As San Francisco police were arresting more than 150 people protesting the Biotechnology Industry Organization last week, an FBI agent stood inside the conference center, speaking to a group of scientists, pharmaceutical reps, and biotech executives. His message: The FBI considers ecoterrorism and animal terrorism the country’s leading domestic terror threats.
That’s news to the folks who lost loved ones in the attack on the World Trade Center buildings. So far, “ecoterrorists” like the Earth Liberation Front and “animal terrorists” (a term that conjures up images of lab rats with explosives strapped to their bellies) like the Animal Liberation Front have engaged in property destruction and the disruption of laboratory experiments, not the outright physical violence of, for example, antiabortion extremists who’ve murdered doctors and clinic staff and spit on and shoved pregnant women attempting to enter women’s health clinics.
Among most of the people I know, the general fear is not of a bunch of animal activists freeing mink from a mink farm. It’s a growing fear of another kind of domestic terrorism: the depredations of our own government.
Last year, in February 2003, the FBI raided the home of a University of Idaho student, Sami Omar Al-Hussayen. Al-Hussayen was charged with three counts of terrorism, four counts of making false statements, and seven counts of visa fraud. Al-Hussayen, the son of a former Saudi education minister, a Ph.D. candidate who’s studied in the US for nine years, a husband and father, and a pillar of the community who organized a candlelight vigil for the victims of September 11th, had volunteered his time to a Michigan-based group, the Islamic Assembly of North America, to set up a website that promoted the study of Islam. The website contained a link to another website set up by a group the US government had listed as a terrorist organization. Another link pointed to a site that, among a huge volume of postings, contained four, short documents written by radical clerics discussing the war in Chechnya and the conflict in Israel and Palestine. One of these documents sanctioned suicide attacks and mentioned flying airplanes into buildings. The visa violations and false statement charges against Al-Hussayen involved his work with a nonprofit organization; his visa lists him as a student.
Al-Hussayen’s only crime, then, is that he took the Constitution and the Bill of Rights seriously and exercised his free speech rights. In fact, his case is seen as a major test of a provision in the USA Patriot Act that targets so-called “secondary players” in the war on terrorism–those who give aid to groups or individuals who later carry out terrorist attacks.
After more than a year in jail, Al-Hussayen was acquitted by a federal jury on June 10, 2004. The case against him was so thin that his defense attorneys produced only one witness, former CIA Near East division chief Frank Anderson, who testified about terrorist recruitment methods and questioned the FBI’s notion that people give up their jobs and family connections to go join a jihad in Chechnya or Palestine after simply reading a few postings on the Internet. After Al-Hussayen’s acquittal, Anderson said, “I take satisfaction in the verdict. But I am embarrassed and ashamed that our government has kept a decent and innocent man in jail for a very long time.”
Embarrassed and ashamed is not how Al-Hussayen feels. His wife and children have been deported, his studies interrupted, his friends and associates alienated, and his liberty and sense of personal security taken completely away from him. “Terrified” might be a better word to describe the pall that’s settled over the muslim community in the small college town and within university community of which Al-Hussayen was once an active and much admired member.
Although Al-Hussayen won his case, he lost so much more. He will probably choose to leave the US, now that his wife and children are in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the FBI and the US government, which had no case to begin with, still won their objective through sheer harassment.
For those of us who exercise our free speech rights frequently–or other Constitutional rights, for that matter–Al-Hussayen’s case is a chilling example. It’s meant to send a message: if the government doesn’t like what you have to say or doesn’t want you to protest in the streets, you can spend a really long time in jail, lose your job, be denied visiting rights from your family and friends, and spend thousands of dollars defending yourself. Or you can just shut up.
Beyond that is the specter of torture. Abuse of inmates in our jails and prisons has been growing worse with the privatization of the US prison system and the “tough on crime” laws of the 1980s and 1990s. Inmates are processed like cheese spread, and treated with about as much respect. And now, with the revelation that the Bush administration sought ways to circumvent both international and national laws to justify the torture of inmates at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, no one can feel sanguine at the prospect of spending time in a US jail or prison. It’s no coincidence that the men who set up the US military prison system in Iraq are executives from the private prison industry here in the United States.
Meanwhile the FBI continues to target domestic dissent as its top priority, even after John Ashcroft announced that Al Qaeda was planning another attack on US soil sometime in the near future, possibly this summer. No one in the servile, mainstream press has pointed out the contradiction, but those of us who feel and express a profound discontent with our government see the overall trend: the terrorists are not foreign; they’re the people who police our streets, tap our phone lines, monitor our spending habits, and decide who can go free and who will be terrorized.