Five years on, the “war on terror” continues with no end in sight. So you’d think that more research into the motives and methods of terrorist groups would be just what we need. Well, not necessarily.

Consider the sad case of Flinders University sociologist Riaz Hassan, as reported in this morning’s Australian. Hassan received an $829,000 grant from the Australian Research Council for a study on suicide bombers, as part of which he proposed “to seek interviews with the leadership of a number of terrorist organisations”. But a polite word from Attorney-General Philip Ruddock warned him that doing so could breach Australia’s new anti-terrorism laws.

According to The Australian, Ruddock said that “it was an offence to associate with terrorists” and “academics needed to consider who they chose to interview”.

I’d hazard a guess that when most people support (as I’m sure they do) making it a crime to “associate” with terrorists, they’re thinking of someone who actually socialises with them — hanging out with them, being seen together regularly, and therefore presumably sharing in some of their plans and conspiracies. That’s a very different thing from interviewing them as part of a serious academic project.

One of the things everyone agrees on about 11 September is that it was an intelligence failure. But the government’s ham-fisted response to terrorism may actually prevent the collection of data on the organisations that threaten us. As Hassan said in his grant application, his study would “advance knowledge, which should be relevant to protecting Australia from threats of terrorism and providing information which may contribute to the development of appropriate responses”.

Hassan is going ahead with the study, but has dropped the face-to-face terrorist interviews. Let’s hope that doesn’t mean he misses out on some precious nugget of information that could prevent a future attack.

Peter Fray

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