(W)Archives: The UK’s Strategically Counterproductive Approach to Jihadist Propaganda

January 9, 2015
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As this week’s shootings in Paris remind us, the West faces a threat from a dangerous enemy who follows a radical but sophisticated ideology. From a practical point of view, it behooves us to read what this enemy has to say in order to understand his worldview, his strategies, his tactics, and his plans. In fact, many contributors to War on the Rocks (including yours truly) have done just that. Some of them (not including yours truly) have made important contributions to the field of jihadist studies.

Unfortunately, those scholars in Britain who wish to study the jihadists face a serious legal obstacle to their important work. In the United Kingdom, possession of jihadist literature is presumptively illegal. It is, for instance, illegal to knowingly collect information that is “likely to be useful” in committing a terrorist act. A Scotland Yard official told journalists that “You don’t have to necessarily be planning any terrorist activity to be prosecuted…if you are possessing those type of materials.” True, the law allows for a “reasonable excuse” for people such as scholars or investigators. That excuse does not necessarily apply to journalists and it doesn’t necessarily even fully protect scholars. In 2008, a graduate student and a staff member of Nottingham University were held by police for six days for possession of the Manchester Al Qaeda manual, which is widely available on the internet. I know a professor at a major university who had to go to the police station to vouch for one of his graduate students who had been arrested when the police came to his apartment on other business and saw jihadist materials that the student had collected for his school work.

It is easy to ridicule the UK government’s desire to ensure that Britons read no evil. Sadly, however, the United States once went through a similar period, as this week’s document shows. Found in the State Departments records at the National Archives, the document dates to 1951, a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy was busily and recklessly hunting Communists in the U.S. government and particularly in the State Department. The memo is from a senior State Department intelligence official to the Department’s Office of Security. It notes that “in view of the current political atmosphere” it seemed important to advise the office that a Mr. Arthur Dornheim—an intelligence analyst responsible for studying the “history and ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and the relations of the Chinese Communists to the international Communist movement”—sometimes visited bookstores in New York that had “known leftist connections.” Security should not be concerned, however, for Mr. Dornheim did this for the purpose of “procuring material useful, sometimes indispensable, to the research work of this office.”

Just as the chilling effect of the McCarthy era on scholars and even security-cleared government officials damaged American efforts to understand and deal with China and Southeast Asia, the United Kingdom can only be shooting itself in the foot with its law.   To paraphrase a common expression “if you think knowledge is dangerous, just try ignorance for a while.”


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.