The British library has declined the offer to secure access to a unique archive of Taliban documents – which they say is of great academic interest – for fear that the material will fall foul of the UK’s anti-terror laws.
Curators from the prestigious national library, the largest library in the world by number of items catalogued, recently met with representatives of the Taliban Sources Project to discuss gaining access to their digitalised archive. The project was launched in 2012 and included members of the British Library on its advisory board.
However, the library said in a statement yesterday:
Although the archive was recognised as being of research value, it was judged that it contained some material which could contravene the Terrorism Act, and which would present restrictions on the Library’s ability to provide access to the archive for researchers.
The Terrorism Act places specific responsibilities on anyone in the UK who might provide access to terrorist publications, and the legal advice received jointly by the British Library and other similar institutions advises against making this type of material accessible.
The Taliban Sources Project is “the only collection to amass documentary evidence of Taliban cultural, social and legal output for the years 1979-2011.” It took a team of international researchers four years to compile and translate into English, and consists of an estimated 1.5 million words.
The project is intended to “enable a fuller understanding of the Taliban,” something with remains pressing today with the terror group retaking Musa Qala just three days ago, less that a year after British and American troops left the country.
“Totally self-defeating. If our laws prevent studying jihadi groups, we won’t defeat them. Know your enemy?” tweeted Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation.
The Terrorism Act 2006 made it an offence “to collect material which could be used by a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism” and criminalised the circulation of terrorist propaganda.
However, it also states that it must be proven that the owner of the material has terrorist intentions and no other good reason for possession.
Recent examples of the overzealous implementation of Britain’s anti-terror laws include the rapper who was banned from entering the UK on Thursday for provoking others to “terrorist acts.”
This incident, however, seems a more indirect form of self-censorship exerting a chilling effect on free expression and enquiry through an alleged climate of fear. In that way it is similar to the cancellation of a stage play about homegrown jihadis at the beginning of the month.
The move has been met with criticism from several parties, including Brian Fishman, Counterterrorism Research Fellow on the International Security Program at New America. He described the move as “totally self-defeating” warning “if our laws prevent studying jihadi groups, we won’t defeat them.” Others tweeted:
–> @britishlibrary collection _already_ includes literature by neo-nazis, jihadis, anarchists, others
— Thomas Hegghammer (@Hegghammer) August 28, 2015
@EricWRandolph Unfortunate and an overreaction by the British Library. Being digitised, these records will inevitably be available anyway.
— Peter R. Neumann (@PeterRNeumann) August 28, 2015