Under permanent investigation

Mike Phipps reviews The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and the Security State, by Rizwaan Sabir, published by Pluto

Rizwaan Sabir was a sixth former when 9/11 happened. A working class Muslim, he got bored with his Management Systems degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, failed his first year and switched to Politics, which became a passion. Determined to become an academic, he studied for his Master’s degree and applied for a PhD to study political Islam and Al-Qaeda. Eight months into his graduate studies at Nottingham University, he was arrested under the Terrorism Act. His family was forced out of their home while it was searched from top to bottom. It would be several hours before Sabir would be interviewed by the police.

As part of his research proposal, Sabir had downloaded a publicly available but much redacted document from the US Department of Justice website, known as, but not officially entitled, The Al-Qaeda Training Manual. The same document had also been downloaded by a senior member of Nottingham University’s staff. The University had notified the police directly: the two detainees became known as the Nottingham Two.

Sabir assumed during his interrogations that being as helpful as possible would clear up the misunderstanding: in fact of course, repeated police questioning is more about finding inconsistencies and building up a case against a detainee. On legal advice, he eventually decided to exercise his right to silence. Meanwhile University colleagues were questioned: some were misled by officers who said Sabir had downloaded ‘illegal material’. Others were told more incendiary material was involved than he had actually downloaded.

After six days in custody, Sabir was issued with a warning and released, which is not the same as being declared innocent. Over the next three years, a protracted civil case against the police led to some of the inaccurate information in the intelligence system about Sabir being modified and damages awarded of £20,000. “It was the first time that a Muslim person of colour who had been arrested and detained in pre-charge detention for suspected terrorism had managed to secure some element of accountability and damages.”

More importantly, Sabir would no longer be a ‘subject of interest’ to the police, which before 2011 meant that every routine stop, including at immigration control in airports, led to the discovery that he had been arrested for terrorism-related offences which resulted in often lengthy questioning on his political beliefs. When Sabir finally got to see his intelligence files, they included material, often inaccurate, about his internet use and his criticisms of the government’s Prevent strategy.

Sabir’s ordeal changed him. It fuelled fears of being permanently under surveillance and left him anxious, untrusting and isolated, convinced his closest friends were working for MI6. By April 2013, he was living rough in his car. Even the psychiatric doctors he was advised to see were ‘spies’, he was convinced. Fortunately, this was an episode only – but his anxiety remained, especially when travelling abroad, which could trigger a relapse.

Sabir has some acute observations to make about the shift in recent years towards preventive and pre-emptive approaches in counter-terrorism. “Firstly, it requires the state to exponentially expand its surveillance infrastructure in order to predict future risk, which has a deeply corrosive and traumatic effect on the psychological well-being of innocent people from ‘suspect communities’.” Secondly, it shifts the burden of proof onto the person under investigation to show that they ‘mean no harm’.

Less explored in this book but nonetheless worth recording is the shabby role Nottingham University played in this saga. Having informed on Sabir and his colleague, the University faced widespread criticism for its failure to protect students and staff from conducting research free from the threat of arrest and detention. This criticism intensified when the Politics Department established a “module review committee” to vet the reading lists of lecturers in case they contain “material that is illegal or could incite violence”, which many saw as censorship.

Lecturers felt deeply uneasy at this policing of their teaching, which was a poor substitute for positive guidance about what materials they should and should not use, and were unwilling to put their own security or liberty at risk. As a result, the subject of terrorism is no longer taught at the University – a significant blow to academic freedom.

The book comes with an Afterword by Aamer Anwar, who was beaten unconscious by police while flyposting for an NUS demonstration and in 1995 made legal history as the first person of colour in Scotland to win a civil action against the police for an unprovoked racists attack. Like Sabir, he has some insight into the trauma resulting from treatment by the police.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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