Knowing Terrorism: Perceptions of terrorist groups in Yemen and Iraq

Knowing Terrorism: Perceptions of terrorist groups in Yemen and Iraq
Image: Sebastian Klich

The international community spends billions of dollars each year on counterterrorism  interventions in conflict-affected states, to reduce the threat posed by groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State (ISIS). Evidence from field-based research suggests that these groups do not enjoy particularly high levels of local legitimacy. If that is true, how should we understand their ability to withstand the world’s most powerful militaries and intelligence agencies? One possibility is that counter-terrorism practitioners fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the groups they are fighting.

Combining approaches from International Relations, Anthropology, and Postcolonial Studies, this session focuses on the understandings of people living in areas affected by designated terrorist groups. It is informed by nearly five years of fieldwork across the Middle East and Africa (particularly in Yemen and Somaliland). By asking ‘who speaks’ (and what different groups say) about terrorism, the seminar is held together by the proposition that people living in affected communities tend to understand local extremist groups in profoundly different ways to international counter-terrorism practitioners, and that this opens a gap of misunderstanding that may foster the reproduction of those groups. From this starting point, I will investigate what taking the knowledge of local communities seriously can reveal about everyday forms of resistance to terrorism and domination, in order to help understand the in/effectiveness of international counter-terrorism interventions. 

Sarah Phillips is an Associate Professor in international security and development at The University of Sydney. Her research draws on in-depth fieldwork, and focuses on international intervention in the global south, knowledge production in conflict-affected states, state-building, and non-state governance, with a geographic focus on the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa. 

Sarah is the author of three books, the latest of which, When There Was No Aid: War and Peace in Somaliland (Cornell University Press, 2020) was awarded the Australian Political Science Association (AusPSA) Crisp Prize for the best scholarly political science monograph (2018-20). She is also published widely in top-tiered academic journals, including International Studies Quarterly, the European Journal of International Relations, African Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and International Affairs. Sarah holds a Sydney Outstanding Academic Research (SOAR) Fellowship, is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies (Yemen and Lebanon), and will commence an ARC Future Fellowship in 2021 that explores some of the issues outlined in this talk.

Date & time

Fri 23 Oct 2020, 11am–12.30pm


A/Prof Sarah Phillips (University of Sydney)

Event series



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