Policing terrorism at the University of Nottingham has been the subject of huge controversy, especially its filming of students suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. It started in May 2008 when Nottingham student Rizwaan Sabir downloaded a copy of an al-Qaeda training manual for his PhD proposal and sought the support of staff member Hicham Yezza, who worked at Nottingham’s school of modern languages. Both were arrested by counter-terrorist Met officers. Freedom of Information Act documents posted on the website Unileaks reveal that they were mentioned in a report by the Home Office, Islamist Terrorist Plots in Great Britain: Uncovering the Global Network.
From the Guardian:
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.
A spokesman for Nottingham University, whose security officials filmed a demonstration in connection with the arrests last month, rejected any notion that the university secretly filmed students on campus.
He said students were fully aware of the procedure and that security staff were often filmed themselves.
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’.”
Should university security really be this involved in policing terrorism? Especially since this case was seen as a ‘major Islamist plot’ despite the lack of evidence. Since some terrorists in the UK have arrived on student visas, it would seem logical that this problem be addressed thoroughly by the UK Home Office. Not long ago, bogus colleges were found to sell letters of recommendation to students from parts of the world controlled by Taliban militants, but some of the students on visas were not found guilty of any wrong doing, yet were still deported.
There are clearly a wide range of problems that arise when on the one hand developing anti-terrorist security measures is priority for government, but on the other it can potentially victimise people who arrive in the UK and are mistakenly associated with terrorism. Some academics, such as Dr Rod Thornton, are critical of counter-terrorist tactics that lead to false arrests. Thornton criticised Nottingham’s handling of the matter above in an article that led to his suspension this past spring. Arrests and accusations of this kind that took place at Nottingham could and likely do encourage Islamophobia or prejudice against people who are Muslim or associated with Islam. Unfortunately, Islamophobia has been on the rise in other parts of the world, including the US.