Just who is listening in?

November 2, 2006

Academics in the field of terrorism studies are increasingly anxious about the impact of anti-terror legislation on their research. Jessica Shepherd Investigates

The "chat" had lasted just 45 minutes, but it had been long enough to convince emeritus professor Riaz Hassan to abandon key aspects of a research project he had been working on for 40 years.

The Australian Attorney-General had called the professor to warn him against interviewing terrorists for a study of suicide bombers - because it could breach new Australian terror laws.

Hassan, of Flinders University in southern Australia, had planned to interview the leaders of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Egypt's Islamic Jihad, South-East Asian-based Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia, Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers.

He was to be helped by "inside contacts" and funded by an A$829,000 (Pounds 438,000) grant from the Australian Research Council.

Now, rather than talk first-hand to terrorist recruiters, trainers and their leaders, he will have to rely on inquest records, his own data and conversations with security analysts and academics for the five-year study.

He told The Times Higher : "I am revising my research design to comply with the Australian anti-terror laws."

There are no reported cases such as Hassan's in the UK so far. But several British academics in the field of terrorism studies admit they are increasingly nervous about the effect of anti-terrorism laws on their research.

One research fellow, who did not want to be named, told The Times Higher that in his academic papers he disguised the fact that he had personally corresponded or met with terrorists. He said: "I write 'allegedly' or 'it is said that' rather than quote my sources, but you then run the risk of colleagues saying your work is not academically rigorous and where are the footnotes?

"I hardly ever refer to anyone. Of course, that is mostly because we want to protect our sources so that they continue to trust us.

"But we could also be accused of inciting hatred. If you apply for a research grant and you say you are going to interview terrorists, it makes you vulnerable. This leads to the rewriting of applications so that it is not obvious that you intend to do this."

Another said: "When I have interviewed people who have been or are engaged in political violence, I have not engaged with government officials or the police. At the same time I am not naive enough to believe that I was not watched."

It is Article One of the UK's Terrorism Act 2006, which outlaws the "glorification" of terrorist acts, that worries academics the most. It says "every statement which glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of (terrorist) acts or offences" is an offence.

Richard Jackson, lecturer in politics and terrorism at Manchester University, believes academics are unclear how to interpret the "glorification" clause. Do writing and teaching about terrorism or interviewing terrorists count as "glorification", he wonders.

He said: "This clause is problematic. A lot of us look at the documents that terrorists produce, such as statements, videos and books.

"There is the general perception among researchers of terrorism that current legislation and current approaches to counterterrorism are going to have a chilling effect on the kind of research we do.

"I do feel a bit nervous about looking at jihadi websites and downloading their videos. We also teach courses that encourage students to find and look at the material themselves. This could be seen as 'glorification of terrorism', and it does make one pause. Just how broadly will Article One be interpreted? We are waiting for an academic test case.

"I suspect governments would be reluctant to press the issue, but I imagine that they are monitoring who is looking at what nonetheless."

Academics of all grades share his concerns that governments may mistakenly think they are up to no good and in breach of the law. And Jackson believes that if established academics are getting jumpy, then less-experienced lecturers and PhD students have even more reason to be so because they are more vulnerable career-wise.

But despite their nerves, most academics in the field still say the new anti-terror laws will not stop them from talking to terrorists.

Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror and head of the centre for political violence and terrorism research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, goes one step further.

"An academic should be willing to die for this field of research," he said.

"Unless you go to interview these people and eat with them, you don't know them or understand them. To understand terrorism, you must get close to the terrorists. Throughout my career it has been the personal contacts, the one-to-one relationships that I have forged that have given me the opportunity to meet terrorists and their leaders."

Gunaratna has met several hundred terrorists from Algeria to Northern Ireland, Bosnia to Afghanistan, including the American Taleban fighter John Walker Lindh.

He said: "I firmly believe that we learn more about terrorism from the terrorists rather than from third-person accounts, but it is hazardous. I have escaped death several times. But I still believe that if we are going to understand terrorist groups we must take the risks. We cannot do research on them without going into the field."

But for Gunaratna, it is the terrorists and not governments who pose a danger to academics conducting research in this field. He said: "Government agencies will watch academics, but unless academics are actually supporting the terrorists they should not worry about this.

"It is important to realise that the government agencies are looking at the immediate terrorist threat; academics are looking at the longer-term threat in many cases. Governments know that unless we have both, we will never be able to resolve the issue."

Another senior academic, who wished to remain anonymous, agrees. He said:

"If you are a bona fide researcher, then I don't think the Government has any vested interests in wanting you to stop. I certainly won't be changing my research plans."

When The Times Higher approached the Home Office for a comment about academics' fears of breaching anti-terror legislation, the department refused to give one.

A spokeswoman would only list the safeguards of Section One of the Terrorism Act 2006, namely that for an offence to be committed "it requires a person who publishes a statement to intend it to be understood as encouraging others to commit terrorist acts" or "that the statement is likely to be understood... as encouragement to... carry out acts of terrorism"

or that "what is being glorified is capable of being emulated in current circumstances".

There has been a proliferation of interest in the field of terrorism studies among UK academics and students since 9/11. Last month, an MSc in terrorism studies started at the University of East London, and next year there are plans for an undergraduate degree in terrorism studies at Aberdeen University. Jackson estimates the number of papers related to the field has increased by 300 per cent.

Ian Macdonald QC, a leading human rights barrister and an outspoken critic of UK anti-terror laws, said he had not heard of a case such as Hassan's in the UK. Some are wondering whether it is only a matter of time before he does.

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