Nuclear Terrorism in the Modern Seminar Room

9 Dec

I have no idea what that cover image is actually meant to be.

Next semester, I will be making statements supporting the proliferation network of A Q Khan, the idea of an ‘Islamic bomb‘, and and means of conducting ‘nuclear terrorism‘. Give me a few weeks and I’ll have MI5 at my office door with a set of handcuffs and a whole series of  awkward questions. Or not, as is probably the case

Of course, I don’t actually agree with A Q Khan’s self-aggrandising nuclear proliferation motives. The idea of an ‘Islamic bomb’ is complicated and multilayered.(1) And I don’t support the use of nuclear weapons by anyone. But, I will be making ‘controversial’ statements in order to stir up debate and provoke discussion in my seminars for The United States and the Conundrum of Nuclear Proliferation.

I mention this because of the UK’s ongoing Prevent Strategy (hereafter just ‘Prevent’)to combat ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’. Universities, colleges, and schools are now – for David Cameron’s government at least – the front line in a battle against ‘extremist ideologies’. Prevent aims to cover all ‘extreme ideologies’, but in the current climate we all know what they’re really talking about.

As an historian, I have a duty to be as objective as possible (while being fully aware that the notion of scholarly objectivity is bunk). I also have a duty to present all sides of the debate. That includes presenting ideas that range from the unpalatable to the downright offensive. In order to understand – for example – modern views on nuclear terrorism, we must interrogate the beliefs of those who would wish to make use of such tactics.(2) In order to find out what these beliefs are, we must engage with the output of those who share that belief.

So – in the context of our contemporary world – I’m putting together a set of materials that draws upon US policymakers, the media, and the statements of various groups regarding the concept of nuclear terrorism (including the recent EU briefing ISIL/Da’esh and ‘non-conventional’ weapons of terror). Am I therefore ‘radicalising’ my students by exposing them to such materials? Do they have a duty to report me to MI5 for spreading an ‘extremist ideology’?


I disagree with much of what Allison says, but the above is still a useful volume on the subject.

In some ways, this is all a ludicrous case of far-fetched ‘whataboutery’. Of course, it’s terribly unlikely that MI5 will turn up at my door. Of course, my students are all bright, engaged, clever young people who understand what we are attempting to achieve in class. Concerns have been expressed, however, about the way in which Prevent could stifle academic study and debate. These recent stories about a student being questioned for reading a scholarly work on terrorism (what on earth would they make of my current bookshelves!) or a student clicking a link found in a reading list are a tiny sample, but they are still disquieting all the same.

Yet, it’s not about what could happen, but what is happening in the minds of academics and students. I’m already second-guessing myself: should I include certain material? Should I teach this topic? Should I make this provocative statement to stir up debate? The answer to all of these is yes, yes I should do these things. Students should also engage with these materials in order to further their understanding of the world that surrounds us. The recent comments by Jo Johnson attacking the NUS for not getting right behind Prevent are an attack on what universities are all about: debate, freedom of expression, and challenging beliefs.

In the end, will Prevent stop me teaching the way I want to teach? No. Will Prevent sit in the back of my mind like a worrying little moon-faced goblin of doom? Yes, it will.


(1) See (when it comes out) my article ‘”Nuclear Sword of the Moslem World”?: The United States, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, and the “Islamic bomb”, 1979-80’ when it appears in The International History Review sometime in 2016. Otherwise, check out the links!

(2) It would be perfectly reasonable to argue, though, that the mere possession of nuclear weapons counts as terrorism. That is, if you define terrorism as using violence or the threat of violence in order to pursue political aims. Much of this depends on whether you see terrorism as the province merely of non-state actors, or if you believe that states can also be terroristic. History would seem to tell is that the latter is eminently possible.

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