The UK’s Terrorism Act 2006 makes it an offence to:
(a) distribute or circulate a terrorist publication;
(b) give, sell or lend such a publication;
(c) offer such a publication for sale or loan;
(d) provide a service to others that enables them to obtain, read, listen to or look at such a publication, or to acquire it by means of a gift, sale or loan;
(e) transmits the contents of such a publication electronically; or
(f) have such a publication in his possession with a view to its becoming the subject of conduct falling within any of paragraphs (a) to (e).
This is almost certainly the reason that the British Library has decided against including Taliban documents within its archives, as reported by Al Jazeera. Despite the Library believing there is a clear academic value in these documents, it has engaged in an act of self-censorship over fear of prosecution, whether for itself or for researchers accessing these documents.
This is a problem. I have always known vaguely that the UK’s anti-terrorism laws, introduced during Tony Blair’s Labour government following the 9/11 attacks and subsequently strengthened since, are stringent and widespread. I have only examined the law in depth, however, after being alerted to it by that Al Jazeera article. It also brought my attention to the case of Rizwaan Sabir, who writes here of being arrested in 2008 as a masters student for downloading a document titled ‘An Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ from the US Department of Justice website to aid his research. The case against him collapsed and he was rightfully granted compensation, but this case highlights the how these laws are open to abuse. I have no doubt that similar instances have since occurred.
I’m beginning to wonder whether I myself might even have accessed documents for research purposes which would come under suspicion. Earlier this year I wrote an essay for a Middle-Eastern History undergraduate course at university in which I examined the Islamic State’s development in the context of historical jihadi movements. To do so, I cited official IS press releases in order to provide evidence of the group’s ideology. Is this an act of terrorism? What if I were to have gone further and explored more jihadi works – say, of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a leading jihadi theorist who has influenced many movements in Iraq during the last decade? I would be reading these sources purely out of academic interest with no intention of becoming a jihadi myself. Would that be an act of terrorism?
Let’s go even broader. I have a downloaded copy of The Communist Manifesto on my phone I’m reading through out of historical and ideological interest. Is that terrorism? For another university essay last year, I consulted a copy of Mein Kampf to gain an insight into National Socialist ideology. Was that terrorism? Under UK law, certainly not – these documents, even Mein Kampf, are understood to have academic value. So it’s clear that, in the UK, ‘terrorist documents’ can be narrowed down generally to those which espouse violent Islamism.
Of course, as Sabir mentions in his article, there’s a strong element of ‘racial discrimination’ here. As a white British citizen with no Muslim or Middle-Eastern ancestry, it is likely that I could get away with accessing jihadi documents for the purpose of academic research as I don’t fit the profile of an Islamist terrorist. Indeed, in the unlikely event I would be charged, I’d be protected under the Terrorism Act which states that individuals charged can be defended if:
(a) the statement neither expressed his views nor had his endorsement (whether by virtue of section 3 or otherwise); and
(b) that it was clear, in all the circumstances of the statement’s publication, that it did not express his views and (apart from the possibility of his having been given and failed to comply with a notice under subsection (3) of that section) did not have his endorsement.
I imagine this is what protected Sabir, as well as the fact he accessed the documents from the US government. I would hope this clause has protected most people who have been charged with terrorism for conducting legitimate academic research. Nevertheless, as the British Library has demonstrated, the legislation is still effective in creating an atmosphere where self-censorship is widely practiced, which cannot be healthy for academia. If the UK is to maintain its reputation for academic freedom and world-class research, this problem needs to be tackled.