Teaching About Terrorism: Aberystwyth University

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Details of courses and modules

Aberystwyth University’s Department of International Politics teaches a Masters course in Terrorism and International Relations. [1] The university has in recent years become a hub of what has been called 'Critical Terrorism Studies'.

Issues and Controversies

Lecturers at Aberystwyth have twice been attacked by the right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips. In April 2005 Phillips published an email on her website which she had received from a student at Aberystwyth. The student complained that:

[T]he only way to really succeed within the university industry is to pander to the prejudices of the academic staff; anything that differs with the anti-Semitic orthodoxy results in rather harsh marking. When I first went to university, I came with the naive belief that study at such an institution was about the pursuit of knowledge and truth; it is about lies, propaganda and the worst sort of prejudice. [2]

The student claimed that ‘most of the academic staff [believe] that all the world's current ills can be attributed to the activities of the US and Israel, and those that can't are the result of our colonial legacy.’ The student also criticised fellow students at Aberystwyth, claiming that the student union had been ‘filled with rabid Amnesty International types’ and that there had been ‘a rash of frankly laughable and ridiculous activities to show support for the oppressed Palestinian victims’. [3] Phillips claimed the complaint was evidence of an ‘anti-Jewish witch-hunt going on in our seats of learning’.

Melanie Phillips had at that stage already launched several attacks on British universities in response to the proposed academic boycott in protest of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In one blog entry Phillips had labelled SOAS the ‘School of Orchestrated Anti-Semitism’, and wrote that an article she had read in a School magazine ‘should surely be brought to the attention of the police’. [4] In another article in the Jewish Chronicle, she referred to what she called: ‘A virus of anti-Jewish hatred,' which she claimed was 'coursing through this country’s arteries — and the universities are the swamp in which it breeds.’ [5]

In April 2008 Phillips received another email from an Aberystwyth student, which she published on her Spectator blog. The student complained that they were being pressurised to ‘tow the line’ at the University, and that, ‘although Islam is quite clearly at the heart of anything to do with terrorism nowadays, it is never mentioned directly except alongside non-Islamic terrorists’. [6] The student included a copy of an email sent to students by the convenor of the course, Dr Marie Breen Smyth. In the email Breen Smyth had sent students a piece of writing by Dr Richard Jackson in which, having been challenged to do so, he gave an account of incidents of Israeli state terrorism. Dr Jackson's work was also included on the course’s reading list and he subsequently joined the department. Phillips complained that the course was ‘skewed towards an ultra-left perspective on terrorism’. She sent the following message wrote to Noel Lloyd, Aberystwyth's vice-chancellor:

I am writing to ask you if either the university or Ms Breen Smyth has any comment to make, first about this student’s allegations of gross political bias on this course along with pressure on students to toe a particular line; and second, about whether it is appropriate to include on the reading list for students on this module someone with Dr Jackson’s apparent animus against Israel and his tendentious recycling of hateful propaganda, taken from either Arabs or their left-wing Israeli sympathisers, as facts; and indeed whether the whole ethos of this module, as set out in its handbook ‘Understanding terror: perspectives on terrorism’ as being ‘…to introduce students to a distinctly “critical” approach to the study of political terror through a thorough critique of orthodox terrorism studies and a clear articulation of an alternative "critical" approach’, is not simply a form of subversion. [7]

The Vice-Chancellor replied that the ‘module handbook includes a wide variety of sources, written from a variety of perspectives’ and noted Richard Jackson's academic credentials. Phillips concluded by comparing the university's critical scholarship with Soviet propaganda. [8] Dr Breen Smyth told The Cambrian News:

‘The course takes a critical approach, and students may respond to that approach according to their own views, but since it is a course of academic study, students should support their views with evidence, reading and reasoned argument. I would further add that I have taught in higher education both in the UK and elsewhere for many years, and there is no evidence that I have ever penalised a student for their political views. Indeed, I am a strong advocate of respectful political debate and freedom of expression.’ [9]

Freedom of Information Request 1

  • Does your institution provide any information or advice to students or staff on any potential liability under Terrorism legislation which might result from accessing materials for teaching or research?
  • Does your institution have any kind of procedure to review or assess reading lists, module descriptors or other teaching materials which explicitly or in practice considers questions of safety and risk under terrorism legislation as part of its remit?
  • Does your institution have any system, policy or procedure in place for dealing with any potential actions taken by the authorities against the institution, its students or staff under Terrorism legislation?
  • Does your institution have any system, policy or procedure in place for ‘preventing violent extremism’ as recommended for example in the government guidance document ‘Promoting Good Campus Relations’
Information Services Regulations are in the process of being amended to take into account issues around inciting hatred, and will include the following wording:
3.13 Information Services users must not use the University network to create or display information that could give offence to other reasonably minded people, including material calculated to incite hatred of any particular individual(s) or racial or religious groups. This applies both to textual and graphical material. If, as part of your research work you do need to create or display material that reasonably minded people would find offensive you must ensure that your Head of Department is made aware of your research requirements and that the Director of Information Services has similarly been informed. A working group on the prevention of terrorism has recently been established, and this group has brought together various Heads of Department and Service and also considered any wider implications, as well as liaising with the local Police experts. In general anti-terrorism is embedded within the departmental risk management process and therefore each department has considered the potential implications for its own activities and actively manages it on a devolved basis.[10]

Teaching About Terrorism Resources

Teaching Terrorism blog
University College London
University of Nottingham


  1. Prospects, Aberystwyth University, Terrorism & International Relations Course details [Accessed 9 August 2010]
  2. Melanie Phillips, 'Running the campus gauntlet', melaniephillips.com, 21 April 2005
  3. Melanie Phillips, '[Media:Running the campus gauntlet.pdf|Running the campus gauntlet]', melaniephillips.com, 21 April 2005
  4. Melanie Phillips, ‘Jihad at the School of Orchestrated Anti Semitism’, melaniephillips.com, 10 March 2005.
  5. Melanie Phillips, ‘The university swamp’, Jewish Chronicle, 14 April 2005.
  6. cited in Melanie Phillips, ‘Terror in academia’, Spectator.co.uk, 15 April 2008.
  7. cited in Melanie Phillips, ‘Terror in academia’, Spectator.co.uk, 15 April 2008.
  8. cited in Melanie Phillips, ‘Terror in academia’, Spectator.co.uk, 15 April 2008.
  9. quoted in Melanie Newman, ‘Aberystwyth refutes claims of 'hateful' anti-Israel teaching bias’, Times Higher Education, 26 June 2008.
  10. Aberystwyth University, Teaching About Terrorism Response to FOI 1, Scribd, Accessed 08-January-2011