draconian anti-terror laws are blocking the serious study of terrorism and counter-terrorism at UK universities.
Since my arrest under the Terrorism Act in May 2008 at the University of Nottingham for possession of the so-called Al-Qaida Training Manual, I have been following the increasing pressure faced by lecturers regarding the teaching of terrorism. One example is the pressure to submit reading lists to research ethics committees for vetting purposes in case they contain material that may be deemed "illegal" or that "may incite violence".The latest fiasco to have hit Nottingham involves my former PhD supervisor, the terrorism expert Rod Thornton. Thornton has decided that he is no longer willing to teach terrorism at Nottingham University. Why? Because he fears that either he or his students risk arrest and detention as a suspected terrorists due to the continued ambiguity surrounding the legitimacy of the Al-Qaida Training Manual and similar works. University management is apparently unwilling to provide him with coherent advice on the matter, despite an increasing number of students wanting to use, and indeed using the document in their research.
So what does Thornton advise his students? Can they access the document or not? If Thornton recommends basic textbooks to his students that encourage them to access the likes of the Al-Qaeda Training Manual, would he be deemed to be disseminating terrorist publications and therefore guilty of contravening section 2 of the Terrorism Act 2006, or would he be prosecutable under section 1 for encouraging individuals to access documents that glorify or and encourage acts of terrorism? And what if students accessed the document independently for their studies? Would they suffer the same fate as me and be reported to the police or not? The answers to such questions remain deeply problematic.
In direct response to the university's failure to offer consistent advice or support, Thornton felt that his teaching of terrorism was too risky and could potentially make him fall foul of the law. For Thornton, the safest option was to pull the plug on teaching terrorism totally. I would have preferred it if Thornton continued teaching and did not feel intimidated by the draconian laws that have prevented him from doing his job. However, his decision is sensible and reasoned and one that I cannot blame him for taking.
Even though the government guidelines issued in 2008 entitled Promoting Good Campus Relations recognise that academic freedom is important and argue that "staff and students may need to access terrorist publications as part of legitimate research", the University of Nottingham seems to think differently. It also has a code of practice for staff and student use of computing facilities that prohibits mere "access" to "terrorist materials". Thornton could in theory have taken the government's guidelines into account and continued to teach terrorism without fear of arrest and detention, but the fact that the university failed to carry out the government's guidelines and uphold his academic freedom means he felt that he had no other choice other than to cease teaching altogether.
Thornton's case highlights some problematic issues, not only for Nottingham, but for universities throughout the UK that wish to contribute to the debate on terrorism and counter-terrorism, but are afraid of becoming the subject of investigation themselves. If we are to address the problems associated with terrorism and are to have a successful, rigorous and informed counter-terrorism strategy, we need to take the threat posed to free and open inquiry at the behest of the UK's anti-terror legislation, and indeed by universities who fail to uphold traditions of academic freedom, very seriously indeed. If the issue is not addressed and the problems are not fixed, I fear that Thornton's case will be the first of many.Equally interesting, and very worrying, are the comments in response the first one of which asks:
I'm baffled, why are UK universities teaching terrorism?The comments, all 363 so far, are rarely more informed, and often far less so.