This Veritable Arsenal

The extreme center expanded the security state. Now that state is falling into the hands of the Right.

Then-Home Secretary Theresa May and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephens visit the York Road Estate, Clapham on May 13, 2010 in South West London, England. Dominic Lipinski / WPA Pool / Getty

With the rise of Donald Trump and others like him, we have to think about what sort of state the crisis-ridden governing center might bequeath to authoritarian reactionaries. Indeed, we have to think about what role the state has played in cultivating the new right.

The extreme center shows no sign of such reflection. One of its few leaders in power, Emmanuel Macron, has just institutionalized aspects of the “state of emergency” which the former Socialist government implemented amid an Islamophobic crackdown. Hillary Clinton, had she defeated Trump, would have been just as ferocious an ally of the security state as Obama. Even the reviving left often hesitates to prioritize this issue. Nisha Kapoor’s astute diagnosis of modern “state extremism” in Deport, Deprive, Extradite: 21st Century State Extremism, is a welcome remedy.

In describing the birth of what he called authoritarian-statism, at the outset of neoliberalism, Nicos Poulantzas gave this warning about the growing apparatus of executive and permanent state powers, often justified as “exceptional” measures:

This veritable arsenal, which is not simply of a legal-constitutional character, does not always come to the fore in the exercise of power: it is revealed to the mass of the population (that is, to all except certain “anti-social” elements) above all through sudden jolts to its functioning. Hidden under a bushel, this arsenal is still in the republic’s reserve-stock, ready to be unleashed in a fascist-type enterprise.

Kapoor, making full use of freedom of information act requests to document her analysis, looks closely at what bloody mechanisms have been exposed to those “anti-social” elements: immigrants, asylum seekers, and terror suspects.

Over the last sixteen years, orchestrated in the name of national security, we have seen the growth of imperial apparatuses of torture, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, “black sites,” drones, and statelessness. An alliance of states led by the United States has not only increased the repressive capacities of the permanent state bureaucracy, but also lubricated the coordination between policing and military repression, between intelligence and immigration bureaus. The state remains liberal, party competition continues to function, but the reserve-stock of the republic has never seemed so overweening.

At the center of many of the “techniques of disposal” that liberal states are affording themselves in recent years, is what the Obama administration termed “The Disposition Matrix,” which catalogs the biographies, whereabouts and other information of individuals deemed a threat to the US, often on the basis of little or no evidence. A range of tactics, including revocation of citizenship, drone strikes, extradition and extraordinary rendition, transfer to secret prisons, and torture, were on the table.

Moreover, Kapoor argues, the tactics are often only separated by a “thin line of judicial oversight,” as in the case of extraordinary renditions, which are condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, and extraditions which, though almost identical, are not.

Crucially, this machinery involves the entwining of military and civilian policing, and a constant negotiation between those imperial spaces where violence is relatively unrestrained, and those where meager humanitarian laws are in force. This international web of judicial and extrajudicial violence is documented by Kapoor in a series of cases that, though described in relentlessly calm prose, leave one burning with fury.

The easiest thing to do here, for ideological purposes, might be to focus on cases of “innocent” individuals persecuted by the stated. There are plenty of cases that are plausibly like that in the book. Take Mahdi Hashi, a British citizen identified by the Egyptian dictatorship as an “extremist” after a visit there. Hounded and blackmailed by MI5, kidnapped and tortured by Somali authorities, rendered to the US and imprisoned under Special Administrative Measures imposed by the Attorney General, his family only heard about his whereabouts when he appeared in a New York court. When they sought the assistance of the British government, they were told his citizenship had been revoked and he was no longer a national.

Or one might think of others beyond the remit of the book, such as Faraj Hassan, who spent most of his adult life being hounded by the British government. Locked up for years, subject to attempted deportation and control orders, on the basis of secret evidence which neither he nor his lawyer were allowed to see. Hassan had barely won his freedom when he was killed in a collision on his motorcycle, having not even reached the age of thirty.

Outrage at such callousness is necessary, but necessarily limited, since it tacitly depends on the figure of the “good victim.” It leaves intact the idea that there is a bad guy somewhere to whom, implicitly, one can do anything. A major virtue of Kapoor’s approach, therefore, is that it doesn’t rest on such distinctions. It spares no detail in exposing the shockingly poor standards of evidence and judicial process deployed in the context of the “war on terror.”

The low threshold for criminalization is organized by a racist ideology which says that jihadist actions need no justification other than, in the words of CIA psychologist Jerrold M. Post, “in the name of Allah.” This is the contemporary version of an antiquated discourse of “native fanaticism,” invoked to explain the Indian Uprising of 1857, the Iraqi rebellion of 1920, and the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency . Exempted from political rationality, such “fanatics” can also be exempted from certain rights. As such, Kapoor is justifiably skeptical about the case made by states against the individuals they target, and stubbornly resists the easy moralizing of the front pages. But the book’s argument doesn’t require us to believe in innocence.

Consider, for example, the question of citizenship. This is the basis of all rights and political liberties. The fate of this category, and the way that new exceptions are built into it, is a good indicator of the kind of apparatus the state would like to build. Kapoor begins with this chilling statement from the UK Home Office in 2013, made in reference to twenty people who had gone to join the fighting in Syria:

Citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and the Home Secretary will remove British citizenship from individuals where she feels it is conducive to the public good to do so.

This is both an extraordinary ideological claim, uttered with appalling, cheerful sangfroid by the Home Office, and an objective statement of the facts. One person, without judicial authorization, can cancel someone’s citizenship. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism disclosed at the time, this includes people born in the UK. The Home Secretary, at the time that this declaration was made, was well-known for her tendency to factionalize with the hard-core right-wingers of the security forces and to craft legislation matching their agenda. She has since become the prime minister.

Citizenship has always been racialized, particularly in the United Kingdom. While it was initially the possession of white, propertied males, its expansion has resulted in the deployment of new exceptions, often through the vector of immigration law. Changes to British nationality law, designed to stop black British subjects from moving to the UK, created multitiered citizenship along racial lines. Now the “war on terror” has constituted new forms of exception based on the perception of the Home Secretary of a threat to national security.

One of the cases addressed by Kapoor, that of Minh Pham, demonstrates just how Orwellian the rationale can become. Pham is, like a disproportionately large number of British jihadists, a convert. Arriving at the age of six, the son of Vietnamese refugees, Pham had a difficult life growing up in Britain, and found conversion was a way out of his personal misery. Though his first stop was the unorthodox, apolitical Tablighi Jama’at missionary sect, he ended up in Yemen, aiming to fight against the oppression of Muslims, and swore allegiance to Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He worked for their magazine, Inspire, as a graphic designer. He claims to have poorly understood the organization’s politics, and been gradually repelled by what he did come to know. He also says that the only way he could get out was by agreeing to conduct a foreign operation that he had no intention of actually fulfilling.

Whatever the evidence against him, much of which came from a suspect interrogated on a “floating Gitmo,” it could have been tried in a UK court. What the Home Secretary did instead was revoke his citizenship. Then, immediately after he won an appeal against this, he was taken to Westminster Magistrates’ Court for extradition proceedings to the US to answer a Department of Justice warrant.

With the extradition approved, May went to the Court of Appeals about his citizenship. Pham had won appeal on the basis that, as the Vietnamese government did not recognize him as a national, revoking citizenship would leave him stateless. May argued that even if the Vietnamese government didn’t recognize it, he was born with Vietnamese citizenship. The court agreed. Pham was rendered stateless, without rights or protections.

Aside from the use and threat of torture against potential witnesses, another reason that it is difficult to evaluate the evidence against individuals subject to these measures is that a lot of it is bracketed under a category of “material support” for terrorism. Kapoor notes that this a black box for prosecutors, allowing them to criminalize an array of behaviors. Fahad Hashmi, an Islamist activist raised in Queens and residing in the United Kingdom, was the first person extradited to the US under a new US-UK Extradition Treaty signed in 2003.

Hashmi would have fallen under the net of detailed surveillance beginning in Queens, where the NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” mapped and surveilled multiple aspects of community life to develop intelligence fitting crude and reductive stereotypes. Levels of religiosity among Muslims were quantified, businesses which broadcast Al Jazeera were noted, shops selling halal, or not selling alcohol, were recorded.

Hashmi attended Brooklyn College, one of the colleges whose Muslim Society was deemed by NYPD to be “of concern.” Politicized by questions of imperialism, he joined al-Muhajiroun. However, none of this is criminal behavior. The evidence against him came from Mohammed Junaid Babar, a “supergrass” who rolled over as soon as he was caught. Babar had visited Hashmi in the UK, bringing with him luggage including ponchos and socks, which the authorities classified as “military training gear.” The indictment against Hashmi cited the fact that Babar had stayed in his house with the ponchos and socks, and that Hashmi had used his phone, as constituting “material support” for terrorism.

The degradation of standards of evidence, the new tiers of citizenship, the emerging forms of banishment, kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial killing are linked to the development of centralized state apparatuses of limited accountability, often beyond the reach of the representative system. Unsurprisingly, it is on the twin axes of imperialism and border control that the most autocratic, unaccountable, and potentially dangerous elements of the liberal state have been built.

This has provoked justified resistance, albeit often of a liberal populist kind, focusing on a rights discourse and, for example, defending British sovereignty against US imperialism without, as Kapoor notes, taking note of the global racial stratification underlying these cases. The campaign to defend Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, for example, sought to line up their persecution with the cases of Gary McKinnon and Richard O’Dwyer, two white British hackers lined up for extradition, whose cases were more sympathetically treated in the press.

Such broad appeals are sometimes necessary, but in this case it aligned the campaign with a discourse of “British justice,” failing to notice the way in which this language had been used to support deportation and various linked measures. The violence of sovereignty, its colonial origin, and the fact that it always posits a racial Other who is excluded, means that some targets of state violence are poorly served by such language. Kapoor rightly pays tribute to the politically harder anti-racist and anti-imperialist campaigns organized by Britain’s postcolonial subjects, not least that mounted with impressive energy by Talha Ahsan’s brother, Hamja.

The structures of racism penetrating deep into the state also represent a serious challenge to the British left. As Kapoor points out, Corbyn’s support for Babar Ahmed and Talha Ahsan was among the reasons he was vilified in the British press. His record of opposition to the security state, secret trials, torture, and dodgy extraditions, especially in Ireland, has been the basis of a relentless campaign of character assassination.

The libels currently being ineptly spread by the tabloids and Tory MPs about Corbyn’s spying for communism, are also supported by ex-spooks, such as the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove. These elements of the state, today’s analogues of those which were once deployed in Ireland, which supported Loyalist death squads and incubated plots against Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, are part of the antidemocratic legacy of imperialism. This veritable arsenal is aimed at “anti-social” elements for now, but it also has functions in reserve.

And yet, the party which Corbyn leads, the Labour Party, is still unable to address this problem. However radical Labour’s 2017 manifesto was in many ways, it said nothing about rolling back the mechanisms bequeathed by the “war on terror.” This reflects a major historical weakness for Labour, which was always its loyalty to the constitutional status quo.

Corbyn himself doesn’t share in these weaknesses. Indeed, in many ways, Corbyn’s foreign policy represents a far bigger break with Labour’s past than his social-democratic economic policies. But he has also been forced to compromise with his parliamentary party, on NATO, nukes, and security policy. And with Brexit in the foreground, and the media ever baying in the background, there is little sign of those pressures relenting.

A Corbyn-led administration would not avoid being undermined by the security state if it treated these apparatuses and their undemocratic concentration of power with kid gloves. The issue is not an optional one for us.