Worrying Implications of the Terrorism Act for Insurgency Researchers

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In a disturbing development of particular relevance to IRG members doing insurgency research in the War Studies Department at King’s – and to anyone working in the field in the UK – a masters student researching terrorist tactics at Nottingham University has been arrested and held for six days under the Terrorism Act after downloading Al-Qaeda related material from the internet.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

Sabir was arrested on May 14 after the document was found by a university staff member on an administrator’s computer. The administrator, Hisham Yezza, an acquaintance of Sabir, had been asked by the student to print the 1,500-page document because Sabir could not afford the printing fees. The pair were arrested under the Terrorism Act, Sabir’s family home was searched and their computer and mobile phones seized. They were released uncharged six days later but Yezza, who is Algerian, was immediately rearrested on unrelated immigration charges and now faces deportation.

….

Sabir’s solicitor, Tayab Ali, said: “This could have been dealt with sensibly if the university had discussed the issue with Rizwaan and his tutors. This is the worrying aspect of the extension of detention [under the Terrorism Act]. They can use hugely powerful arrest powers before investigating.”

As well as the obvious implications for those conducting such valuable research, and for academic freedom in general, this incident raises other uncomfortable questions.

Since the passing of the Terrorism Act in 2006 it has been clear that the breadth of its provisions could potentially criminalise many people involved in legitimate research, indeed many people doing work in academia and in the private sector that is absolutely essential if we are to make progress in the ongoing ‘long war’. As such, it has also been clear that the authorities would therefore be relying upon a considerable amount of discretionary judgement when determining whether or not someone should actually be prosecuted under this legislation, which in turn raises questions as to how these discretionary judgements are to be made. Such discretionary judgements are not an ideal basis for any law, let alone one so sensitive, and one has to wonder whether in this case it was the Muslim identity of the individuals in question that prompted the arrests.

In many respects the Terrorism Act represents an important step in recognising and addressing the role played by the internet, and by radicalisation processes in general, in the current campaign being waged by Al-Qaeda and its decentralised affiliates. However, as this incident demonstrates, it is potentially highly problematic, and considerable care is going to be required if its implementation is not itself going to be a cause of further alienation and radicalisation among the UK’s Muslims.

Read the Guardian’s coverage of the arrests here.

Update: David here. I’ve blogged this also over at Kings of War:

Student researching al-Qaida tactics held for six days | higher news | EducationGuardian.co.uk

WTF is going on with the police?

A masters student researching terrorist tactics who was arrested and detained for six days after his university informed police about al-Qaida-related material he downloaded has spoken of the “psychological torture” he endured in custody.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

I don’t get the reasoning behind this action. How can he be prosecuted for downloading something from a US government website? Why do those responsible not recognize that the AQ manual is required reading for anyone in this field? Get a grip!

Update: The more I think about this case the more puzzled I get. The article is portraying this as a threat to academic freedom and our commenters reckon its an example of profiling in action. Probably true on both counts but possibly defensible also (there really is a terror threat and radicalism is prevalent in universities). That said, the article mentions a ’1,500 page’ Al Qaeda training manual which I am assuming (because its logical and about the right length) must be the Encyclopedia of Jihad downloaded from a ‘US gov’t website’. But I cannot find the full-length document on any government website. If anybody has a link please send it to me. What’s available are heavily redacted and translated versions. The real thing is available, I am told, in Arabic, on Jihadi websites. So, is the article wrong and he did not get it off a US government website? Or is the article wrong and what he had access to was the redacted version (which would be less worrisome and make the police look even worse)? Or something else? The story as reported just doesn’t add up. In any case, the basic point remains that discouraging precisely those students who possess the language skills and background from doing research on AQ terrorism is self-defeating.

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4 Responses to “Worrying Implications of the Terrorism Act for Insurgency Researchers”

  1. UK police abuse Terrorism Act « ubiwar.com Says:

    [...] by Tim Stevens on 24 May 2008 Will Hartley at the Insurgency Research Group has just posted a disturbing report from The [...]

  2. UCL Sucks Says:

    The little Nazis at the Home Office now want to deport Sabir’s friend (from The Independent on Sunday):

    “The Home Office was accused last night of rushing to deport a university administrator to conceal official blunders after he was arrested on terrorism charges only to be released without charge. A Labour MP criticised the decision, claiming there was no reason for it “other than to cover the embarrassment of the police and intelligence services”.

    Hicham Yezza, 30, was arrested last week after he downloaded an al-Qa’ida training manual at the University of Nottingham. He was detained and questioned for six days with a second man, Rizwaan Sabir, a student.

    Upon release, Mr Yezza was immediately rearrested, served with a deportation order and taken to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. Mr Yezza, who comes from Algeria, had applied for leave to remain in the UK, where he has lived for the past 13 years. A hearing to decide his application was originally scheduled for July.

    The Algerian’s case has now been brought forward and if a frantic appeal fails he could be deported as early as Tuesday. Speaking from the deportation centre last night, Mr Yezza said immigration officials had “operated with a Gestapo mentality”.”

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/draconian-home-office-fasttracks-algerians-deportation-834031.html

  3. islamologi.se » Arkiv » Blograpporter Says:

    [...] Slutligen rapporteras att en masterstudent vid Nottinghams universitet hållits häktad i sex dagar för att ha laddat [...]

  4. Zhdanov Says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Zhdanov!!

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