“A 21-YEAR-OLD Islander has been charged with terrorism offences after allegedly being found in possession of an al-Qaeda magazine – and publishing bomb-making details online.” (JEP)
“Mr Harding is charged on two counts of the terrorism (Jersey) law including being in possession of the Spring edition of an Al Qaeda magazine at his home.” (BBC News)
“The second count covers his copying of the bomb-making section of the magazine and publishing it online.”
While sharing information about bomb making is not at all wise, it remains to be seen whether this was malicious intent, or merely a young man using the material to brag that he could get hold of this information and foolishly forgetting the dangers. Context will be the deciding factor.
What is apparent, however, is how extraordinary the law is.
I can understand why publications that promote bomb making should be banned, but mere possession of a copy of this terrorist publication is apparently against the law, not just the dissemination of it.
Yet if there is no public education programme, no easily available list of such publications, how on earth are we, the general public, to know that possession of it is illegal? I had no idea this law existed or had these consequences. I’ve asked a number of other people, and they had absolutely no idea that there was a law which could see you charged with possession of a proscribed publication without actually listing said publications.
It is as if someone said that possession of “Le Grande Albert” is illegal, and when you protested that you had no idea, you would be told that it was on a list of proscribed publications, which were only on display in a dark cellar. It’s like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
"So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.
I can also understand the reluctance to publish and make the public aware of such publications – it will instantly attract people trying to find a copy, just because it is banned, and for no other reason. There’s an insatiable curiosity about anything banned.
Human beings are possessed as they are by a formidable instinct to find out things, which is both how science progresses, but also, alas, how malicious gossip gets around. If a publication proscribed (the polite euphemism for “banned”), people want to see it.
Wikipedia has this to say about the magazine:
“Inspire is an English language online magazine reported to be published by the organization al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The magazine is one of the many ways AQAP uses the Internet to reach its audience. Numerous international and domestic extremists motivated by radical interpretations of Islam have been influenced by the magazine and, in some cases, reportedly used its bomb-making instructions in their attempts to carry out attacks.”
In May 2014, someone wrote asking this question, making a request under the UK Freedom of Information act:
Dear West Yorkshire Police,
“Does your force maintain a list of proscribed publications where any persons found in possession of them will automatically be arrested under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000?”
“If such a list is maintained: Who is responsible for adding a particular publication to the list? What criteria are used to determine if a publication should be added to the list? Can I please have a copy of the entire list with the dates that each publication was added to it?”
“In the absence of such a list: What criteria are used to decide whether or not to arrest a person in possession of a particular publication apart from the opinion and gut feeling of a police officer at the time?”
The reply noted:
“West Yorkshire Police do not maintain a list of proscribed publication where any persons found in possession of them will be arrested under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Therefore we hold no information in relation to your request.”
“Section 57 of the terrorism act states that; A person commits an offence if they possess an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism. “
“Section 58 of the terrorism act states that; an offence occurs when a person collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or, when found in possession of a document or record containing information of that kind”
Let’s face it, this is a pretty vague reply. An amateur military historian could be collecting information about bombs. Section 57 places the locus of the offense on intent. Section 58 puts the possibility that the material might be used for terrorism as an offense, but it would seem in part to depend on the act of dissemination.
The second section “when found in possession” appears pretty strong, but still does not allay fears that one might accidentally come across such material. If it was in a PDF, or part of a bundle of documents, you might not realise it was potentially “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” until you had read it.
And what about honest research, trying to understand the mindset of Al Qaeda? Apparently you would probably have to apply for permission to read the publication, provided of course, you knew that the publication in question was prohibited.
Fortunately a further two questions elicited a clearer response:
“1. Please confirm whether it is legal or illegal to possess copies of the Inspire magazine, Join the Caravan, and the Al Qaeda Training Manual?”
“Considering whether to charge an individual under S58 of the Terrorism Act is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service who take account, not only of the document itself but all of the surrounding circumstances.”
“2. If it is legal then what do you consider a reasonable defence under Section 58(3) because people have been arrested and prosecuted for possessing these publications? “
Answer: “It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for his action or possession.”
Unlike the Roman Catholic “index” of banned publications, there would seem to be no exact list of proscribed documents under terrorism. The reason is almost certainly because it is very easy, especially with online publications, to change the name of the publication in an instant, while the content remains the same.
What has emerged, however, is the singular lack of any education of the public by the authorities as to the fact that mere possession of terrorist publications is against the law, and the kind of publications which may be deemed to fall under that remit.
Clearly anything which is, to all intents and purposes, called “Practical Bomb Making” would be proscribed under the Terrorism law. Publications such as “Insight” are clearly aimed at promoting terror in an explicit way.
But there may well be publications such as those involved with firework manufacture, for example, which could be implicitly allow information regarding bomb manufacture to be disseminated.
There are clearly grey areas, and the law is largely framed as to keep people in the dark, if not about its existence, certainly about the draconian penalties which can apply.
The arrest of what appeared from the JEP photo to be a pimply youth suggests someone bragging online, sharing information without the slightest knowledge that they might be breaking the law. If that is indeed the case, I hope that commonsense prevails, and a stiff caution is given. As it stands, I fear that more will be done simply to justify the expense of the operation.
But the notion that you can somehow prevent knowledge escaping is facile. You may prevent it in one form, but all science hangs together. It's one piece. If you want to stop one part, you've got to stop it all, and that cannot be done.
In the USA, for example, the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) is charged with regulating explosives activities in the United States. Their regulations can be found in ATF Federal Explosives Law and Regulations, commonly called the Orange Book because of its orange cover.
On Page 64, Paragraph 37. “When is a manufacturer’s license required?”, we read:
“Persons who manufacture explosives for their personal, non-business use are not required to have a manufacturer’s license. However, no person may ship, transport, cause to be transported, or receive explosive materials unless such person holds a license or permit.”
Now this means that there will be USA publications, not Al Qaeda ones, where there is a discussion on explosives, often related to fireworks, and easily accessible in online versions.
The UK law also allows, for example, individuals to make 100 grams of black powder for experimentation without licenses – it is clearly more restricted than the USA. There is however a forum for chemists and professional firework makers and users to discuss all aspects of fireworks, including their manufacture.
Finally, on a lighter note, I might mention that some basic explosive materials - Potassium Nitrate, Charcoal, and Sulphur – are mentioned and used in the Star Trek episode “Arena” for the manufacture of a home made cannon.
I think I can safely mention that because, firstly, the episode is readily available, and secondly, Mythbusters tried it out, and showed that the hand mixed version of gunpowder was not explosive enough, it would only fizzle. They also showed that if the mix was made explosive enough, it would have destroyed the bamboo cannon and killed Captain Kirk.