/ 28 May 2008

Can we trust the experts?

When two car bombs were detonated within hours in August 1998 at the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, few people had heard of either Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda. Nor was anyone that much better informed by 9/11. And that's just the academics. Terrorism had never really featured as a separate discipline in US universities and even in Europe its popularity was in decline.

When two car bombs were detonated within hours in August 1998 at the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, few people had heard of either Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda. Nor was anyone that much better informed by 9/11. And that’s just the academics. Terrorism had never really featured as a separate discipline in US universities and even in Europe its popularity was in decline. Indeed, there were some academics who wondered whether the signing of the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement signalled the end of the age of terrorism.

The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon changed everything, as everyone wanted to know about al-Qaeda. And, with governments working on the default principle of “when in doubt, throw money at it”, terrorism wasn’t just back on the higher education agenda, it was lucrative. Universities either revived near-forgotten courses in political violence or set up new ones and hundreds of lecturers stepped up to lay claim to specialist knowledge.

Since 9/11 research into terrorism has grown prolifically. According to the social science citation index, there were barely more than 100 articles relating to terrorism published in 2001; that figure almost trebled by the following year and has carried on rising ever since, with more than 2 300 citations recorded last year.

So far, so pretty much what one might expect. After all, universities aren’t immune to outside imperatives. Yet there is a new, disturbing trend emerging within this field of the terrorist specialist as expert witness in terror trials.

Independence

As with many trends, this started in the US with academics — such as Dr Reuven Paz, director of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements and the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel; Dr Matthew Levitt, member of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research; and Rita Katz, co-founder of the Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute — giving expert testimony. And where the US leads, the United Kingdom follows. Last year Evan Kohlman, a veteran of US terror prosecutions, gave expert evidence that helped to convict Mohammed Atif Siddique, a British-born Muslim, for internet-related terrorism offences.

But just how expert is expert? Doubts have been cast about Kohlman’s credentials. “He appears to have risen almost without trace,” says David Miller, professor of sociology at Strathclyde University, who is compiling a database of “terrorologists”.

“With no expertise beyond an undergraduate law degree and an internship at a dubious think-tank, he has become a consultant to the US department of defence, the department of justice, the FBI, the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service and Scotland Yard’s SO-15 Counter Terrorism Command.” Yet this is only half the problem. “The real issue is one of independence: many of the expert witnesses to have appeared for the prosecution have been associated with right-wing or pro-Zionist organisations.

Under these circumstances, how can the expertise not be in some way contaminated?” Calling expert witnesses in legal cases is predicated on the assumption that the evidence given will be objective and factually correct — governed by the principle of professional, scientific neutrality. Many terrorism academics have declined to appear as expert witnesses because they feel their subject does not lend itself to impartial scrutiny.

“By its very nature, terrorism is shrouded in secrecy,” says Anthony Glees, professor of intelligence and security services at Brunel University. “The only way academics can get inside information is if they have close links either to the intelligence services or to terror groups and even then there have to be doubts about its accuracy as intelligence reports are often sketchy and contradictory. Any work an academic does must inevitably be regarded as research-led opinion, which I’m not at all sure meets the standards of evidence and cross-examination required in a court.”

Professor Alex Schmid, chair of international relations at St Andrews University and director of its Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, is more open to the possibility. “I object to the phrase ‘terrorism academic’,” he says. “It is one of those slant words introduced by some critical theorists who want to discredit ‘orthodox scholars’ whom they want to condemn to the dustbin of history for their ossified views of terrorism. It is a caricature.

“Just as there are embedded journalists, there are embedded academics, but they are a minority. Some academics have served in government or international organisations and have a network of contacts that enables them to check open-source information with knowledge available only to the intelligence community. Does that make them dependent? “

In many ways, however, Schmid is an embodiment of the very things that give Miller and Glees cause for concern. For though he is an internationally recognised scholar, he has also served as officer-in-charge of the UN terrorism prevention branch in Vienna and he is a member of the European commission’s expert group on violent radicalisation.

“I’m often amazed at some of the people who turn up in the media calling themselves ‘terrorist experts’,” Glees says. “There’s one person who is often heard [on TV] claiming expertise based on his sources within MI5. Yet I happen to know, from my own sources within the organisation, that no one at MI5 is talking to him. So where he’s actually getting his information from is anyone’s guess.”

Murky waters

One point here is that if news ­channels can’t tell whether an expert witness is telling the truth, then what chance is there for a jury? The other point is that even the most impartial of experts can get it wrong.

“Shortly after the Madrid bombings in 2004, Crispin Black [the independent intelligence consultant who was once seconded to the UK’s Cabinet Office] declared that it was far from inevitable that London would be hit by al-Qaeda,”

Glees continues: “Many others, including me, saw it somewhat differently, and he went rather quiet in July 2005.” This doesn’t make Black inept; it merely makes him fallible. Combine this fallibility, to which any academic working in this subject area is prone, with the often highly politicised and controversial methods of research funding and the connections that some academics have with private security groups who are active in Iraq, and you might think that Miller and Glees had made their point.

Not necessarily, Schmid maintains. “While it is important to think about the relationship between academics and the counter-terrorism agencies, it is also important to think about the relationship between journalistic news values and terrorism. As long as ‘good news is bad news’ and ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ are top journalistic news values, those who produce violence for effect will always be able to receive ample coverage from the media. Terrorism is 1% bang and 99% publicity, as someone once put it. Terrorists depend on publicity and on journalists and editors who provide that for them. That is a bigger problem than some academic experts testifying in court. I have never done so, but would not exclude it if I regard it as my duty as citizen.” — Â