Exploring the Post-9/11 Dragnet


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


Much of how the West understands the term “terrorism” today is shaped by the events that transpired after 9/11. The Patriot Act was enacted six weeks after the fall of the twin towers, and with it the prerogative of law enforcement officials to arrest and detain thousands of Arab and South Asian men and women, otherwise innocent, on the basis of suspected terrorism. The actions of policymakers and law enforcement officials, in turn, generated the heavily nationalistic and xenophobic paradigm of terrorism in the United States. The average American would go on to associate terrorism with Islam (Pew Research Center 2017; Nisbet & Shanahan 2004), ignoring the nuance of religiosity and the gambit of political ideology that embodies the phenomenon of terrorism.

The Terrorism Prosecution Project (tPP) seeks to dissolve this discourse as we reveal the diverse backgrounds and political ideologies of the perpetrators in various terrorist attacks across the United States from 1990 to present. One recent event that reinforces the absolute vitality of our mission as a team is the terrorist attack that happened in Pittsburgh last week. The attacker, a man named Robert D. Bowers, targeted a Pittsburgh synagogue killing 11 members of the congregation and injuring another 4 (New York Times, 27 October 2018, A1). Anti-Semitic attacks are largely associated with Neo-nazi ideology, and our perpetrator serves as a representation of many of the terrorist attacks that have swept across the United States in which a white, Christian, American-born citizen commits terrible acts of violence against his/her American compatriots.

Interestingly, the likes of Dylann Roof and Robert D. Bowers are not charged with terrorism; rather crimes such as theirs are prosecuted as hate crimes (USAO, 31 October 2018). Why, then, do we have hundreds of names in our database of innocent men and women charged with terrorism when their only crime involved immigration violations, if convicted of any crime at all (tPP database)? The post-9/11 dragnet demonstrates an Orwellian-like undertaking by the United States government to suspend Americans’ civil liberties in the wake of national security concerns. The tPP’s data on those detained during the dragnet reveals that these national security concerns were often unsubstantiated and rooted in a fear for Arab/South Asian Muslims, those who law enforcement believed were most likely to be subject to recruitment to the ranks of Islamic extremist organizations (Abdo 2005, 12; Wong 2006, 164-165).

The “Reason for Inclusion” variable explains why both the likes of Dylann Roof and Robert D. Bowers appear in our dataset as well as the hundreds of people who were arrested during the post-9/11 dragnet. This variable envelops the values of “obvious socio-political aims,” “serves to support organized violence,” and “state speech act.” When a case is inputted into the dataset all three values can be selected or some combination of two of the three if the act of violence or the basis on which the subject was arrested/charged fulfills the criteria for these values. So next we must look at what qualifies each value. For example, Robert D. Bowers would be included in our dataset and coded under the value “obvious socio-political aims;” although his charges were not explicitly labeled as terrorism (USAO, 31 October 2018), the tPP considers his actions terroristic in that his act “represents a form of politically motivated violence intended to communicate a message, in part by the instrumentalization of its victims” (Jackson et al. 2011, 118).

Politically-motivated violence is not always part of a greater whole as we have seen time and again in the United States. For example, the likes of Omar Mateen would be considered an independent perpetrator who had obvious socio-political aims and fell under the state speech act, if he were to be included in our dataset (Omar Mateen is not included because he died before ever being charged with a crime). He would not, however, be coded under “serves to support organized violence” because he was not part of the organized network of ISIS. Similarly, Robert D. Bowers is coded only under “obvious socio-political aims” and not under “serves to support organized violence” because he is not part of an organized neo-Nazi network, such as the Aryan Nations; rather he was inspired to act based on neo-Nazi rhetoric and ideology. He would not be coded under “state speech act,” whereas Omar Mateen would, had he been alive, because the discursive language issued by the state does not describe Bowers as a terrorist. Generally, if the president and/or the DOJ/FBI/DHS describe somebody as a terrorist or have that somebody listed under an official state-issued document charging the subject with “attempt to provide material support to a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” the subject would then be coded in our dataset under a “state speech act,” even if the subject was never convicted. Therefore, a “speech act” has to be an explicit illocutionary act (Searle n.d., 8) made by the state that would indicate the subject is being apprehended on the basis of terrorism or suspected terrorism.

Finally, we’ll hone in on several individuals from the post-9/11 dragnet who are included in our dataset and coded exclusively under the value “state speech act,” but were never convicted of “attempting to provide material support to a Foreign Terrorist Organization.” In one example, a Pakistani man named Ansar Mahmood was arrested after a suspicious construction worker reported him to the FBI and Immigration Naturalization Services (INS). The man had merely wanted to take a picture in front of a reservoir and had asked the worker to do him the favors. The FBI subsequently discovered that Mahmood was housing a young Pakistani couple – Hafiz Tauseef and Aisha Younes – whose visas had expired, and the pair were eventually convicted of having falsified documents (The Times Union 12 October 2001). All three names appear in our dataset because of a state speech act. The DOJ has compiled the names of hundreds who were arrested in the post-9/11 dragnet into a database which explicitly states that the subjects were arrested due to suspected terrorism (DOJ Public/Unsealed Terrorism and Terrorism-Related Convictions 9/11/01-12/31/14). Many ended up being convicted of crimes such as Tauseef’s and Younes’s in which they were charged of “fraud and misuse of visas/permits” (US District Court, Northern District of New York, 17 October 2001) and faced with deportation.

One other example is that of Lofti Raissi, the first arrest made in connection to the 9/11 attacks. Raissi was arrested because he was believed to have trained the 9/11 hijackers to fly planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon (The Guardian, 22 November 2009). Though Raissi’s charges were eventually proven to be baseless, the false accusations were mounted against him because of an unfortunate coincidence: Raissi had trained at the same flight school as one of the 9/11 hijackers, Hani Hanjour. Raissi, an Algerian native who is also a Muslim and a trained pilot, was arrested in London after appearing on an FBI watchlist. The US subsequently requested his extradition to the United States on the basis of his alleged connection to the 9/11 hijackers. After five months in prison, Raissi was eventually released and cleared of all charges linking him to the 9/11 attacks. However, his name still appears in our dataset because the United States, at one point in time, labeled him as a terrorist.

The contrast between Bowers’ reason for inclusion in our dataset to the likes of Raissi and Mahmood reveals that there still exists a problematic discourse on terrorism that is propagated by our own state-issued rhetoric and circulated throughout our country. However, while the mission of the TPP, in part, is to deconstruct this rhetoric, we have no sway over how the state chooses to prosecute an individual. Therefore, being able to identify the nuance between the three values that are elemental in our “Reason for Inclusion” variable is pertinent to being able to understand the dataset as a whole.

– Meg


Works Cited

Abdo, Geneive. “Islam in America: Separate but Unequal.” Washington Quarterly, 2005.

Greenwood, Shannon. “How the U.S. General Public Views Muslims and Islam.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. July 26, 2017. http://www.pewforum.org/2017/07/26/how-the-u-s-general-public-views-muslims-and-islam/.

Jackson, Richard, Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning, and Marie Breen-Smyth. Terrorism: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Searle, John. “What Is a Speech Act?” In Pragmatics, Discourse Analysis, and Sociolinguistics.

Lyons, Brenda. “Visit to City Reservoir Raised Alarm.” The Investigative Project, October 12, 2001. http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/misc/518.pdf.

Mele, Christopher. “Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Leaves at Least 4 Dead, Official Says.” The New York Times. October 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html.

Nisbet, Eric C., and James Shanahan. 2005. Restrictions on Civil Liberties, Views of Islam, and Muslim Americans. Media and Society Group, Cornell University, Dec. 2004.

“Pennsylvania Man Charged with Federal Hate Crimes for Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting.” The United States Department of Justice. October 31, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdpa/pr/pennsylvania-man-charged-federal-hate-crimes-tree-life-synagogue-shooting.

USA v. Younes (U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York October 17, 2001).

Wong, Kam C. The USA Patriot Act: A Policy of Alienation. Michigan Journal of Race and Law, 2006.

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