July 12, 2017
UK man returning from Syria arrested for possessing a partial copy of The Anarchist Cookbook
by Simon Reichley
Ryan Gallagher recently published a long profile in the Intercept. His subject, Josh Walker of Wales, was recently arrested in the UK after returning from a stint with the YPG (an acronym for “Yekîneyên Parastina Gel,” roughly, “People’s Protection Units”), a primarily Kurdish, democratic socialist militia operating out of Rojava, Syria (and not to be confused with New York’s own, slightly less radical YPG, based out of [random, shitty bar in Midtown Manhattan]).
According to Walker’s testimony, he joined the YPG in late 2016, attracted by the group’s radically egalitarian politics and effective anti-fascist insurgency against ISIL. After six harrowing months (which Gallagher documents in detail), Walker returned to Great Britain. Like many travelers returning from the Middle East after an extended stay, Walker was detained at the airport by British and Welsh police, questioned, and held overnight at a police station “on suspicion of involvement in the ‘commission, preparation, or instigation of acts of terrorism.’” The next day he was released on bail, with no charges.
But after searching Walker’s home in Aberystwyth, police found something that led them to charge Walker with possession of “information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism,” a criminal offense created in section 58 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000.
What was this dastardly object, this “information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism,” you ask? Things “likely to be useful” in preparing or executing of an act of terrorism include a subway map, a train schedule, the owner’s manual for a 2005 Volkswagen Transporter, an English language phrasebook, a travel guide to the City of London. In this case, the document in question was The Anarchist Cookbook, an infamous collection of diagrams, explanations, and how-to’s covering the “home preparation of weapons, electronics, drugs, and explosives.” It was written by William Howell, and first published in 1971, partly as a response to the Vietnam War and the draft. Howell died earlier this year at the age of sixty-six, having spent several years trying to convince his publisher to take the book out of print after converting to Christianity and rejecting his earlier, radical ideology.
Walker’s case (which was under a press gag order until late June) will go to trial in October, and the outcome remains uncertain. Walker claims that the materials had been obtained and used as research material for his studies at Aberystwyth University, which covered “[the] military, intelligence agencies, and counterterrorism,” and included Walker’s participation in a “Crisis Game” simulation, in which he played the part of a terrorist organization.
This will not be the first time that a British citizen has been charged under the same law for possession of the same document. In 2007, two teenagers were tried and ultimately acquitted in unrelated cases. In 2010, investigators found copies of the cookbook in the home of Ian Davison, an avowed neo-Nazi who was ultimately convicted for possession of ricin, and for preparing to commit an act of terrorism. His son, Nicky Davison, was not implicated in the terrorist plot, but was charged with possession of the Cookbook.
Gallagher claims, credibly, that British authorities’ treatment of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq in recent years has been highly inconsistent”:
In April 2016, the issue was the focus of a debate in the British Parliament. Robert Jenrick, a Conservative member of Parliament, said during the discussion that he had personally been in contact with the families of 20 British anti-Islamic State fighters. Two of the 20, he said, had been arrested under the Terrorism Act; four were questioned but not arrested; and 14 came and went at will, unquestioned. In several publicly reported cases in the U.K., returning fighters have been arrested or questioned but then not charged. That is what makes Walker’s case particularly unusual.
We’ll be following this one, stay tuned.
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.