Manufacturing “Terrorists”: (T)errors of “War on Terror”

By Mahtab Alam

In 1958, while passing a judgment in the case of Sherman v. United States, the US Supreme Court famously said, “the function of law enforcement is the prevention of crime and the apprehension of criminals. Manifestly, that function does not include the manufacturing of crime”. But it seems, even after more than half a century down the line, the law enforcement agencies - the FBI & Company - not only consider manufacturing crime (read terrorism) as its most important ‘function’ but practice it with same zeal and passion, especially to justify the ‘war on terror’.

The two books - Rounded Up: Artificial Terrorists and Muslim Entrapment After 9/11 by Shamshad Ahmad and Evidence of Suspicion: A writer’s report on the war on terror by Amitava Kumar under review here are illustrative examples of the same. The books profile and document two different cases each, of entrapment, racial profiling, communal witch-hunt and creating artificial terrorists in the name of fighting terror primarily by the United States of America especially in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 and by its allies including our own country, India. Amitava Kumar is an author of global fame and various books including the famous Husband of a Fanatic. He is currently teaching literature of 9/11 at Vassar College of New Work State, USA. Professor Shamshad Ahmad is the founder and president of the As-Salam Mosque, Albany. He is teaching physics at the University at Albany/SUNY. His book is about the entrapment of two of his mosque members (including the Imam).

Manufacturing ‘Terrorists’
Both the books detail two interesting yet ridiculous cases of “terrorists” made by intelligence agenceis, one in India, in the city of Mumbai, the other in USA, in the city of Albany. It might come to you as a surprise but the reality is that the modus operandi in both cases is almost same. Let’s take India first. Amitava Kumar in his book talks about Iqbal Haspatel who had been falsely arrested on the charges on terrorism a month after the Bombay bombings in 1993. The charges against him were that 25 projectiles and 17 pipe bombs and ammunition were recovered from his room. The ‘projectiles’ were actually parts of textile machinery called bobbins or twists-blockers (p.2).
Like Amitava, Shamshad too has a story - the story of ‘Commander’ Yassin Aref who was arrested on 5 August 2004 on the charges of having terror connections. Shamshad details an incident of ‘mistranslation’ by FBI in Aref’s case to prove that the person they caught is the ‘Commander’ of a terror outfit in Iraq and is a serious threat to the country. The ‘proof’ they had is that his name and his Albany address and telephone number were found in a notebook discovered in a terrorist camp in Rawah, northern Iraq. And in that notebook he was referred to as ‘Commander’ (p.55). But later it was found that the translation was wrong. The details written in Kurdish were ‘mistaken’ to be Arabic by FBI translators and thus ‘mistranslated’. It’s important to note that in both the cases, both the accused were seriously victimised. While Iqbal was brutally tortured, Aref was denied bail.  

Creating bogus familiarity
One of the important aspects of the so-called war against terror these books discuss is creating bogus familiarity between terrorists and common man. Amitava gives the example of a common poster - Have you seen this Man? - which calls us out from the walls of our cities: if you have seen this man, please contact the Police. The poster has an ominous warning: This man might be armed and dangerous. The writer is surprised by the description of the Man in the poster: wears pants and T-shirts. Hence, “As a writer, I wonder whether in a novel, the poster would have said something like, ‘Likes Hindi films and perfume’,” (p.14). He further notes, “Given that familiarity with terrorists is really only based on his (and, on rare occasion, her) appearance on the screen, it makes sense to ask what we can learn from the way in which that representation works.  For the past two decades and a half, Hindi films like Roja, Mission Kashmir, Sarfarosh, Jaal, Maachis, Dil Se, Maa Tujhe Salaam, The Hero have been trying to save the Indian nation-state from terrorists. The message is repeated over and over again. Hidden in the stories proffered by the films is the claim that they are giving the terrorists a human face so that we understand and recognise them. In the more tolerable of these productions, empathy is doled out in equal, democratic measure by film-makers in a situation that is essentially undemocratic and brutal” (p. 15).

Media Frenzy and Trial
Shamshad Ahmad narrates the role of media just after the arrest of Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain on 5 August 2004 and notes, “I jumped from one channel to the other and from one radio station to the other. The news flashes were short, sharp and tense but frequent and frightening” (p.33). He further recalls, “In the morning, I heard a radio talk show host blustering very loudly. ‘The FBI should be given credit,’ it said. ‘They’ve busted a case where these two guys were selling illegal licences and running around with missiles shooting airplanes.’ A caller to the station, a very provoked elderly lady demanded, ‘We should find out how many mosque members are state workers. They must be fired.’ I shivered. I was a state worker, teaching at a state university!” (p. 40).

Global Migration of Torture
Amitava quotes a very interesting but sensible statement of a person called Abul Jalal, a poultry farmer from Walavati suburb of Mumbai, which the author visited in 2006 to meet Iqbal. “When I was listening to Mubeen, a man leaned closer to me and, speaking in a confidential tone, said, What the Americans were doing in Abu Ghraib, they learned from our policemen here’. The man’s name was Abul Jalal” (p. 4). “In a way, Jalal, a poultry farmer plus harmless fabricator of history, turns out to be right. Preempting later celebrated testimonies about the war on terror - for example, the Academy Award-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about an Afghani taxi driver Dilawar who was murdered in custody by American soldiers at the Bagram Air Base - Jalal had spoken to me about the global migration of torture. His judgment has come to the pass,” he concludes (p.8).

Networks of Informers
What combines both the books essentially is the role of informers in the entrapment. How security agencies use thier networks of informers to entrap innocents and manufacture ‘terrorists’. While Amitava profiles two cases, namely of Henat Lakhani and Shawar Matin Siraj, Shamshad Ahmad profiles the cases of Yassin Aref and Mohammad Hossain.  All the four people are immigrants and come from either lower middle class or middle-middle class. Interestingly, informers too are immigrants who are able to gain cthe onfidence of their victims and entrap them easily. What is very freighting is that such networks are also very much in India -   in fact as prevalent as in the USA and elsewhere.  And this I can assure you from my personal experience and observation of different cases.  

Though most of the incidents, narrations and stories are really unfortunate and heart-rending, yet both the books are extremely readable and important on the issue of how our governments are fighting terror by manufacturing terrorists in order to justify certain policies. This invites us not only to think but to question and question loudly. It provides the bases for us to be angry and outspoken. Both books are a must read for all those who are interested to understand the politics of terror and establish a just and equitable world.

The reviewer is a Delhi based civil rights’ activist and Coordinator with Association for Protection of Civil Rights