British Library won't store papers related to Taleban

Academics blame UK govt for 'climate of fear' after library cites possible prosecution

PARIS • Academics have criticised the British government for creating a "climate of fear" after the national library declined to store the world's biggest collection of Taleban-related documents over concerns it could be prosecuted under terrorism laws.

A group of international researchers spent years putting together a trove of documents related to the Afghan Taleban, including official newspapers from their time in power, poems, maps, radio broadcasts and volumes of laws and edicts - digitising the estimated two-three million words and translating everything into English.

It was hoped the project, which was launched in 2012 and included members of the British Library on its advisory board, would prove an unprecedented resource for academics and officials trying to understand the movement and the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan.

But despite hopes that the library would host a master copy of the digital collection, it got cold feet at the last minute, telling the project's organisers that it feared being in breach of Britain's increasingly stringent counter-terrorism laws.

"It's surprising and disappointing," said Mr Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Berlin-based author and researcher who helped spearhead the project.


There're no recipes for making bombs or anything like that. These are documents that would help people understand history.

MR ALEX STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN, a Berlin-based author and researcher on the resources related to the Afghan Taleban

"There're no recipes for making bombs or anything like that. These are documents that would help people understand history, whether it's Afghans trying to learn about their recent past, or outsiders wanting to understand the movement.

"Any scholar would realise it's essential to read primary documents related to your subject if you want to understand militant groups, but there is a climate of fear among academics who study this kind of material because UK law is very loose."

The British Library was reluctant to discuss the decision, referring queries to the government. The Home Office declined to comment.

A British Library spokesman confirmed it was "not currently able to acquire a copy of the archive".

"It is a large digitised archive which contains material that could contravene the Terrorism Act."

Britain's Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 make it an offence to "collect material which could be used by a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism" as well as criminalise the "circulation of terrorist publications".

But under the laws, police must also prove that the owners share the views expressed in the publications and intended them to be used for terrorism.

Dr James Fitzgerald, a professor at Dublin City University and editor of the Critical Studies on Terrorism journal, said the library's decision to turn down the Taleban archive was "completely, completely ridiculous".

He put the blame on the government for creating an atmosphere of fear which has worsened since new guidelines were issued for universities calling on lecturers to look out for "potential (Islamic) radicals".

"This is a symptom of a creeping orthodoxy of UK legislation that is trying to enforce so-called British values," he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2015, with the headline 'British Library won't store papers related to Taleban'. Print Edition | Subscribe