What happens when the ‘what if’ functions as the key operator for the Reason of counter-terrorism, criminal justice and national security?
In 2015, a map used in the US military’s ‘Jade Helm’ training exercises was leaked to the public, provoking commentary, speculation and conspiratorial interpretation. The map, detailing one of Jade Helm’s mock scenarios, showed Texas and Utah as ‘hostile states’, which friendly (‘permissive’) states like California and Colorado might help subdue.
At the same time, a different rumour made the rounds. Whispers in the air: concrete ISIS terrorist bases had been discovered in Texas. Senator Ted Cruz, “fresh from his Jade Helm inquiry” (New Yorker), accused the incumbent government of failing to connect the dots. (As we all know, he would show up in presidential debates a few months later, sweating and spitting with promises of being tough on Islamic terrorists.) A mock military scenario and an unconfirmed rumour had mutually reinforced each other’s status as half-truth, or rather, operationalisable fiction. One poll of registered Republican voters immediately following the leaks pegged 32% as “think[ing] that the Government is trying to take over Texas” (Public Policy Polling).
Since then, Donald Trump as the season’s flavour has everyone wondering: where have all the facts gone, or rather, why do they seemingly have no value anymore? How to run the marketplace of ideas without them? But it’s not a binary switch, just different rules of the game. Since 2001, America’s discourse on terrorism – both inside and outside the relevant agencies – narrated the threat as becoming radically unpredictable and radically distributed, producing a situation where traditional prudence in acquiring ‘certain evidence’ became unrealistic. A double-bind: on one hand, you admit that you can ‘never be sure’ if the kid you arrested would really have killed dozens, or where the ‘next attack’ will strike. You can’t wait for certainty. On the other hand, the political and moral pressure to predict and prevent becomes overwhelming. Hence, long before Donald Trump, traditionally ‘respectable’ politicians like Tony Blair, confronted with the Chilcot Report, argues that ‘doing something was better than doing nothing’. Beneath the political limelight, security and counter-terrorist practices in FBI sting operations to biometric surveillance at airports have embraced the use of scenarios, simulations, and ‘what if’ logics to try and plug the gap between knowledge and danger (e.g. the work of Peter Adey, Claudia Aradau, Rens van Munster).
Let’s look more closely at one such practice which combines the fear of uncertainty with the fantasy of prediction – one where the mad beast is incited and produced, precisely so that it can be felled in public and a sense of security restored.
1. In 2011, an FBI sting operation began to form around Sami Osmakac. A Kosovo-born American and Muslim, his trusted Muslim friend had introduced him to a man named Dabus, an FBI informant who in turn connected Osmakac to an undercover agent named ‘Amir Jones’. To that point, Osmakac’s record of suspicious activity included a tendency to verbally criticise democracy, argue for his religion in combative and fundamentalist terms – and one streetside fisticuffs with a Christian street preacher that had recently gotten him arrested. In other words, little in the way of convictable behaviour. After meeting Dabus and Jones, however, Osmakac was supplied with money, with which he could purchase (fake, prepared) weapons and explosives; he was trained in their use; and he was even given money for a taxi so he could show up to his own attack spot, where he was finally arrested by the FBI. During the process, the FBI agents spoke of Osmakac as a ‘retarded fool’ who needed the FBI’s support to turn his ‘pipe-dream scenario’ into any semblance of a real threat – a result which they referred to as a ‘Hollywood ending’ (The Intercept). The FBI provided material and psychological encouragement that allowed Osmakac to become ‘dangerous enough’ to be legally and operationally eligible for arrest. Of course, this also means that it becomes impossible to ever confirm whether Osmakac would have acted without such encouragement; the price of a pre-emptive certainty is the absolute unconfirmability of justice.
2. Basaaly Saeed Moalin, a Somali-American, was arrested in 2013. Subsequently, as the Snowden leaks swept the nation, advocates of US government surveillance referred to Moalin as the one case that could be publicly cited as evidence that surveillance worked. In other words, Moalin was supposed to be the proof that pervasive domestic dragnets aren’t just stabs in the dark, but reasonable procedures at reducing uncertainty.
The problem is that Moalin too was coaxed and aided towards this status. Arrested on charges of conspiracy and material support for terrorism – specifically, posting $8,500 to a Somali contact associated with the jihadist group al-Shabaab – the prosecution argued that Moalin’s frequent phone calls and money transfers supported terrorism. In court, the defence directly contested this interpretation of available evidence – and in doing so, publicy exposed the fabrications as a set of uncertain and primordial indices oriented towards certainty. Picking apart Moalin’s phone calls collected by telecommunications surveillance, the defence argued that his comments about ‘jihad’ referred to a local jihad in his native Somalia against the Ethiopians; that his money transfers to his homeland had gone to projects for schools and orphanages; and, indeed, that no record showed any definitive statement in support of terrorist attack (Washington Post).
The defense went as far to submit to the court alternative transcriptions to Moalin’s Somali calls, and even enlisted cultural interpretations. Moalin’s cousins argued that his talk was a well recognised form of fadhi ku dirir (literally ‘sitting and fighting’), a bullish and aggressive but ultimately noncontroversial form of argumentation common amongst Somali men. Since Moalin was apprehended before he could supply further certainty in the form of a violent attack or concrete statements referring to one, surveillance and arrest had to be justified through subjunctive and paranoid readings of relatively cryptic comments like the following:
BASAALY [Moalin]: We are not less worthy than the guys fighting.
ISSA: Yes, that’s it. It’s said that it takes an equal effort to make a knife; whether one makes the handle part, hammers the iron, or bakes it in the fire (New Yorker).
These practices go beyond traditional sting operations, bordering close to that toxic word ‘entrapment’. We might call them fabrications: the deliberate, planned, and increasingly systematic practice of producing what sufficiently ‘counts’ as evidence in counter-terrorism operations. Osmakac is joined by an increasingly sizable contingent – mostly young, Muslim, with a history of mental struggles, and typically with few or no convicted/convictable offences prior to their snaring. One report puts their number at around 30% of counter-terrorism convictions between 2002 and 2011 (Human Rights Watch).
Fabrication is the practical expression of the ‘what if’ as the operator of counter-terrorist rationality. While some degree of fabrication is by definition a necessary part of any preemptive measure, we are seeing a visible embrace of more speculative forms of knowledge that could license more actively interventionist efforts – largely because it is thought that the threats of post-9/11 terrorism does not permit the luxury of greater proof and certainty. If these suspects were being directed and shaped on the basis of potential rather than actual danger, operatives and politicians argued, so be it: such pre-emption is the only way to ever ‘know enough’ in time to stop the next attack. We get a direct glimpse of this in the recent documentary Homegrown (HBO, Greg Barker).
3. In 2005, Ehsanul ‘Shifa’ Sadequee, 19 years old, was arrested and sentenced to 17 years in prison for suspicious activity that largely comprised of translating jihad-related texts, talking big online, and producing a ludicrously amateur ‘casing video’ in Washington D.C. In Sadequee’s case, there was no active fabrication, at least none that has been disclosed publicly; but it was another instance in which highly primordial activities and discussions, which might at most be said to ‘encourage’ terrorism, was mobilised to eliminate the target from social existence. In a rare moment, Sadequee’s family journeyed to meet Philip Mudd – the man who had, as deputy director of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre at the time, had a direct hand in the case. Mudd, while courteous and sympathetic to Sadequee’s family, insisted on the necessity of such an action:
People like me are in a difficult position. We cannot afford to let dozens of innocent people die because a youth makes a mistake […] If we switched roles, what would you do? What would you do? Would you let him go?
The ‘zero-tolerance’ policy renders uncertainty intolerable. It is far less acceptable to respect the rights of suspects, because one cannot write off any attack as an ‘acceptable’ or unavoidable loss. And yet, in so many cases, especially that of lone wolves and ‘home-grown’ terrorists, the possibility of crime remains uncertain until it is too late to intervene. Fabrication fills this gap, ensuring that uncertainties are coaxed into the realm of sufficiently known. Thus zero risk, worst case scenario, and the changing status and nature of ‘proof’ are all arranged to follow rationally from each other.
The obvious navigator here is cost-benefit analysis: given the risks of contemporary terrorism (whose brown-skinned, foreign-religioned stereotype gives it a far more threatening figuration than, say, the decades-long history of white supremacist killers), is the unjust imprisonment of vulnerable individuals ‘worth’ the security of the nation? The problem is that none of these variables can be properly formalised for comparison: not the risk of ‘the next terrorist attack’, not the probability of unjust imprisonments versus just ones (for who can tell now what Sadequee or Osmakac may or may not have done, had they been left alone?), not the net increase to national security. And so, the rise of the what if and strategies of fabrication, just as surely as hand-wringing about ‘post-truth politics’ and the farcical furore over Jade Helm, consist of a process where actors are rewriting the rules of the game – often on the fly – and using absolutist spectres like the ‘next 9/11’ to override established relations of probability and evidence. When you have no idea where the next bomb is going to go off, when you’re pretty sure both blues and reds in the quadrennial spectacle are lying through their teeth, ‘predictivity’ and certainty reassert themselves by the simple equation: “What if [the worst]? So, to stop it happening, [everything except the worst] is fair game.”