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"Terrorism" & Academia Special: Britain's University of Nottingham Claims Another Victim

Hicham YezzaIn 2008-2009 --- first on our predcecessor, Libertas, and then on EA --- we covered an unusual case at Britain's University of Nottingham: research on a Master's thesis in International Security and Terrorism had led to the lengthy imprisonment of an Algerian-born administrator, Hicham Yezza, and the detention of a postgraduate student, Rizwaan Sabir.

Now a new chapter in the story: Dr Rod Thornton, a lecturer at Nottingham and Sabir's former supervisor, has been suspended by the University.

His offence? He wrote a lengthy paper, "Radicalisation at Universities or Radicalisation by Universities?", for the annual conference of the British International Studies Association.

Rod Thornton "Radicalisation at universities or radicalisation by universities?: How a student‟s use of a library bookbecame a 'major Islamist plot'"
Our coverage on Libertas:
Maria Ryan: "Reaction in Nottingham to the Student ‘Terror’ Arrests" (28 May 2008)
Scott Lucas: "Academic Freedom: Update on the Hicham Yezza Deportation" (10 June 2008)
Scott Lucas "An Open Letter to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham" (21 July 2008 --- also in Times Higher Education)
Hicham Yezza "Freedom and Terror: The University of Nottingham Case" (18 August 2008)

Sabir, who was writing his thesis on Islamic extremism, had downloaded an Al Qa'eda training manual from a US Department of Justice website. (There were also two articles, from Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Policy Council Journal.) University authorities, notified by someone that a copy of the manual was on Yezza's computer, called in the police.

While Britain's security forces questioned academics and University officials, Sabir was held for six days in detention. He is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Strathclyde University in Scotland.

Yezza was cleared of involvement in terrorism but immediately held for "visa irregularities". He spent more than five months in prison before he was released in August 2009. He remained under the threat of deportation but eventually received "leave to remain" in Britain.

Thornton's essay is a forthright, polemical presentation: as he declares at the outset:

I feel I have a duty to „whistleblow‟ against the University of Nottingham. Senior personnel within this university engaged in activity that can be classed as unfair, discriminatory and, sometimes, outright illegal....

Above all, what I reveal in this article is designed to clear the names of two innocent men.

Thornton makes an introductory challenge:"When important and influential actors across a range of institutions --- university, security agencies and government departments --- are presented with a set of facts in relation to young Muslim men then those facts have to be shoehorned – however bizarrely and however unfairly – into conforming to a certain orthodoxy." He then proceeds, in 112 pages, to document the case.

His narrative includes the assertion that the University carried out no "risk assessment" of the three documents --- had it done so, it would have established their public availability, including access through Nottingham's library --- before calling in the security services. Thornton describes the arrest and interrogation of Sabir and Yezza "based only on the opinion provided by a Professor of Romance Literature and Literary Theory" that the training manual was an "illegal document". He details the University's post-arrest public relations campaign, in the face of criticism that academic freedom had been infringed, which was "not factually accurate". He concludes:

Sabir and Yezza had clearly been pre-judged. The security staff, the hierarchy and the Management Board of the University of Nottingham already had their „pre-formed picture‟. They had their own „orthodoxy‟. Their presumption was not that the three documents found were harmless and could be explained away innocently once a few questions had been asked; rather their presumption - but without any background supporting context - was that these were actually dangerous documents that were, quote, "illegal"‟ and had "no valid reason to exist whatsoever".

But, of course, the university hierarchy and its Management Board could not publicly admit to the fact that they were involved in a pre-judgement. They had to create a picture of a university in control of events; making measured, reasoned decisions that included a proper risk assessment. Thus the University of Nottingham had good cause to engage in this series of fabrications that indicated that they were following government guidelines.

And there is much, much more. Thornton describes pressure on Sabir even after he was cleared by authorities, with the Registrar summoning the student to allegedly declare, "[Your arrest] caused a huge amount of significant and frankly unwelcome effort and attention and work for a lot of people in this institution which we could all have bloody well done without because we‟ve got better things to do." Thornton's reading lists in his courses on International Security and Terrorism have to be scrutinised by a Research Ethics Committee.

Thornton's approach was inevitably going to provoke controversy, especially with his decision not to obscure identities: "I name names here. Some might find this unethical. But those who work for a UK university work for a publicly funded institution and, as such, they must accept the consequences of so doing. I also use names here because I want to be very clear to whom I am referring, and thus to absolve of any blame those at the University of Nottingham who have behaved honourably. And, since nothing I say here is untrue --- it can all be checked against documentary evidence --- I am not defaming anyone."

And the University has acted quickly. It threatened legal action to get Thornton's paper removed from the website of the British International Studies Association --- the essay is still available on Scribd.

And Thornton is now suspended.

According to the lecturer, a letter from the Vice-Chancellor said the suspension was because of a "breakdown in working relationships with your colleagues caused by your recent article". Authorities ordered Thornton to clear out his office immediately.

A Nottingham spokesman said: "The article produced by Dr Thornton is highly defamatory of a number of his colleagues. The university rejects utterly the baseless accusations he makes about members of staff.

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