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Terrorism masters: Inside the mind of a suicide bomber

What are the motives of a terrorist? A new course tackles the subject head-on

After the 7 July bombs in London last year, the University of East London would have been well placed, academically and geographically, to ask the right questions about the causes and effects of terrorism.

For two years, the university's criminology department has offered a popular module on terrorism and held conferences on the subject. The response has generated a new MSc in terrorism studies. The course, which started this autumn, is the first of its kind in the UK. The first group of 20 or so students will be joined in the new year by a February intake, taking numbers to 35 or 40.

Dr Pete Fussey, one of the course leaders, says: "Because it is the first course of its kind in England, there's a wide range of people wanting to do it. The students are a mixture of recent graduates and people from various professions. One student came straight from our undergraduate criminology degree. We have people who work in security, people from government, policy-makers. Some have worked in this field for a long time and want academic accreditation to complement that."

Students are able to define their approach to the subject, he says. "Those in industry can focus on something relevant to them, once they have done the three core courses."

The first core module is Critical Perspectives on Terrorism, which involves definitions of terrorism, its psychology and motivation, and its choice of targets. This is taught by Fussey.

The second is Critical Perspectives on Counter-terrorism, looking at wars on terror (past and present), surveillance, policing and the law's response to terrorism. The third is Trans-national and Organised Crime, which gives the course its "criminological bent", says Fussey, whose background is in criminology. "We look at people-trafficking and money-laundering, and examples such as the Northern Bank robbery or terrorists' use of the drugs economy in South America."

Finally, the students write a dissertation and take a fourth, optional module in anything from War and Human Rights to Contemporary Islamic Legal Issues.

Lloyd Meadows, one of the first batch of students, plans to choose an optional course looking at "the legal side of the rules of engagement with terrorists, which means studying international treaties and how people adhere to them". His planned dissertation, related to those topics, will be on Russia's much-criticised counter-terrorism strategy in Chechnya.

Terrorism studies does not focus solely on Islamic terrorism in general or on al-Qa'ida in particular; instead it covers the full breadth of modern terror and its prevention, from left-wing terror groups in South America and Europe to the US bombing of Libya during the 1980s.

Familiar groups such as the Tamil Tigers, Provisional IRA and ETA make appearances, and more theoretical ground is covered in discussions of the meaning of liberal democracy.

The department's standing is bolstered by the presence on its staff of Professor Andrew Silke, the course director and a renowned expert on terrorism. Silke has acted as an adviser to the United Nations, governments and crime prevention agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, and has published widely on the subject.

The MSc, which is bound to attract professionals as well as recent graduates, is taught in the evening, with a part-time option to take the course for one night's teaching per week over two years, rather than the full-time option of two nights per week over one year.

Lloyd Meadows has come to the course fresh from an undergraduate degree in theology and an MA in European political and economic integration, both at Durham University. "During my MA," he says, "we touched on security issues, and I thought this would give me an interesting new perspective on that.

"It's a very pertinent subject with applications in lots of areas. I thought that its topicality would be useful for any of the career moves I might be looking to make."

The course is in its infancy, and Meadows has, so far, completed only his first essay ("on the legality and methodology of suicide bombing"), but course leaders are confident that the subject's currency will give students crucial expertise.

Those who want to use their new qualification will find it has applications in security, policing, law and policy-making.

Fussey adds: "They will develop some vocational skills from the course, like data report management, analysis of current affairs and events, or assessment of counter-terrorism strategies."