This article is part of a series on the government's 'Prevent' counter-terrorism strategy.
A professor was suspended earlier this month after calling for a public enquiry into alleged serious malpractice perpetrated by senior management at the University of Nottingham. Dr Rod Thornton, a lecturer in international security and terrorism, presented an 112 page paper at the British International Studies Association Conference in Manchester last month detailing a series of failings and subsequent cover-ups he claims took place at the university three years ago, after the arrest of a postgraduate student and a member of university staff, both Muslim, on "terrorism related charges.”
In response to his suspension, a call for his immediate reinstatement was published in the Guardian by a significant list of influential academics from India to America, headed by Noam Chomsky and including Paul Gilroy, Dr Karma Nabulsi, Charles Tripp and Neera Chandhoke. Meanwhile yesterday around 100 demonstrators gathered in Nottingham to protest against the university's treatment of Thornton, with a campaign around the case now generating national interest.
The saga began in May 2008, when social sciences research student Rizwaan Sabir and his friend, Hicham Yezza, were arrested and detained for six days after a copy of an al-Qaeda Training Manual (AQTM) was found on Yezza’s office computer by a member of the University’s staff. The AQTM is recommended reading on most terrorism courses, and was also available through the University’s library. Sabir, who had obtained it as part of his research for an MA dissertation around the role of al-Qaeda in Iraq, sent the file along with two other articles (from the academic journals Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Policy Council Journal) to Yezza by email.
Yezza worked in the University’s modern languages department as the principal school administrator, and in order to avoid paying print costs Sabir had sent his friend the articles and asked if he would print them from his office for free. Several months later, a member of staff used Yezza’s computer and discovered the dubiously titled AQTM (which was incidentally given its name by the US Department of Justice; it was originally titled, Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants). The concerned member of staff promptly reported the find to senior members within the department; the university’s Registrar, Dr Paul Greatrix, was informed, and the police were subsequently called in to investigate.
Greatrix was later quoted in a police statement as saying that there was no “valid reason whatsoever for the documents [found on Yezza’s computer] to exist” and that the AQTM was “illegal”. It was also apparent from a document given by police to Sabir’s lawyers that comments made by Bernard McGuirk, a Professor of Romance Literatures and Literary Theory at the university, were integral to the investigation. According to a police note released under the Freedom of Information Act, McGuirk had told police the AQTM was not a “legitimate document”. Thornton claims that on this basis alone police arrested both Yezza and Sabir, who were detained under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act on suspicion of being involved in the commission, preparation and instigation of an act of terrorism. During their six days of incarceration, the university did not contact the two men or offer them any support.
The day after the arrests, the university prepared an exclusion letter for Sabir which set out to ban him “from all parts of the university with immediate effect”. When Sabir was released without charge, however, the expulsion was never issued. Specialist counter terror police had conducted a meticulous search of Sabir’s family home, which involved all of his family – including his elderly grandmother – being forced to vacate for 24 hours. But after a "bag and tag" search, all that the police discovered was an array of academic texts including works on Nietzsche, postmodernism and educational research. They had failed to find any connection between Sabir and Yezza and terrorism.
Even two months after the arrest of the pair, though, Greatrix continued to reiterate that the AQTM was “illegal”. In one letter to Sabir, dated August 4th 2008, he conflated the downloading of the AQTM with the downloading of child pornography. Both, he said, were available on the internet but were “still nevertheless illegal”.
This clearly frustrated Thornton, an expert on terrorism studies. He knew that the AQTM was available through the university's own library and was considered “required reading” on any terrorism course; to compare it to child porn was “unconscionable” and “malevolent”, he wrote in his paper. Thorton also felt part of the problem stemmed from the fact that the AQTM was misleadingly titled – by the US government – as it contains no information about how to build bombs or other weapons. “The al-Qaeda Training Manual is a mainstream student source,” he wrote. “It is in no way illegal, illegitimate, seditious or extremist.”
But he was most disturbed at how quickly the university’s management had gone to the police. Despite what the university would later claim, Thornton alleges that the Registrar, Greatrix, did not carry out a "risk assessment" in accordance with university guidelines. Greatrix should have – but ostensibly did not – consult first with senior academic staff and with experts in the field of terrorism before going to the police.
Thornton also suggests that a culture of Islamophobia was a key factor in the arrests. At one point in his paper he recounts the comments of a police officer, made during one lengthy interview about the suspicions surrounding Sabir and Yezza. Thornton writes that, seemingly exasperated, the officer let out a sigh and said: “This would not be happening if the student had been blonde, Swedish and at Oxford University”.
In the aftermath of the incident, Thornton tried to raise the issues he had with the handling of the case internally. He claims that he “stopped stories running in the media” and that he “[gave] senior management at the University of Nottingham every chance to carry out their own investigations and to take the necessary actions.” He also says that he wrote to the government minister then responsible for universities; went to the English universities funding body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); and appealed to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, whose role it is to oversee the activities of public institutions. But all of this yielded no response. Unless universities are engaged in financial impropriety, he concluded, they are “allowed to be completely autonomous and accountable to no-one.”
With no other avenue to pursue, Thornton decided to “go public”. Shortly after he did so, by releasing his paper in late April, he was suspended from his post at the University of Nottingham with immediate effect. In the days following his suspension, Sabir, now a doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde, helped organise the open letter in support of his former lecturer, and is working actively with a campaign group to raise the profile of the case.
Sabir, speaking on the phone from Nottingham, described Thornton as "talented, brave and courageous" and said his suspension was "totally absurd".
He added: “Because the university has failed to investigate these matters internally over the last three years, no other option exists now but to have a public, independent enquiry through which the issues can be resolved. Until a public enquiry is undertaken we can’t ever bring closure to this.
“They have failed in their duty of care to me. They have failed in their duty of care to Hitcham [Yezza], and they are now failing in their duty of care to all other staff and students that have spoken up for justice to be done at this university.”
A spokesperson for the University of Nottingham refused on policy grounds to confirm or deny whether Thornton had been suspended, and stated that at all times the University has acted in an ethical, transparent and fair manner.
“The fact remains that the article produced by Dr Thornton is highly defamatory of a number of his colleagues," the spokesperson said. "Academic freedom is a cornerstone of this University, but it is not the freedom to defame your co-workers and attempt to destroy their reputations as honest, fair and reasonable individuals. The University rejects utterly the baseless accusations Dr Thornton makes about members of staff.
“It is important to remember that the original incident, almost three years ago, 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. The individual concerned was an administrative member of staff with no academic reason to possess such a document. The University became concerned and decided, after a risk assessment, that those concerns should be conveyed to the police as the appropriate body to investigate.”
Abuse of process?
It seems clear that with each side accusing the other of wrongdoing, the only way forward can now be an independent public enquiry into Thornton's allegations. If the university believes it has conducted itself in an ethical, transparent and fair manner, then it should encourage a full and thorough investigation into not only its handling of the original Sabir and Yezza incident, but also its dismissal of Thornton, which in itself raises serious questions. What cannot be in dispute at this point is that two wholly innocent individuals were arrested three years ago on spurious grounds, and a highly regarded lecturer has now been suspended for citing numerous significant, evidence-based instances of alleged malpractice at the highest levels of the institution. If in either of these cases there has been a cover-up, or an abuse of process and power, it is paramount that we find out about it. No publicly funded institution should be permitted to function behind closed doors, and the University of Nottingham is no exception.