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Police pseudoscience and the 'War on Terror'


The following is an excerpt from my latest piece for Al Jazeera.

Radicalisation in the West: The Homegrown Threat” is the name of a 2007 report issued by the New York Police Department (NYPD) highlighting the allegedly underappreciated risk that terrorist acts might be committed by the domestic Muslim population.

The report’s pseudoscientific analysis postulates that Muslim individuals generally pass through four different phases prior to engaging in terrorism: Pre-Radicalisation, Self-Identification, Indoctrination and Jihadisation.

Examples of the Self-Identification phase are said to include “[g]iving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes” and “[b]ecoming involved in social activism and community issues”. To illustrate the Indoctrination phase, the report’s authors assert that the Islamic bookshop in Brooklyn that previously employed Pakistani American Shahawar Matin Siraj – convicted in 2006 for plotting to blow up a New York subway station – served as an “extremist incubator” and a venue for “transferring [Siraj’s] Salafi-like mindset to his perception of global issues”.




(Image from

The following is an excerpt from my latest blog post for the London Review of Books.

Last year the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD, with help from the CIA, had set up an extensive surveillance operation to spy on Muslims both in the city and over the state line in New Jersey. Known informally as the Demographic Unit, it employed a network of undercover officers (a.k.a. ‘rakers’) and informants (‘mosque crawlers’).

Raymond Kelly, New York’s police commissioner, said that unwarranted surveillance of certain ethnic groups did not infringe their civil rights, though ‘there’s always going to be some tension between the police department and so-called civil liberties groups because of the nature of what we do.’

An Army of One

Chris Hayes

This blog post appeared at Jacobin.

Last weekend, MSNBC host Chris Hayes offered the following sensible explanation for his reluctance to engage in a blanket application of the word “hero” to fallen U.S. military members:

 I feel uncomfortable with the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.

As might be expected from a domestic media that finds conscientious whistleblowingmore appalling than the gleeful slaughter of Iraqi civilians, Hayes was assailed for his deviance.

The validity of his point, however, is underscored in Matt Kennard’s forthcoming book on the earthly identity of various candidates for heroic death: Irregular Army: How the War on Terror Brought Neo-Nazis, Gang Members and Criminals Into the US Military.


Cocaine, Death Squads, and the War on Terror

This is my review for Jacobin Magazine of Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle’s new book Cocaine, death squads, and the war on terror: U.S. imperialism and class struggle in Colombia, published by Monthly Review Press.

In March of 2009, my friend Amelia Opalinska and I hitchhiked around Colombia. Despite our parents’ conviction that such behavior was conducive to immediate kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the greatest challenge we ultimately faced was the reluctance of motorists to pick us up.

After being informed by a compassionate passerby that this reluctance was probably a result of recent robbery schemes involving female hitchhikers, we attempted to render our appearance as innocuous as possible by designing colorful placards to indicate our intended destination and decorating them with rainbows and flowers. When this did not work, we drew stop signs in red marker and positioned ourselves in the middle of the road, which only caused vehicles to swerve around us.

Appeals to police at anti-narcotics checkpoints for assistance in procuring rides meanwhile proved even less effective, as citizens appeared unconvinced that the representatives of the state had their well-being at heart.


Gawker hosts The Imperial Messenger

The popular Gawker website ran an excerpt today from my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, introduced as follows by Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan:

We enjoy pointing out to the world that mustachioed simpleton New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is, for the most part, a shockingly dull one-trick pony. Those searching for a more thorough and academic destruction of Friedman’s career and philosophy would enjoy Belén Fernández’s “The Imperial Messenger,” (part of Verso’s “Counterblasts” series) an incisive dismantling of the man and his message.

I’ve been responding to reader comments and questions on the site; click here to check it out.

Honduras’ Illegitimate President and His Cheering Squad

Image from Flickr via Fellowship of the Rich

The following is an excerpt from my latest piece for Guernica Magazine.

Last week, in Washington, D.C., Honduran President Pepe Lobo was honored with an International Leadership Award from the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute (CHLI, endearingly pronounced “chili”).

This is the latest in a sequence of preposterous euphemisms emitted by the U.S. political establishment with regard to the Honduran regime, described by Hillary Clinton in 2010 as being committed to democracy. All this despite Lobo’s ascension to power via illegitimate elections conducted in the aftermath of the coup d’état against democratically elected President Mel Zelaya.

One possible explanation for CHLI’s enthusiasm is that the organization’s Board of Directors includes Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart, former Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—who paid a joint visit to Tegucigalpa in 2009 to reaffirm the democratic nature of the military coup. The Board also includes corporate representatives from AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart.


New Left Project: Review of The Imperial Messenger

David Wearing of New Left Project has written a brilliant review of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. The following is an excerpt:

Why, in the midst of a historically severe depression caused by a crisis in the least regulated part of the private sector, is the political class of the global north prioritising an assault on the free-market bogeyman of “big government”? Why, after a decade of military disasters in Western Asia, are so many prominent voices advocating a military response to the non-existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iran? One answer is that the material interests of class and state power are reinforced by an intellectual culture which advocates policies that serve those interests, irrespective of “externalities” such as the costs to the non-powerful. Power and wealth use the louder voice they can afford to drown out dissent and hardwire a set of assumptions, a conventional wisdom, a conceptual framework into the political discourse, which will tend to produce the same answers irrespective of the question, or the facts. It follows then, for those of us who choose to challenge power, that undermining, critiquing and disrupting that conventional wisdom is a vital task – a prerequisite to persuading the general public that another world is possible.

Few single voices play a greater role in propagating the dogmas of neoliberalism than Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and leading columnist on international affairs for the world’s leading English-language newspaper, the New York Times. In his articles and books, Friedman articulates a world view firmly grounded in the core assumptions of the dominant ideology. Corporate-dominated capitalism is seen as a progressive force for the general good, Western civilisation is taken to be obviously superior, and Western military power is viewed as a benign actor, securing and extending the reach of that civilisation. What Edward Said described as the “comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas” is unavoidable. But so too, unfortunately, is their reach and significance. In engaging with Friedman’s body of work, and subjecting it to forensic critical analysis, Belén Fernández has produced a book that is sometimes entertaining, sometimes horrifying in what it exposes, always readable, always thought-provoking, and of clear political importance.