Textbooks don’t make terrorists

UK anti-terror laws threaten anyone who possesses the works of the IRA or al-Qaeda – even for the purposes of study.

Nick Thorne

Topics Free Speech

The Politics of Terror is an International Relations course unlike any other. Before the first lecture, we all received an email from the tutor entitled ‘compulsory reading’, which outlined the legal implications of studying terrorism. All students become familiar with warnings of plagiarism, but this is something different. Since 2006, under new counterterrorism legislation, you can be investigated for possessing materials that are likely to be of use to a terrorist. And possessing materials for academic reasons is not an automatic defence.

More frightening still, this is not just theory. In May 2008, a student at Nottingham University, Rizwaan Sabir, was imprisoned for six days while he was investigated, after downloading an edited version of the al-Qaeda handbook from a US government website.

Our course handbooks summarise the situation very well. It states that ‘students are encouraged to search for literature beyond the reading lists…and engage critically with it’. And then underneath, in bold capitals, it says: ‘ALL STUDENTS HOWEVER SHOULD BE FAMILIAR WITH THE CURRENT LEGAL SITUATION REGARDING POSSESSION OF MATERIALS “LIKELY TO BE OF USE TO A TERRORIST”.’

None of us had ever begun a course by considering what could or could not be studied, researched or downloaded for the purposes of studying. Clearly, this would affect ordinary preparations for seminar presentations and dissertations. This became a subject of discussion in the first seminar. What aren’t we allowed to look at? What does ‘possessing materials of use to a terrorist’ even mean? I own a copy of Jason Burke’s Al Qaeda; does that put me at risk? It contains information which could be of use to a terrorist, but I bought it in Waterstones! What about the course pack? As our tutor told us, his position entails more risk than any of us, as he could potentially face charges of disseminating terrorist materials.

The fact that university students have to consider these issues just goes to show how far the erosion of civil liberties has gone. Warnings in handbooks are hardly conducive to a healthy learning environment. We have reached the absurd situation where a university professor can be accused of making terrorists, or at least constitute a threat to national security by spreading information about terrorism.

Our tutor explained to us that he would very much like to show us excerpts from the IRA Green Book, the organisation’s manual for its operatives, but that he could be in trouble if he did so. It contains information which could be useful to a terrorist – how to respond under investigation, how to recruit members, and how to avoid detection. But the IRA is no longer an active terrorist organisation. The Green Book is a document of historical interest, and a useful aid to understand the evolution of terrorism.

The new legislation tries to prevent students from looking at terrorism from the perspective of the terrorist. The government seems to think that students could become inspired by such material, and use terrorists’ methods to carry out more attacks. As with the banning of hate speech and the implementation of No Platform policies against right-wing and fundamentalist organisations, the government doesn’t trust what it regards as vulnerable, impressionable young students like us to be able to handle materials like these.

Nobody even knows whether the tutor even would be investigated if he gave us access to these materials. The new legislation is deliberately vague, in order to maximise the capacity of the police to intervene. The government claims there is a real threat of terrorism in the UK, but counter-terrorism legislation restricts the ability of students to get a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon. Perhaps I would face no consequences whatsoever if I downloaded IRA or al-Qaeda materials on to my laptop right now, and perhaps the fact that I’m white and don’t have an Arabic sounding surname has something to do with it. But the risk exists.

After Rizwaan Sabir’s arrest in Nottingham, a spokesman for the university claimed the handbook he had downloaded was ‘not legitimate research material’, an argument which has been refuted by academics nationwide. Clearly this is an outrageous argument – a document which reveals motivations, methods and objectives of terrorism from the perspective of Al Qaeda is invaluable to a student researching modern terrorism. As Nottingham’s University and College Union general secretary said, ‘if we want to tackle problems like extremism then we need to be safe to explore the issues. The last thing we need is people to be too frightened to research a subject because they fear being arrested.’

According to Oliver Blunt, QC of the anti-terrorism team at Furnival Chambers, ‘academics do have a right to access terrorist materials, as long as they don’t possess them’. This interpretation of the law suggests that viewing terrorist material is fine, but that downloading can put you at risk of investigation, a distinction which is clearly absurd. Any would-be-terrorist can copy down information from a website with pen and paper. Even if the legislation results in fewer students viewing the material, terrorism will not go away.

Security services have warned that universities are seen as recruitment areas by terrorist groups. As Tim Black has pointed out on spiked, nearly 50 per cent of the UK population passes through higher education, so it is hardly surprising that some terrorists have also been through university. The new counter-terrorism measures have been introduced in response to the widely held belief that terrorism constitutes a greater threat to the UK than ever before. On a daily basis we have it drummed into us by the media and by politicians that there is a new, unprecedented threat. Given that the IRA almost succeeded in killing former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her entire Cabinet in Brighton in 1984, this is clearly not the case. Terrorism is not new, and we don’t need this new legislation.

The idea that restrictions on academic freedom are going to protect us from terrorism is based on the exaggeration of the threat, and a patronising mistrust of students. Students who want to access information on how to make bombs and carry out terrorist attacks will continue to be able to do so. The document that Sabir downloaded is readily available online. Waterstones sells the collected speeches, interviews and statements of Osama bin Laden. This counter-terrorism legislation doesn’t make us safer, but only constrains the ability of students to conduct research, and to acquire the comprehensive understanding of terrorism which is clearly lacking in the Houses of Parliament.

Nick Thorne studies International Relations at Sussex University, and is a Manifesto Club research intern.

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Topics Free Speech


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