Making al-Qa’ida legible: Interpretive methods, secrets, and mess - Sarah Phillips

Making al-Qa’ida legible: Interpretive methods, secrets, and mess - Sarah Phillips

This seminar will explore two broad, but ultimately unreconcilable, understandings of what al-Qa’ida in Yemen ‘really is’: one legible, organisationally rational and thus governable; and one not entirely so. I’ll argue that the divergence between these two ontologies matters—and is even part of the group survives and reproduces. That’s because Western counter-terrorism practices target a stripped-down, synoptic version of al-Qa’ida while missing, and even empowering, the shadowy appendage of state or hegemonic power that animates popular Yemeni discourses.

In part, this seminar is about researching the opaque, the ghostly and the fleeting. It is about rumour, the unsubstantiated and, more importantly, the unsubstantiable. It is an attempt to work with, rather than against, research findings that are difficult, if not impossible, to rigorously triangulate, seeking instead to understand the impact of empirical details that cannot be definitively proven or disproven.

Sarah G. Phillips is Professor of Global Conflict and Development at The University of Sydney, an award winning author, and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. Her research draws from years of in-depth fieldwork, and focuses on international intervention in the global south, knowledge production about conflict-affected states, and non-state governance, with a geographic focus on the Middle East and Africa.

This is a hybrid seminar: if you are on campus please join us at Seminar Room 3.72 in the RSSS Building.

To join online:

Seminars are 1 hour duration, 12-1pm AEDT/AEST.

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Date & time

Fri 03 May 2024, 12–1pm


Seminar Room 3.72 or Zoom


Sarah Phillips (University of Sydney)


Nick Cheesman


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