The US government set off another round of anti-terrorist hysteria on June 10 by announcing that it had arrested an American Muslim alleged to have been planning an attack on a major US city. US attorney general John Ashcroft interrupted a trip to Moscow on unrelated matters to announce that the US authorities had “disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the US by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb.”
The man arrested was identified as Abdullah al-Muhajir, a Puerto Rican Muslim who had accepted Islam in jail before travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan. American officials alleged that he had met senior al-Qaida officials after September 11 to discuss the dirty-bomb plot, before returning to the US, where he was arrested on May 8. Officials also announced that he would not be charged with any offence, but instead would be held indefinitely as an “enemy combatant”, a category of prisoner not recognised in international law.
The news was greeted with outrage and fear in the US and other countries. This reaction was exacerbated the next day when the Moroccan government announced that it had arrested three Saudis suspected of having links with al-Qaida and of planning seaborne attacks on British and US warships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar.
As on many previous occasions, however, questions soon began to be raised about the official version of al-Muhajir’s arrest. Analysts began to challenge details of the government’s announcement, pointing out that radioactive dirty bombs are not difficult to make, and are unlikely to cause the sort of massive damage the government suggested. Experts mocked the US government’s characterisation of them as a “weapon of mass destruction”. The details given of al-Muhajir’s arrest were also questioned.
Officials quickly began to backtrack, with non-attributable sources backing away from the claim that al-Muhajir was planning a “dirty bomb” attack, and FBI director Robert Mueller publicly saying that any plot was in the “very early planning stages” and that “a specific target may not have been selected”.
American and other civil-rights groups also criticised the government for holding al-Muhajir in military custody without the rights available to normal prisoners. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out that if the case against al-Muhajir was as strong and clear as the government was claiming, there was no reason not to charge him and present the evidence in court. Other analysts suggested that the reason the government is not doing this is that there is no specific evidence against al-Muhajir, except that he is a Muslim who had travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, so military processes are being used to hold him indefinitely without the authorities having to give any reason for doing so.
Many analysts have linked the timing of the claims to the Bush administration’s political imperatives, suggesting that the spectre of mass terrorism is being raised now for political reasons. Since the attacks in September, president Bush’s approval ratings have never dropped below 70 percent, and his officials must know that the questions raised about these claims will have no impact whatsoever on the great majority of Americans. They will remember only the suggestion of weapons of mass destruction being used against American cities, and Bush’s determination to pursue the “war against terrorism” at all costs.
This public fervour makes it difficult for critics to raise questions about the performance of the US intelligence and security agencies — particularly the FBI — before September 11, which are currently subject to congressional scrutiny, for fear that they will be accused of undermining national unity and security at a time when al-Qaida remains a genuine threat and the “war on terror” is the top priority. It also creates a problem for the Democratic party as it plans its campaign for the mid-term election later this year, with the balance of power in both Congress and the Senate finely balanced, but any criticism of the Bush administration liable to backfire.
Perhaps the administration’s highest priority and concern at the moment is to push its proposals for the establishment of a new Department of Homeland Security through Congress with as little debate as possible. These proposals are for the consolidation of 22 key government agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Transport Security Agency, into what would automatically become the third largest department in the federal government. According to Bush, its main functions would be border and transportation security, emergency and disaster preparedness, development of countermeasures against weapons of mass destruction, and central coordination of intelligence information on potential threats between the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and other intelligence bodies.
Critics describe the proposals as creating the basis for a police state in the US, reversing at a stroke the principles of civil rights and the separation of investigative, judicial and political powers. The Washington Post noted on June 7 that the proposals “go far beyond policing the borders... They reach deep into American life, doing everything from coordinating disaster relief to tracking down foreigners working illegally in restaurants. Some experts said this could prove controversial because it blurs the boundaries between gathering intelligence on foreigners and doing the same with American citizens.”
This is only the latest — and most extensive — assault on Americans’ rights since September 11. A week earlier, Ashcroft had announced that the administration is granting the FBI sweeping rights to spy on political organisations, religious groups and private citizens by removing restrictions on domestic spying on the grounds that these restrictions had contributed to the FBI’s failure to prevent the attacks on September 11. These measures were announced despite the fact that it has been established that FBI agents had gathered ample information on those allegedly involved in the attacks, and that in fact it was senior officials who had decided not to act on that information.
At a time when thousands of Muslims remain in detention in the US without any legal process, having been arrested in the aftermath of September 11, with even the authorities admitting that there is no reason to suspect them of involvement in the attacks but they want to keep them in detention anyway, such an extension of government powers can only bode ill for Muslims, American and non-American alike, in the US.
The fact that the “war against terrorism” is being used by the US as an opportunity to expand its political power around the globe, and to wage war against the enemies of American imperialism, should not detract from the reality that, inside America, it is being used as a pretext for the imposition of severe restrictions on the rights of all Americans, and for the persecution of minority communities that are objects of prejudice and suspicion.