Like Ryan Giggs, the University of Nottingham is by now learning something of the Streisand Effect, where attempting to hide information and silence critics inadvertently leads to much greater levels of discussion and critique than would otherwise have been the case. Recall that Dr Rod Thornton was suspended in early May for a paper he wrote for the BISA conference (an academic gathering for those working on all matters ‘international’, from foreign policy to anti-globalisation). But the story isn’t going away and now the paper itself is available at Scribd (or in pdf if you prefer). It’s 112 pages of description and analysis which, among other things, charges named senior staff at the University of Nottingham as implicated in breaches of law and good conduct.
Particularly of interest is the disclosure in the paper that much of the documentation drawn on to build Thornton’s case is already in the public domain, having been the subject of a series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests in the years since the arrests. Much of the most damning material comes from a comparison of emails, reports and other documentation that has been released under FoI, or which is linked to written documents that Thornton says he possesses, and so which could be easily checked in a court of law. There is reference to meetings, but even here quotes are linked to transcripts. All of which rather puts into question Nottingham’s contention that defamation was a serious threat. Moreover, Thornton makes a good defence of naming names on other grounds – which is precisely that he is not seeking to bring the University into disrepute, but to single out those most responsible for a calumnious series of events.
It turns out, for example, that Thornton has been subjected to a series of investigations since 2008, apparently of increasing triviality. At one point he was charged with providing faulty reading lists on the grounds that he did not add his office hours to the front page and included too many essays on a module guide. The fallout for Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir has been somewhat more serious – in addition to continual stops-and-searches after the incident, both have been listed on Home Office documents enumerating ‘major Islamist plots’ against the UK.
But what of the trigger for the arrests in the first place? We might assume an innocent misunderstanding occurred, with regrettable consequences. But:
what were these three documents that had ‘no valid reason whatsoever…to exist’ [as the University Registrar described them to the police]; documents which were ‘utterly indefensible’ for Yezza (and, later, for Sabir) to have, and documents which count not be sent via the university’s computer system? Well, two were articles from the journals Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Policy Council Journal, while the other was a publicly available document downloaded from the United States Department of Justice (US DoJ) website.
It’s hard to say anything positive about anyone who thinks work published in Foreign Policy is illegal. Criminal in some slighlty different sense, perhaps, but not illegal. As Thornton dryly comments, you can buy it in airports. Sadly, it gets worse:
All three of these publications that had ‘no valid reason to exist whatsoever’ were also available from the University of Nottingham’s own library – although at that time the book, the Al Qaeda Training Manual, would have had to have been ordered through the inter-library loan system… However, in this particular book form the reader would be rewarded with a more complete version than that available on any US government website, such as that of the US DoJ… This is important to note for future reference: the document that led to the arrests, the Al Qaeda Training Manual, appears in its fullest and most complete form as a book available from the University of Nottingham’s own library. In fact, as of 2011, a new (2010) UK-published version of the Al Qaeda Training Manual – which is now the most complete ever published – is on the shelves of the University of Nottingham’s main library.
Sabir and Yezza were held and questioned for six days because of these three publications; publications which were publicly available and which any student studying Islam, Islamism or terrorism would consider to be perfectly normal. Students are, indeed, encouraged to engage, specifically, with the Al Qaeda Training Manual by basic undergraduate texts such as Gus Martin’s Understanding Terrorism. This helpfully provides a link to this self-same US DoJ website so that students can have a look at it for themselves… In book form, five different presses have produced versions of the Al Qaeda Training Manual. The most recent edition (2010) is from a British publishing firm whose retail arm actually supplies the University of Nottingham with all its books! And Rohan Gunaratna, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the study of terrorism, wrote to Sabir to say he thought that the Al Qaeda Training Manual was, quote, ‘required reading’ for anyone studying Al Qaeda.
Add to this that, um, it’s apparently not even a real Al Qaeda training manual, with its more commonly-heard title an introduction by the DoJ (the actual title is ‘Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants’). According to Thornton, the only person at the University of Nottingham who had deemed the document ‘illegal’ was a Professor of Romance Languages and Literary Theory in the School of Modern Languages, whose:
aberrant judgement was later to be taken, expanded upon and reinforced by the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’. But this was a form of groupthink that was malign. A whole series of actors across a whole series of institutions, agencies and government departments went with [the Professor’s] initial judgement. No-one questioned it. But if just one person in just one position of authority somewhere in the chain had stopped to say – ‘Hang on, is this really true?’ – then common sense may just have prevailed and we would not have reached the ‘major Islamist plot’ endgame. But nobody in authority ever did stop to consider the situation; and so common sense was never given a chance. And maybe, just maybe, this whole host of actors went with the flow because they wanted to see these men guilty of something. Their minds seemed, in classic groupthink style, to be completely closed to alternatives.
The character of the University of Nottingham’s response to the non-illegality of the Al Qaeda Training Manual seems to have been to engage in some rather open profiling, since their defence amounted to saying that the document was legal (it was, after all, available through the library), but that it was illegitimate to use it for research purposes if you were Rizwaan Sabir. At one stage, the University of Nottingham’s Vice-Chancellor is said to have explained to Bill Rammell, a Home Office Minister at the time, that since Sabir was ‘not an academic…there are no issues of academic freedom’ at stake. In other words, inquiry is free, so long as you don’t actually try to cash in your abstract rights in concrete terms.
On Thornton’s account, the University of Nottingham compounded error with error. They gave the Home Office the impression that the document was a training manual distributed by Al Qaeda itself (it was not), repeatedly suggested that the materials were illegitimate for research (they were not, and those making the statements were not qualified to say either way), and sent out University-wide messages misrepresenting the issues, as when:
[a] portal statement notes that ‘It is clear that there is no “right” to access and research terrorist materials… This is the law and applies to all universities’. This is itself not true. Everyone in the UK has the right to ‘access and research terrorist materials’. This was confirmed by the Court of Appeal judges led by the Lord Chief Justice in a judgement of 13 February 2008 (the ‘Bradford’ case). He said that any member of the public had a ‘right’, not only to ‘access’ terrorist materials, but also to ‘possess’ them. His judgement made clear that ‘the intention of the legislation [the Terrorism Act 2000] had been to criminalise possession of items that might be used in making a bomb’, not mere ‘literature’… The crime would only come if someone then went on to use such literature to plan or to execute a terrorist act. Until that happens all literature remains benign and free for anyone to use. The Al Qaeda Training Manual is mere literature (and, moreover, does not tell ‘terrorists’ how to make a bomb). Hence, even if we were not talking about a library book here, Sabir had a perfect right, if he wanted, to send actual ‘terrorist materials’ to Yezza, and Yezza had a perfect right to store those ‘terrorist materials’ on his ‘computer drive’.
It then seems that the University stuck to its claim that the document was illegitimate for research, despite several interventions demonstrating that this was not so. Moreover, the Registrar called a meeting with Sabir to warn him about his future conduct and to impress on him the great costs he had brought on the school, despite him having been released on the basis that, you know, he hadn’t done anything illegal.
I had become deeply concerned by the Registrar’s warning letter to Sabir. This was my student. It bears repeating that the Registrar had already publicly stated that: ‘there is no “prohibition” on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research’. He had already told me that Sabir was ‘arrested not for the research he was undertaking but because of his connection with the originator of the concern, a member of staff in Modern Languages [i.e. Yezza]’. He had also said, ‘this material [the Al Qaeda Training Manual] is of a nature which [is] defensible in terms of academic inquiry’. So why now, weeks after the arrests and in this letter to Sabir, was the Registrar telling him that the Al Qaeda Training Manual was ‘illegal’? Once more we have the question as to why he was saying one thing in public, while behind the scenes he was expressing a quite contrary view. And crucially – in his use of the second person – the Registrar was making it clear that this document must only be ‘illegal’ for Sabir to possess. He wrote: ‘I had been informed by the police that it was illegal for you to possess this type of material in the UK’. But what was it about this young Muslim student that led to this particular verdict?
Sabir applied for a PhD at Nottingham and, despite confusion on the part of some, achieved the MA grade required to start there. Thornton, convinced that the University was out to get his student, advised him to find another offer as quickly as possible for further years. When Sabir did this (he is now an ESRC-funded PhD student at Strathclyde) emails from management and senior academics testify to their untrammelled glee at his departure (the quotes from their emails in Thornton’s paper are littered with joyous exclamation marks).
Thornton’s paper does give clues as to the animus against him and the reasons colleagues may have wanted to see the BISA paper taken down (and who knows what legal threats have been made against BISA itself?). Although emails released by FoI exonerate Sabir even of bad temper, others in the School of Politics appear rather more petty and vindictive in their correspondence. Academics who supported the case for arresting Yezza and Sabir, and testified to the illegitimacy of the latter’s research, are named and shamed. Academics and UCU members are identified as defending management and their conduct in doing so is criticised (although these are already matters of some public record). Thornton speculates, with some good reason, that changes to a Wikipedia page about Sabir casting doubt on his rights to academic freedom, although purportedly edited by students, were actually written by Nottingham academics with access to inside ‘information’. There is also the issue of how Sabir’s overall mark was brought down (two internal examiners, one of whom was Thornton, had awarded 74-75% for the work, while, under circumstances that Thornton finds suspicious, an external examiner sought to have the mark brought down to a level which might threaten Sabir’s chances of progressing to doctoral study).
Having been caught up in this case for several years now, Thornton might be forgiven some over-zealousness in covering every aspect of the controversy, and for addressing each plot point in this petty and vindictive story. He may have erred, and his claims may be misleading or partial. Certainly, he is conscious throughout of the ethical criticisms that may be levelled at him for naming colleagues, but he seems to have taken reasonable steps to anonymise where possible and to refer to correspondence already made public. Many of the more senior academics he criticises have already themselves taken public stands on the issues. In general, there does not seem much here that would be out of place in a very detailed journalistic study of the event (journalistic in the sense of conveying the narrative of events and apportioning some blame).
The defence offered by Thornton – that this narrative matters, and that there are scandals here that demand revealing – is persuasive, but even if it were not, there is no way of evaluating it if disclosure and discussion is to be limited in the name of the amorphous ‘reputation’ of Nottingham or of the ability of individuals involved to escape scrutiny. Ultimately, the whole saga turns on the initial (pre)judgement. Whatever else may be said, there seems no doubt that Yezza and Sabir were unfairly targeted, that the documentation they shared was not only ‘acceptable’, but indicative of good research practice and perhaps even necessary for serious work on terrorism, and that the University failed in its duty of care to them. Thornton’s account is so important because it adds another element to that analysis, one which concerns the active involvement of academics in a campaign against academic freedom and against the rights of their students and staff and for a culture in which the over-riding objective appears not to have been the defence and extension of free inquiry, but the protection of internal hierarchy and imagined institutional standing, regardless of what that might involve.