My friend and frequent sparring partner Daveed Gartenstein-Ross thinks I wrote “an epistemological wreck” about the Mukhtarov case last week. He raises some good points, and also neglects some follow-up work on what we covered here. So in the spirit of collegial debate, I figured I should respond.
One thing Daveed and I disagree on is the presumption of Mukhtarov’s guilt. That doesn’t mean he’s not guilty — I am trying to keep an open mind — but as I noted in a followup post, Mukhtarov has a truly bizarre personal history as a human rights activist resisting Karimov’s tyranny that makes me question if he really did convert to become a terrorist after being evacuated to the U.S. as a refugee. That doesn’t mean he didn’t (it’s happened before) but given how commonly groups that resist Central Asian regimes are called terrorists — and how fuzzy they’re defined, and how much they engage in bombast on the Internet, both of which are germane to this discussion — I do think it’s better to stay skeptical rather than gullible about the indictment.
Now, despite Daveed and my agreements on the pitfalls of relying on the Uzbek government to designate groups as terrorists, that doesn’t mean there’s something weird going on about the arrest. As Daveed notes, Mukhtarov does seem to have fallen afoul of the “material support” laws in the U.S. My argument, poorly stated in that initial post, was that those laws are themselves inherently flawed, a point JM Berger also picked up on in the comments and as I repeated. Saying the law is flawed is not the same as saying Mukhtarov broke no law, which is what Daveed (incorrectly) reduces my argument to.
All that being said, and this is separate from me and Daveed, there is a growing chorus of skeptics that seem to allege some sort of weird-ass plot between the Uzbek government and the State Department, or whatever, to trade Mukhtarov, a prominent dissident, in exchange for access to the NDN. That is, put simply, silly and completely without data even to suggest it is the case. I can say that more than one U.S. official working on Uzbek policy was genuinely surprised by Mukhtarov’s arrest, and it almost certainly wasn’t a feature of the NDN negotiations (and it isn’t something either State or DOD would do anyway). That being said, Turkey does have a large Uzbek population, and that population is vocal in its dissidence and opposition to the Karimov regime. There are perfectly legitimate and innocent reasons for Mukhtarov to travel there, whatever his emailed statements have said.
Back to Daveed’s point: about the real threat posed by the IJU, he too engages in some epistemological perfidy. While scolding me for reducing the Mukhtarov indictment to “crimes on a chatroom,” Daveed pulls from the indictment itself a list of crimes that include sending emails favorable of Juma Namangani and saying he supports the goals of a website administrator. I fail to see the distinction, even if he is working on semantics rather than specifics, between “email correspondence with a website administrator” and “crimes on a chatroom.” It comes down to a lot of big talk on the Internet (including the bay’ah, because who ever engages in hyperbole on the Internet, ever?) and the purchase of a plane ticket. I don’t dispute that that can constitute a U.S. crime — I do, however, think that is a dumb basis for a law.
Then there’s Daveed’s point that the IJU is a really real thing that does stuff and is scary. His evidence for it indicates the problem with designating such groups: the 2007 Germany investigation was for supposed operatives of the Islamic Jihad Group, which might be the same thing as the Islamic Jihad Union (or it might not, since the two maintain different websites and claim responsibility for different attacks). While the IJU website administrators claim responsibility for a lot of attacks, this is hardly unique within the community of crazy dudes with beards and websites (the KavKaz Center is a great example of such wannabe terrorist bombast). Apart from the IMU, which does have a defined organization, web presence, and has openly engaged in militant activities, the IJU/IJG groups are much harder to define, more difficult to pin down, and half the time don’t even correspond in Uzbek (the German operatives could not communicate in Uzbek, but rather spoke German).
Now, getting ideas from a website or chat group (like the three Germans) and buying explosives can legitimately be called a crime. But Mukhtarov didn’t do that: he allegedly got ideas from a website and bought a plane ticket. This is the crux of my skepticism with this case: lots of people talk big on the Internet, and lots of groups that don’t exist much outside of the Internet and Northwest Pakistan like to lay claim to things to appear more powerful than they are. Think of when Zabiullah Mujahid had to withdraw a Taliban claim to have assassinated Berhanuddin Rabbani — sure they could have actually done it, but they also use claims and retractions strategically to achieve messaging goals. Just because a group says it has global aspirations, that doesn’t mean they are capable of global action or warrant a global response. And just because Mukhtarov said some scary things on the Internet, that doesn’t mean he committed any traditionally-defined crimes in doing so. To criminalize this sort of correspondence veers dangerously close to creating thought-crimes.
So when Daveed says that I argued the IJU doesn’t exist, he’s misrepresenting my argument, and when he says that I think the Uzbek authorities duped the U.S. into arresting Mukhtarov, he is misrepresenting my argument once again. I did neither of those things: I argued that the U.S. gets bad information from the Uzbek government, and that this has led some analysts and officials to overstate or hype the threat posed by these groups, and that some of them, like the IJU, either do very little or exist mostly on the Internet and thus don’t really post a vital risk to anyone. Despite his lengthy bluster about the indictment, none of the facts and arguments Daveed produces — when he even produces them accurately — address those concerns, and simply noting that the IJU websites want Europeans hardly justifies such an angry response to skepticism about a terrorism indictment (and don’t even get me started on the ridiculous playing up of “khorasan” that pollutes the Counterterrorism writing on this stuff).
In short, Daveed’s and my disagreement comes back to an argument we had about a year ago about the nature and process of radicalization: whether you take people at their literal word or not. The way the U.S. government tends to view radicalization treats it not only as something that can be easily tracked using indirect indicators, and as something that is driven by ideology rather than environmental factors — think of the dispute over whether religion actually does play a role in radicalization in this post. There, Daveed had rejected taking people at their word when discussion their descent into radicalization and terrorism; here, however, he seems to think that bombast on the Internet constitutes an appropriate threshold for arresting someone.
Daveed seems to think that if someone talks big on the Internet then boards a plane to a country with a major dissident population from your distant homeland, it makes sense to arrest that person on suspicion of terrorism. I think that makes no sense, since it doesn’t constitute anything we’d normally consider criminal. That Daveed lapses into caricature while complaining that I’ve done the same? Well… this is the Internet, after all. People engage in bombast.