The Terrorist Non-Event: The Arrest of Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

Another thwarted fake terror plot. That’s right, we’re a bit safer.

Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a 21-year old Bangladeshi national, was arrested this week on terrorism charges. As Spencer Ackerman points out, Nafis is no Carlos the Jackal:

The Justice Department alleges that Nafis came to Queens, New York, in January from Bangladesh on a student visa — and quickly began exploring his options for pulling off a terrorist attack. Only Nafis was so inattentive to keeping his operation a secret that he practically stood on a street corner and waved his arms until the FBI and NYPD took notice.In July, Nafis crossed the radar of an anonymous FBI informant, according to the criminal complaint against him. When they initially spoke on a phone call, Nafis attempted to cover himself with a crude code: He was a fan of “O” (Osama bin Laden), a reader of “I” (Inspire, al-Qaida’s English-language webzine for DIY terrorism), and he wanted to pull off “J” (jihad). But the very next day, Nafis was so trusting that he openly discussed on Facebook “Islamic legal rulings” on the permissibility of bombing a country that granted him a student visa. Within a week, was ranting in person to the informant about killing “a high-ranking government official” and boasting of his ties to al-Qaida.

The informant did what informants in these cases do: snitch. He told Nafis that he knew a member of al-Qaida in New York. An excited Nafis attended a meeting with the al-Qaida agent in Central Park on July 24, where he allegedly gushed about wanting to pull off something “very, very very very big, that will shake the whole country, that will make America not one step ahead, change of policy… [but] that will make us one step closer to run[ning] the whole world.”

Of course, Nafis was speaking with an undercover FBI agent, less than a month after making contact with the snitch. The closest Nafis came to disbelieving the agent came in a question the following month: “The thing that I want to ask you about is that, the thing that I’m doing, is it under al-Qaeda?” The undercover FBI agent nodded, and that was enough for Nafis, who implored him to tell al-Qaida that he had come up with the plan to bomb the Fed all by himself.The agent took it from there. He hooked Nafis up with 20 50-pound bags of fake explosives, a van and a storage space for it all; and convinced Nafis not to return to Bangladesh to see his family a final time. Nafis, for his part, gave the agent a thumb drive containing an article he wanted published in Inspireexplaining his brilliant plan. Go time was set for Oct. 17, 2012, with the hope of disrupting the presidential election.

On Wednesday morning, the two assembled the bomb, hooked up a cellphone detonator, loaded it into the van, and parked outside the Federal Reserve. They rented a room at a nearby hotel so the agent could film Nafis’ video explanation. “We will not stop until we attain victory or martyrdom,” he allegedly says, before placing several calls to the detonator device — which was never actually hooked up to a live bomb. The phone, of course, was tapped. Once Nafis called the device, agents had everything they need and arrested him.

We’ve seen this time and again: the FBI thwart a terror plot of their own making and a moronic wannabe is arrested. By dint of his own volition and fantasizing, all the while prodded along by undercover feds into believing he’s on the road to waging jihad, a knucklehead is transformed into a terrorist.

This is the terrorist non-event, an occurrence that “could have been” had it not been for the good work of those charged with protecting us from evil. The fact that the non-event never had the chance of becoming an actual event, that it was designed and established to never be an event, to be only a non-event, is not important. What is important is that there are terrorist among us and they are out to kill you. These “terrorists” may not even know they are terrorists. They maybe need a little encouragement to become terrorists. That’s where the FBI come in.

The French philosopher, media critic, and all-around confusing dude Jean Baudrillard defined the American response to 9/11, particularly the Iraq war, as a “non-event.” What Baudrillard means is, unsurprisingly, not entirely clear (and I only agree with about a quarter of what I think he’s claiming). Essentially, the non-event is a prepackaged affair, an occurrence that is made to appear to be eventful – the Iraq War as a harbinger of democratic revolution in the Arab world – without actually upsetting the order of things as actual transformative events do by definition. Whereas events are bloody and chaotic affairs, the non-event is tightly managed and carefully scripted, tailor-made for our viewing pleasure – and existential discomfort. The non-event is virtual.

Counterterrorism – the purpose of which is to prevent events in the first place – has become the driving force in the production of non-events. As Baudrillard put it, following 9/11 the goal of counterterrorism is:

… eliminating the embryonic crime on the basis of an act that has not taken place…The obvious question is whether the crime really would have taken place. But no one will ever know. Therefore here we are dealing with the real repression of a virtual crime.

Baudrillard insists that producing such “non-events” is aimed at erasing history, particularly 9/11. And he may be partly right: by thwarting such “attacks” the FBI – and by extension the federal government – proves its worth, effectively erasing any responsibility for what happened back in 2001. But this supposed “erasing” never actually does away with 9/11 and the transformations supposedly wrought by the event itself. If anything, it reinforces the broader narrative of the War on Terror. Rather than negating terrorism, these thwarted plots maintain the narrative, albeit firmly under the control of the state.

The War on Terror – like all good national security thrillers – requires a perpetual threat to justify its existence. Actual “terrorist events” – i.e. violence – obviously do this. Violence, however, not only produces death and destruction, but blowback as well, undermining the institutions of state that are responsible for public safety.

Directly managing the production of terrorist plots while preventing actual terrorist violence is far more effective. And the feds have apparently cornered the market on the plotting of terrorism in the U.S. Since 9/11, al Qaeda appears unable to provide recruits with the thrill and quick return that an FBI-orchestrated plot delivers. Within weeks of meeting an undercover agent, the would-be mujahedeen is knee-deep in the intrigue and excitement of being an international terrorist. Even if they applied only minimal security measures, al Qaeda would still be vetting a recruit when the FBI is handing him a fake bomb.

Each thwarted plot reinforces two messages. First, terrorist still want to kill you. Second, the government is effectively preventing them from doing so. This is the theater of counterterrorism, the war on terror in the absence of terrorist violence.

I am not here arguing that the FBI’s goal is impression management per se. In fact, they are just doing their jobs as the FBI. The undercover operation is, of course, a hallmark of policing practice, one which the FBI has perfected against the mafia and other criminal organizations. It is thus no surprise that when tasked with preventing domestic terror, the feds would simply rely on tried-and-true measures. Furthermore, upon discovering someone who intends to engage in terrorist violence, the Bureau must do something. If such a would-be jihadist were to plan and execute an operation, the FBI would be held responsible. Not doing anything would be shirking their duties.

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