"Terrorism" & Academia Follow-Up: Britain's University of Nottingham Secretly Films Students (Townsend)
Since 2008, we have covered the unusual developments at Britain's University of Nottingham, after postgraduate student Rizwaan Sabir and member of staff Hicham Yezza were detained --- in Yezza's case, for several months --- because Sabir had downloaded a publicly-available Al Qa'eda training manual for his research. (See articles listed at bottom of this entry.)
Last month, Sabir's postgraduate supervisor, Dr Rod Thornton, was suspended by the university because he had written a lengthy paper for an academic conference about the case.
Now the latest revelation, courtesy of Mark Townsend of The Guardian of London:
Confidential documents relating to a "major Islamist plot" have revealed that security staff from a leading university have been secretly filming students on campus as a method of monitoring potential extremists.
More than 200 university documents --- along with material from the Met's counter-terrorism command, Special Branch and the Crown Prosecution Service --- detail the controversial techniques being deployed to monitor students.
The documents, published today on the website Unileaks, follows the government's publication of its Prevent Terrorism strategy, which is aimed at targeting radicalisation in universities but has sparked concerns that it could fuel Islamophobia.
The material charts the consequences of the May 2008 arrest by counter-terrorism officers of Nottingham student Rizwaan Sabir and of Hicham Yezza, who worked as a staff member at the university's school of modern languages.
Sabir had downloaded an al-Qaida training manual as part of research for a dissertation, and had sought Yezza's help in drafting a PhD proposal because of his position as editor of a political magazine. Although campaigners say the manual was available in the university's own library and that versions are available from retailers Blackwell's, Waterstone's and Amazon, university officials alerted the police. Both men were released without charge six days later.
Even so, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the arrests were mentioned in a report, cited by the Home Office, called Islamist Terrorist Plots in Great Britain: Uncovering the Global Network.
They also reveal how university security staff kept a log of Middle East-related activities on campus, including details of talks and seminars revolving around Palestine and other issues. Nottingham University admitted that it "routinely" filmed students who protest on campus, and recorded a demonstration last month in connection with the arrests.
Staff and students who spoke out in support of Yezza and Sabir were logged by a Whitehall counter-terrorism unit called the Research, Information and Communications Unit, which is embedded in the government's Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. Shami Chakrabarti, director of pressure group Liberty, said: "Is it right that universities are taking on policing duties?"
Last month, Nottingham University lecturer Dr Rod Thornton was suspended for writing an article criticising the university's treatment of Sabir. In a paper prepared for the British International Studies Association, he alleged the university "refused to apologise to the men" and attempted to smear them. He wrote: "Untruth piled on untruth until a point was reached where the Home Office itself farcically came to advertise the case as a 'major Islamist plot'."
The university responded by suspending Thornton, who lectures on security issues and is a former infantryman who served in Northern Ireland. That prompted an international outcry in which 67 academics, including the renowned US scholar Noam Chomsky, demanded his "immediate reinstatement". The group described the original arrests as "indicative of a growing tide of Islamophobia".
Thornton, speaking after his ninth disciplinary hearing on Thursday, said: "It's about academic freedom, but also the wider issue of the way Muslim students are treated. Suspicions are being raised when they should not be."
Pressure group Support the Whistleblower at Nottingham (Swan) said today's release of documents supports Thornton's article, which was entitled "How a student's use of a library book became a 'major Islamist plot'."
The material reveals that the university officials who contacted the police never actually read the manual, even though they declared it "illegal", and on one occasion "toxic waste". After his release, Sabir, rather than being looked after by the university, was told by officials that he could have been fined or suspended for misusing the computer facilities.
"These leaks show how everything can, and does, go wrong when a brand-conscious university is left to deal with security issues such as terrorism," said a Swan spokesman. "What's more, this case highlights how a leading British university can act with impunity on such a sensitive issue."
Cathy James, chief executive of the pro-whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work, said: "It's really important that whistleblowers are supported." Thornton's supporters say the evidence underlines the need for an independent public inquiry.
Although the university's security officials initially said that the CPS had "reluctantly accepted" a decision not to charge Sabir as a terrorist, a letter from the CPS actually shows they believed there was "insufficient evidence" to pursue the case. And although the university says it has acted in an "ethical, transparent and fair manner", a number of the documents are almost completely redacted or have not been released.
A Nottingham University spokesman said no footage of protests was retained or passed to other authorities, including the police or government. He said that security staff kept lists of protests in case extra security was required "because of their subject matter". He added that the al-Qaida manual was found on the computer of "an administrative member of staff with no academic reason to possess such a document".
The spokesman said: "Senior staff evaluated the information that was available and made the correct decision – to pass those concerns to the police as the appropriate body to investigate in the interests of public safety. This was a very difficult situation that was handled appropriately and properly. The university acted in good faith." He would not comment on Thornton.
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)