Early this month the FBI announced several arrests in connection to what was labeled an ISIS-inspired terrorist plot. But the most peculiar reaction came from a US senator, who suggested the case meant the government should “remove” from the internet a book published in the 1970s.
As has often the case, the details were not nearly as alarming as the terrifying headlines: The plotters — two young women in New York, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui — were guided through their ‘plot’ by an FBI informant, who even provided the instructions the would-be terrorists theoretically would have used to create their weapons of mass destruction. As Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept noted:
the informant repeatedly met with both defendants, even watching jihadist recruitment videos with them. On November 23, 2014, the informant brought a printed copy of The Anarchist Cookbook for Velentzas, even bookmarking the page containing bomb-making instructions.
The Anarchist Cookbook, first published in 1971, includes instructions for making explosives and drugs. The FBI announcement also mentioned Inspire, the online magazine of Al Qaeda. Those details caught the eye of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), who released this statement:
I am particularly struck that the alleged bombers made use of online bombmaking guides like the Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire Magazine. These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet.
Even if it were legal, there is no feasible way to remove the Anarchist Cookbook from the internet. The fact that the aspiring bombers were given a copy of the book by the government only adds to the absurdity of the situation.
But what about the Al Qaeda magazine? Could a government decide to make posting copies of it– or even merely reading it–illegal? Author James Bamford actually tackled this issue a few weeks ago, in a piece for Foreign Policy called “Reading This Magazine Could Land You in Jail.” Bamford points out that Inspire has been linked to various actual plots, including the Boston Marathon bombings. “Western governments are scrambling to stop the magazine from finding readers,” Bamford wrote, and the possible solutions have “spurred a heated debate about freedom of speech, including proposals for censorship that would be more at home in China.”
He went on to explain that
some governments have already gone to extremes, including taking a page out of George Orwell and jailing people who dare read so much as a single paragraph of Inspire. In the United Kingdom, the police are tracking down anyone who pulls the publication off the web.
Possessing a copy of Inspire might be enough to get you arrested in the UK and Australia — even if you happen to be a journalist investigating terrorism. Surely the United States isn’t going to enact similar laws? Bamford isn’t so sure:
Given the recent, sharp right turn in Congress, it might not be so wild to think that legislation similar to that in the United Kingdom and Australia might follow, allowing the state to jail people simply for reading. Republicans, however, aren’t the only risks: Congressman [Adam] Schiff, who suggested that the First Amendment shouldn’t apply to Inspire, is now the most senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.