Teaching About Terrorism: University of Nottingham

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Details of courses and modules

The University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations teaches an MA in International Security and Terrorism which includes a module, Terrorism and Insurgencies.

Issues and Controversies

In 2008 the arrest and detention of the ‘Nottingham Two’ under anti-terrorism legislation led to a public dispute over academic freedom. Nottingham University was widely criticised for its role in and response to the arrests but no apology was issued. In 2009 the university introduced a system whereby lecturers teaching terrorism would have their reading lists vetted for material which could be illegal or might be deemed to incite violence. [1]

Arrest of Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza

On 14 May 2008 a student and a member of staff at Nottingham University were arrested under section 41 of the Terrorism Act. Rizwaan Sabir, a Masters student at the School of Politics and International Relations, and his friend Hicham Yezza, an administrator at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, were detained for six days. Both men are Muslims and were involved in political activism on the campus. Their arrest, according to Yezza, involved dozens of officers, police cars, vans, and scientific support agents. [2]

Both men say they were confused and traumatised by the experience. Sabir said of his detention: ‘I was absolutely broken. I didn't sleep. I'd close my eyes then hear the keys clanking and I would be up again. As I realised the severity I thought I'd end up in Belmarsh with the nutcases. It was psychological torture.’ [3] Yezza has written of ‘the soul-sapping nothingness of the claustrophobic, cold cell … Make no mistake: the feeling that one's fate is in the hands of the very people who are apparently trying to convict you is, without doubt, one of the most devastating horrors a human being can ever be subjected to.’ [4] Whilst he was in custody, Sabir's family home was searched and their computer and mobile phones seized.

The basis of Sabir and Yezza’s arrest was that as part of his dissertation research, Sabir had downloaded a document from a US Government website, known as the ‘Al-Qaeda Training Manual.’ He then sent Yezza the document, asking him to print it out for him so as to avoid paying the printing fees. [5] The document Sabir sent, which is available via respectable websites such as the US Department of Justice, the Federation of American Scientists and the Rand Corporation, [6] is a translated version of a handwritten Arabic document found in Manchester in 2000 by British police. It was originally titled the ‘Declaration of Jihad against the Country’s Tyrants’ (or sometimes ‘Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants’) and its content is largely thought to be drawn from Western military and counterinsurgency manuals. [7]

Hicham 'Hitch' Yezza who was detained for six days and subsequently jailed for five months under anti-immigrant legislation

Yezza has stated that he never read the document and by the time of his arrest ‘had completely forgotten about [it]’. [8]

Sabir and Yezza were released without charge on 22 May 2008. However, Yezza who is an Algerian national, was re-arrested and charged under immigration legislation. He was then imprisoned at the Colnbrook immigration removal centre, [9] and then moved to and from several detention centres in London, Oxford and Dover. [10]

Yezza had been based in the UK for 13 years – nearly half his life – and had recently applied for leave to remain in the UK. His case was due to be heard that July. However, after his arrest his deportation was fast tracked by the Home Office. [11] Yezza’s case went to court in 2009 and on 13 February he was found guilty of securing avoidance of enforcement action by deceptive means. [12] Peter Tatchell wrote on Guardian Unlimited:

Yezza was found guilty of deliberately giving false information at an immigration interview in 2007, when he applied for permanent residence in the UK. He is adamant that he innocently and inadvertently - not intentionally - gave a statement that contained errors. Moreover, this misinformation gave him no material gain or benefit. He had no reason to deliberately make an inaccurate statement, as he already fulfilled all the requirements needed to qualify for permanent residence in the UK. He may now face a jail sentence, as well as deportation. [13]

Yezza was imprisoned for five months before being released on the evening of 12 August 2009. [14]

Repercussions

The arrests, the response of the university management, and the subsequent moves to deport Yezza, led to protests on campus criticism from academics at Nottingham and elsewhere.

On 23 May, Neal Curtis, the director of Nottingham's centre for critical theory, wrote to communications director Jonathan Ray, asking for a public explanation of the events, without which he said, ‘suspicion will continue to circulate that the arrest of the member of staff was discriminatory’. Curtis wrote: ‘Can we have an official statement regarding the preservation of academic freedom and intellectual independence, but one that avoids the empty platitudes of a public relations exercise?’ [15] Jonathan Ray responded:

I'm afraid my job doesn't revolve around your own expert reading and deconstruction of events. Sorry, but you evidently hold corporate communications in low regard [and] feel that you are owed information which it is inappropriate to share ... Some academics can be profoundly patronising and self-important and your e-mail, in my view, strays into that territory. [16]

Ray’s reply was copied to other academics at Nottingham and the exchange was leaked to The Times Higher Education Supplement.

Meanwhile students started a petition calling on the university to acknowledge the ‘disproportionate nature of [its] response’ [17] which was signed by hundreds of students and academics. There was a protest held on the university campus on 28 May 2008 attended by between 300 to 500 people. The local Labour MP Alan Simpson addressed students outside the Hallward Library and academics at the university read parts of the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’. The demonstration then moved to the Portland Building at the university where the students stood in silence for five minutes, many of them using handkerchiefs to create mock gags. [18]

On 4 June the former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg spoke at the university after being invited by friends of Yezza’s. [19] The day before Begg’s appearance, two Nottingham academics, Sean Matthews and Macdonald Daly, circulated a letter in support of the university management and made statements critical of the protests to the local press. Their letter read: ‘We are confident that the university's declarations about upholding academic freedom have been reflected in its response to the arrests. We do not believe that the arrests constitute a threat to academic freedom. [20]

In an article published in the Nottingham Evening Post the next day, the two academics accused colleagues of ‘irresponsible, opportunistic and unethical conduct.’ Daly told the paper: ‘We sent the letter because the people who have the information have had to remain tight-lipped, but those who are uninformed are walking round campus with gags round their mouth. We sent the letter as academics and anyone who knows us on campus will know we are not in the pockets of management. This was sent without their knowledge.’ [21]

On 5 June, the Times Higher Education Supplement published an article by three other academics from Nottingham calling for universities to ‘stand up and defend academic freedom in the face of the potentially draconian ramifications of anti-terror legislation.’ The article concluded:

The more informed and open public debate we have, the more we as a society can address obnoxious ideas and expose their weaknesses. Yet if universities choose to run to the police when confronted with documents expressing extremist views instead of tackling these ideas head on, they are ducking their intellectual and moral responsibilities. Panicking in the face of extremist ideas might be an expected response from shocked maiden aunts, but it will not combat terrorism or political threats. A vibrant intellectual climate fostering an engaged and informed public might. [22]

Nottingham University’s Vice-Chairman Sir Colin Campbell responded in a letter to The Times Higher Education Supplement, published on 19 June 2008. It called the article ‘careless’ and ‘entirely false’ and dismissed concerns over academic freedom. Below is the letter in full:

I was interested in your article "The Nottingham Two and the War on Terror: which of us will be next?" (5 June) but surprised by the interpretation of events that was offered.

Inevitably, any arrests of individuals on campus stimulate conjecture and speculation. For that reason, I authorised release of factually accurate statements of relevant events to the entire university community (including to the authors of the article) on 27 May and 3 June.

The second statement provided as full an account of events as was possible, given that some matters were (and still are) subject to legal process. Your readers can access the full statement entitled "Arrests on Campus" at https://my.nottingham.ac.uk/

No amount of scenario analysis of what might have been, aimed at reinterpreting events as an "academic freedom" issue (for whatever reason) can alter what actually happened. The incident was triggered by the discovery of an al-Qaeda training manual on the computer of an individual who was neither an academic member of staff nor a student and in a school where one would not expect to find such material being used for research purposes. We became concerned. The university had to make a risk assessment - no panic, no hysteria, just a straightforward risk assessment. Our responsibility to university students and staff, and our public duty to the wider community, led us to the conclusion that there needed to be an investigation. So our concerns were conveyed to the police as the appropriate body to investigate (no judgment was made by us). The matter has now been properly investigated and outstanding issues are before the courts of the land.

Much has been said on the matter of academic freedom. The University of Nottingham has always fully embraced this principle and continues to do so. Claims to the contrary in the Nottingham Two article are freely expressed and unconstrained. But they are careless, entirely false and bear little relation to the facts.

Sir Colin Campbell, Vice-chancellor, University of Nottingham.

[23]

Sir Colin’s letter was in turn criticised in a letter to The Times Higher Education from Rod Thornton, a lecturer on terrorism, counter-insurgency and modern warfare at Nottingham. [24] Sir Colin also received a letter from 34 research students from universities of Oxford, London, Manchester, Westminster, Kent and the London School of Economics expressing their ‘profound alarm’ at treatment of Sabir and Yezza, and calling on him to give them support and to work with his own academics to ensure academic freedom is protected. [25]

The university offered no such assurances. Sir Colin subsequently released a statement to the university which read:

There is no 'right' to access and research terrorist materials. Those who do so run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges. Equally, there is no 'prohibition' on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research. Those who do so are likely to be able to offer a defence to charges (although they may be held in custody for some time while the matter is investigated). This is the law and applies to all universities … The university authorities have now made clear that possession of this material is not required for the purpose of your course of study nor do they consider it legitimate for you to possess it for research purposes … We have been advised that the document in question was one which others have been arrested and prosecuted for possessing. Different versions of the 'al-Qaeda Training Manual' exist but in this case the document was an operational or tactical manual rather than a political or strategic document. The police are clear that such a document, which included de-tailed instructions, is therefore likely to be useful to someone preparing an act of terrorism. [26]

In 2009 Nottingham University set up what it called a 'module review committee', made up of teaching-group heads to review the reading lists of academics at the School of Politics. An internal document cited by The Times Higher Education Supplement explained that the committee’s purpose included feedback on ‘whether any material on reading lists could be illegal or might be deemed to incite people to use violence’. [27] According to Rod Thornton, prior to the setting ‘module review committee' he was approached in October 2008 by the Head of School and told that his reading lists (and not those of other teachers at the School) would be reviewed by School’s Ethics Committee. [28] Thornton writes:

A few weeks later the goalposts were moved and the module review process came to take in all of the School’s reading lists. This was when it was proposed at a School Committee meeting. I still took it to be, though, a process to check just my own modules. [29]

The establishment of the 'module review committee' led to accusations that the School of Politics was effectively censoring its academics. [30] This was denied by two lecturers in the School of Politics, Pauline Eadie and Mathew Humphrey (who is also Deputy Head of School). They have argued that academic freedom is not threatened by the committee and that its 'feedback has no statutory status at all'. They have insisted that the School 'fully supports academic freedom, and also seeks, insofar as it can, to protect its staff and students in the face of the anti-terror legislation passed by the UK government'. [31]

Teaching About Terrorism Project

Teaching About Terrorism is a 2009/10 research project funded by C-SAP, one of the Higher Education Academy's subject networks. The project aims to research the extent and nature of teaching about terrorism in UK Universities, primarily in the disciplines of Sociology, Politics and Criminology.[32]

Freedom of Information Request 1

The University of Nottingham answered the four questions contained in the first Teaching About Terrorism FOI in the following way:

  • Does your institution provide any information or advice to students or staff on any potential liability under Terrorism legislation which might result from accessing materials for teaching or research?
The University provides relevant information under two codes, the research code of conduct and the computer code of practice. These two codes are attached to the email.
  • Does your institution have any kind of procedure to review or assess reading lists, module descriptors or other teaching materials which explicitly or in practice considers questions of safety and risk under terrorism legislation as part of its remit?
The University does have a procedure for reviewing course and module content, which can be found at the following link. The University’s annual monitoring process as described in the Quality Manual is of long standing, being codified at the inception of the Quality Manual in the late 1990s. “The module review process” mentioned is relevant to the School of Politics within the University, it is not applied across the University as a whole.
  • Does your institution have any system, policy or procedure in place for dealing with any potential actions taken by the authorities against the institution, its students or staff under Terrorism legislation?
The status of any student or staff member who was suspected of criminal activity, arrested by the police and subsequently convicted of a crime would be considered at a relevant stage in the light of the Code of Discipline for Students, the Staff Handbook and the individual's contract of employment, as appropriate. However, the University has no specific system, policy or procedure in place for dealing with any potential actions taken by the authorities against the institution, its students or staff under Terrorism legislation.
  • Does your institution have any system, policy or procedure in place for ‘preventing violent extremism’ as recommended for example in the government guidance document ‘Promoting Good Campus Relations’.
The procedure “Promoting good campus relations, fostering shared values and preventing violent extremism in Universities and Higher Education Colleges” was implemented following the guidance provided in “Promoting Good Campus Relations”.[33]

Teaching About Terrorism Resources

Teaching Terrorism blog
Aberystwyth University
University College London

Notes

  1. Melanie Newman, ‘Reading lists inspected for capacity to incite violence’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 25 June 2009
  2. Hicham Yezza, ‘Britain's terror laws have left me and my family shattered’, Guardian, 18 August 2008; p.26
  3. Polly Curtis and Martin Hodgson, ‘Student researching al-Qaida tactics held for six days’, Guardian, 24 May 2008; p.8
  4. Hicham Yezza, ‘Britain's terror laws have left me and my family shattered’, Guardian, 18 August 2008; p.26
  5. Polly Curtis and Martin Hodgson, ‘Student researching al-Qaida tactics held for six days. Lecturers fear threat to academic freedom’, Guardian, 24 May 2008
  6. Alf Gunvald Nilsen, ‘The Nottingham Two and the War on Terror: which of us will be next?’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 June 2008, p.26, No. 1848
  7. see Rod Thornton, ‘The ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ (not)’, Teaching Terrorism, 11 July 2009
  8. Hicham Yezza, ‘Britain's terror laws have left me and my family shattered’, Guardian, 18 August 2008; p.26
  9. Polly Curtis and Martin Hodgson ‘Student researching al-Qaida tactics held for six days. Lecturers fear threat to academic freedom’, Guardian, 24 May 2008
  10. Michael Greenwell, ‘Deport row worker speaks at uni terror lecture’, Nottingham Evening Post, 5 June 2008; p.2
  11. Richard Osley, ‘Draconian Home Office fast-tracks Algerian's deportation’, Independent on Sunday, 25 May 2008; p.22
  12. Dr MacDonald Daly and Dr Sean Matthews, Nottingham Evening Post, 2 June 2009; p.14
  13. Peter Tatchell, ‘Hicham Yezza is yet another innocent victim of the war on terror’, Guardian Unlimited, 23 February 2009
  14. 'Hicham released!', Support Hicham Yezza, 13 August 2009
  15. Melanie Newman, ‘PR chief rounds on “self-important” academics’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 June 2008, p.4, No. 1848
  16. Melanie Newman, ‘PR chief rounds on “self-important” academics’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 June 2008, p.4, No. 1848
  17. Polly Curtis and Martin Hodgson, ‘Student researching al-Qaida tactics held for six days’, Guardian, 24 May 2008; p.8
  18. Theo Usherwood, ‘GAGGED STUDENTS PROTEST OVER UNIVERSITY WORKER'S DEPORTATION’, Press Association, 28 May 2008
  19. Michael Greenwell, ‘Deport row worker speaks at uni terror lecture’, Nottingham Evening Post, 5 June 2008; p.2
  20. cited in Michael Greenwell, ‘Terror probe sparks university schism’, Nottingham Evening Post, 4 June 2008; p.11
  21. Michael Greenwell, ‘Terror probe sparks university schism’, Nottingham Evening Post, 4 June 2008; p.11
  22. Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Vanessa Pupavac and Bettina Renz, ‘The Nottingham Two and the War on Terror: which of us will be next?’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 June 2008, p.26, No. 1848
  23. Freedom still reigns’, The Times Higher Education, 19 June 2008
  24. Rod Thornton, ‘Nottingham: why I have to speak out’, The Times Higher Education, 26 June 2008; p.28, No. 1851
  25. Lee Jones, ‘Letters: Raising the alarm’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 3 July 2008; p.28, No. 1852
  26. cited in Melanie Newman, ‘Researchers have no ‘right’ to study terrorist materials’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 17 July 2008; p.8, No. 1854
  27. Melanie Newman, ‘Reading lists inspected for capacity to incite violence’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 25 June 2009
  28. Rod Thornton, '[Is vetting at Nottingham really a defence of academic freedom?]', Teaching Terrorism blog, 6 August 2009
  29. Rod Thornton, '[Is vetting at Nottingham really a defence of academic freedom?]', Teaching Terrorism blog, 6 August 2009
  30. Melanie Newman, ‘Reading lists inspected for capacity to incite violence’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 25 June 2009
  31. Pauline Eadie and Mathew Humphrey, 'Nottingham ‘censorship’: A defence', Teaching Terrorism blog, 3 August 2009
  32. Teaching Terrorism, About, Teaching Terrorism, Accessed 24-September-2010
  33. University of Nottingham, Nottingham University Teaching About Terrorism Response FOI 1 Part 1 of 4, Scribd, Accessed 29-December-2010