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The new ethics of research into terrorism

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 22 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a3069
  1. Edgar Jones, professor1,
  2. Kamaldeep Bhui, professor of cultural psychiatry and epidemiology2
  1. 1Institute of Psychiatry and King’s Centre for Military Health Research, London
  2. 2Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, London
  1. Correspondence to: E Jones edgar.jones{at}

    The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai have increased pressure on authorities not only to discover ways to prevent such attacks but also to undermine the appeal of radical groups set on violence. However, in May 2008 a postgraduate student studying Islamic terrorism at Nottingham University was arrested for possessing a copy of the “al-Qaeda handbook.”1 Although the student was released without charge after six days, Colin Campbell, the university’s vice chancellor, warned researchers that if they accessed terrorist material they “run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges.” This incident marks a change of attitude towards those who undertake research into the psychology behind criminal acts of violence and terrorism. Academics should be mindful of infringing antiterrorism laws and may need to protect themselves when applying for ethical permission by setting out a process to balance research activity, confidentiality, and public safety.

    The introduction of wide ranging legislation designed to identify and detain terrorist suspects raises new ethical questions. In the past no medical school academic studying murder or paedophilia would have …

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