THE terror archive at St Andrews university teaches us many dark but necessary lessons. If you could take away just one truth, however, from this newly curated labyrinth, which contains the most harrowing accounts of global political violence, it should be this: society and politicians ignore the risks of discontent spiralling into extremist violence, then exacerbate chaos through overreaction.
That’s why we now live in a state of almost permanent simmering terror, with threats everywhere. Gone is the notion that terror comes in ‘waves’: 1880s anarchists; anti-colonial rebellions in the 1920s-60s; 1970s New Left terror by the Baader Meinhof Gang, and nationalist violence from the IRA, and their loyalist opponents; and then religious terror from the Middle East, which defined the early 21st century.
Threats are now omnipresent, coming from multiple groups and ideologies. We’re at risk from both the far-right and Islamists simultaneously. Terror now hits Britons abroad, where once it was mostly domestic. Death appears on London trains, or Tunisian beaches. Terror has become a multi-headed monster.
When it came to the terror which confronted the English-speaking world, during the 1970-1990s it was mostly Northern Ireland where threats were located, though some violence spilled into England. Today, the entire English-speaking world is threatened by far-right extremists and Islamists.
In Europe, terror mostly stemmed from the German and Italian radical left, or Spain’s ETA. Now all Europe is exposed to both external and internal threats. Quite simply: threats have multiplied; the locations were terror takes place have increased; and the nature of casualties has morphed horribly: once killers assassinated security forces or business and government figures and left bombs with warnings. Now, mass civilian casualties, and sheer barbarism, is the aim.
Dr Tim Wilson, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, runs the new archive. He says academics have dubbed our collective failure to come to terms with terrorism ‘Historical Attention Span Deficit Syndrome’: the inability to learn from the past and insulate ourselves against threats today and in the future.
It will take years to learn every lesson the Global History of Terrorism Archive has to offer. It’s huge. Laid end to end, it’s longer than a football pitch.
Its genesis is as remarkable as its contents. It was compiled by Dunkirk veteran Major-General Richard Clutterbuck. He pioneered the academic study of terrorism. After military service, Clutterbuck taught political conflict at university. Simultaneously, he established the security company Control Risks, advising on overseas terror threats facing British firms.
Through his academic and commercial work, Clutterbuck built up an archive covering terrorism on a day by day basis throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. It’s a vast library of newspaper reports – from basically every publication in the western world – wire service reports, risk reports, research notes, and briefing papers.
After his death, Clutterbuck bequeathed the papers to the founder of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism, Paul Wilkinson. By the time Wilkinson died in 2011, the collection was all but forgotten. It narrowly escaped going in a skip. When Dr Tim Wilson first saw the collection it was in a university cellar. It took another ten years for the terrorism centre to get the resources to turn this jumble of documents into a world-class academic archive. Then Covid struck, stalling the project. Today, it’s finally open.
Name any terror campaign throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and the archive will provide an almost live running commentary: Ulster, Beirut, Peru’s Shining Path, Iran’s revolution, Mexico’s Zapatistas, Germany’s Red Army Faction, Italy’s Red Brigades, the build-up to the Yugoslav Wars … if there was political violence anywhere on Earth, it’s detailed here.
Here’s a taste of how unique the archive is: in 1986, during the Lebanese Civil War, as Shia militia besieged Palestinian refugee camps, the archive notes strange shelling patterns. Reports highlight “the weird on-off” nature of bombardment. Why? The shelling, Wilson explains, “synchronised exactly with World Cup schedules. The militia go and watch matches, then come back and start shelling again.”
That historic fact would be lost without this archive. Likewise, this fact about the war around Beirut: the no-man’s-land separating warring factions had to be wide enough so opposing sides couldn’t hear each other. “If they’re within hearing distance, they hear the insults the other side shouts about their mothers.”
The archive reveals what academics call “the deep unfamiliarity of the recent past”. Most of the knowledge in the archive would be lost forever as it was compiled pre-internet. It captures, for posterity, the nature of terrorism on the cusp of the digital age. Although terror has been with us forever – think of Roman armies butchering Gauls in an early act of genocide – the 1970s was a crucial period for political violence. It marked the moment terror began dominating news and the popular imagination, with mid-air hijackings; IRA, ETA and PLO campaigns; events like the Black September massacre at the Munich Olympics; and European left-wing assassinations.
The archive offers what anthropologists call “thick description” about these seminal events. Violence in Belfast or Beirut can be tracked almost by the minute using archived wire reports.
The archive also reveals “the futures which didn’t happen”. The Red Army Faction – aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang – didn’t bring down West Germany; Northern Ireland’s Hunger Strikes didn’t prompt a terrifying loyalist backlash as feared in 1981.
Crucially, the archive reveals there’s no such thing as ‘terrorism’. Rather, says Wilson, there’s many ‘terrorisms’. All political violence is different. It also uncovers the roots of many current conflicts. There’s great detail about the clash between the Muslim Brotherhood and Syria’s Assad regime in the late 70s. “Any understanding of why Syria went so bad after 2011 is well informed by this material,” says Wilson. “It’s a relatively forgotten conflict that’s a trial run for the horror-show that followed.”
The archive helps contextualise current affairs. Exploring the files, we learn that “one of the most successful rebranding accomplishments of the Northern Ireland peace process was the label ‘dissident republicans’. It’s an extraordinary misnomer”. In reality, dissident republicans like the Real IRA just do what mainstream republicans always did: use violence for political ends. What’s more important is understanding how and why Sinn Fein abandoned violence.
The archive highlights Britain’s “magisterial disdain” towards Northern Ireland’s ’Troubles’. The violence was branded a ‘low-intensity conflict’. Detail captured in the archive shows that for those in Northern Ireland, it was anything but low intensity. Wilson, an Englishman, refers to “English ignorance” regarding the Troubles.
The roots of international terror are also uncovered. Unlike Northern Ireland’s conflict, international terror seeks violence on the world’s stage for maximum publicity to further political aims. September 11 is the perfect example. Its roots can be seen in the Munich Olympics massacre. International terror is typified by killing innocent strangers and deliberate mass casualties. For all the horror of the IRA or Baader-Meinhof gang, their violence was mostly within domestic borders, and tended to avoid innocent civilians, rather targeting police, military, industry and government figures.
No two terrorist groups follow the same template. What motivates the IRA – Britain removed from Ireland – didn’t motivate the Baader-Meinhof Gang, who were anti-capitalist.
“The state is often implicated in bloodshed,” Wilson says. But “resistant to that linkage”. Repression of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, which campaigned for equality for Catholics, escalated republican violence. Shooting a Berlin protestor in 1967 radicalised students who joined the Baader-Meinhof gang. “There’s moments when the state goes in hard,” Wilson adds. Although crackdowns make some “back off”, others are “radicalised and go in a much more extreme direction”.
We need to remember this today. Wilson notes that after 2001, 68% of those arrested for terror in Britain said they were motivated by “British foreign policy”. Blowback is inherent in terror’s genesis. Mujahideen fighters like Osama bin Laden were funded by America to fight Soviets in Afghanistan. Bin Laden, Wilson, says “watched how Beirut burned during the Israeli invasion of 1982 and thought about making Manhattan burn. The relative ease with which Hezbollah drove out the multinational force [in Lebanon], particularly the American and French contingents, with suicide bombers, in 1983 and 84, made him think the west can be faced down very easily.” The archive’s Lebanese section helps us “understand what bin Laden went on to do in the next two decades.”
Reflecting on radicalisation caused by state crackdowns on protestors, Wilson highlights today’s environmental campaigners. “So far, the movement follows a very civil rights template which is non-violent.” However, anti-Vietnam protests were peaceful until National Guardsmen killed demonstrators at Kent State University. Some anti-war protestors formed the extremist Weather Underground and began bombings. The Provisional IRA hijacked peaceful civil rights protests after state violence.
The archive shows how violence tends to occur in particular areas. Belfast “hotspots” in the 1920s closely map Troubles-era “hotspots”.
“God forbid, violence starts again, but doubtless these would be the hotspots once more,” Wilson says. ‘Hotspots’ mirror Belfast’s sectarian geography.
Modern terror’s biggest shift is the rise of ‘lone wolf’ killers (previously most terror came from organisations), and ‘stochastic terror’ – where public figures dogwhistles hate and extremists respond violently. That connection runs though neo-nazis atrocities like the Christchurch mosque shootings. Donald Trump’s rhetoric inspired the Capitol coup.
Currently, the world is in a moment of “ideological fluidity” similar to the 1880s when anarchist terror began; the 1920s when anti-colonial conflicts began; and the 1960s when radical left groups turned violent. When it comes to environmental protest, Wilson says we must heed the “haunting” claim: ‘violence is necessary so that moderation can gain a hearing’. Governments cannot leave radical environmentalists feeling extremism is their only recourse.
Understanding historical political violence shows how ill-conceived Britain’s anti-terror ‘Prevent’ strategy is, Wilson suggests. For instance, under Prevent anyone showing interest in radical Islam becomes targeted. Yet, if you targeted everyone in Belfast interested in radical republicanism “you’d arrest half the Falls Road”. Prevent has “English fingerprints all over it”.
Just as there’s multiple ‘terrorisms’, radicalisation has multiple causes. Chechen ‘Black Widows’ who murdered children in the Belsan school siege said they had nothing to live for after Russian troops killed their families. So they became suicide bombers. This isn’t what motivates Britons to embrace jihad.
The one shared trait of all ‘terrorisms’ is “armed utopianism”: the belief that you can kill your way to a better world. No terrorist believes they are evil. Wilson notes that “one of the challenges of our age is we’ve created this deadening neoliberal consensus across much of the political spectrum, and we’ve seen groups and populist movements – not always violent but some of them unpleasant – spin off out of frustration. Democracy works best when it integrates radical critics. Currently, we seem to be doing that poorly.”
That is clearly influencing “the rise of extreme rightwing violence”. The drip-drip of far-right attacks also alters mainstream debate. When attacks like Christchurch happen, there’s a risk not only of imitation, but also of the killer’s political beliefs disseminating. Just look at widespread use today of the term ‘the Great Replacement’, the title of the Christchurch shooter’s ‘manifesto’.
We see this seepage of extremism in the “rehabilitation” of the far-right. What was unspeakable in 2010, is now acceptable. “Fascism was taboo, now it’s back,” Wilson adds. He fears the west is failing to grasp the far-right threat. Given the internet revolution, Wilson “isn’t quite sure how we recalibrate politics”.
However, he cautions against being “too alarmist”. The digital revolution’s flip side means state surveillance makes terrorism far more difficult. If it was hard being an on-the-run 1970s terrorist, it’s almost impossible today.
“The danger isn’t state capacity [to deal with terror] but political culture, like the emergence of leaders like Trump. That fractious politics at the top is worrying”. Political turbulence “can be encouraged and driven from above, the Trumps and the Johnsons.” Boris Johnson’s “dismissal of threats against female MPs was just unforgivable. Stuff can turn nasty.” The “decline of civility in politics”, says Wilson, “is potentially reckless”. Extremists gain “dangerous leverage” from “wider circumstances”.
He feels England, which was relatively sheltered from political violence despite IRA campaigns, has “been reckless, and stability taken for granted”. The risk Brexit posed to the Northern Ireland peace process was barely considered during the EU referendum. “The amnesia, lack of interest, curated indifference, was absolutely extraordinary,” Wilson adds. Anyone who understands the Irish Home Rule crisis would grasp immediately the risk around Ireland’s border. “You have to try very hard to know that little about your neighbour.”
If terror today bears any similarity to the past, it’s to the terror of the 1880s, when political violence first went global. Anarchist terror ran rife across Europe and America. It was happening, as terror is today, in a period of “hyper-globalisation”. Anarchist violence only stalled after the Bolshevik Revolution, when the success of Russian communism sapped the purpose of anarchist terror. A ‘socialist utopia’ was now established in Moscow, so why kill for it in London or New York?
Psychologically, many terrorists are motivated by the sense of being dominated by a greater power, whether that’s London and the IRA, or American and al-Qaeda. That leads to attacks on the great power, which in turn trigger “massive overreaction”. September 11 “gave bin Laden the war he wanted”. Executing the 1916 Easter Rising rebels brought about the IRA’s War of Independence. “We just don’t learn,” Wilson adds.
Terrorists often exhibit much longer-term thinking than government opponents. Government reaction to atrocities, like the September 11 attacks, can also begin eroding the civil rights of ordinary citizens. Government response to terror “ultimately leads to the aggregation of state power and control of people’s lives … Civil rights and liberties become a genuine concern. Terrorism widens social divides”.
Wilson notes the anti-Irish racism in England during IRA bombing campaigns, despite the fact the vast majority of Irish people opposed violence. He speculates how much more severe the backlash might have been if social media had existed.
Locations of terror attacks have also changed due to heightened surveillance. It’s not bombs against the government anymore, but random stabbings in the street of ordinary civilians. Terror plays out live on Twitter. Both heighten the general sense of dread among the public.
Terror tactics become viral. An Islamist terrorist in Nice uses a truck to kill, then a far-right terrorist in America uses a car. Although far from all terrorists have mental health problems recruiters do actively seek out “lost souls”, in a way that didn’t happen before. Terrorist are now radicalised in their bedrooms, whereas previously people had to seek out other radicals physically. Terror has been ‘fragmented’ by the digital age, just as politics, and culture have fragmented.
Amid political chaos across the west, we’ve taken our eye off Islamist terror in Africa. It remains “a seedbed” for transnational Jihadism to return, after its recent dip in intensity.
Wilson’s big fear is that “the random targeting of complete strangers becomes a sustained pattern”. Enough successful operations by far-right or religious extremists could make the western world feel like 1980s Northern Ireland. “Genuine terror can be administered in small does. You don’t need to do a lot to scare a lot of people.” Wilson notes that the real sense of terror in Northern Ireland came from “doorstep shootings and sectarian tit-for-tat murders”, not ‘spectacular’ attacks on security forces. The west could become “a more diffuse version” of Northern Ireland, suffering from a “claustrophobic atmosphere” of dread.
Evidently, with far-right and Islamist terror still the main poles of political violence, the risk of rising racism cannot be underestimated. After the 7-7 bombings, “nice liberal middle class kids suddenly found themselves on the tube looking at people with a darker colour of skin differently”.
No current terror groups will overthrown democracy, Wilson believes. Instead, how citizens and governments discuss and respond to terrorism could mean the “quality of democracy suffering, from what is objectively not an existential threat. The ability of terrorism to create the illusion of deep societal crises, is its most pernicious potential threat”.
We also fail miserably in accounting for state terror. Wilson raises the Norman Conquest. In 1066, it was an act of mass terror. Today, it’s a chapter in the history books. Britain forgets the crimes committed by its troops in Ireland. And ‘collusion’, Wilson says – the cooperation between Ulster’s loyalist murder gangs and British security forces – “is obviously the elephant in the room” when it comes to asking the question: can a state be a terrorist organisation too?