Category Archives: human rights

Mapping Bannon’s Ban

We learned about the impending arrival of Donald Trump’s decision to ban citizens or refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries before the executive order on immigration and refugees was released, or able to be read or appeared online.  For Trump described its arrival with a flourish in his visit to the Pentagon, relishing his arrival in the center of military power on which he had long set his eyes.  Perhaps because this was Trump regards the Ban, championed as “border security measures” needed to defend national safety, as a promise made to the American people during his Presidential campaign–rather than an action undertaken as a sitting President.  In ways that set the stage for his administration’s current plans for deporting illegal immigrants from the United States by thousands of newly-hired border agents, the massive remapping of who was able to enter the United States–and the suspension of the rights of those applying for visas as tourists or workers, or for refugee status–eliminated the concept of according any rights for immigrants or refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries on the basis of the danger that they allegedly collectively constituted to the United States.  The rubric of “enhancing public safety within the interior United States” is based on a new way of mapping the power of government to collectively stigmatize and deny rights to a large section of the world, and separate the United States from previous human rights accords.

It has escaped few that the extra-governmental channels of communication Trump preferred as a candidate and is privileging in his attacks on the media indicates his preference for operating outside established channels–in ways which dangerously to appeal to the nation to explain the imminent vulnerabilities to the nation from afar.  Trump has regularly claimed to undertake “the most substantial border security measures in a generation to keep our nation and our tax dollars safe” in a speech made “directly to the American people,” as if outside a governmental apparatus or legislative review.  And while claiming to have begun “the most substantial border security measures in a generation to keep our nation and our tax dollars safe” in speeches made “directly to the american people with the media present, . . . because many of our reporters . . . will not tell you the truth,” he seems to relish the declaration of an expansion of policies to police entrance to the country, treating the nation as if an expensive nightclub or exclusive resort, where he can determine access by policies outside a governmental apparatus or legislative review.   Even after the unanimous questioning by an appellate court of the constitutionality of the executive order issued to bar both refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, Trump insists he is still keeping every option open and on the verge this coming week of just filing a brand new order designed to leave more families in legal limbo and refugees safely outside of the United States, in ways that have sent waves of fear among refugees already in the Untied States about their future security, and among refugees in camps across the Middle East.  The new order–which exempts visa holders from the nations, as well as green card holders, and does not target Syrian refugees when processing visas–nonetheless is directed to the identical seven countries, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya, while retaining a policy of or capping the number of refugees granted citizenship or immigrant status, taking advantage of a linguistic slippage between the recognition of their refugee status and the designation as refugees of those fleeing their home countries.  While the revised Executive Order seems to restore the proposed ceiling of 50,000 refugees chosen in 1980 for those fleeing political chaos with “well-founded fears of persecution,” the new policy, unlike the Refugee Act of 1980, makes no attempt to provide a flexible mechanism to take account of growing global refugee problems even as it greatly exaggerates the dangers refugees admitted to America pose, and inspires fear in an increasingly vulnerable population of displaced peoples.

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Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration rather openly blocks entry to the country in ways that reorient the relation of the United States to the world.  It disturbingly remaps our national policy of international humanitarianism, placing a premium on our relation to terrorist organizations:   at a stroke, and without consultation with our allies, it closes our borders to foreign entry to all visa holders or refugees in something more tantamount to a quarantine of the sort that Donald Trump advocated in response to the eruption of infections from Ebola than to a credible security measure.  The fear of attack is underscored in the order.  The mapping of danger to the country is rooted in a promise to “keep you safe” that of course provokes fears and anxieties of dangers, as much as it responds to an actual cause.  And despite the stay on restraints of immigrations for those arriving from the seven countries whose residents are being denied visas by executive fiat, the drawing of borders under the guise of “extreme vetting,” and placing the dangers of future terrorist attacks on the “Homeland” in seven countries far removed from our shores, as if to give the nation a feeling of protection, even if our nation was never actually challenged by these nations or members of any nation state.  The result has already inspired fear and panic among many stranded overseas, and increase fear at home of alleged future attacks, that can only bolster executive authority in unneeded ways.

 

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The genealogy of executive prerogatives to defend the borders and bounds of the nation demands to be examined.  Even while insisting on the need for speed, security, and unnamed dangers, the Trump administration continues to accuse the courts of having made an undue “political decision” in ways that ignore constitutional due process by asserting executive prerogative to redraw the map of respecting human rights and mapping the long unmapped terrorist threats to the nation to make them appear concrete.  For while the dangers of terrorist attack were never mapped with any clear precision for the the past fifteen years since the attacks of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, coordinated by members of the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda, Trump has misleadingly promised a clear remapping of the dangers that the nation faces, which he insists hat the nation and his supporters were long entitled to have, as if meeting the demand to remap the place of terrorism in an increasingly dangerous world.  The specter of civil rights violations of a ban on Muslims entering the United States had been similarly quite abruptly re-mapped the actual relation of the United States to the world, in ways that evoke the PATRIOT act, by preventing the entry of all non-US residents from these nations.  Much as the PATRIOT act led to the detention of Arab and Muslim suspects, even without evidence, the executive order that Trump issued banned all residents of these seven Muslim-majority nations.  The above map, which was quickly shown on both FOX and CNN alike to describe the regions identified as sites of potential Jihadi danger immediately oriented Americans to the danger of immigrants as if placing the country on a state of yellow alert.

There is some irony hile terrorist networks have rarely been mapped with precision–and are difficult to target even by drone strikes, the executive order goes far beyond the powers granted to immigration authorities to allow the “territoritorial integrity of the United States,” even as the territory of the United States is of course not actually under attack.

 

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What sort of world do Trump and his close circle of advisors live–or imagine that they live?  “It is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of the country,” Trump tried to clarify on February 1, as the weekend ended.   We’re all too often reminded that it was all about “preventing foreign terrorists from entering the United States,” as Trump insists, oblivious to the bluntness of a blanket targeting of everyone with a visa or citizenship from seven nations of Muslim majority–a blunt criteria indeed–often not associated with specific terrorist threats, and far fewer than Muslim-majority nations worldwide.

 

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The recent revelation of Trump’s own preference for declarative maps within his daily intelligence briefings–a “single page, with lots of graphics and maps” according to one official familiar with his daily intelligence briefings–not only indicate the possibility that executive order may have indeed developed after consulting maps, but underscore the need to examine the silences that surround its blunt mapping of terrorism.  PDB’s provide distillations of diplomatic, intelligence, and military information, and could include interactive maps or video when President Obama received PDB’s on his iPad, even encouraging differing or dissenting opinions, and demand disciplined attention, lest one is distracted by uncorroborated information or raw intelligence—or untrained in discriminating voices from different areas of expertise.  Is the synthesis an act of intellectual engagement Trump is experienced?  Given his longstanding plans to limit the role of a Director of National Intelligence, tasked to synthesize the sixteen intelligence offices in government, and the confirmation of the Director after the Executive Order was issued, Trump most probably based the decision on the information-gathering system developed on the campaign trail.

 

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The sudden and dramatic shrinkage of the  increasingly streamlined Presidential Daily Briefings to but a page omits more information than it is bound to include.  As maps are apt all the more to mislead–and indeed, to present and privilege only a single point of view–Trump prefers the inclusion of a map within increasingly streamlined Presidential Daily Briefings from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, without dissenting views or conflicting opinions.  While continuing a brief summary of recent breaking events deserving Presidential attention, and are given to the President-Elect to allow she or he to get “up to speed” with global events, tand for the intelligence community to prevent the President’s team and administration to “settle into a narrative” of policy-making:  the regular provision of the PDB provides intelligence officials an opportunity to challenge the worldview of the president-elect’s political advisers with a dose of reality.  Former CIA Director Michael Hayden described its provision as the “phenomenon of the unpleasant fact,” when “You’re telling them something they don’t want to hear and don’t want to believe” to challenge their world view, delivered in -person “to shake the preferred narrative of the policymaker,” and to do so “with your tone, and your words and your body language to communicate, as opposed to just throwing it over the transom.”  Already as President Elect, Trump revealed not only ambivalence to the standard routes or channels of intelligence-provision–“I get it when I need it,” Trump told Fox News Sunday–and a certain arrogance, rather than hearing from a broad array of experts.  Its focus reflects a geographic preoccupation or concern:  if President Nixon’s briefing focussed on Vietnam and China; Ronald Reagan’s was almost singularly obsessed with the Soviet Union; recent PDB’s focus largely on the Middle East and Russia.  How much gets through?

It should escape no one that the Executive Order on Immigration arrives at a time when the sudden contraction diminished the provision of information from intelligence officials and powerful filters in Presidential advisors’ hands to create or fashion their own narratives:   the advisers are charged to distill global conflicts to the dimensions of a page, double-spaced and with all relevant figures, that give prominent position to a single map.   Such distilled Daily Briefings have recently varied in length considerably.  But one might worry about the shortened length by which recent PDB’s provide a means for the intelligence community to adapt to a given President:  Trump’s President’s Daily Briefing on security threats around the entire globe reduced to but one page, including charts, the maps included are dangerously likely to perpetuate the distorted images of the dangers of Islam perpetuated in maps that are used as guidelines for Border Control.

For such maps suit the purpose of foregrounding one perspective, if they digest information in a way easy to understand.  The immorality of the ban on visitors and refugees from seven countries is a gift to hard-line rulers, rather than effecting terrorism.  But it bears noting that the Travel Ban may actually reflect the currency of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories within Trump’s cabinet:   for Bannon, a former film-maker turned Breitbart executive, has distortingly labeled Muslim-American groups as “cultural jihadists” intent on destroying American society and Western Civilization,  in the past offered a podium to groups Americans of the cultural danger of Islam, hoping to make Americans feel threatened by Muslim organizations.  His planned 2007 bizarre proposal for a film conjuring the spectre of America’s takeover by an Islamic “Fifth Column” about a Muslim takeover that produced a regime change that lead to the imposition of Sharia religion–The Islamic States of America, which set a bizarre precedent for the willful conflation of the legal code of Islam with a terrorist threat.   Bannon’s proposed film script may seem a bizarrely indulgent fantasy, but led Bannon to caution against the threat of the “Muslim World” in the Vatican in 2014, asserting “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global.”  He has now gained a platform for airing his views, irrespective of civil liberties.

Is the notion of such a threat behind Trump’s proposed Islamic Ban, and the image of “unifying the country” the Trump puts forth?  Indeed, in singling out Muslims to whom it attributes “hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles” of the United States, as “those who would place violent ideologies over American law,” the conjuring of Shariah law as a separate civilization and tradition creates not only a narrative that opposes Islam and the West, but Islamic nations against the United States of America, giving validity to anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the bluntness of Bannon’s own views that ‘Christianity is dying in Europe and Islam is on the rise,” and lends currency to the anti-Islamic fears of the threat Islamic codes posed to American freedom of the sort Bannon fostered in his film, and in the fake news that circulated on Breitbart News of a “stealthy, subversive jihad.” Indeed, wrapping anti-Islamism in patriotic rhetoric encourage the urgency of containing “Radical Islam” as a way to purge, cleanse, or protect our nation, society and culture from impending threats, and of conflating religion and state in truly un-American ways.

 

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In a manner far removed from American foreign policy expertise, the recent ‘Islamic Ban’ unjustifiably maps the danger of Islamicist menace, however.  And its fears have been echoed by the bizarre insistence that its suspension has already allowed an “onrush” of refugees from seven “suspect” nations to occur, in ways that frame a geography of distrust and spatial imaginary of national vulnerability in urgent and quite dangerous ways.  In ways that recall the sudden large scale “detention without bond” of Arab and Muslim non-citizens in the panicked months after 9/11, as ad hoc  laws legitimated the “haphazard and indiscriminate” suspected terrorists, the  expansion of the executive prerogative mirrors presumption until proven otherwise of large numbers of non-citizen residents and foreigners.   Detention until presumed relation to the threat of terrorism was proven, or the suspect removed from the nation, in the PATRIOT Act during the Bush administration was expanded grounds for immigrants’ detention for national safety, as the denial of all visas or recognition of refugees from war-torn regions as Syria, Sudan, and Iraq–all without ties to terrorist networks–was suddenly decreed.  The executive order erased individuals’ guilt or actual involvement by subsuming their fate within a question of border security and national security.

 

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By suspending civil rights and refugee processing in order to “ensure our immigration system is not a vehicle for terrorists,” national dangers needed to be mapped.  The definition of seven nations asserted the perception of a source for danger with no discernible legal basis, by naturalizing the citizens of these nations as enemies of danger to the state, in ways that seem to mask quite half-heartedly its targeting of members of the Islamic faith.  For the executive order creates a map of terror to magnify actual threats of a terrorist strike on United States soil in unprecedented ways.    Although the ban asserted only to allow faithful execution of immigration laws already on the books, and only to last three or four months, the practices of detainment until the threat of terrorist ties was in fact assessed has been radically expanded in the promotion of Islam into an existential threat by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, and Steve Bannon.  While President Trump, obliviously, has asserted the “very, very strict ban” was “working out very nicely,”the roll-out was not only disastrous, but placed many in places of panic, led flights to be cancelled, and others to be returned to their destinations or prevented from travel.  The result was to implement a “Constitution-Free Zone” not only at our borders, but in our airports–oddly analogous to the shrunken borders of rights in this image of the zone where United States Custom and Border Protection agents operate, and enjoy broad powers and often justify warrantless searches.

 

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While such warrantless searches are only conducted with “reasonable suspicion” in this border zone near “ports of entry,” the restrictions of entering the nation was intended to prevent all citizens of Islamic-Majority states without justification from entering the United States.  And no sleight of hand is able better to convincingly manufacture and embody the danger of such an unidentifiable threat as a map.  And the certainty by which the map demonstrates the ability by executive fiat to “suspend the entry” of “any class of aliens,” according to the Cold-War era Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 19522, judged “detrimental to the interest of the United States” has created a basis for invoking the territorial borders at the nation’s airports in ways oddly jarring in an age of international air travel.  It seems all too fitting that the time-travel supposed President expands the detention of immigrants deemed dangerous to the nation in the PATRIOT Act, designating a broad range of nationals as in danger of exporting terror to the United States–in a particularly effective exercise of collective psychology.  In ways that seem to spawn a newly increased level of fear–and to use fears to justify the new needs for national defense–Trump seems to have begun from a new attempt to map and concretize the existence of actual threats that endanger our democracy, albeit in quite disproportionately exaggerated and deeply unjustified ways.

The map of “nations impacted” by what was designated in shorthand as a “Travel Ban”that policy adviser Miller called “beyond question” was widely mapped as covering an expanded region identified as dangerous to the nation’s domestic security.  The residents have been placed at a pen-stroke at a collective remove from the United States that will be difficult to bridge for some time, even if the executive order designed to obstruct mobility and travel has been issued to play to audiences of Trump supporters at home.  Trump is said to be fond of maps, requesting multiple maps and graphics in single-page policy papers–the President likes maps,” said an official in the Trump White House–and the direct signifying power of a map with clear borders seem to have provided him with the clearest way to get a handle on terrorist threats early in his administration.

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Filed under Customs and Border Protection, Donald Trump, human rights, Immigration Ban, refugees

Finding Aleppo in a War-Torn World

The deep frustration at being able to map the Syrian civil war around Aleppo–combining the actual inability to map the factions in the conflict, and the actual unmappability of the deeply unsettling destabilization of civil society in the five-year civil war which is waged by outside actors, as much as by the Syrian government–has sapped confidence in the ability to negotiate a cease-fire or indeed to find a civil solution to a conflict that has both created an ongoing flow of refugees and destroyed civil society in the region, as well as an equilibrium of power.  And the more we are frustrated in being unable to map the conflict and its descent into inhumane violence, the more violent it has become and the farther removed from being able to exist again as a country.

 

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Any theater of war is extremely difficult to endow with coherence in a map–one speaks of the “fog of war” to describe the clouded experience in the confusion of military conflicts.  But the difficulty of gaining purchase on the extent of the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo that is particularly troubling–and troublingly matched by the difficulty of mapping or imagining the targeting of the city and Aleppo’s inhabitants and the refugees who have left the city.  The failure to describe, document, or respond to the costs in the sustained aerial bombardment in recent months seems an abdication of ethical responsibility before such escalated destruction that almost fails to acknowledge its scope.  The terror of aerial strikes against civilians have led to the targeted destruction of schools and hospitals in the rebel-occupied regions of the city hard to imagine, as a besieged city is isolated from the world.  While we don’t have access to the maps and plans that were used during the sustained engagement of rebel forces in Aleppo, and have rather watched screen-shots of the diminishing areas of the region “held” by “rebel forces” over months, those very images distance us from the human rights tragedies that is occurring on the ground with the dismantling of public health care and social institutions, as if extending so many false possibilities of the tenuous grasp over territory of opposition groups.  With unclear data on suffering, deaths, refugees or destroyed buildings in the encircled city, we map territory as the clearest index of the balance of war, but ignore the scale or scope of its ongoing bombardment and destruction, as the country has not only “gone dark”–

 

 

–but the city destroyed under unimaginable sustained assault.

 

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News wire sources have tried to “map” the extent of those lines areas held in the heavily bombed city, to be sure, in recent months.  But the absence of clear lines of jurisdiction or control of a battle that is increasingly waged from a move–but shown as if it were a land war–echoes the military divisions of cities in ways that seem incommensurate with the suffering or mischaracterization of the actors of the war, and the lack of limits with which the Assad regime has enlisted foreign help to destroy its former cultural capital and economic hub, as if trying to efface the opposition that it has for so long successfully tarred by their association to ISIS and the Islamic State–and as a media blitz has tried to portray the battle in Aleppo as a fight against ISIS rather than a defining moment in the escalation of military forces against one’s own people by Bashar al-Assad.

Even though the aerial attacks on Aleppo began as early as July 2012, the escalation of attacks by Russian bombers that began to target buildings and humanitarian supplies with intensity from July 2016.  While we were in the midst of the farce of our recent American Presidential election, we have watched maps of the Syrian conflict at an odd remove, depicting the city the city as a multi-colored sectored region, as if a point of stasis in slippy map of sovereignty, as much as a focal point where five different forces seem to lock horns.  The disservice of these opaque colors seem to erase and to be done such a deep disservice with Microsoft Paint.  And as we do so, we can only fail in an attempt to chart the intensification of suffering that is only like to increase in coming months, as the shrinking green lands held by rebel forces have depicted the so-called “situation in Syria” in increasingly disembodied fashion.

 

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As we watch the layers of colors, trying to map the levels of conflict from an empyrean remove that has echoed the official policy of not putting “boots on the ground,” we fail to account for the destruction of houses, massive departures of residents, targeting of humanitarian assistance and destroyed infrastructure and human services in the city.  The layers with which we discriminate a war-torn city set to conceal terrifying human costs in the rather terrifying palette of pastels in its curious camouflage, as if to hold out hope for an amicable solution, but to erase the destruction of civilian lives, hospitals, residences, or food and needs supplies that tried to arrive in the light green rebel-held areas of the city that suggest an island around the Citadel of Aleppo.

 

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For the limited information about Aleppo’s continued destruction by aerial attacks as well as bombardments makes the extent of the human costs its destruction increasingly difficult to render with coherence.  This absence of this coherence perhaps leadt some twenty-nine million to be struck by viewing the dazed five-year old Omran Daqneesh and the tragically bloodstained face from which he gazes somewhat stoically and looks at his bloodied hand–as if dazed to be transported from the scenario of violence in which he lived to what seems a setting of sanitized medical care, his blood-stained face contrasting to the clean orange cushions of an emergency ambulance.  The transferal of Omran from the battlefield like context of Aleppo to the emergency health care vehicle show him dazed not only at his change of context, but almost in shock of being in a controlled ambulance in which he sits, if a sign of hope, is also emblematic of the inability or difficulty to bridge the controlled context of medical and clinical care of the Emergency Medical Services and the rubble of the besieged city, almost the negative image of a controlled environment:  the image circulated by Aleppo Media Centre was emblematic of the dissonance between the emergency services and the onslaught of bombs where civilians are targeted daily amidst the rubble of the besieged city, so that the dazed look of poor Omran seems a substitute for our own helpless bewilderment at the war crime of the sustained aerial bombing of Aleppo’s buildings, health care providers, hospitals, and inhabitants.

 

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If the image is manipulative–and difficult to include in yet another post on Aleppo–its power seems to derive from the failure we feel between inability of the child who touches his hand to his head, to take stock of his head injury as he tries to process the loss of his family, after being carried by an emergency worker into the new setting of an ambulance.   The image was so poignant it was shared so widely all over the world on Facebook, as we searched collectively for an emblem of good, of one child rescued from the violence of Aleppo–as nine million Facebook users tried to transcend the broken windows, destroyed buildings, and slim hopes for the survival of Aleppo’s citizens, increasingly targeted in inhumane ways to which we are so unable to respond.

For if there is a lack of any coherent purchase on the city’s destruction on such an unprecedented scale of its bombardment, even for the Syrian Civil War, the saving of one child after his family was lost allowed the survival of a child to exist in the blood-streaked face of the five-year-old Omran Daqneesh that circulated globally on social media seemed finally to locate a “face of the Syrian Civil War” against the city’s dire destruction.  Indeed, the actual improvised settings of health care in eastern Aleppo–

 

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–continued as bombs continued to strike the neighborhoods and where the living and dead lay beside one another in emergency rooms that lacked adequate medical supplies.  The absence of medical assistance or facilities, even as Bashar al Assad rejects the last proposal proposed by the United Nations for a local truce that recognized any claims to separate sovereignty of rebel forces, if it was not armed, arguing that it was a violation of “national sovereignty,” seems to have invited an endgame of increased military raids, as the “area held by rebel forces” has shrunk in recent days to a small region curving around the medieval fortified Citadel, sandwiched between advancing regime forces.

 

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The garishly bloodied face of Omran, the sole survivor of an air strike on his family home in Aleppo’s rebel -held territories, seemed a ghost, but served as a respite from images of the dead, and his transport to an ambulance from the horror of Aleppo seemed a promise of the future.  The image posted by the Aleppo Media Center provided little orientation to the actual struggle, but the apparent shock of the contrast of Omram’s evident transport, his face and T-shirt covered in dirt and blood, to safety offered more than a reprieve from image of dead children:  seated in an ambulance, fingering his bloodied head, his place provided a bizarre juxtaposition of a world of safety and medical supplies who had moved from the bombing of his family’s building in a war-torn city we can barely map.  The arrival of the child into a setting of Western safety almost seemed an image of the precareity of saving a child out of its destruction, and preserved an odd ability of hope even as airstrikes would soon hit four hospitals in east Aleppo, and continue to target civilians.

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Filed under Aleppo, data overlays, human rights, Syrian Civil War, Syrian Free Army

1.2 Million Lego Pieces Map Resistance to Imprisonment

The Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei was clearly attracted to the prospect of creating site-specific sculptures for the cavernous nineteenth-century prison structures on Alcatraz island, a long unused federal penitentiary which concretized state power in the mind of many Americans over the last century, as a site to reflect on conditions of imprisonment world-wide.  For the now abandoned structures of the hulking prison island still seem inhabited by ghosts of the past, and high on atmospherics, even as its space has been reclaimed by Ai’s site-specific remapping of the spirits of the imprisoned.

 

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For Ai’s art seems to have relaxed into the monumental fortress like buildings of detention in a defiant forms and brilliantly colored works of art; even if he never visited the site, the former setting of forced imprisonment gives resonance to fitting the pavement with portraits that map ongoing global detention of free speech.  The empty monumental structures of the labor hall, individual cells, sites of solitary confinement and prison corridors  reflect on those detained across the globe and the daily difficulty of wrestling with their conditions of continued confinement by different states, from China to the US.  Indeed, the widespread use of solitary confinement in Alcatraz–a pitch black cell for torturing many of its prisoners that was developed by the prison’s former Chief Warden Edwin James and  E.B. Tiller in rooms whose impermeable layers of steel masked the entrance of light or sound in Alcatraz’ Cellblock D from 1940, long a corridor of solitary isolation cells including a room of bare concrete save a hole in the floor, without clothes–

 

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–with limited interest in the rights or lives of the incarcerated who were allowed to live in an without light or sound and only a metal frame bed, sink, and toilet, and one pair of shorts for up to nineteen continuous days to enforce prison discipline.  Alcatraz was not the first site of isolation by any means, but a site for its preservation where prisoners were forced to Personally, I find it is crucial to use moments of isolation as ways to develop self-control in order as in “control[ling] our inner self, we have won our first battle for freedom,” and the preservation of internal freedoms during imprisonment is celebrated  in Ai Wei Wei’s installation.  And at the same time as the use of solitary confinement has expanded, and unlawful detainees remain in the Guantanamo Bay complex of detention is not able to be closed while it holds five detainees, despite urging to congressional leaders for its closure, it is more than incumbent to remember the need to resist the civil rights violations of such inhumane units of segregation, and to draw sustainable to continue to do so–and to not forget the injustices daily faced by incarcerated populations.

 

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The cell becomes the only space to “create right” by exercise, meditation, refleciton.  Isolation of prisoners, extended periods of forced solitude, and sensory deprivation is inhumane but continues to be used by many state prison authorities and in the authorities that run and operate units of incarceration the country, where 23-or 24-hour isolation is common and such intentional violations of prisoners’ rights not only in supermax prisons and have exponentially increased as a means to illustrate total control over imprisoned.  If such incarcerated populations are compelled to treat the isolation cell as a laboratory in response to the harsh conditions of dark, unmitigated electric lighting, or cold:  the bright re-imaging the faces of the imprisoned creates the Cell Blocks of Alcatraz as a new sort of performance space to map imprisonment far beyond its walls from the unique perspective Alcatraz offers on solitary isolation,  in contrast to the hard stares of those imprisoned–

 

 

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We’re actually a part of the reality, and if we don’t realize that, we are totally irresponsible,” the dissident artist Ai Wei Wei has said about his work, and in being “part of the reality [of incarceration] means that we need to produce another reality”–and to map one.  By replacing the colorless pavement of several of the Cell Blocks in Alcatraz with an alternate reality of vibrant colors not only of Lego portraits, but of the colored paper of huge dragons of the imagination, the austere burdens of the grey floors and pale green walls of Alcatraz are in a sense re-inhabited.  Ai’s placement of a set of day-glo images of the imprisoned and detained within a former site of confinement famed as a site of solitary isolation, built in a former fortress in San Francisco Bay to be removed from contact with the outside world, provides a point of reflection on the reality of imprisonment worldwide.

Using a plethora of pieces of lego, ceramic blossoms, and Chinese kites of dragons, and recorded song, Ai has both celebrated the possibility of ongoing resistance in the space of forced sequestration into a message of hope for all those detained, sending, despite his own limited circumstances of travel, instructions for media to inhabit the prison and sought to raise questions of the ever-encroaching global circumscription of freedom that ask us to map and to accept responsibility for the confinement of of global champions of free speech, and indeed to try to open the survival of spirit in the halls of imprisonment.

 

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Ai has long been committed to creating a deeply “social sculpture” and to do so through an awareness of the architectural space in which each of his works is constructed and situated, as well as the sense of space it creates for its viewers or users–from the analogue architecture of his popular blog or twitterfeed to built spaces to the deep sense of cultural inter-relationships that his work communicates.  The canvas of pieces of Lego that temporarily filled the New Industries Building on Alcatraz Island presented an alternate surface of mugshots of recently confined spokespeople or human rights heroes in brilliant colored pieces of plastic–creating the sort of odd juxtaposition of form ant site, media across time, that wasn’t about imprisonment per se, echoing the pixellated images of each figure that we might see in mass media, filling the floor that lies above a basement filled with a wing made of tin teapots and solar cookers–the patience of the imprisoned?–whose confined space stands in juxtaposition with the airy room in which tourists crowded to see–and try to identify–the portraits of politically imprisoned in a mute surface made from $450,000 worth of multicolored pieces of Lego, converting one of the clunkiest of modernity’s concrete metaphors into a tool of subversive playfulness.

 

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The famously outsized scale of many of the pieces in this show recall Ai’s similarly hypertrophied assembly of 1,000 sq meters of plastic backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst that remember the lives lost in the tragedy of a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, but the metaphorical wealth of the similarly bright mosaics of Lego have less overpowering impact than the five-color statement of the fragility of life–“for seven years, she lived happily on this earth,” the sewn dayglo backpacks read, bitterly–

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–but rather an image of the bitterness of the global status quo.  The flatness of the images push visitors to fathom the depths of the resources of their resistance, if only focussing on the bright surface of their spirits, but don’t expose their hand.

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The colored pavement of pixellated portraits of one hundred and seventy six recent prisoners of conscience map global imprisonment in a one-brick layer of Lego runs across the grey floor of a cavernous room of the abandoned New Industries Building in the former high-security federal prison.  The choice of a world-famous former prison such as Alcatraz, isolated on an island in San Francisco Bay, by the For Site foundation to locate these technicolor mug shots of detained champions of human rights is particularly apt site.  The temporary construction of 1.2 million Lego pieces serves as a canvas to commemorate the resistance of those charges or convicted of crimes in the complex of one hundred and seventy-six figures create an atlas of imprisonment–from familiar faces from the late Nelson Mandela (imprisoned in solitary South Africa from 1962 to 1989) to Aung San Suu Kyi (under house arrest house arrest in Myanmar for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010) to Liu Xian Bin to Liu Xiaobo (sentenced to eleven years of confinement in 2009) to Edward Snowden (forced to seek refuge in May, 3013 after leaking NSA documents) to the Iranian Shi’i cleric Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi (imprisoned in October, 2006 in Teheran).  Set in the floor of an abandoned structure of forced detention and prison work, the bright mosaic of faces is eloquent in its muteness and sense of survival.

The pavement of portraits  evoke colorized prison mug shots of those confined on the island.  But they depict prisoners of conscience who are located on a global scope, creating a composite microcosm of different clusters of imprisoned from China to Iran to the United States to Burma to Russia.  The new context for the assemblage of faces, included in Trace, are but one part of Ai Wei Wei’s re-use of the abandoned prison’s monumental buildings.  They offer but a way that the Chinese dissident artist re-inhabits the buildings of the former federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in @Large.  The work that testifies as much to his ability to work in different venues while confined under house arrest, as to call attention to the spirit of many imprisoned or confined who are apt to gain less media attention than the three Nobel Peace prize winners among them, and, although now disbanded, testifies both to the brightness and the fragility of resistance:  the pieces are a composite whose delicate construction was always poised to be dismantled; rather than being laminated or glued to one another, the complex of Lego pieces was often nudged, fragmented, or jostled by the feet of visitors who sought to enter spots around the pillars the room of the abandoned New Industries Building to get a better view of the faces, and a sort of memory gallery of the global resistance of a human spirit.

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Filed under Alcatraz Prison, Art and Cartography, human rights, performance art, prisoners of conscience

Mapping the New Enemy

Maps offer a unique tool to display the relation of power to territories, and the use of a magnified map of Syrian airstrikes performed a useful function in the news conference of Defense Department Spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.  “We hit them [in airstrikes] last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen,” said Attorney General Eric Holder–whose tenure at the Department of Justice must have been more consumed by approving surveillance activities than he had expected–on the eve of his resignation from the Obama Administration.  Using such a circumlocution was tellingly (if not intentionally) obfuscating, in ways that may acknowledge the prominent role of the Department of Defense in the decision to launch such airstrikes.  For the Attorney General–whose tenure at the Department of Justice now seems more consumed by approving surveillance activities than he ever expected–boasted about successfully delivering a round of airstrikes of Tomahawk missiles into Syria.

The map’s finality effectlivly obscured the problematic legal status of launching the airstrikes.  Holder omitted that planes fired into Syrian territory on September 23 was not only mapped in the image issued by the Department of Defense, and explained by its spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, against strongholds of the new enemy to the Homeland identified as the “Khorasan Group,” but defined the legitimacy of airstrikes that had expanded the fight against ISIS to a new enemy.  “I think it’s absolutely safe to say [the group’s plots have been] disrupted,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey noted, although he kept alive the justification for future strikes by adding that “their aspiration to conduct attacks in Europe and the United States and elsewhere in the region remains an aspiration.”

The Khorasan Group have yet to make themselves known or confirm their very own existence.  Rear Admiral Kirby described how the attack had disrupted “imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests” from the very  “training camps” and “bomb-making facilities,” destroying a “safe haven” they secured in Syria to develop the very sort of external attacks with which ISIS has not been identified and had even distanced its principal goals.  But the existence of “bomb-making facilities,” almost designed to trigger fears in the American public, keying in as they do to a narrative of terrorist attacks against the Homeland, provided a rationale for extending the airstrikes campaign into Syrian territory in order to eliminate the threat that the Khorasan Group posed.  The dangers that were posed by the group against whom the attacks had been directed, according to US Central Command, justified expanding the war that intended to “degrade” ISIS to a broader fight to protect national interests.  The situation maps Kirby showed also mask both the failure to seek broader Congressional authorization for the strikes and the potentially disastrous long-term consequences of continuing such attacks and targeting  sites that involved untold civilian casualties.  Although the map did their best to isolate the targets for these strikes, they illustrated both the pronounced geographic and cultural remove of Department of Defense decision-making, as well as the costs of staging these attacks from aircraft carriers in the Red Sea or Persian Gulf.

Mapping the airstrikes served several functions, ranging from putting the unknown Khorasan Group on the map to lending legitimacy to incursions into Syrian airspace, without Congressional approval or UN support.  Indeed, the flatly declarative map  advanced arguments about the just nature of the war against the “Khorasan Group” by American forces, even if few had heard of the Group only days before.  With the crude map, the presence of sites of danger suddenly assumed concrete locations and had already been vanquished:  eight “Khorasan sites” according to anonymous sources, were hit by Tomahawk Cruise Missiles launched from ships or submarines in the nearby Red Sea and F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft and Predator or Reaper drones, as if those same sites of training camps where alleged threats against the Homeland were being planned did not lie in Syrian territory or the attacks against them did not violate Syrian airspace.  Rear Admiral Kirby, the Department of Defense spokesperson, bluntly summarized the results of the airstrikes with the satisfied resolve of self-justification:  “We certainly believe that we hit what we were aiming at.”

The map before which he spoke at the DoD news conference suggests more targets, but show eight yellow bursts west of the embattled city of Aleppo, where the Khorasan Group is said to be based, close to the border with Turkey.  The strikingly cartoonish map signs that designate targets of airstrikes are akin to explosive bursts as if taken from an outdated video game that suddenly seem the centers of attention in an opaque landscape, which is so different from the recent maps we have seen of an expanding Islamic State–the alleged focus of earlier airstrikes across the region.  And rather than display the movement of arriving airstrikes, moreover, the explosions ringed with orange suggest an ability to attack across the country.

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Such situation maps immediately circulated on the nightly news and online alike, in a remarkable instance of a single map that has been adopted wholesale to explain and describe the airstrikes effectiveness against targets.  Attorney General Holder’s odd obfuscations seemed desperate attempts to justify the bombing of select Syrian sites, and broader justifications that claimed the airstrikes were performed “out of concerns that they were getting close to” attacks.  This affirms claims that the bombings were needed to stop “imminent” attacks on the “homeland” of the United States, in ways that evoked 9/11–although “imminent attack plotting” was newly qualified in Orwellian Newspeak when intelligence identified plans as “in an advanced stage,” albeit without known targets or actual attacks suspected or needing to be feared.  (The discussion of these bombing strikes from planes and ships conspicuously did not include acknowledging possible civilian deaths or casualties–and neither did  President Obama’s speech to the nation–as civilian casualties reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights including at least 300.)

The signs designating hit targets, akin to dated video games, but seemed, placed on a map, to affirm the remove at which Pentagon mappers of the scene of battle, as if to designate the complete obliteration of a place without civilian casualties:

 

 

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What were these targets they took out, and how immanent was their threat?  The maps issued by the Department of Defense did the difficult work of parsing a national incursion aimed at cells lying within a country but is not part of it, in what seems a new triumph of the logic of a war on terror that knows no bounds.  With “US-only strikes against the Khorasan group” sent into Syrian airspace beside an unspecified number of other international pilots to perform over 200 strikes on a dozen targets, they gave legitimacy to the “Khorasan Group”–evocative less of an insurance firm than an Afghan drug cartel traded on the deep web or Silk Road–as being worthy for attack that did not deviate from a mission ostensibly directed against the expansion of the Islamic State.  Indeed, while the territory that the Islamic State controlled have been so often mapped and re-mapped in recent weeks, the Khorasan Group has suddenly emerged, territory-less, just around September 20, three days before the airstrikes, as “the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas with a terror attack.”  The maps elevated targets of alleged imminent danger at the same time as apparently wiping them out.

The map persuaded public viewers that our bombing campaign was indeed justified, against the specter of a careful construction of the danger of an immanent “homeland” attack.  The designation of the Khorasan Group was explicit, effective and swift.  Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs Chairman, described “imminent attack plotting” as if to compensate for the acknowledgement that, for all its horrors, ISIS did not in itself pose a threat to the United States; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William Mayville, a public face for the army, described “The Khorasan group [as] in the final stages of plans to carry out attacks against Western targets and potentially against the US homeland,” although he was loathe to say the effects of strikes definitively degraded or deterred imminent threats to the “West and the homeland.”  The implicit narrative, of course, was of an attack forestalled, and, this time, the eradication of conspirators poised to attempt to hijack another airplane destined for the United States.  The existence of such a super-national entity raised some eyebrows in Syria, as well as in the US-based press; Glenn Greenwald wryly noted how government leaks “after spending weeks promoting ISIS as Worse Than Al Qaeda™, . . .  unveiled a never-before-heard-of group that was Worse Than ISIS™.”

The maps issued by the Department of Defense jumped several steps in logic in order to advance this argument, skipping over questions of international law or powers to declare war.  “Imminent” is a key word by argued the attacks made without Congressional consultation were justified.  They almost represented an interesting illustration of the evolving nature of President Obama’s thoughts on Presidential prerogative.  For the situation map legitimized the prerogative to invade a nation’s sovereign boundaries without Congressional oversight.  If Senator Obama had forcefully argued in 2007 “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” holding “military action most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch,” decisive weight fell on the formulation “imminent threat.”  United States Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes described the Khorasan Group as holding “very clear and concrete ambitions to launch external operations against the United States or Europe” in ways that justified their inclusion in an already loosely justified attacks on the Islamic State–even if the strikes were clearly removed from the areas under IS control in maps as the below, as if in the hope that this detail would not be noticed.

 

SYrian Air Strikes

The singling out of this region of attack is a clear expansion from maps of earlier airstrikes that were diffused by Central Command, where bomb-bursts correlated closely with strategic points held by the Islamic State, as if to demonstrate the effectiveness of the response that the United States was asked to contribute in Iraq:

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The strikes seem planned with the intent to show the ability of the American air force to strike targets in western Syria, even should Turkey not grant them permission to use a nearby air base, as well as to generate a confidence in the US government’s vigilance against terrorist threats.  This alternate configuration of the airstrike map did interesting work by isolating the Khorasan Group as something of a separate entity from other Syrian rebels, worthy of intense attention from American air force.  Although the identity of the Khorasan “Group” was much less clear to most Syrians on the ground, including members of the US-backed Syrian Free Army, among whom some eyebrows were quickly raised about the expansion of the attack; Charles Lister quite damningly questioned the proper nouns as a “label created by officials in the US and has no recognition within Jahbat al-Nusra or al Qaeda circles.”  Indeed, a US official even set the size of the alleged cell as but a few dozen.

The relation of Khorasan Group to the Al-Nusra Front was important for the US to solidify, given that the last folks we should to attack are those aiming to topple Assad.  But the two groups overlap in the eyes of Syrians who watched them at first hand–and speculated as to their danger.  Indeed, since the Al-Nusra Front is dedicated to toppling Assad’s bloody dictatorship in Syria, the attack seems to have deemed important as a means to “take out” an international player in Syria–rather than interfere with Syria’s ongoing  civil war.  In a majestic bit of Orientalist rhetoric, among the “hardened al Qaeda members” killed in the airstrikes was the leader of the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Abu Yousef al-Turki, “also known as ‘The Turk.”’

The Khorasan Group were identified as the targets of exclusively US airstrikes indeed do seem to have their own black flag–distinct from that of Jabat al Nusra–that jibe with the evocative hadith from which the name of this “Group” seems to derive:   “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them. And they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags.”

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We were familiar with the terrifying mobilizing force of the closely similar flag of the Al-Nusra front, although it lacks scimitars as the Khorasan flag:

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Although the Group may only number several dozen folks, the possibly organization was itself persuasively mapped to 9/11.  The Khorasan Group™ were tied to a bomb-maker in Yemen, responsible for terrorist explosives that have been found on air flights, providing grounds for aims beyond the Syrian and Iraqi fronts–apparent validation of their association with Homeland threats to “U.S. aviation”–as if U.S. aviation has come to constitute a threat worthy of defense or surrogate for globalization. “Khorasan members come from Pakistan,” explained former CIA director Mike Morrell on televisions news programs, and “focus on attacks in the West” and even fixate on the aviation industry itself “as a symbol of the West.”  The argument did not go over well in Syria, but played well in the Homeland, where many Khorasan members have been tied to to al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, AQAP, including al Qaeda’s bomb-builder Ibrahim al-Asiri, of underwear bomber fame and to Musin al-Fadhli, an al-Qaeda insider who knew of plans for the 9/11 attacks, further justifying links to Homeland threats–rather than understanding their actual agendas in Syria.)

The logic of bombs fit closely into the rationale that lent the airstrikes legitimacy.  President Obama explained the parallel ongoing strikes against areas occupied by ISIS, not themselves controlled by Assad, but his opponents, as giving Syrians a choice “in side of Syria other than between ISIL and Assad,” but found it justified to initiate the bombing without Congressional authority as Commander in Chief.  The naming of a precise region in Syria bequeathed a more concrete logic for bombing by mapping a site that became a safe land for “a mix of hardened jihadi from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe,” according to unnamed US officials, which by this past September 13 was identified as posing a greater danger to the US than ISIS itself–the original target of attacks, undertaken at the alleged request of an Iraqi state in need of defense from internal dangers.

The story led to a rather rehearsed an improvised re-mapping of terror threats–and seems to have followed a search  for how one could possible pinpoint a direct threat to the United States in an area of the Middle East where the Islamic State existed, which could be said to pose concrete threats to American well-being and be seen as lying within the broad rubric “national security” rather than military aggression.  The “cell in Syria” that was “little-known but well-resourced” could pose a direct threat to the US, the Pentagon explained, possessed “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.”  Televised graphics suggested the vigilance of F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft overlaying Syria, targeting presumed national enemies:

 

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The apparent widespread newsleaks that led to clear hyping created a new sense of who we were targeting and why, providing a basis for attacks that did not need Congressional approval, or require more evidence aside from “aspirational” terrorism.  Reporter Ken Dilanian offered the somewhat more “nuanced” take FBI director James Comey offered that “the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target,” but that Syria is “a place where we don’t have complete visibility.”  Director Comey offered that the FBI and US government was working with intelligence of “the kind of threat you have to operate under the assumption that it is tomorrow;” in the words of Pentagon spokesperson Kirby, “I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes [italics added].”  Comey backtracked a bit from the “imminent danger” that the bad dudes posed, even as the battle drum had begun.  “I don’t know exactly what that word means,” Comey added when questioned about the dangers’ identified as “imminent,” Dilanian notes quite amazingly.   The group was identified in the media as able to “launch more-coordinated and larger attacks on the West in the style of the 9/11 attacks from 2001,” although by mid-September, or days previous [i.e., earlier] to the strikes, no official pronouncements had yet been made about the Group known as “Khorasan.”

The quite nondescript map of airstrikes unveiled and glossed at the DoD news conference does considerable work to tell a single story about the range of airstrikes US planes made with regional “allies” primarily concerned to communicate the danger Islamicists posed their own states.  The map suggested an intensity of concerted actions, as if all of the airstrikes were directed against a common or single enemy, despite their distinctly separate targets of attack:

 

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The eight strikes convey an odd sense of attacking an uninhabited borderland, which is also the very region where many Syrian refugees have passed on the way to crossing Turkish border:

 

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Who are these new folks who our are enemies?  For Thomas Joscelyn, whose The Long War Journal has described the extended war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Khorasan consists of members of “core Al Qaeda” dispatched to Syria by Ayman al Zawahiri, and are embedded in the Al-Nusra Front, but the references of “seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria,” provides a new nomenclature of evil by which the US can, as CNN put it, “take the fight to the terrorists” hiding in “safe havens” west of Aleppo which, as Samantha Power put it as if to offer a validation for the ongoing attacks, “The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront . . . effectively itself.”  The US-only airstrikes–in which “coalition members” as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar, each eager to address Islamicist threats endangering their own states, were absent–constituted something of the chief area that the US government seems to have wanted Americans to watch.  But the low quality of the DoD map–and absence from it of a layover showing the Islamic State’s regional presence, or terrain–evokes a Google Maps base-map and image, designed less for informational value than to illustrate the clustering of American airpower west of Aleppo–outside regions held by the Islamic State.

 

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The ill-defined maps on most new services were strikingly opaque and stripped of local detail, especially for showing such a frequently mapped area of strategic importance to the world.  For they elicited minimal interest in the area or region where the airstrikes occurred, almost disembodied from thickly traced lines marking a sense of territoriality which most folks who have been following the news realize are increasingly of questionable value as points of actual reference or political orientation, but are presumably on the rather minimal base-maps afforded by Google Maps.

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The concreteness implied by the use of this new proper name for a seemingly small group of individuals evokes a land “of the rising sun,” oddly quite similar to the Levant, but invested with tones of violence by the hadith of classical Islamic teachings that describes an army worth joining “even if you have to crawl over ice.”  The pre-Islamic area of Khorasan from the 5th century A.D. till the second half of the 19th century A.D. is no real help–but seems to bring us back to Afghanistan and the AfPak problem of old.  Despite much of the skepticism about how a group “suddenly went from anonymity to the ‘imminent threat’ that became the [compelling] rationale for a emergency air war” coming from the right, who mockingly distinguished “core al-Qaeda” from “al-Qaeda in Iraq” or the “Islamic State” that was formerly “al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham,” itself unlike “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” charging Obama with a strategy of “miniaturizing” a problem rooted in the reading of Islamic scriptures that drives Sharia suprematism and the deception perpetrated by a misguidedly Islamophilic President, according to former terrorism federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy in the National Review; Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain offer a parallel critique of how news feeds from Washington have incrementally but steadily perpetuated the myth of a deadly Khorasan splinter aimed at attacking America through hijacked planes, feeding legal justification for bombing Syria to a national press ready to recycle with appropriate graphics for broadcast on Nightly News.

The attacks did not hit the “Khorasan Group” seem rather transparently about a form of “degrading” that had little to do with the organization of the Islamic State.  Multiple news graphics on nightly television focussed on targeting of makeshift oil refineries that have financed the Islamic State’s revenues upwards of $3 million/day from oil smuggled out from eleven fields under their control–refineries that our “partners” were eager to help destroy–as if this somehow lessened the danger of collateral damages of airstrikes by legitimizing their targets.  Yet despite the preemption of an ability to “degrade” what is now the richest terrorist organization in the world, existing investment in institutions and bureaucracies that uphold and strengthen Sharia law and governance and an efficient financial network will simply not be able to be destroyed through use of airstrikes alone.

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A collapsed map of the extent of “allied” airstrikes over the region tragically reveals, however, the intensity with which the area has continued to be pounded from the skies by manned or unmanned flights already for a series of months, in what can almost be mapped as an extended war of nerves.

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The Department of Defence situation maps that described the bombing of the Khorasan Group west of Aleppo served, in reference to a mythic land or region, to embody the enemy in a new way, giving them a redolent name–even if one not actually apparent on the several situation maps so conspicuously displayed, by evoking a group which once constituted a region, or territory, until the late nineteenth century ruled by the “Khorasan” Kings.  Although the term that jihadists used to refer to folks from that area in the world–described by the West as “embedded” in the Al-Nusra Front–suggests a recycling of the toponym perhaps helps suggest a site of mythic struggle for US airplanes to attack, as if to deflect the question that we are not attacking Syria’s sovereign lands without Congressional authorization, if only since the Group seemed to arrive from a different territory.

 

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The Khorosan region perhaps gains its very nefariousness since it is not a state, but its statelessness manages to overlap with a region of danger, but itself to possess even more terrifying but less recognizably coherent bounds than the Islamic State–and as if the association of the name with the region of Afghanistan communicated its credibility as a national threat.  (The very fact that Jihadists are themselves widely known to refer to anyone who comes from the geographic area as “Khorasan” raises questions about the integrity or identity of an actual fully-fledged “Group.”)

 

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The name inspires terror, indeed, as, while never used to name the interests of a purported Al-Qaeda cel, it is implicitly linked to the threat of redrawing the map of the Mideast in an imaginary optative geography in which the current group of US allies would no longer exist:

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Few would be likely to consult early nineteenth-century printed maps to locate the Khorasan Group or follow the rapidly evolving news, but a simple search would have led to a region suspiciously near to Afghanistan, and not a disembodied “Group” that the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested, when he warned on September 13 with  administration sources of “veteran al-Qaeda fighters . . . who travelled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaeda affiliate there, the Nusra Front,” going so far as to admonish the public that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”

As the thinly informative airstrike maps made their circle on the news circuit, embodying the threat of the Khorasan Group as if it had migrated from Central Asia to west of Aleppo, instead of lying in Syrian “safe-havens,” that constituted a “serious threat to our peace and security” as if they offered grounds that the airstrikes constituted a means “to defend our country.”  The striking thin-ness of the map of airstrikes contrast to even the far greater local detail with which Khorasan was embodied as a region in this 1881 map “Khorasan and Neighboring Countries,” whose topography was delineated with lavish local detail by Lieut. Colonel C.E. Stewart:  if Stewart attempted to concretely render the region, the danger of the “Group” lies in its ability to move, hidden, under the radar as it accomplishes underground and illegal acts of terror both outside and against the recognized group of nations.

 

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Rather than map the lay of the land or encourage interest in its inhabitants, the maps used in news conferences and that migrated to news shows are dense graphics that limit their content to the view from the Pentagon.  It bears remembering that the stories that our current strategic maps tell are far more limited, and seem designed to display far less curiosity about who are the inhabitants of these lands; they go so far as to embody them far less concretely, displaying the overlays of boundary lines between nation-states in thick black lines, as if to create the somewhat outdated illusion that sovereign states of Syria and Iraq still exist in what seems a staging area for war.  The maps situate the location of the strikes against the Khorasan Group–which somehow seems improbably hit without civilian casualties–in the far left cluster of explosions sent by American planes based in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, using symbols that recall the medium of an old arcade video game so clearly that one is tempted to take the thin view of history they offer as their message–in a radically flattened view of the complexity of ongoing conflicts between Syrian opposition, ISIS, Iraqi troops, and Islamist movements.  What, the message of the graphic seems, else do we need to know?

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Where they are located perhaps seems less the point anyway, since they have been “taken out.”

What seems less widely mapped is the extent to which the folks we are attacking are already surrounded, and we sought to display how even an area near the Turkish border–where the United States has an Air Force Base, but from which the Turkish government would not allow United States planes to fly or missiles launched into Syria–but also lying at much remove from what we have mapped as the expanse controlled by the Islamic State as of September 23, 2104.  It allowed us to defend American interests at the same time as we continued to “degrade” the Islamic State from military bases that lie to the South, as both “allies” like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan allowed their airspace to be used, at significant cost.

 

US Allies in the RegionWashington Post, September 23 2014

ISIS Sept 23 map

0923-airstrikes-ai2html-600U.S. Defense Department; Institute for the Study of War; September 23

Coolition AirstrikesAP Interactive; October 2

BN-EW313_Airpla_F_20141006120849Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

 

The extreme short-term benefits the Department of Defense claimed for the airstrikes –allegedly stopping planned attacks on the United States–may have unplanned consequence of creating deeper ties between the rebels, Islamic State and Al Qaeda, and cast the US as a protector of Assad.

Syrian reactions to airstrikes have not been mapped sufficiently or in detail.  But unannounced strikes extending beyond attacks on ISIS both raised suspicions about US priorities and intents and suggested an unwarranted deflection of attacking the Islamic State among groups who long hoped that the very same airstrikes would be launched at Assad’s forces, and not at an organization not known to Syrians, who deemed it a creation of the US government and false screen for giving cover to Assad’s government troops to advance.  With houses destroyed, numbers of refugees increasing, and women and children injured in targeted marketplaces in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, local desperation has grown in direct reaction to foreign interference.  Despite claims the US has a comprehensive strategy to defeat the Islamic State, the attacks seem short-sighted in encouraging the very conditions to encourage the spread of extremism, local instability, distrust, and the isolation of local forces, both breeding insecurity and hurting a crumbling infrastructure.  The reclusive leader of the Al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Jolani, previously presumed dead, foretold the eruption of a “volcano” against the US and its allies would be the consequence of the attacks, and argued that the airstrikes were leaving Aleppo vulnerable to government forces.  “Short-termism” sadly afflicts the strikes whose results extend far beyond the assassination of Al-Nusra frton leader Abu Yousef al-Turki.  Meanwhile, ISIS advanced within shooting range of Baghdad.

The spread of protests across the country against US-led airstrikes raise questions about what their long-term strategic value really was, aside from leading many to question whether western help would ever arrive.  (Questions about the precise accomplishments of the strikes seem deflected by Pentagon spokesmen.)  Protests against the airstrikes are poorly mapped, but seem to have grown from Islamic State strongholds like Raqqa to cities held by the rebel alliance in Idlib province, as Maaret el Numan, or centers of the Free Syrian Army like Talbiseh, near Lebanon, as well as some forty other towns including Homs and Aleppo–some bearing signs such as “The International Alliance Kills Civilians.”

 

WO-AT876_SYRPRO_G_20140926180820Reuters

 

For the strikes indeed confirmed deep suspicions that official US policy is less concerned with ending Assad’s dictatorship, lent credence both by the public statements from Assad’s foreign minister that the Assad regime was “OK” with such airstrikes, which implied a collusion between Americans and the Assad regime; the occurrence of the first airstrikes to enter Syrian territory without any coordination with rebel groups to whom they might have offered strategic value seems to have sidestepped any support from the Syrian Free Army or its allies.  For Americans find themselves in the intensely awkward position of relying on the OK of the Assad regime to “downgrade” or attack ISIS in Syria.  The strikes seemed to realize fears and distrust about whose interests the United States wants to serve:  Rami abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that the airstrikes illustrate the start of “a phase of targeting civilians under the excuse of targeting the Islamic State.”  In a region where the claim “We kiss the hand that holds the trigger against Assad” is common, it is hard to know how bombings undertaken with the Assad regime’s OK would be seen as constructive.  The bombings may have provoked a rise in Syrians declaring allegiance to the Islamic State.

la-apphoto-mideast-syria-jpg-20140929Idlib News Network:  Syrians examining the ruins of a house allegedly targeted by airstrikes in Kfar Derian, a center for Nusra Front opposition

 

We might remember that most all maps posted above derived from a map that really was carefully staged as a screen, which obscured far more that it revealed.

 

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Filed under Al Qaeda, human rights, Islamic State, Mapping Terror, Maps and Politics, Syrian Civil War