The origins of conflict

It is a shocking fact that terrorism is now an almost daily part of our lives. Rarely does a day pass by without a news bulletin relaying the latest atrocity, high profile court case or political statement. But few people can say they have met a terrorist, or delved into the motivation and rationale behind an horrific attack that claims the lives of innocent people.


For Dr George Kassimeris, this subject has become the focus of his academic life. Having grown up in Greece during a period of intense political violence, he decided terrorism and conflict were areas that he wanted to research further.


“When I was growing up in the 1980s, Greece was experiencing a high degree of political terrorism at the hands of the notorious revolutionary terrorist group November 17th. Bombings, political assassinations and shootings were commonplace. I grew up in an environment of political polarisation and violence, and it sounds dramatic, but it did have a formative effect on my beliefs.”


The Senior Research Fellow says that a turning point in his career was the assassination of a Greek Member of Parliament at the beginning of the 1990s. “It was not an event of worldwide significance, but it was one of national significance. It shocked the nation where I came from and poisoned the political atmosphere. It made me realise the strong impact and the divisive effects terrorism can have on a society.”


Originally from Athens, Dr Kassimeris gained a BA (Hons) in Politics and an MA in European Studies at the University of Reading. He then went to the University of St Andrews with a scholarship to do a doctorate in InternationalRelations before joining the University of Wolverhampton as a Senior Research Fellow in 2004. He has published a number of books on the subject of terrorism and conflict, including Europe’s Last Red Terrorists, the first book on Europe’s longest-running revolutionary terrorists, the November 17th group. He says this is his greatest achievement – and also his biggest challenge as there was not much information available about the group at that time. One reviewer even commented: “It must be emphasised that ‘the degree of difficulty’ that the author faced in writing this book was at least an eight out of ten. Imagine being given the task of painting a field of wildflowers with only two colours.”


To most people, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York was one of the most significant moments in modern history. George says this had such a massive impact on people because everyone knew it could have been them in the Twin Towers.


“It will stay in people’s memories for a long time because of the televisual impact it had upon us. The reason ‘we all became Americans’, as the French newspaper Le Monde claimed, was because we all saw ourselves on the TV. It could have been us. It could have happened in London, Berlin or Athens. It made us feel vulnerable and exposed and there is nothing more powerful in the human imagination than fear for one’s own existence,” he argues.


Mumbai was the focus of recent terrorist attacks. The terrorists targeted hotels, a train station and hospital and left more than 170 people dead. Dr Kassimeris says the atrocities in India had a similar impact as those in America on our feelings of vulnerability.


“Mumbai was a reminder of that brutality and depressingly familiar exposure. One of us could have been on holiday in Mumbai eating and drinking in those hotels. Those terrorists just brought those images of 9/11 back without even attempting to do something similar. But the attacks brought back similar feelings and fear.


“What happened to India is what happened in London and Bali and Istanbul. Terrorism is a method for advanced political beliefs and ideas and it will never end. The sooner political elites realise that, the quicker they can put meaningful measures into operation.”


Can anything still shock a terrorism expert these days?

“Nothing seems to surprise me anymore. Every time a new terrorist attack takes place like the attack in Mumbai – which was basic in its execution but audacious and brutal – I reach the conclusion that people are fanatical and determined to inflict untold damage. Terrorism is now an almost daily phenomenon in our lives throughout the world.”


Dr Kassimeris is part of the University’s History & Governance Research Institute (HAGRI) and explains that his role as a researcher requires a level of objectivity, but assessment and analysis is personal. He also contends that it is important to remain detached.


“My job is to try and understand what reasons lie behind acts of extreme political violence. It is very easy to fall into simplification traps and call these people crazy and deranged and losers, and other things that people label them as.My duty is to examine the reasons behind the violence, and determine the causes with a view to looking for possible solutions to prevent further violence.”


At the moment, Dr Kassimeris is working on a project that analyses why terrorists give up. He is looking at why certain militants choose to leave a life of violence behind them while others do not. He believes that this is significant research because examining why terrorists have exited groups in the past can inform the present and even the future.


Dr Kassimeris also organises guest lectures, and has attracted some high profile names in recent years. In particular George selects former Home Secretary David Blunkett, Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanimo Bay detainee, and Rachel North, who survived the London bombings on 7 July 2005, as being memorable speakers.


But what is it like to come face to face with a terrorist? Dr Kassimeris says they often seem very average and ordinary, which makes their actions even more terrifying.


He says: “What is striking is that they look so normal and balanced. They can appear very knowledgeable and measured, which makes the study of political terrorism all the more interesting. People do not wreak havoc for the sake of it; there is a solid set of beliefs and values behind what they do. The strongly held beliefs are always there – they want to change things. It is the method they use that is not acceptable.”