How a retired Dal professor is helping police better understand terrorism

- June 15, 2018

Police in Montreal. (G Morel photo, used under Creative Commons license)
Police in Montreal. (G Morel photo, used under Creative Commons license)

Dalhousie Professor Chris Murphy first saw an image of smoke billowing from the World Trade Centre’s North Tower on a TV screen when he dropped into the Student Union Building for a coffee.

“Everybody was aghast,” he recalls, of the students and others crowded around watching early news coverage of the disaster unfolding live on September 11, 2001.

Dr. Murphy left to rush to a meeting with a colleague, who, it turned out, was also tuned into the news. Soon thereafter, a second commercial airliner was spotted over the city, this one proceeding to crash into the South Tower. “Then everyone knew it was an act of terrorism,” he says.  

The tragic events of 9/11 — which also included a third deadly plane attack on the Pentagon and a deliberate plane crash in a Pennsylvania field — heralded the beginning of a new era for many academics, including Dr. Murphy.

Translating a course to a new audience

Then a professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dr. Murphy was used to teaching more traditional criminology subjects such as domestic burglary and assault. Suddenly, he saw the need for a dedicated course on terrorism — a topic that had received relatively little attention in his field prior to the attacks.

There were no textbooks on the topic at the time, so he drew mostly from current-affairs coverage and analysis as well as government research, essentially inventing the course from the ground up.

“I created this course to try and make sense and better understand what 9/11 and contemporary terrorism was about and why it was happening,” says Dr. Murphy.

Nearly 20 years on, some of the initial shock felt after 9/11 has waned, but the relevance of studying terrorism hasn’t, says Dr. Murphy.

Now retired, Dr. Murphy teaches a different version of the course as part of the College of Continuing Education’s Police Leadership program.

Sherry Carmont, director of the Police Leadership program, worked with Dr. Murphy last year to update the course to be offered online through Dal’s new international policing and security certificate.

Launched last fall, the certificate is open to law-enforcement professionals across Canada and includes two other courses: Child Soldiers and At-Risk Youth, and Police Leadership and Management Development.

Adding Dr. Murphy’s course on terrorism into the mix seemed like a natural fit.

“Not every police officer deals with terrorism, but this course provides them with background and different perspectives that can be useful if they do,” says Carmont.

Broader knowledge and context

The course covers a range of different forms of terrorism (from religious terrorism to domestic threats from extremist political groups), putting each in social and historical context through a look at academic literature and research on the topic. Dr. Murphy says the material deliberately challenges the predictability of stereotypes about who is likely to be a terrorist, and tackles difficult legal issues such as privacy versus security that often emerge in counter-terrorism operations.

Before taking the course last fall, Vancouver-based RCMP corporal Rob Lewis had never heard of Mohammad Momin Khawaja — a Canadian software engineer who was found guilty in 2004 of involvement in a plot to plant fertilizer bombs in the United Kingdom.

Khawaja, who spent most of his upper-middle class childhood living in suburban Ottawa with his Pakistani immigrant parents, became the first person ever charged and found guilty under the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act. He faced charges for everything from helping develop bomb detonators to financing terrorist activity.

For Cpl. Lewis, Khawaja’s case revealed that there are many different paths to radicalization.

“It was a fascinating case study about how he went from being a normal, university educated kid growing up in an upper-middle class household to being radicalized,” says Cpl. Lewis, noting that Khawaja’s actions were fuelled in large part by violence in the Middle East.

“When he started seeing how Muslims were being treated overseas, you start to see the behavioural changes he was going through,” he says.

Cpl. Lewis, who does some work on national security, spends most of his time combatting organized crime. He sees plenty of parallels between the two worlds.

“The knowledge that came out of it will definitely help me with the work I’m doing in organized crime as well,” he says.

Achieving a better understanding

Rather than offering students a how-to on fighting terrorism, Dr. Murphy’s course is primarily intended to provide those deeper insights that he sees as key to developing a better understanding of the problem.

“In a way, this course complicates the problem in order to understand it,” he says. “It’s a very complex problem, and there are very few simple answers to these questions, but the more you understand about it the better equipped you’ll be to know how to respond.”


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