The rage palpable on the streets after the police murder of George Floyd has coalesced into a demand for abolishing the police and there is once again an increased focus on how US law enforcement has become militarized in the past three decades.
“For the past week,” writes Stuart Schrader, “our social media and television screens have been dominated by images of police officers in head-to-toe body armor wielding batons, pepper-ball guns, riot shields, and teargas against mostly peaceful protesters.” These images may be shocking but the spectacle is hardly new. It was on full display during the police response to protests in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown in 2014 and during the first public iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of Travyon Martin a year before.
Much of the focus has been on the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program which, as Schrader explains, “allows police departments to obtain surplus material from the vast stocks of the world’s largest military.” Additional avenues for law enforcement agencies to secure military supplies include Department of Homeland Security grants and the Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program.
The end result of all these programs, as an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report detailed in June 2014, has been an “unnecessarily and dangerously militarized” police force in the United States, armed with “the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.”
After the Ferguson protests, and thanks in no small part to the backlash against the militarization of the police forces which responded to it, the Obama administration banned certain military equipment from finding its way into local law enforcement agencies. This ban, however, “represented a minuscule portion of equipment already in the hands of police” and was promptly reversed by the Trump administration. There is yet again another effort in Congress to try and limit the program.
While the militarization of the police force is an important (and visible) component of the War on Terror, it is by no means the only one. An entire counterterrorism apparatus has been propped up over the last two decades, one which has already been deployed against protesters. As calls to defund and abolish the police have moved from the fringes of political discourse onto the mainstream, it is essential to consider the myriad ways through the War on Terror has seeped into domestic law enforcement.
According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), after the 9/11 attacks “the FBI reorganized to make prevention of terrorism its top institutional priority, shifting resources from traditional crime investigations to counterterrorism.” In order to prevent terrorist acts at home, the FBI first needed to identify individuals who would be most likely to carry out these acts. An entire cottage industry was soon established, churning out theories of “radicalization” which supposedly explained how an individual becomes “radicalized” into violent extremism.
One of the first such models of radicalization was developed by the CIA in 2004. The ominously named Ziggurat of Zealotry, according to documents released through a public records request, “depicts the process that potential terrorists go through as they move from passive support of Muslim causes to participating in violence.” Two years after the CIA’s model, the FBI created its own model, followed by the New York Police Department (NYPD) a year after that. Under the aegis of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), many more theories and models abounded in the next decade and a half.
The theories were predicated on the assumption that there were observable behaviors, or indicators, which could provide some insight into identifying individuals who would be on a pathway to radicalization. Numerous studies debunked this assumption before and after these theories began emerging.
Former CIA official Marc Sageman demonstrated that even a model with 99% accuracy would have less than 1% probability that it would identify a person actually susceptible to violent extremism. For every hundred evaluations, the tool would make one error. If there were 100 individuals vulnerable to violent extremism in a population of one million, the tool would falsely identify 10,000 people as potential terrorists.
Regardless of the pseudo-scientific nature of these models, they were subsequently implemented in various localities across the country. Boston, Minnesota, Nebraska and other cities and states would implement programs based on this erroneous assumption. These models were dangerous because they were geared toward identifying threats before they materialized: to identify a terrorist before a terrorist act had been committed. This meant, in the words of “the Ziggurat of Zealotry,” that every Muslim was a “potential terrorist.”
The idea of “pre-crime” would also lead to an aggressive use of FBI informants to effectively entrap vulnerable Muslims and pursue preventive prosecutions of crimes that had not yet occured. The case of Mahin Khan provides an instructive example. Khan was an autistic and developmentally-delayed teenager in Arizona. According to his tutor, Khan had “the mentality of a six-year-old.” A developmental evaluation had found that Khan “require[d] considerable support from parents to complete day-to-day skills.” Due to his psychological impairment, his parents did not trust him with a cellphone.
Khan had been under the watch of the FBI agents, who visited him regularly, due to having sent a threatening note to a teacher when he was fifteen. After three years of regular visits and a few weeks after Khan became a legal adult, FBI agents provided him with a cell phone and subsequently arrested him for plotting to support the Taliban and ISIS and carrying out terrorist attacks in his local community. Khan’s case may be extreme but he is just one example among many.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law project that “the First Amendment does not protect humanitarian groups or others who advise foreign terrorist organizations, even if the support is aimed at legal activities or peaceful settlement of disputes.”
Providing material support to terrorist groups was already illegal prior to the ruling of course and had been pursued relentlessly against Muslims in the years after 9/11. In 2006, Syed Fahad Hashmi had been arrested for providing material support to al-Qaeda. His crime was allowing a friend to stay in his apartment and store his luggage there. The friend later turned out to be a member of al-Qaeda and Hashmi was consequently presented as a fearsome al-Qaeda “quartermaster.”
The Supreme Court decision in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law, however, heralded a new age for material support charges, where even legal advice, speech, and other activities protected by the First Amendment could constitute material support to terrorists. In 2012, Tarek Mehenna was sentenced to 17 years in prison, in part because of translating al-Qaeda propaganda. As the ACLU noted at the time:
the government equated rhetorical support with “material support,” and the district court accepted its view. What makes the government’s theory so dangerous to our freedom of speech is that it threatens to dismantle the barrier that the Supreme Court has erected “between words and deeds, between ideas and conduct.” That barrier prevents the government from censoring speech based solely on its tendency to persuade and, thereby, overturning the most basic precept underlying the Supreme Court’s First Amendment case law: that “[t]he mere tendency of speech to encourage unlawful acts is not a sufficient reason for banning it.” It preserves the fragile space necessary to formulate ideas, to persuade others, and to be persuaded by others. When speech spills over into unlawful conduct, the government may, of course, act. But until then, speech is protected.”
While there has been an explosion of signals intelligence (SIGINT) gathering since 9/11, reflected in the mammoth growth of the National Security Agency (NSA), there has also been a concomitant growth in domestic surveillance through undercover informants, both by intelligence agencies like the FBI and local police departments.
The most famous example is the NYPD’s Demographics Group which carried out what the ACLU called “religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance” of Muslims in New York and beyond. The surveillance targeted “Muslim religious and community leaders, mosques, student associations, organizations, businesses” and other places which Muslims may have frequented, such as Dunkin’ Donuts.
The use of informants and undercover agents was ramped up by the FBI as well. Agents were trained to “pose as jihadists, bomb makers, gun dealers or online ‘friends’ in hundreds of investigations into Americans suspected of supporting the Islamic State.” As the aforementioned case of Mahin Khan shows, many of these investigations were effectively entrapment operations aimed at vulnerable Muslims.
In 2014, the New York Times reported that undercover agents and informants were no longer the domain of the FBI and a few large law enforcement agencies. Gradually, “changes in policies and tactics over the last decade … resulted in undercover teams run by agencies in virtually every corner of the federal government.” The rules and guidelines which govern the use of undercover informants still remain shrouded in secrecy.
In addition to the FBI and NSA, much of the SIGINT surveillance is carried out by the country’s 78 fusion centers, established after 9/11 and run by state and local authorities to coordinate information sharing and produce intelligence regarding terrorism and other national security threats. According to a 2012 Senate subcommittee report, the intelligence actually produced by the fusion centers was of “uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.”
Boston’s fusion center, known as the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, for example, was busy contracting with a private company Geofeedia to monitor activists’ social media accounts for “political beliefs, social activism, religious activities and regular conversations that had no importance related to criminal activity.”
The War Comes Home
In 2016, as protests followed the police murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, a company called Persistent Surveillance System provided the local police department with small airplanes equipped with “a sophisticated array of cameras” to monitor the entire city. The surveillance system had debuted in Iraq in 2006 in the form of “Angel Fire, a wide-area, live-feed surveillance system that could cast an unblinking eye on an entire city.”
The US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, its military operations in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere created a need for sophisticated surveillance tools through which the US military and intelligence agencies could gather information useful for pursuing its “national security” goals. The National Security Agency’s (NSA) “collect it all” surveillance approach which later became directed at Americans was also initially piloted in Iraq under General Keith Alexander.
As the above examples indicate, there is often a blurry line between US military operations and occupations abroad and law enforcement at home. “American police have always directed their attention toward suppressing political rebellion,” writes Stuart Schrader. “Distant lands, colonial occupations and theaters of war have served as crucibles for testing and advancing policing techniques.”
The counterterrorism apparatus established to go after so-called terrorists in the United States has not remained limited to targeting Muslims.
CVE programs, for example, would soon begin targeting other minority groups. The Denver Police Department’s program, in seeking to identify “at-risk” communities, would target refugees, Black Lives Matter (BLM), and LGBTQ communities. The category of “pre-crime” would expand to include other social undesirables, ripe for preventive prosecution. In 2017, the FBI would go on to identify “Black Identity Extremists” as a threat, according to a report by Foreign Policy. “Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement,” reads the FBI report.
Undercover agents and informants would find their way into BLM protests and Occupy encampments. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) would monitor the movements of BLM activists, as it is doing now during the current protests. Intelligence agents in fusion centers would read through social media posts and emails from Occupy organizers. Police units such as New York’s Critical Response Command and the Strategic Response Group, outfitted with semi-automatic rifles, would be created to handle “protests and anti-terrorism.”
As Cornel West recently stated, thinking about the connections between the recent protests, police abolition, and US militarism is not a “luxury” but rather a necessity. The tools and systems created to sustain US imperialism are the same tools and systems used to crush protests and social movements domestically.
As the Trump administration’s recent moves to classify the amorphous non-entity of antifa as a “terrorist group” demonstrates, terrorism is a meaningless term utterly disconnected with the act. The function of the label “terrorism” is to determine which political acts are threatening to what the anthropologist Mark Duffield in another context calls liberal peace: western democracy and capitalist market relations which are fundamentally geared toward serving the wealthy and the white.
Recent protests have shown us that what for decades may have been entirely out of the mainstream political lexicon can be jolted into the realm of political possibility through sustained social action. The demand to abolish the police is not simply a call to end policing but also to end the liberal order predicated on white supremacy and capitalist market relations which it sustains. In this endeavor, for the state, we are all terrorists.