On 26 February 2012, a small group of Occupy Oakland activists claimed that I was potentially a “suspected” terrorist in an article they posted on an Occupy Oakland-branded website that they controlled. The resulting spectacle revealed an entrenched and unexamined prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, and a weakness many mainstream, predominantly white activist groups have in openly discussing issues of race and ethnicity.
The article, titled “Occupational Awareness” (see the screengrab at the bottom of this article), is based on several glaring errors in reasoning — the central one being that my “name had been found in Google search results in connection with allegations of terrorist activity.” The premise was fatally misleading, because it was not my name found, but that of another person, with a different surname.
Nevertheless, this acrobatic logic became the basis for their claim of my potential identity as a Palestinian “terror” suspect. Additionally, the article claimed that the person in question “visually and biographically” resembled me. This claim was based on the low-resolution photo of a bearded man with glasses featured in the article, and, apparently, the fact he was arrested in Paraguay.
Other suspected connections were added: connections to “South American drug trafficking”; to “Israeli intelligence”; and to the FBI. The group suggested I may have “entered the movement in order to harm it” and tacked that on to a disclaimer that Occupy did not support “terrorism.” This gave the impression that some kind of “terror” attack might also be imminent.
The “breakaway” group responsible for the article was a faction that had splintered from the main media committee. They later acquiesced to pressure from Occupy Oakland activists and removed the post.
Because of the potential for abusing the messaging power of the media committee revealed by the affair, the entire media committee was dissolved and reconstituted with new guidelines via a general assembly resolution that passed by a 90 percent margin. The splinter group formed the “Occupy Oakland Media Collective,” taking their website, hellaoccupyoakland.org, with them.
I chose not to write about all of this at the time for the safety of myself, family and fellow activists. During the short period the post was up, it had caught the attention of a few right-wing blogs, which soon began circulating the rumor that Occupy was sheltering a “Hamas terrorist,” and I felt I would be putting others in danger by drawing more attention to it.
The core of the issue was effectively swept under the rug, but the narrative that’s emerged among some groups often dismisses the potentially disastrous effects of the group’s actions. I believe its now critical to draw attention to the pernicious reasoning that lay behind the accusation and its potentially disastrous effects.
The man I was accused of being — Salah Abdul Karim Yassine — was, ironically, also a victim of a “terror” smear, twice: once by the US State Department, and then again by the media group. Yassine’s name first appears in a State Department report published in 2001 as one of two slim reeds of “evidence” that the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina had become a porous hotbed of “Islamic terrorism.”
Yassine is alleged to have made terror threats, though there is no evidence of them. Ali Khali Meri, a Lebanese immigrant, with so-called “Hizballah ties” is also named in the report. The State Department’s publication of this report — and subsequent references to it in a Library of Congress document alluded to by the media group — are the only reason that the group learned of the existence of Yassine (“Patterns of Global Terrorism,” 30 April 2001 [PDF]).
Indeed, it was not Yassine, but the State Department’s construct of him that the group discovered. In the words of journalist Kenneth Rapoza — writing on the website Counterpunch — the goal of the report was to facilitate turning “the region into a terrorist and druglord hunting ground” for the US military (“New fakers at the New Yorker,” 14 May 2003).
To achieve this goal, these manufactured cases relied on entrenched bigotry against Arabs to elevate petty crimes to the level of life-threatening concerns — copyright infringement in the case of Meri, illegal entry and use of false documents in the case of Yassine.
The media group’s recycling of the original smear against Yassine — and addition of “drug trafficking” from their own repository of Latino stereotypes — is an ironic testament to how easily such accusations are taken at face value when made by the powerful against marginalized groups. But the group’s article also recasts in microcosm the dangerous climate created by the US both here and abroad, where minor offenses — or the mere suspicion of them — become frightening conspiracies when the accused have a Muslim name and/or Arab ethnicity.
Indeed countless innocent people have been imprisoned following the same logic, based on innuendo or a “suspicion” which reaches steroidal levels when an Arab surname is added. Of these, Khaled el-Masri may be the most easily recognizable today. A German citizen with a name similar to that of an accused member of al-Qaeda, el-Masri was detained solely on suspicion of forged documents. Those documents were suspected of forgery only because of the similarity in names.
El-Masri was “rendered” by US officials, and tortured. The fact that this same reasoning was emulated by a group interested in social justice makes it an all the more disturbing commentary on the pervasive logic of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims.
I was accused during a particularly high-profile period of Palestinian advocacy. The article was published less than a week after I gave a short talk on behalf of a prisoner’s rights group about Khader Adnan, then on hunger strike in an Israeli jail, at a rally at San Quentin state prison on 20 February.
A day earlier, I had published a blog post on The Electronic Intifada addressing the double standards applied in the West to questions of nonviolent resistance.
It seems likely that the fear that such views would make Occupy seem “too radical” was partly responsible for the media group’s paranoia. Based on the irrational urgency embedded in the group’s excuse for not double-checking their research, it also seems clear that this was coupled with a basic ignorant fear of the Palestinian struggle. A member of the original media committee — who later joined the media collective and is the former director of the American-Israeli Friendship Committee in California — in fact tweeted complaints about the support Adnan received as a “nonviolent” activist.
It’s obvious that my speech, combined with nearly a decade of pro-Palestinian advocacy on my own blog, and my recent writing for The Electronic Intifada, fed the hysteria that led to the accusation. Even in the most uncharitable and biased view, my interactions with the group did not rise to the level of life or death concern. The concern is reflexively preposterous if stripped of the anti-Palestinian bigotry that has been tacitly accepted by the mainstream.
Despite the advances of the Palestinian solidarity movement and the greater mainstream acceptance of pro-Palestinian positions, this kind of fearful auto-purging exists at every level of the public sphere. The examples range from the tragic destruction of the career of veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas to the prosecution of students at the University of California at Irvine, who exercised their free speech rights at an on-campus pro-Israel forum.
Participating in a mass movement in the US shouldn’t also mean that Palestinians, Palestinian solidarity activists and those advocating similarly uphill positions must check their views at the door or be suspected of posing a threat towards the group. Though there are many pitfalls to the discourse on Israeli apartheid, marginalizing it this way all but ensures that mainstream movements will undermine their ability to address those issues most central to social justice — an end to the costly, ongoing military occupations and invasions throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
Bizarre interpretation of FBI schemes
There’s little doubt that the group applied a narrative of FBI infiltration cobbled from popular media accounts of government infiltration. But their peculiar needs required a bizarre interpretation of the FBI’s modus operandi.
Over the past several years, the FBI has sent Arab and Muslim infiltrators into Muslim and Arab American institutions and mosques. Their role has been to persuade and/or trick Muslims with poor judgment into saying questionable things or participating in certain acts (“Fake terror plots, paid informants: the tactics of FBI ‘entrapment’ questioned,” Guardian, 16 November 2011).
But the hair-on-fire concerns of the group obscured that methodology. In almost every case, infiltrators are petty criminals who have never been accused of terrorism — for example, Muslims and/or Arabs who have been recruited while serving sentences for fraud and the like. There is no known example of the FBI sending an Arab or Muslim infiltrator to subvert a mainstream organization. That may be for the very reasons I noted earlier, that such voices suffer from sanctions for advocating even mild pro-Arab or Muslim views — and even just from having backgrounds associated with Islam and the Arab world.
In every instance, the “aspirational terror” plots orchestrated by the FBI are not meant to undermine any single movement or group. Rather, they are meant to manufacture “results” in the “domestic anti-terror” crusade. The goal is all the more unlikely because “terror” itself is a construct manufactured for US establishment aims. The FBI’s activities instead create the illusion of endless, but easily characterized, threats and the appearance that the FBI is busy thwarting them to keep Americans safe.
Worse, the media group’s skewed view obscures the real dangers faced by Occupy. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and “aspirational” plots currently being brought to trial reveal a security system infatuated with “anarchists,” and frantically engaged in infiltrating and implicating anarchist-related groups as a subset of Occupy.
This is the same “busy work” methodology behind the targeting of Muslim and Arab groups — and by all accounts, the FBI has been very busy, raiding activist homes for anarchist literature and even setting up a similar “aspirational” phony terror plot aimed at Occupy’s anarchists in Cleveland, fronted by a petty criminal espousing anarchist sympathies (“FBI supplied Occupy Cleveland ‘terrorists’ arrested in May Day plot,” Green is the New Red, 1 May 2012).
In such a context, the idea that the FBI had sent a Muslim former terrorist to infiltrate and subdue the “nonviolence” wing of Occupy Oakland — which the media group claimed to represent — is more than the delusional fantasy that it initially appears to be. It is, instead, seriously hazardous reasoning. In a final irony, for example, baseless accusations against pro-Palestinian activists of being Mossad agents turns out to be one of the tactics recently espoused by an Israeli government official for discrediting them.
Surprisingly, none of these issues ever rose to front and center of the public discussion. Because some of the signatories to the article were people of color, a discourse on racism defined by power dynamics which further confused the issue, dominated the conversation.
Of course, it’s ostensibly crucial to use a functional definition of racism based on power dynamics, but in this case that construction achieved the opposite of the intended effect; it encouraged white members of the media group, and their white advocates, to assure themselves that they had no racist assumptions to examine. In fact, the person who reportedly first found the “evidence” of the “suspected” terrorism, and one of the most vehement in defending it, was a white male, the son of an affluent best-selling author and not from, or residing in, Oakland.
Members of the “Anonymous” community later claimed that he had shared the information with them and that they had warned him that the “evidence” was baseless according to their own research. He and the other members of the group went public regardless. More importantly, since the kind of racialized assumptions the group used in its analysis was an internalized product of a white supremacist structure, this was a worrisome mix of opposing ideals that unfortunately went unexamined.
The discussion about racism, though important, rapidly became confused and distracted from the salient issues. These aren’t just questions facing Arab-American and Muslim activists, or of representation of people of color, or even of profiling. Rather, these are issues that concern radical queers and feminists, anti-establishment labor organizers, and anti-imperialism activists of all races.
These questions concern all people who espouse substantive and honest critiques of US policies and organizations, critiques which are not always popular at any given time, even in the left — these groups can be caught in the middle of witch-hunts not only by the establishment, but also by ostensibly counter-establishment structures.
Undoubtedly, there will be a mass movement successor to Occupy in the coming months or years. And if that successor is to have a broad popular character, an effective focus on US domestic and foreign policy and a resistance to McCarthyite witch-hunts, activists will have to revisit these issues again and again. Hopefully, this story will be of some use in those times.
Jaime Omar Yassin has been involved in alternative media for nearly 20 years. He has written for Extra!, Meatpaper, n+1 and other publications. His writing on the Occupy movement appears in the books Dreaming in Public and We are Many. He has his own blog at Hyphenated-Republic.