Qaeda in particular, he says, "There have been some quiet but nevertheless significant advances in intelligence cooperation among Europeans and between Europeans and Americans. And there is evidence that some rather nasty conspiracies have been thwarted.
"But that doesn't mean we can relax," he says. "We are far from having filled the deficit of intelligence that we had prior to 9/11."