Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why was Hicham Yezza arrested?
2. Why was Rizwaan Sabir arrested?
3. How long were Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir detained for?
4. What documents were discovered on Hicham Yezza’s computer?
5. What is the al-Qaeda training manual? 
6. Why did Rizwaan Sabir download the document?
7. Is the “al-Qaeda Training Manual” an illegal document?
8. Did the police not say that the document was illegal?
9. Is the al-Qaeda training manual ‘legitimate research material’?
10. Why did Rizwaan Sabir email the document to Hicham Yezza?
11. Is it not understandable that the university called the police?
12. Did the university conduct a risk assessment?
13. Who is Dr Rod Thornton?
14. What does Dr Thornton’s paper say?
15. Why did Dr Thornton write this paper & make it public?
16. Why was Dr Thornton suspended?
17. Why should we believe what Dr Thornton’s paper?


Why was Hicham Yezza arrested?

 Hicham Yezza was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism after three documents were found on his computer at the University of Nottingham, where was a member of staff in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures (The Principal School Administrator). Two of these documents were articles from academic journals, the third was an incomplete document entitled “al-Qaeda Training Manual”. For more information on these, see the relevant section below. Upon finding these three documents, the university contacted the police and informed them of their find. Hicham Yezza was then, on 14 May 2008 arrested and detained for seven days and six nights.

Why was Rizwaan Sabir arrested?

On May 14 2008 Rizwaan Sabir was made aware by a friend of Hicham Yezza’s that Hicham Yezza’s office was being subjected to some form of inquiry by university security personnel. Concerned that his friend had been the victim of a burglary, he headed to Hicham Yezza’s office to enquire. Finding it cordoned off by university security he enquired after friend’s welfare. His actions were interpreted as suspicious and he too was arrested as a suspected terrorist. At this time the police were not aware he had sent the three documents to Hicham Yezza. It was only after approximately 10 hours of being in custody that Rizwaan Sabir was asked about the existence of these documents. Rizwaan Sabir immediately informed the police that he had sent the documents to Hicham Yezza for academic reasons and that neither he or Hicham Yezza had any involvement in terrorism.

How long were Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir detained for?

Both men were detained in solitary confinement at the Nottingham Bridewell detention complex for a total of 6 nights and 7 days (14 – 20 May 2008).

What were the documents discovered on Hicham Yezza’s computer?

The three documents which aroused suspicion, and were described by the Registrar as having ‘no legitimate reason to exist’ are:

1. P. Gordon, “The End of the Bush Revolution”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 4 (2006), pp. 75-86. The first page is available here (subscription required to view the rest).

2. Q. Witorowicz and J. Katner, “Killing in the name of Islam: al Qaeda‟s justification for September 11”, Middle East Policy Council Journal, 2003, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 76-92, available here.

3. Author unknown, “al-Qaeda Training Manual”, US Government Exhibit 1677-T (declassified), Federation of American Scientists, available here.

 The status of the first two of these should cause no confusion whatsoever; the content and legality of the final document is addressed below.

What is the al-Qaeda Training Manual?

 The document’s original title is Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants. It was re-titled “al-Qaeda Training Manual” by the United States Department of Justice in the late 1990s to help secure convictions relating to the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. It was actually written many years before the formation of al-Qaeda to assist insurgency struggles against secular Egyptian leaders. It does not contain information on how to plan or commit a terrorist attack. Further information on this document can be viewed by clicking here

As well as the version Rizwaan Sabir downloaded from the United States Department of Justice website, the document can also be ordered from Waterstones, Blackwells and Amazon and, at the time of the arrests, was available through the University of Nottingham’s inter-library loans service (as it still is: class mark HV.6431). These versions are more comprehensive than the version downloaded by Sabir. The document is published commercially and is available in libraries because it can help promote an understanding of the historical development of Islamic insurgency and terrorism.

Why did Rizwaan Sabir download the document?

The document was downloaded by Rizwaan Sabir for two purposes:

1. To use as a primary source reference document for his Masters dissertation which aimed to compare the military tactics of al-Qaeda in Iraq with those of Hamas in Palestine. The purpose of the dissertation was to examine whether the ideology of the two groups affected their choice of military tactics.

2. To use in a PhD application. If this application was successful then the document was to be a foundational document for one of the thesis’ chapters. This chapter, similar to the Master’s thesis, was going to examine and compare the military tactics of radical Islamic groups on a global level.

Is the “al-Qaeda Training Manual” an illegal document?

No. Under UK law anyone has a right to access any material they desire, with the exception of child pornography and ‘extreme pornography’. Possession of any other material only becomes unlawful when a British court proves beyond reasonable doubt that the possession of this material was for a criminal purpose.  The claim that this document was illegal was first made by Professor Bernard McGuirk, Professor of Romance Literature at the School of Modern Languages, in a statement to police

Didn’t the police say that the document was illegal?

The police have never claimed that the document was illegal (and to do so would be to misunderstand the law- see previous question), although the university claim that the police told them it was. The police were aware that only a court of law could decide on the legality of possessing the document and therefore did not make such a claim.  

Is the al-Qaeda training manual ‘legitimate research material’?

In a statement issued to Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza on release, the police claimed: “The University authorities have now made clear that possession of this material is not required for the purpose of your course of study nor do they consider it legitimate for you to possess it for research purposes”. This claim is contradicted by Rohan Gunaratna, one of the world’s leading experts on al-Qaeda and author of the best selling book entitled: Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. He has stated that the “al-Qaeda Training Manual” constitutes “required reading” for anyone researching al-Qaeda, adding that it “is a mainstream student source. It is in no way illegal, illegitimate, seditious or extremist”. The university’s claim that the document does not constitute “legitimate research material” was initially made by Professor Bernard McGuirk, a Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures whose research expertise are in post-conflict society, literature and structuralist and post-structuralist theory. At no point was the university’s only terrorism expert (Dr. Rod Thornton) asked his opinion on whether the document constituted ‘legitimate research material’.

Why did Rizwaan Sabir email the document to Hicham Yezza?

Hicham Yezza has been, since 2003, editor of Ceasefire, a political and cultural journal. He is a good friend of Rizwaan Sabir’s and was advising him on both his Ph.D application proposal and his MA work. Sabir sent numerous documents relating to his studies so that Yezza could offer advice on how they might be of use to his work. Hicham Yezza ‘did not’ print the al-Qaeda training manual. The only time the Al-Qaeda training manual was printed was at the Registrar’s request, before he decided to call the police.

Is it not understandable that the university called the police?

We completely understand why the member of staff who initially found the documents contacted their superiors. However, Dr. Thornton’s paper claims that university management failed to follow correct procedures once they had been made aware of the presence of the documents (see the rest of this section). It is alleged, that if they had followed these procedures there would have been no need to involve the police.

Some people have claimed that it is understandable that university management panicked and called the police without following due process. We understand this position, but note that managers of public institutions such as universities are given the responsibility, prestige and high salaries because they are expected to act in difficult situations with due-diligence and common sense- and by following the relevant legislation.

Further to this, we are  particularly concerned with the claims made in Dr. Thornton’s paper concerning university management’s actions subsequent to the arrests. Dr. Thornton argues that rather than admit that mistakes had been made, university management made a number of dishonest statements and sought to pin the blame on Sabir and Yezza, as well as junior lecturers in the School of Politics and International Relations.

Did the university conduct a risk assessment before alerting the police?

It would seem not. The university management claimed in 2008 that a risk-assessment was conducted before police were alerted to the discovery of the documents, in line with government guidance issued by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS). They maintain this position to the present day. Dr. Thornton’s paper questions this version of events. This claim is based on the following five points:

  • If any risk assessment was conducted, the sole terrorism and counter-insurgency expert in the university, Dr Rod Thornton, should have been consulted (as stated in the guidelines established by DBIS). He was not.
  • The university stated in writing: a “risk assessment was undertaken verbally on an informal basis and no record of it exists.” (emphasis added)
  • In a written statement, one week after the arrests, the Registrar stated: “I…immediately recognised that due to the serious nature of the content of the three documents, I had a duty to notify the police and to ensure that this matter was fully investigated…I am responsible for the formation of policies and procedures within the University.” (emphasis added). No mention is made of a risk assessment.
  • In an internal report prepared by the Head of Security for the then Vice Chancellor, Sir Colin Campbell, it is written that “the Registrar viewed the material and decided it was a matter for police attention.” There is no mention of a risk assessment having been conducted.
  • The university’s Head of Security told senior members of the university management in an email that “the Registrar quite rightly made the decision to report the matter to the police through University Security”. Again, there is no mention of a risk assessment. Furthermore, these senior members of the university would have been involved in any hypothetical risk assessment.

Who is Dr. Rod Thornton?

 Dr. Thornton is a lecturer in terrorism in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham who has been suspended from his position as a result of his paper ‘Radicalisation at universities or radicalisation by universities’ (see below). As this paper asserts, Dr. Thornton is not typical ‘rebel’ material. He is a former Sergeant in the British Army who has served in a counter-terrorism role in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans and in Russia. He received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal from the Queen for ‘exemplary acts of bravery’ whilst serving in Bosnia. He has provided expert evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and has worked for the Ministry of Defence, the US Department of Defence and NATO and prior to coming to Nottingham taught at Kings College, London, where he was a senior lecturer. His is the author of Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2006), co-editor of Dimensions of Counter-Insurgency (Routledge, 2007) and has published a number of journal articles.

What does Dr Thornton’s paper say?

 It alleges that serious misconduct occurred by members of the management of the University of Nottingham relating to the arrests of Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza under in May 2008 when they were arrested as suspected terrorists. It claims that mistakes were made leading up to the arrests and that ‘untruth upon untruth’ piled up following the arrests as university management sought to pass blame on to junior members of staff in the School of Politics and International Relations.

Why did Dr Thornton write this paper and make it available publicly?

Dr Thornton only every went public with his grievances and concerns once he hada exhausted all relevant and related internal avenues, as stated by the University of Nottingham’s whistle-blowers code of conduct. However, after being gifted with no less than seven disciplinary offences for raising these grievances, Dr Thornton felt that whistle-blowing in the way he did was now the only appropriate way of dealing with issues.

Why was Dr. Thornton suspended?

According to the University of Nottingham, Dr Thornton was suspended because he wrote and presented his research at the BISA conference which was ‘defamatory’ and ‘baseless’ and which subsequently caused a breakdown in relationships between Dr Thornton and his colleagues in the School of Politics and International Relations. The university, however, has failed to provide any proof of where defamation has been caused. They have also failed to comment upon his suspension to the press and media.

Why should we believe what Dr Thornton’s paper?

SWAN does not ask that anyone accept all the claims made in Dr Thornton’s paper, but, instead, encourage people to read the paper and draw their own conclusions. We are confident that once people have read the paper, they will understand that the claims made in Dr Thornton’s research require an independent and public inquiry to ensure that the truth can be fully known.