Paul Wilkinson: Leading authority on international terrorism who survived an IRA attempt on his life

Professor Paul Wilkinson's lengthy career as one of Britain's foremost academics in the field of terrorism lasted from the 1970s heyday of IRA bombing to the recent shocking violence in Norway.

Over the decades he was one of the most sought-after figures in commenting on terrorism and in advising the authorities, in Britain and abroad, on how to combat it. He was a groundbreaking pioneer in a field which, unfortunately, has grown steadily more troubling and more deadly. When he set out, the IRA was involved in a campaign which killed almost two thousand people. In its attack on the World Trade Centre, however, al-Qaeda killed three thousand. Wilkinson's career thus took him from the murderous but limited campaign of the IRA to what he called the "total war" of al-Qaeda.

Recently he cautioned against optimism that the death of Osama bin Laden, and other developments in the Middle East, meant that the obituary of al-Qaeda could now be prepared. "The most important part of their activity is in south and south-west Asia," he pointed out. "It would be a great mistake to think that is going to stop any time soon. They are very deeply entrenched there.

"They are still recruiting large numbers of suicide bombers and they are still carrying out mass-casualty attacks. Democracy is the last thing that al-Qaeda want. They hate it – they regard it as a kind of Western disease."

Born in Harrow, Middlesex, he was a bookish child, partly because he suffered from asthma. He was the first of his immediate family to attend university, taking a degree in history and politics at Swansea, followed by an MA.

During six years in the RAF, which he joined in 1959, he served as an education officer, continuing his bookish behaviour by, as he put it, "sorting out libraries." In those days there was little academic interest in terrorism – full-scale violence did not erupt in Northern Ireland until 1969 – but he became fascinated by it.

After leaving the RAF he lectured at the University of Wales, Cardiff, before moving to a chair in Aberdeen. He eventually moved on to become a professor at the University of St Andrews. In his various universities he was regarded as a generous and courteous colleague.

At St Andrews he greatly expanded his department, producing and contributing to many publications. He also consolidated his status as a readily available "media don", able to comment at a moment's notice on bombings and similar incidents throughout the world.

He became director of the Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, organising many conferences. He published much, and was often called on to advise governments and institutions such as NATO and the Council of Europe.

He was slightly surprised that other academics did not similarly focus on terrorism, given the fact that the IRA was joined by other groups in using violence for political ends. "The study of terrorism was a specialised minority area in the 1970s and early 80s, but it should have become rather more developed by the 80s," he said. "It had become clear that it had become a more serious problem, with groups emerging with much more fanatical ideologies, claiming to be acting in the name of religion."

His high profile in the dark world of terrorism and counter-terrorism attracted unwelcome attention from the IRA, who in 1990 attempted to kill him in London with a bomb planted in a lectern where he was due to speak. It was spotted and defused, Wilkinson commenting: "I should think the police would be delighted to study an intact device."

He came under occasional fire politically as well as physically, most notably in a 2004 New Statesman attack on Wilkinson and on his academic field. The magazine described counter-terrorism as "a sullied sub-academic doctrine" and "a bogus intellectual justification for authoritarianism, military repression and neoconservative Islamophobia." Wilkinson, it charged, was part of a "tight and incestuous" counter-terrorism academic conference circuit.

He once said wearily that there was an assumption that "if you were interested in how governments respond to terrorism, you must be to the right of Genghis Khan and in league with the secret services."

In his writing he stressed the need for international cooperation, both politically and in security terms. He was one for emphasising practicalities, such as better security apparatus at airports, rather than formulating overarching theoretical constructs. He advocated inducting Muslim students into counter-terrorism, saying: "We have many bright young Muslims in our universities who I think should be recruited into our intelligence effort. Because they know that their people have suffered terribly at the hands of terrorists, I think we would be able to recruit them."

He disapproved of the Guantanamo Bay detention system established by the Bush administration. Although he remained an enthusiast for many security measures, he laid particular stress in recent years in insisting that combatting terrorism should not involve undermining fundamental civil liberties. He told a Commons committee: "We must ensure that we demonstrate that we are representing values which are the absolute opposite of the values that are upheld by the terrorists.

"Action speaks louder than words. If we show that we can treat these problems with humanity then that sends a message that we represent the values of a rule-of-law, democratic society."

He retired a few years ago to live in a village in Fife. He is survived by his wife, Sue, whom he married in 1960, together with two sons and a daughter.

David McKittrick

Paul Wilkinson did more than any other single individual to educate us, the politicians of 40 years ago and since, in the complexities of political terrorism, writes Tam Dalyell. Indeed, his first great book was called Political Terrorism, a commonplace phrase these days, but in 1974, on publication, it was rather startling as a centre-stage concept.

On the strength of his book, when he was still a lecturer at the University of Wales, the Parliamentary Labour Party Defence Committee invited Wilkinson to speak to us in 1975. He displayed the calm, matter-of-fact authority of an RAF officer, which he had been for six years, combined with eloquence – and a deeply thoughtful approach to the paramount issues of the day, such as the activities of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.

After he came to the Chair of International Relations at the University of Aberdeen in 1979, I was one of half a dozen Scottish MPs who repeatedly phoned Wilkinson for his advice. He warned us that military victory in the Falklands would not assuage the long-term determination of Argentines to take the Malvinas: renewed trouble in the 21st century would be inevitable.

Responsibility for Lockerbie, he believed, lay at the door of the terrorist bands of Beirut and the Bekaa Valley; in his opinion, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was not guilty as charged. On balance, he believed that the first Gulf War was justified, but strongly defended the decision not to press on to Baghdad, reminding us of what Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer said at the time of Suez: "We can get to Cairo: what I want to know is what the bloody hell we do when we get there."

On the day that Saddam Hussein's statue was felled in Baghdad in the second Gulf War, Wilkinson told me that gloating would soon give way to terrorism. On the day of the announcement that Nato troops would be sent to Afghanistan, Wilkinson sighed over the phone, "I hope the Prime Minister and Mr John Reid have read the history of the first, second and third Afghan wars."

Wilkinson was, perhaps, the most insightful soothsayer to the politicians of our times. He told me that he believed that maybe his most important contribution to public life was his role as an adviser to the enquiry conducted by Lord Lloyd of Berwick, chairman of the security commission which formed the basis of the 2000 Terrorism Act. Lord Lloyd himself told me: "Paul pointed out where terrorism might lead. His advice was critical: it was essential."

I came fresh to the subject; he educated me. He defined the difference between Irish terrorism and other varieties with a defined objective on the one hand, and what the Russians call "nihilism" on the other. From my subsequent contributions in the House of Lords I would constantly phone him asking what I should say and how legislation could be improved. Lloyd and I – and doubtless many others – will miss him on the end of the telephone.

Professor Paul Wilkinson, academic and expert on terrorism: born Harrow, Middlesex 9 May 1937; married 1960 Susan Flook (two sons, one daughter); died 11 August 2011.

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