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The Islamic State and Black Lives Matter “will join forces to [bring] down our legal constituted republic.” So believes David Clarke, sheriff of Milwaukee County, whose name was floated by the Trump administration as a potential director of Homeland Security. Another adviser to the president, former congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, has claimed that gays and Black Lives Matter are working together with Islamic terrorists to destroy America. And Trump’s resigned national security adviser, Michael Flynn, believes that there are Arabic signs directing terrorists across the United States–Mexico border. He has tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is rational,” echoing Islamophobic claims that ordinary Muslims are secretly planning a stealth jihad to destroy Western society from within—a theory also espoused by Ben Carson, Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development.
Together these bizarre declarations reveal not just an affinity for racism, but a worldview steeped in conspiracy. Conspiracy theories—narratives that attribute social and political ills to secret networks operating in the shadows—have been a feature of the far right for years. A decade ago David Horowitz, who counts among his admirers Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, launched a website purporting to reveal the hidden networks that link “the political left”—which in his designation ranges from leftist college professors to Democratic party politicians—to members of al Qaeda. Relying as they do on broad narratives, hearsay, and claims of widespread yet hidden patterns, conspiracy theories can be remarkably resistant to counterevidence. With the election of Trump, those who espouse such theories are now in the White House, with their hands on the levers of state power. This is frightening in and of itself. But the danger is compounded by the fact that these sorts of narratives align with existing structures in the War on Terror in ways that are likely to lead to an exponential increase in their effect. This is because the War on Terror has been characterized by a logic of networks, which has shaped many of its core legal and military practices.
The War on Terror has been characterized by a logic of networks, which has shaped many of its core legal and military practices.
A network refers to any pattern of connections between people, things, or organizations A logic of networks is a way of thinking and acting that puts networks—real or imagined—at its core. In the War on Terror, networks play an important role in theorizing the nature of the threat, strategizing how to combat it, and, especially, identifying individuals and organizations as targets of intervention (whether militarily or otherwise). This logic has justified some of the most harmful practices of the war, from indefinite detention to targeted killing, insofar as targets are often identified through their links to other “suspect” individuals. And this architecture will now be supercharged in the hands of an administration that sees networks of conspiracies everywhere.
Network analysis is a useful and respected method of sociological analysis. But when it is used in the absence of sufficient data, or in the absence of critical understanding of the meaning of different sorts of ties—when the presence of a “network” itself is seen as proof of danger—then one is in the terrain of conspiracy theories. Further, relying on networks as proxies can provide a way around protections for political association, criminalizing association in practice.
The way that networks are conceptualized in the War on Terror carries with it the idea that there is something suspicious in the very presence of a network. This is, of course, patently false. We are all embedded in networks, the majority of which are entirely banal. But by repeatedly referencing al Qaeda, and the terrorist threat more general, as a “network,” the U.S. government has managed to link networks themselves to terrorism, and to suggest that networks can be evidence of terrorism.
Part of what makes the logic of networks so dangerous is that it has been paired with, and serves as a means of enacting, a preemptive counterterrorism strategy, one committed to preventing acts of terror before they occur. We have been convinced that any post-9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States would be so destructive, and so destabilizing, that they simply cannot be allowed to occur. This relies upon a conceptualization of terrorists as evil, irrational actors, who cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, or even fought on normal terms, and who must therefore be eradicated. Insofar as the public, and our political leaders, have charged law enforcement with the task of identifying potential terrorists before they act, this creates a demand for a technique that may serve this sort of predictive logic: a demand that has supported the emergence of a variety of dubious techniques for doing so, ranging from the logic of networks discussed here, to the theories of “radicalization” discussed by others in this forum. The logic of networks thus serves as an answer to the demand for a method of identifying dangerous individuals who could be hiding anywhere. In response, network analysis, or the mapping of connections (real or supposed) between those identified as terrorists and other, unknown actors serves to fill a perceived gap in knowledge.
There is now something suspicious in the very presence of a network, no matter how banal.
What is distinct here is not simply the use of new and dangerous practices in the War on Terror (torture, indefinite detention, drone strikes), but the method through which groups and individuals are identified and targeted. In the domestic sphere, the reliance on “networks” rather than proof of individual culpability for criminal acts disturbs constitutional rights such as freedom of association, as well as fundamental principles that underlie the American criminal justice system, such as the idea that one can only be punished for one’s acts, and not for one’s identity or associations.
Last year, I was asked to evaluate the work of a prominent “terrorism expert” in connection with an ongoing counterterrorism trial. Many of these trials are predicated on a logic of bringing in potential terrorists before they actually commit acts of terrorism, via the “Material Support” statute. Given that most of those prosecuted for terrorism have not actually committed acts of terrorism, the prosecution is faced with the dilemma of how to make the case that these individuals are terrorists. The need for such “experts” is embedded in the nature of the legal strategy the government has chosen to pursue—a strategy that is reliant upon not simply pursuing and prosecuting those who have committed acts of terrorism, but on identifying and convicting “terrorists” even before they commit any violent acts. This leads to attempts to prove that the individual on trial has a propensity for a certain sort of violence, rather than establishing that they have already committed a specific act. In other words, the trial generally focuses on establishing what the defendant is—that he or she “fits the profile” of a terrorist. This often takes the form of a series of links, no matter how tenuous, between the accused and either a “terrorist ideology” or a specific terrorist group.
In one case I examined, according to the expert witness’s statement, the defendant had not acquired “the immediate means to turn violent intent into action,” nor did he have any “pre-existing connections to known extremist groups and/or accused terrorists.” The case therefore rested on the argument that the defendant had, in the words of this expert witness, “characteristics of a contemporary violent extremist.” The evidence presented included the testimony of a confidential informant that the defendant had visited websites and watched online videos linked to al Qaeda. This was intended to serve as evidence that the individual “fit the profile” of a terrorist, with the key factor here being that the accused had adopted a radical “ideology” and “affiliations” with known terrorist groups—or so the expert witness interpreted. In other words, this young man was convicted on a series of associations and his visits to websites.
The kill list relied upon network diagrams showing a targeted individual's membership of a terrorist group and his place within it.
The practice of assassination, or “targeted killing” (commonly referred to as “drone strikes”), relies upon a similar logic of networks and preemption. In contrast to the Reagan- and Clinton-era “wars on terror”—in which U.S. military strikes were, at least in principle, targeted in retaliation for acts of terrorism—the goal of today’s drone strikes is to take out “terrorists” before they have the chance to attack. In developing the kill list, targeters have relied upon “network diagrams” that purport to show not only that a targeted individual is linked to a terrorist group, but that he occupies a critical position in this network. The targeted individual is not necessarily the most powerful, or even culpable, member of an organization, but may occupy a “low-level” role such as that of courier, in which he links other key individuals to one another. The reasoning here is that because terrorist groups such as al Qaeda have a “network” structure, it will not suffice simply to take out a leader or “cut off the head,” but rather, you need to “cut off” the central nodes in the network.
To date, the War on Terror, and especially the practices driven by the logics of networks, have largely targeted Muslims. But as the opening quotes suggest, these might easily be expanded to target other groups deemed threatening to a Trump administration. This is no idle fear—it has just been revealed that the FBI has been investigating indigenous and environmental activists at Standing Rock for domestic terrorism, and lawmakers in at least ten states have moved to criminalize peaceful protest. Many of the administration’s advisers are drawn from extreme-right networks that actively promulgate and disseminate conspiracy theories while working to discredit the media, which might act as a check on them. This strategy appears to be working, as nearly 90 percent of Republicans recently expressed a belief that the Trump administration is truthful, and that the media is untrustworthy.
The chief concern is not simply that we now have individual purveyors of conspiracy in positions of power, but that they have inherited a legal apparatus to operationalize this. The far-right’s penchant for conspiracy theories, for demonizing Islam—but also any groups that challenge their vision of the world—and their willingness to value (white) American lives over all others make this architecture a source of grave danger to us all.
Lisa Stampnitzky is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield, and the author of Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented Terrorism. Her current research analyzes how torture became “speakable” after 9/11.
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