The has refused to host a unique digital archive of Taliban documents because officials fear that holding the collection would violate British anti-terrorism laws.
The documents in the unmatched cache mostly come from the 1990s, when the extremist group ruled and hosted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. It includes everything from their official newspapers, magazines and books of sharia law to maps and poetry.
More than 2m words have been translated from Pashto to English, making the collection more accessible. The academics who built up the collection, and have spent two years cataloguing it, told the Guardian they were now speaking to US universities, including Yale and Stanford, about hosting it.
Alex Strick van Linschoten, an academic who was prominent in putting the project together, called the decision shortsighted and said it would put other institutions off hosting similar archives.
“There is already a decent amount of fear about working on these kinds of projects, especially if you’re not a government-funded or affiliated organisation. Academics know to be careful about travelling with these kinds of documents,” he said.
“It’s a pity, since the value that ours – and other, similar collections – have is really important for the historical record, as well as for researchers, analysts and policymakers, not to mention Afghans, to allow them to understand and come to terms with their own history.”
The British Library said that, “although the archive was recognised as being of research value, it was judged that it contained some material which could contravene the Terrorism Act , and which would present restrictions on the library’s ability to provide access to the archive for researchers”.
It added: “The Terrorism Act places specific responsibilities on anyone in the UK who might provide access to terrorist publications, and the legal advice received jointly by the British Library and other similar institutions advises against making this type of material accessible.”
But both Strick van Linschoten and Michael Innes of Thesigers, the consultancy representing the , insisted there was no material within the archive that would contravene the act.
According to Strick van Linschoten, the archive contains newspapers, magazines, poems, tapes and videos, “most of it pretty innocuous”.
He said: “The British Library already holds copies of things like the and there is nothing remotely like that in our collection, so it’s odd.”
Moreover, Innes said, the British Library only “reviewed a catalogue of titles” and was, therefore, not in a position to know that it would be legally problematic.
Most of the papers were collected by Strick van Linschoten and his fellow academic Felix Kuehn, both of whom spent years living in southern Afghanistan and have written several books about the , including An Enemy We Created.
They say the papers offer a rare insight into the secretive group and the mysterious government it created before it was toppled in 2001 by US-backed forces.
“It gives you access into their world view, allows you to understand what kind of organisation they built and attempted to build. It allows you to look deeper into their world,” Kuehn said.
“For the first time, researchers will be able to see what the Taliban communicated about events that happened in that timeframe. What we know at the moment is based mostly on a few reports, mostly from foreign journalists who had their own perspective and agenda.”
The original materials will stay in Kabul, and if the digital archive is hosted by an institution that makes it available worldwide, researchers may still be able to access it. However the two men fear that the decision will have a chilling effect on research into a critical field.
“I find it deeply concerning that research cannot be fostered even in the best institutional framework you could have for providing the materials,” Kuehn said. “That climate is making it so difficult for researchers or students to engage with this material.”
Innes added: “Most disappointing is that British-based researchers will have to go elsewhere to access this kind of material. The research community here will be short-changed, while researchers elsewhere will not, and will be the ones to produce world-leading scholarship on this subject.”
That view was backed up by Shiraz Maher, an expert on radicalisation at King’s College London, who described the decision on Twitter as “a big loss to academics studying Afghanistan”.
Other academics also derided the decision.