Acclaimed Scottish professor Richard English talks to our Writer at Large about why terrorism happens, how to combat it and the ways politicians make extremism worse

RICHARD English has spent decades around terrorists and the men and women who fight them. Studying terror is his life’s work. This thoughtful Scottish professor is an expert on the ways societies divide and fall into the grip of extremism and political violence.

So his sober, balanced warning to Scotland should be heeded. Beware growing polarisation, he says. That way hell lies.

English’s cautionary call comes at the end of a wide-ranging conversation about terrorism and how it’s shaped our world.

He has just brought out an acclaimed new book Does Counter-Terrorism Work? – the definitive text on political violence and how states should respond. English was the longstanding director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University.

Today, he’s director of the Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast, and remains an honorary St Andrews professor.

We can’t understand history or our societies unless we understand the effects of terror, he says. After all, “it was a terrorist assassination in 1914 which triggered the First World War and changed everything. The decolonisation of empires – Britain’s included – often involved violence, sometimes terroristic. That shaped the map of the world”.

He adds: “The atrocity of 9/11, and the responses, changed the world in ways we’re stilling feeling.”

The Hamas atrocities, and Israel’s war in Gaza, are, English says, changing the world right now in ways we’ve yet to comprehend. So many of our laws are shaped by terror. “Even who gets to be a popular politician is often down to their responses to terrorism,” he says. “Reactions to terrorism determine the politics of the world.”


Professor Richard English

Professor Richard English



Terrorists often want to provoke self-damaging actions from their targets. Think of how Bloody Sunday was an IRA recruiting sergeant. Or how America’s response to 9/11, with the establishment of Guantanamo, cut moral ground away from the USA.

“One depressing aspect of counter-terrorism is how liberal democracies can degrade themselves in their responses. That’s something which is there in Israel’s response to Palestinians, and Britain’s response over different generations in Ireland. You give gifts to opponents if you self-degrade.”

English adds that people will long remember “Abu Ghraib and the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners” by American soldiers.

Terror changes us on a personal level. Following shocking acts of terror “much of what happens is about revenge”. Societies become “polarised”. English says: “You saw that after 9/11. You’ve seen it in Israel repeatedly. In Northern Ireland, violence made sure communities were further divided. People get angry, they feel hatred, they need to hit back.”

Once society reaches that stage “it’s very difficult to break the cycle of escalating violence”. He adds: “Things intensify – your side hits mine, my side hits back. Getting that flame turned down is much more difficult than turning it up. Terrorism’s long-term effects corrupt so much. Violence is more likely to produce polarisation than achieve the high-sounding goals used to justify it.”

Despite the distorting effect terrorism has on societies and individuals, English says “most people who turn to terrorism are perfectly normal”, adding: “Occasionally there’s psychopaths, as in any area of human activity, but they’re the exception rather than the norm.

“Mostly [terror groups] are composed of ‘normal’ people who feel terrorism is the best, or only, way of bringing about essential change. They may be wrong in thinking it’s justified – and usually are – but my experience of engaging with people involved in terrorism is that overwhelmingly they’re normal.

“That’s rather disturbing. It’s easier to see them as evil. But in some ways the normality provides ways out of terror. If people are normal, they can be persuaded that violence isn’t working, maybe they’re open to normal persuasion and pursuing politics by different means.”

Armed Irish republicanism is a perfect case study. The IRA realised violence wasn’t achieving its political goals. Sinn Fein took control, and now holds the post of Northern Ireland’s First Minister.

Those who turn to terror, says English, do so to achieve political goals – perhaps related to nationalism or religion, or even economics as with 1970s Marxist terror – which they believe “peaceful methods” failed to advance. That failure legitimises violence “in their eyes”, he adds.

“That cycle is seen repeatedly with Palestinians. Before the state of Israel was set up, it was seen with Jewish terrorists who felt terrorism was justified to establish the state. Terrorism is normal politics pursued through abnormal, brutal and callous means. “Does it work? Normally it tends not to produce its central strategic goals. It does on occasion, but normally no. But that doesn’t mean it achieves nothing. Unquestionably, it gets greater publicity for the cause people are pursuing.”

Northern Ireland, is a “good example” of how political compromise could have stopped terror. Had the reasonable demands of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement been met, history may have been different.





“WHERE we are in Northern Ireland now could have been achieved without anybody being killed. If people had pursued compromise on all sides, we could have avoided any of those tragic deaths. Unfortunately, all sides pursued victory and all sides used violence.

“It has lessons for us if we look at other crises where people often exaggerate what military means can do. We see that [in the Israel-Palestine conflict] now. Losses on all sides involve people hitting back and terrorism being reinforced.”

He points again to Britain’s military overreaction in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. “The exaggeration of what you can do through military methods often makes things worse. Pursuing compromise –demonstrating that non-violence can produce results – is the best way forward politically. People sometimes say that’s giving in to terrorists. I think the opposite. It’s often producing things which stop terrorism.”

Again, political compromise with the Northern Irish civil rights movement would have strangled the IRA. With counter-terrorism, Britain repeatedly fails to learn from its mistakes. “The lessons learned in Ireland in the 1920s [during the War of Independence] – the dangers of an over-militarised response

– had to be learned again in the 1970s in Northern Ireland.” America also relied on an over-militarised response to 9/11.

“It’s a misdiagnosis. Rhetoric about completely getting rid of terrorism is unrealistic and helps nobody.”

Successful security strategies “contain terrorism” and try to “maintain normal lives” for the civilian population.

However, English understands it’s a big ask expecting governments and populations not to overreact. Politicians seen as “soft” after terror attacks clearly risk losing votes. That’s been seen in Britain, America and Israel. “The short-termism of democracies is part of the problem,” English says. Often security forces want long-term effective solutions, which conflict with the electoral concerns of politicians. “They have different imperatives,” English adds.

Poor journalism feeds this problem. If the press screams for immediate action, politicians can make bad choices.

“Responsible journalistic debate prompts people to think more calmly. I’m afraid some newspapers have inflamed things with demands for extreme reaction. That can play into the hands of terrorists. Politicians underestimate voters. People are prepared to hear something put calmly but they need journalists to do that.”

Politicians caving in to demands from the public or press for militarised vengeance “can make matters worse”. After the October 7 attacks, “clearly Isreal had to do something to protect itself. Hamas had committed appalling atrocities. But looking at what’s happened in recent months, it’s not clear that the long-term effects for Israel will be greater stability”.


EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / People gather around the carcass of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen, that was hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024, amid the ongoing

People gather around the wreck of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen, that was hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on April 2


Middle east

AFTER the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, “terrorist incidents actually rose”. However, taking a hard line over terror often leads to politicians getting electoral “rewards”. He says: “They’re not just countering terrorism, they’re thinking about their careers. What we need to look at is minimising human suffering in the long term”.

Historically, counter-terror is most effective when there’s “restraint and proportion”. That sophisticated approach isn’t an election-winner, though, English admits.

The best chance of peace in the Middle East would involve Israel embracing the “two-state solution”, English believes. Nobody thought peace in Northern Ireland stood a chance until Britain shifted its policy towards terror, he notes.

Britain got on top of The Troubles when it moved to “intelligence-led policing” – involving infiltration and subversion of terror groups to contain violence – rather than “military methods”.

“You wouldn’t have had the peace process without the containment of the IRA, and you wouldn’t have had containment of the IRA without agents and informers in the organisation.”

The problem, however, then arises that double agents working within terror organisations – like the infamous British army spy inside the IRA, Freddie Scappaticci codenamed Stakeknife – need to continue operating as terrorists to keep their cover and access to top-grade intelligence.

So while intelligence-led counter-terror is more effective, it “involves ugly choices”. Counter-terror becomes a utilitarian numbers game in which the state must decide if its actions save more lives than are lost.

In Northern Ireland, containment did save lives but the policy existed in a morally “grey zone. For counter-terrorism to be most effective, it should be the most ethical it can. Making judgments at the ‘cleaner end’ of grey is probably the best you’re going to get in these ghastly situations”.

To save lives, the state must enter “the murky world” of terrorism. That means “accountability” of intelligence services must become paramount.

No state fighting terror comes out clean. All that can be hoped for is “making life better rather than worse”.

In terms of terrorism, Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq “was disastrous”. There were no weapons of mass destruction. “Iraq became a magnet for terrorists and a justification used in attacks on Western countries.

“The long-term effect was also disastrous. It undermined the credibility of Britain and America when they talked about terrorism. People thought ‘well, I remember what you claimed about Iraq and that turned out not to be true’. If governments lose credibility when talking about counter-terrorism, they’ve lost half the battle. Iraq has done lasting damage to Britain and America.”

Without the Iraq War, there would be no Islamic State. The “chaos” which tore through Syria “was partly triggered by [Western] responses to 9/11” and the war.

Dealing with Syria became “much more difficult” for Britain and America due to the same doubt fostered by Iraq.

America’s eventual flight from Afghanistan empowered not just enemy states like Russia but also terrorist organisations. “Some think ‘well, the one thing we’re confident of is America won’t want to put soldiers into conflict’. That’s alarming for the world.”

That “clumsy” approach to Jihadist terror has limited how the West is able to “react to the atrocity of Ukraine”. Western action alienated many nations, whose support now would assist Ukraine.


Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin



TODAY, far-right terror is shaping international politics. “One irony of the war on terror after 9/11,” says English, “is that it focused overwhelmingly on Jihadism. The biggest threat Americans now face is from the extreme right – domestic American terrorists who have conspiracies and lots of guns.

“As we face into a feverish presidential election, the tensions are being dialled up. We all need America in good shape, but things seem more polarised than ever.”

American writers now discuss “civil war”. The US is “on edge”, English says, and we should be alarmed. Armed militias, who “feel wrongly the last election was stolen”, escalate tensions. Americans are “getting more angry, more inflamed, more conspiratorial” – that threatens “liberal democracy”. English adds: “I find it really scary.”

He says, however, that Norway’s response to far-right atrocities by the extremist Anders Breivik was a textbook example of how to respond to terror. Norway acted with “democratic dignity, the legal process was maintained”. He compares this with hyper-militarised operations by Sri Lanka against Tamil insurgents, which lead to an estimated 80-100,000 dead.

English notes it’s questionable if Norway would have behaved so rationally if there had been a spate of attacks. “It’s an important aspect of counter-terrorism in democracies that we don’t allow terrorist provocation to make us what we’re not.”

He speculates that Norway’s response might have been less measured if the killer was named “Mohammed Breivik” rather than a “Christian-heritage terrorist”. When threats are “presented as external”, that’s when “emotions polarise”. America has a long history of “Christian-heritage domestic terrorism” – most notably the Ku Klux Klan – which the US seldom considers.

Far-right violence must be seen as “international terrorism”, as extremists around the world are connected. With the “diminution in the jihadist threat”, however, Western intelligence agencies are now paying more attention to far-right terror.

“We need to be honest about this threat that comes from within,” English says. “It’s an intensified version of conservative politics, but it should be demarcated from the perfectly legitimate politics of parties on the right which adhere to liberal democracy.”

He is concerned that as the climate crisis worsens, migration into Europe will rise, fuelling far-right terror. It leaves him “pessimistic”.

Political and media failure lie at the heart of this threat too, as “we seem unable of having a calm debate about immigration”.

English adds that “atypical terrorist actors from within a wider community” can be used to demonise everyone connected to that group. “After the 7/7 atrocity in England, the polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims became much worse, despite most Muslims having the same view of terrorism as anyone else. The number of news stories focused on Muslim people and terrorism was utterly disproportionate to the relationships between Muslims and terrorism.”

Politicians can gain support by “heating up hostility to immigration and linking it to terrorism. It misrepresents reality. The overwhelming majority of immigrants have nothing to do with terrorism”. Britain needs “an honest conversation” about what voters want in terms of immigration regarding “appropriate numbers”, rather than fearmongering, English feels. “Do politicians who engage in inflammatory rhetoric gain rewards? Unquestionably. Are they making things more difficult for us all? Unquestionably.”



The House of Commons


Yet some politicians instinctively tamp down political violence. Nelson Mandela was instrumental in preventing racial violence in South Africa, despite being repeatedly described as a terrorist by the Thatcher government. Mandela chose “compromise”.

The word “terrorist”, says English, can be used wrongly to demonise. The Nazis described acts of resistance – “bombs in cafes” – as “terroristic. People denounced as terrorists during the colonial period now have buildings named after them”.

Terrorists are always early adopters of technology. Dynamite changed casualty numbers. Live TV increased public attention. Social media means terrorist manifestos are “on everyone’s phone” immediately. Yet technology like drones and digital surveillance is also key to counter-terrorism.

Conspiracy has always been part of terrorism. Hitler used anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to whip up hatred. Today, political violence is linked to the QAnon conspiracy in America. It’s another reason why “intelligent journalism” is so necessary.


ENGLISH turns his attention to Scotland and polarisation. “Unfortunately, in Scotland – and in Britain, Ireland and America – compromise seems not to be where we’re heading. That’s one of the things I’m most saddened about regarding terrorism, counter-terrorism, and wider politics.

“Finding what you share across divisions, finding ways of working together, increases human flourishing. Polarisation, aggression and turning to violence makes most of us losers. Turning towards more constructive political relationships would do us all good.”

He adds: “At the time of the 2014 independence referendum, what was wonderful was this major debate about the future happening largely in a very peaceful way. It struck me as an enormous achievement.”

By contrast, in Ireland, the issue of the union was “blood-stained”. However, English “also found that over the years in Scotland there was increasing polarisation in terms of what was being said and the tone of the debate. Social media didn’t help. “It’s important to make sure that where people disagree, they do so in ways that allow for respect and peacefulness. Threats and things that inflame are never helpful. You can’t take for granted what a wonderful thing it is to have major debates around the constitutional question, and political disagreement, in a peaceful and respectful way. It’s so important for us to defend in Scotland and elsewhere.”

Referencing Northern Ireland, English said Scotland “should learn from those places where things have gone wrong, from places even quite close where things got out of control”.


Is the union too broken to repair?

Is the union too broken to repair?


Key to maintaining control is “how we disagree over important political questions, and engage with others on the basis that you respect them and their right to speak and be listened to. That’s a big part of what liberal democracies, including Scotland, need to defend”.

Referring to America, he said Scotland “shouldn’t underestimate how quickly things can become so divided and aggressive”.

Scotland is lucky that only a few on the “maverick fringe have felt violence would be justified” regarding the constitution. “That’s enormously precious and must be maintained”.

English added: “Over the years, it more and more became the case that the constitutional question was involved in almost every debate. It became more pervasive. In that sense, it’s more like Northern Ireland than it used to be in that everything is refracted through the national question.

“There’s no basis in Scotland at the moment for any sense that you’re going to originate troubles of the kind that were tragically in Northern Ireland. What I do think is important is that everybody involved in these very sharp divisions should be conducting themselves with respect. In Scotland, as in other parts of the UK, there’s been a shift away from calm, respectful politics towards a more divided and inflamed rhetoric.

“The more you disagree courteously, the more you protect the possibility of ongoing peaceful politics which has been such a crucial legacy in Scotland and something to be proud of.

“If we respect each other’s views, we’re guaranteeing that the peace we’ve had in the past in Scotland will continue. There are enough examples around the world of disagreement turning to violence to reinforce our commitment to those peaceful ways of disagreeing.”