Notes From the Margins…

Something Dark at Nottingham University

  • May 05, 2011
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In July 2008 Rizwaan Sabir, a masters student at Nottingham University and Hicham Yezza, a former student who was working as a junior university administrator in the university’s School of Modern Languages, were arrested under the 2000 Terrorism Act for downloading terrorist materials.   The material in question included the so-called ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’, which Yezza downloaded on Sabir’s behalf on his computer for research purposes.

The document was freely available on the US Department of Justice website, which is where it was downloaded from, but the fact that two Muslims were reading such material set off a depressingly familiar response from the university authorities, who immediately  denounced them to the police.

Both Sabir and Yezza were arrested and imprisoned and the police swarmed the university in full-on SWAT team mode.    The two men were subsequently found to be entirely innocent, and  the police and university were made to look paranoid, ridiculous and vindictive.

Their arrests exemplified the hysterical and often racist assumptions behind the notion of Muslim ‘radicalisation’, and  they also raised issues of academic freedom of speech, and the extent to which research into terrorism was now subject to unacknowledged de facto limits as a result of the British government’s counter-terrorism agenda.

I wrote about this episode at the time and I later met Yezza when I gave  a seminar at the university.   A less likely terrorist would be hard to imagine. Originally from Algeria, ‘Hich’  is a dancer, political activist, fan of Bob Dylan, Philip Roth and John Coltrane and the editor of a superb journal Ceasefire, who has been living in Nottingham for thirteen years.

Even after the terrorism charges were dropped,  Nottingham police tried and nearly succeeded in getting him deported on the basis of a minor visa infringement which was eventually rejected by a judge.

Since then Sabir has had his Blackberry confiscated by police while returning from holiday at East Midlands airport, and he has also been stopped and searched various times by police in Nottingham.  In October 2009 the rightwing US thinktank The Heritage Foundation was still describing the Sabir/Yezza arrests as an ‘Islamist Terrorist Plot’, long after it had been proven to be nothing of the kind.

This is only to be expected from a thinktank whose track record of exaggerating and distorting terrorist threats for political purposes goes back to the Reagan era.

But yesterday I received a press release announcing that an article  on these events by Dr Rod Thornton,  an academic and terrorism specialist at the university,  has been pulled from the British International Studies Association (BISA) website, apparently after pressure from the Nottingham University authorities.

A former soldier and counter-terrorist officer in Northern Ireland with a Queen’s award for gallantry, Thornton is not the most obvious whistleblower.  But he strongly supported both Sabir and Yezza and was highly critical of the university’s behaviour, and his outspoken defence of the two students resulted in disciplinary action against him.

All this is described in detail in his pulled BISA article.

Now the university has gone a step further and suspended him – a pathetic and cowardly decision which is nevertheless entirely in keeping with its behaviour from the beginning of this disgraceful affair.

It says something that a former counter-terrorist officer can describe these events as ‘something rather dark; something I would never have believed existed in a modern British university, and indeed, within modern British society.’

You can read Thornton’s article here. Thornton’s supporters at the university are pressing for a public inquiry into the whole episode.

Anyone interested in finding out more or sending messages of support can contact staff and students at:  +44(0)7726466211 or by email at:


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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