The life history of typographical and other errors is sometimes interesting, especially when it comes to “terrorism studies” and the panic of the national security state.
For example: On June 27, a federal grand jury indicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing case. The charge sheet sketches out a narrative of “radicalization” – the dots that authorities in hindsight supposedly failed to connect – by listing texts Tsarnaev allegedly downloaded to his computer:
16. At a time unknown to the Grand Jury, but before on or about April 15, 2013, DZHOKHAR A. TSARNAEV downloaded to his computer a publication entitled “Defense of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation After Imam,” by Abdullah Azzam, who is also known as “the Father of Global Jihad.” This publication advocates violence designed to terrorize the perceived enemies of Islam, among other things.
Never mind that this pamphlet, which urged Muslims to join the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, is nearly 30 years old. Or that attempts to make ‘Azzam — who seems only to ever be called “the father of global jihad” by Western “terrorism experts” — a kind of founding figure in al-Qaeda have largely rested on shoddy research plagiarized by the 9/11 Commission Report.
What’s interesting here is the theory of influence at work: Young Muslim men can “radicalize” themselves through exposure to dangerous material from the Internet. Hence, authorities effectively banned the English translation of Defense of the Muslim Lands in Australia. And in Boston in 2012, a federal judge sentenced Tarek Mehanna to 17 and a half years in prison in a case that largely rested on statements and translations made online (several MERIP editors, including me, have signed onto an amicus brief challenging Mehanna’s conviction). The Mehanna case and the vindictive prosecution of Aaron Swartz put the US Attorney’s office in Boston at the forefront of the crackdown on online dissent.
The frightening expansion of the state’s coercive apparatus is driven in part by this desire to “connect the dots” through engaging in increasingly convoluted counterfactuals about how just the right kind of intrusive surveillance may have done the trick. So before Tsarnaev’s reading list is cited in the next round of missives about radicalization, maybe we can use it to do some dot connecting of our own.
Interestingly, the Tsarnaev indictment renders the English subtitle to Azzam’s pamphlet as “The First Obligation After Imam.” The last word is an error, mixing up the Arabic term imam (a kind of leader) with iman (faith). The mistake has been faithfully reproduced in the media coverage of the indictment.
A cursory Google search shows only one earlier online instance of this error, in this 2006 paper by one Rivka Yadlin for the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank with close ties to Israel’s defense establishment. Yadlin’s paper, “Female Martyrdom: The Ultimate Embodiment of Islamic Existence?” is a bizarre tract linking female suicide bombers to the anthropologist Saba Mahmood’s critiques of liberal feminism. Not surprisingly, it lacks any basis in primary research and relies on translations from Arabic newspapers by MEMRI, a Washington think tank with a record of tendentious output run by a former Israeli military intelligence officer.
So the Tsarnaev indictment and Yadlin’s paper share the error of confusing imam with iman in the title of ‘Azzam’s pamphlet. Mere coincidence? Or a clue that the Justice Department considers Yadlin a spiritual leader or source of guidance? Perhaps the entire prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a plot orchestrated by Israeli intelligence. Or even if Israel is not directing everything, it is possible that the FBI operatives found Yadlin’s paper online themselves and were inspired by her citation error to commit one of their own. While we do not know how this typo transpired, it suggests that the government’s wholesale monitoring of private electronic communications still lacks a crucial capability: automatic citation-checking.
These are, of course, absurd conjectures based on very questionable leaps of logic that presuppose an unverified theory of human action while willfully ignoring important context. But this very same logic is often at work when the state and its cheerleaders attempt to “connect the dots” in search of that ever elusive process called “radicalization.”