Anti-Terrorist Surveillance and the Enemy Within

Just over a year after September 11, 2001 the Metropolitan Transport Authority of New York City ran the series of ads, “If you see something, say something,” forewarning subway commuters of abandoned bags or rucksacks left under subway platform or passenger seats.  The subtitle could not have directed a clearer message to New Yorkers: “Be suspicious…” where the object of suspicion was left ambiguous, if not bulky and dark.

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This public campaign was launched just a few months before the United States’ government initiated Special Registration, a process which required Muslim male immigrants over the age of 16 to register with Homeland Security (the agency created in the aftermath of 9/11 which replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Services).  Because of Special Registration there was a roundup and detention of Arab and Muslim men carried out with unprecedented secrecy violating very basic civil rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and the very human rights delineated by the Universal Declaration that the United States helped draft (Eleanor Roosevelt was the Chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and played a major role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948).  In the months following 9/11approximately 13,000 men were virtually disappeared from civil society in the United States as part of the US government’s implementation of the Patriot Act as executed through its Homeland Security Department.  Contiguous to the quite visible and much-discussed rendering of the dead of 9/11 and their memorialization in American society in the years since 9/11, there has been a disturbing silence in American media and society at large regarding the routine rounding up, interrogation and imprisonment of these men of Arab origin throughout the United States that took place in the months following 9/11.  Still what persists in New York’s transport system today are 8th generation versions of this public service announcement to include multimedia adaptations of this message from December 2002 while the suspicion of Muslims and Muslim Americans in the United States has reached previously unimaginable depths.  Since its adoption by New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority, “See something, say something” was adopted by the City of Chicago, and then nationally with Department of Homeland Security.

In February 2005 the UK followed suit with the Metropolitan Police, the City of London Police, the British Transport Police, and the Mayor’s Office launching its campaign, “If you suspect it, report it.”  Similar to the New York City campaign, this public outreach was ostensibly bent on alerting people about “suspect packages and unusual activity in places like flats or garages,” but the message of this media flier went much further, moving from inanimate objects left abandoned to involving its citizenry in the patrolling of fellow humans.  According to the BBC, “Mr Clarke, who heads the Met’s anti-terrorist branch, said: “The Metropolitan Police Service is working harder than ever to keep London safe from the threat of terrorism but we very much need the public’s help to reduce the danger.  I would ask people across London to think very carefully about anyone they know whose behaviour has changed suddenly. What has changed – could it be significant?”

Soon transmitted around the country, this campaign set out to delineate exclusively “odd” behavior—who might be a terrorist taking a photo, using a mobile, or using the Internet inappropriately:

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This public soliciting of  assistance by the government to watch out for company vehicles, prepaid mobile phones, multiple mobile phones, computers, camera equipment, and “vague” travel plans became a public call for the citizenry to scrutinize and surveil in a panoptic dragnet that even Foucault would not have believed.   This campaign went far beyond the public surveillance of those 17th century subjects whose bodies might bear marks of the plague, those individuals who had overstepped the urban boundaries of disease.  The public service announcements in the UK since 2005 became far more than practical educational tools for the masses and instead these campaigns were propaganda tools in their own right, issuing forth possible (albeit it illogical) signs of terrorism which functioned as floating signifiers from which most everyone—from the student to the business person—would easily be identified as a “terrorist.”  The surveillance of potential terrorists took Foucault’s popular mantra that sought to render those suspect as “perfectly individualized and constantly visible” and turned this equation into a field where every object signifies terror, hence discretely turning the focus away from these objects and towards the bodies operating them.

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The tactics employed by the UK government and the Metropolitan Police, by enlisting social participation in weeding out terrorists, was not so much about actually creating a panoptical force of social surveillance and a honing in on terrorists.  Instead, such campaigns sought to build a socially imagined and volunteer-driven fear factor whose participants were falsely led to believe they were actors in their nation’s anti-terrorist efforts, while in reality they were simply part of a larger systemic network that instilled paranoia towards British Muslims and immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world while using this societally engineered paranoia to further the west’s military and economic colonizations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of the “Global War on Terror”  where today the civilian casualties in Iraq are estimated to be anywhere from 134,804 to 1.2 million and in Afghanistan between 10,960 and 49,600.

The latest addition to the west’s public panoptic outreach for identifying terrorists is the French government which recently issued a public service announcement, “Stop-Jihadism.”  In the aftermath of January’s Charlie Hebdo killings, the French government set up a website with videos and printable PDF announcements informing its electorate how to identify “the first signs that can alert” one as to what jihadist radicalization looks like. Similar to the the US and UK’s campaigns, the French public awareness venture simplifies radical Islam and jihadism into a profile of nine images with explanatory subtitles:

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1. They distrust old friends;

2. They reject certain members of their families;

3. They suddenly change their eating habits;

4. They drop out of school or professional training;

5. They stop listening to music;

6. They no longer watch television or go to the cinema;

7. They stop sporting activities;

8. They change their attire;

9. They assiduously frequent social websites and networks.

This list and its accompanying imagery such as symbols of the French baguette and a western dress crossed out as “forbidden” speaks more to the hyperbole and racism utilized in the west’s onslaught against Arabs and Muslims than any tangible danger to its citizens.  Reading the above list I shake my head in despair at the sheer orientalism used allegedly to enlist a public-driven reading of how to spot a terrorist.  “I spy with my little eye, something that cuts bodily contours….”

The Jihadist who stays connected on Facebook and who doesn’t watch television or go to the cinema is at best a facile typology of the “devout” Muslim.  At worse, however, this stereotyping of the Muslim is quickly revealed to be a caricature imbued with all of the western intonations and projections of orientalism that Edward Said had described back in the late 1970s.  Were we to take this list seriously (and sadly there are those who do), what should we then make of the 9/11 fourth hijacker, Ahmed Alnami, who allegedly went to the movies in south Florida with his waiter,  Mohammed Kamel Belllahouel, an act which served as the grounds for arresting and holding in jail for five months this poor waiter who was later found guilty of nothing?  Or what about Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi who regularly frequented a Subway restaurant in Coral Springs, Florida?  This is hardly a venue for a radically strict Muslim diet given there are no halal Subway restaurants in the United States whatsoever.   What comprises a sudden change in eating habits?  Or does Mohammed Atta’s switch from Subway to Pizza Hut comprise a “sudden change”?   

Likewise the theory of terrorists stopping all sporting activities is certainly not evidenced in Camp 6 at Guantanamo Bay where the inmates there have three separate sports facilities to include a new football pitch.  Nor is the terrorist who drops out of school and professional training.   I mean are these terrorists not supposed to excel at training at madrasas?  Also, the change in attire is most mystifying to me since I have spent a great deal of my life living in Muslim countries and find this devaluation of reality so shockingly indicative of a state without any proper intelligence.  Just a cursory glance at Moroccan, Tunisian, or Jordanian newspapers will inform the reader about the versatility in modern dress today.  (Hint: they’re just like us!)  One other question popped into mind as I looked at the image of the western dress crossed out in a big blue “X”:  have these folks in the French ministry even watched The Battle of Algiers which underscores the fact that the resistance in the film and in reality was facilitated by the flexibility of wardrobe for which Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif were able to successfully place bombs?

Concerning the alleged prohibitions of music, there are even more trenchant contradictions from what the French government maintains as the Jihadist’s dislike of music and the practices of alleged Jihadists.  For instance, there is the ISIS anthem, “Dawlat al-Islam Qamat,” taking the form of chant (الأنشودة) morphing towards that of song (الأغنية), contemporarily called a nasheed (نشيد) which many Salafists and even stricter fundamentalists deemed unIslamic since the birth of the nasheed in the 1970s.  Might the stereotype of the Jihadists who refuses to listen to music instead be a projection of other western policies regarding the treatment of Muslims?  For instance, similar racist inflections of this belief that Muslims do not listen to or dislike music was reflected in American policy in the 2000s in a sort of  postmodern auto-da-fé.  In Detention Site Cobalt, Muslim prisoners were tortured by the CIA in combination with background music, a testament of these Muslim men’s dislike of music, thence the proof of these men’s terrorist affiliations.

Such medieval tautologies are rife within these public outreach campaigns, most especially in the latest French installment.  The reductions of what the Jihadist is or does reveal quite cogently the western regard for and the orientalist fantasy of Islam and Arabs alike, to include the massive misrepresentations of what neoliberal western media has inaccurately redefined as jihad, madrasa, and myriad other tenets of Islamic doxa.  The Muslim is laid bare as that individual who thinks in opposition to the “normalcy” of the western subject and western culture such that all interpretive groundwork is set into Manichean schemes of normal and abnormal, “them” and “us”.  Beholden are we in the west to baguettes, tight dresses, tweeting your BFFs your every thought, the mythology that we do not cut off from family members or distrust old friends (for I thought this was the hallmark of our cultures upon which most of our popular media is based), intransigence of our musical taste, our tenacity to stick with sports and as our constancy in eating habits.   We, the citizenry, are now enlisted through such educational tools that instruct us how to root out terror, the 21st century’s search for the Communist threat turned eastward.  We are empowered by various state structures not only to be beholden to our ignorance, but to act upon it as if a modern Crusader heading for battle.

Paradoxically and conterminous to this shifting of surveillance onto the public sector rendering the average citizen competent to “spot the terrorist” is the augmenting incompetence of so-called media experts.  Day after day newer terrorist “experts” grace our television screens proclaiming the very same stereotypes we have all studied from “See something, say something” to “Stop-Djihadisme.”  It is a political hall of mirrors where everyone is parroting these public touchstones without any real knowledge of what we are looking at or talking about.  Platitudes dominate the professional mediatized discourses.  What is passing as “expert” today are a selected choice of political sycophants whose voice is in alignment with an extremely conservative political aperture. As Edward Said in Covering Islam, writes:  “My concern, though, is that the mere use of the label “Islam,” either to explain or indiscriminately condemn “Islam,” actually ends up becoming a form of attack, which in turn provokes more hostility between self-appointed Muslim and Western spokespersons.”

Sam Harris, a self-proclaimed expert on Islam despite a demonstrable lack of insight into this religion, offers his conclusive words on Islam stating that “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”   Harris, along with Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, have been airing their Islamophobic prejudices on a weekly basis—none of these three individuals are experts in this field and yet by virtue of their media presence hatred is allowed to pass for expertise.  Paul Cruickshank, “CNN’s Terrorism Analyst,” who like Sam Harris also holds no advanced degrees in Islamic or Middle East Studies and for whom Islam and terrorism is but a hobby, proudly declares in 2011 after 77 people were murdered in Norway:  “It bears all the hallmarks of the al Qaeda terrorist organization at the moment” and “The working assumption right now is that it probably is something al Qaeda-inspired, some jihadist terrorism against Norway.”  Unfortunately for Cruickshank, the criminal in this bombing and shooting tragedy was non other than Anders Brevik, a Christian fundamentalist and white nationalist.    Cruickshank still works for CNN as its official “Terrorism Analyst.”

It is precisely through the use of these media “experts” that the Islamophobic circus is contained as political talk shows around the west become the de facto arenas for fake debates with even faker experts who, instead of having any “expertise” to offer often read the results of local opinion polls or embellish more of the narrative of “terrorology,” both which reflect the internally produced paranoia towards Islam and which recycle more of the same fictions about “radical Islam.”   What are the proposed “symptoms” of terror are nothing other than racist truisms unleashed by one incompetent individual after another casting himself as expert for a willing public, rendered agent by the state in this global search for terror.  Between the average citizen who is honing her terrorist-spotting skills based on public service announcements and the media which is stuffing the screens full of half-wits who declare “no-go” zones in London and Paris, the spectator/terrorist expert is caught up in this panoptical system of surveillance being offered racist platitudes as empirical truths internalizing them in his own surveillance of terrorism around him.   And as good subjects, we are taught to read the signs, listen to the warnings and step up when it is our turn to recognize terror.  It is pervasive, it is everywhere, it emanates from  us.

Least of all, let us not forget that these campaigns advocating mass surveillance are devastating to those who fall victim to such social mechanisms and I would argue that these campaigns have been set up, in part, to corrode civil liberties, notably free speech and public dissent.  In 2012 Azhar Ahmed, a nineteen-year-old British Muslim, was charged with treason in the UK for posting a dissenting view on the war in Afghanistan on his Facebook wall two days after six British troops were killed in Afghanistan.  Ahmed had been reported to the police by Ashleigh Craig who came upon Ahmed’s statement less than three hours after it had been posted it.  Here is the entirety of his post:

People gassin about the deaths of Soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.  The women who have been raped. The children who have been sliced up!

Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmful familys.  All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F****N SCUM!  Gotta problem. Go cry at your soldiers grave and wish him hell because that’s where he is going.

Where Ahmed was voicing legitimate concerns about the lack of representation and public discourse (“gassin”) over the deaths of those whom the media forgets (innocent Afghani civilians), expressing his ire for the western “slicing up” of civilians, he is held to account for the feelings of the western subject. Ahmed’s  trial glossed over the actual violence to which Ahmed referred, instead fixating on public sentiment, underscoring the public vigilance of what Muslims do or should do.  In his trial a family member of one of the six British soldiers killed in action was asked to testify and public opinion as to what is considered “grossly offensive” became the central protagonist of this trial.  Predictably, “grossly offensive” was uniquely the measure for Ahmed’s Facebook post and never a consideration of the deaths that the British military have perpetrated in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the fact that Ahmed’s “crime” was the act of underscoring the “grossly offensive” nature of civilian deaths and the complete media/social blackout of these injustices.  Further re-scripting the limits of the “offensive,” Ashleigh Craig’s court testimony lays bare the political agenda at the heart of this trial:  “It really upset me.  Soldiers have died for his freedom.”   As per the government’s public service announcements and the burgeoning call by media to enlist public surveillance, Craig suspected something and reported it, putting into practice her readings of the officially prescribed signs of terror despite such activity being nothing more than strongly worded political dissent, not coincidentally by a man with the name of Azhar Ahmed.  Luckily for this political vigilante, Craig’s emotional state (of being “upset”) forms part of the scope of anti-terror laws in the United Kingdom, while Muslim populations there and throughout the west dare not shift pace or lift its gaze in a political climate where many are being asked to apologize for the violent acts of a few.   

Amidst this ideological quicksand of faux expertise perpetually being alimented by public vigilantism and the incompetent musings of on-air experts paid to propagate familiar caricatures of the barbaric Muslim while extolling the “freedom” for which western soldiers have died, is it any wonder that the domestic landscape of the Global War on Terror ideologically mirrors its battlefields overseas?

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2014). She can be reached at:

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: