AFP covers the Taliban Sources Project


A few years back I put out a call (together with Felix Kuehn and Anand Gopal) for translators to work on a new project I was trying to get off the ground. Thankfully, that project is coming to a close, but as you can read in this article, we've had some bumps along the way.

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 Taliban-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 Taliban, including official newspapers from their time in power, poems, maps, radio broadcasts, and several 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 they feared they could be in breach of Britain's increasingly stringent counter-terrorism laws. (LINK)

(Read the rest of the article by clicking the link above)

The project has been a digitisation and translation of the world's largest archive of (Afghan) Taliban documents (dating back to the 1980s). We hope to present this in the coming months to researchers and the general public alike.

The AFP's article on the British Library's refusal to host the project has been met with incredulity by other scholars and researchers whose work often sees them dealing with primary sources:

Thomas Hegghammer (Director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI)):

Aaron Zelin (Richard Borow Fellow @WashInstitute, Rena and Sami David Fellow @ICSR_Centre, PhD candidate @KingsCollegeLon, Founder of @Jihadology_Net and @JihadPod):

Chris Woods (journalist / researcher):

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (working with primary sources in the Middle East and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum):

Graeme Smith (Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan):

The Guardian newspaper (UK) has a story out as well covering the reasoning behind our disappointment with the decision.

The New York Times (USA) also published a story with some really interesting comments on the legal aspects of the case:

"David Anderson, the independent reviewer for Britain’s antiterrorism laws, said Friday that the Terrorism Act was a broad law that could be even more broadly interpreted “by police and lawyers who want to give cautious advice.” Such interpretations could easily impinge on academic freedom, he warned.
“If this law were interpreted to prevent researchers from accessing Taliban-related material that would impact their academic work, it would be very regrettable,” he said. “That’s not how academics work.”

Al-Jazeera have followed up with a story including comments from Dr Rizwaan Sabir, an academic at Liverpool John Moores University:

"The decision of the British Library may seem far-fetched to some but the law is clear...it says that sharing information that encourages or is useful for terrorism is a criminal offence," Sabir told Al Jazeera.
"Simply holding or sharing the information is a criminal offence that can carry a prison sentence...such laws have a deeply damaging effect on the freedom of scholars to research.
"Where such offences exist, a climate of fear and self-censorship becomes inevitable, and free scholarly inquiry becomes next to impossible."
Sabir was himself arrested in 2008 while conducting research on terrorism for downloading an al-Qaeda training manual from the US Department of Justice website. In 2011, he won compensation and an apology from the British police for false impirsonment.

And two pieces in Arabic. Click here for al-Sharq al-Awsat's writeup, and click here for an article over on BBC Arabic.

UPDATE: Was just on the BBC World Service's Newshour programme talking about all things TSP/British Library. Listen here:

UPDATE: Two analysis/comment pieces have also been released:

1. "Self-Censorship in Action: The British Library Rejects Taliban Archive" by Shaheed Fatima -- offer the legal case that probably supported / lead to the British Library's decision

2. "British Library Won’t Hold Taliban Documents for Researchers Due to Anti-Terror Laws" by Peter van Buren -- summarises some of the broad issues

UPDATE: Two further commentary pieces in NYU's School of Law web journal and forum Just Security:

1. "The British Library Did Not Need to Self-Censor" by Clive Walker

2. "The British Library and the Taliban Sources Project: A Short Reply to Professor Walker" by Shaheed Fatima

UPDATE: A long article summarising much of the above in conjunction with new interviews with Felix and Mike:

"British Library Declines Taliban Archive, New Hosts Step Up" by Lisa Peet

UPDATE: A reply from Clive Walker to Shaheed Fatima's post:

"A Short (Yet Still Forlorn) Reply in the Taliban Sources Project Debate" by Clive Walker