Saturday, January 28, 2012

Internetting While Muslim: The Jamshid Muhtorov Case is Unsurprisingly Weak.

Joshua Kucera over at the Bug Pit cited me, Registan, and Central Asia analyst extraordinaire Eric McGlinchy in a somewhat incredulous look at Jamshid Muhtorov's arrest and any possible links to Karimov, NDN, and what have you. He seems to agree with me for the most part; it's very difficult to prove or disprove a link, but it's something interesting to postulate and keep an eye on.

It seems that  Catherine Fitzpatrick disagrees, though, with one post with a title replete with exclamation marks and then another which very helpfully includes .pdf copies of the criminal complaint and indictment for "Material Support of a Designated Terrorist Organization and Attempt to do the Same." I appreciate the legwork because hey, this is just a blogspot blog and I hold myself to no journalistic standards of doing research. I'm just typing stuff before going on a Saturday run. I would wish she spelled the blog name right, though. I think our main cleavage is that I approach this from a legal background whereas she's approaching it from a regional writer perspective. I'm going to naturally lean towards my current state's motto and say "Show Me." And the complaint definitely doesn't.

The prosecution has some perfectly acceptable yet kind of skeevy tactics, like calling Muhtorov "Abumumin Turkistony" to make him sound more Muzzleem. The complaint is made up wholly of an FBI agent's statement that is literally exactly what you'd expect some FBI bro who couldn't find Uzbekistan on a map if you spotted him the Caspian. The background is mostly cribbed from the NCTC (ah, law, where you have to cite for journals but not for criminal matters) and talks about all the terrible things that the IJU has done. Well, at least both of them. Well, at least one attempted attack by two German guys and one attack that the only one who says they did it is the Government of Uzbekistan, which wanted counter-terrorism goodies from the US. But that's a different blog post.

There is some more smelly stuff in graf 9: A) Turkey seized weapons of IJU operatives in Turkey, B) The group claimed responsibility for attacks, and C) LINKS TO AL-QAEDA OMG BIN LADEN BIN LADEN PAGEVIEWS

At least the IJU has a website. And Muhtorov was a big fan of this website, Sodiqlar. He made internet friends with the webmaster, and talked about politics with other friends. There is also a claim of Bay'ah by Muhtorov. Bay'ah is a weird word used often to align with Sufi orders and others. Much like how a wed couple says "death do we part," Muhtorov said "any task, even with the risk of dying." But ok.

Then more talk, some arguments between Muhtorov and his wife, and my personal favorites: the presupposition of IJU used in a passive voice throughout the complaint. Muhtorov books a flight to Turkey, says goodbye to his family, and gets into an internet slapfight over some people, using real internet-dude words like "we have the best antivirus, the Koran" which is like the nerdiest thing I've ever heard. I suppose the whole graf 27 is the crux, that Muhtorov was going to go out and kill these two commentors on Sodiqlar because they disagreed about some things. The rest of the complaint is why they need warrants to go through the rest of Muhtorov's files.

So I perhaps should add full disclosure at this point: I'm an internet nerd myself, I spend way too much time on a Cincinnati Reds blog. I've said awful things about players, coaches, and other commentors on the blog. I've shared e-mails with friends I've made on the blog written entirely in inside jokes that sound weird/awful out of context.

Look, maybe Muhtorov was really going to fly to Istanbul and kill a couple guys for disagreeing on matters of Istihan. Maybe he was going there for a wedding. Maybe he was going to be in a medrese. Maybe he fell in love with a woman online and was leaving his family. There are thousands of Uzbeks living in Turkey; as workers, as refugees, whatever. The Emniyet in Istanbul is always full of them. Whatever it is, it's not outlined in the complaint. The criminal complaint is being used as leverage to go through the rest of his internet life in hopes of finding something that actually looks like support of a terrorist organization.

If there was actually good grounds, well, remember that graf 9 about Turkey being involved in investigating IJU? If he was going to Turkey to be involved with the IJU, you can bet that MIT would've been involved in it. Instead, this is the equivalent of frisking a dude in a black neighborhood and hoping that you find a pipe.

I'm hardly going to use this as a pedestal to complain about internet security. But I made an offhand joke earlier this week about "Internetting while Muslim being the new Driving While Black" and I think it absolutely holds.

What I'm most curious about is how Muhtorov was singled out. I honestly don't think there's anything as sinister as the Uzbek Foreign Minister saying to Ms. Clinton, "You want to use our country for a highway? Here's a list of people you have to arrest." What I do think is that "closer security ties" are a requirement for anything the US does nowadays, and that Uzbekistan gave a list of people in the US they were interested in. Muhtorov was on this list, and his internet persona got him a lot more interest than he may have expected.

A little bit of skepticism goes a long way when dealing with the Uzbek government's list of baddies. The IJU as a paper tiger is not a new or novel thought. Ambassador Murray has called them a hoax (whatever you think of Amb. Murray) and Joshua Foust was writing about them back in 2009, saying:
...when you take into account the Uzbek’s history of inventing phantom Islamic resistance movements to justify its police state, the lack of sources actually discussing the group (the sources in that Jihadica post and paper are all secondary and tertiary, and even reposted Wikipedia entries, except for the one website which isn’t even written in Uzbek), and everyone’s inability to name a single member aside from that one guy in the videos who wasn’t around in 2002 when the group was invented… well, it just doesn’t add up.
 The entire experience reminds me of XKCD's citogenesis. There are fake facts repeated until they're true. This, combined with the spectre of al-Qaeda, really conceptually awful insinuations about Islam, and a few snippets of conversation with friends and family are the backbone of this case.

Even if they eventually find something, like maybe a bomb-making .doc on his computer that will get him arrested, isn't an absolution of the conduct here. The procedurally-correct and jurisprudentially-awful judicial system, spoken to at length by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker allows for these sorts of abuses. That is a different story, and besides, I won't write it better than Mr. Gopnik.

There's no actual proof anywhere yet, just the same few aspersions cast over and over. I would just be casting aspersions of my own over the US Government if I was to claim that the arrest of Muhtorov is quid-pro-quo for the opening of the NDN, I admit. But at this point, that's all the case deserves, a black mark and lots of tut-tutting.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Was the Uzbek Opposition Sold Out for the NDN? Jamshid Muhtorov as a Case Study

Approximately two months ago, the United States chose to re-engage with Uzbekistan after Pakistan decided to shut down US military transit into Afghanistan. There was lots of teeth-gnashing about this; how to/if it was fair to equivocate "engagement" with "legitimizing"and whether not engaging was actually an effective strategy. My take was that emphasizing the NDN through Uzbekistan would 1) increase costs and create massive opportunities for corruption and 2) make US interests in Uzbekistan (human rights, increased openness, etc.) subservient to US interests in Afghanistan.

I'm going to focus on #2 here. My worry was - and still is - that Uzbekistan is a tricky enough country as it is. The US won't ever be all do-rah regime change about it and likely shouldn't be. But to view the country as a highway that requires protection is the mother of conflation. The new interest (NDN) is now the first and foremost interest, and protecting it and Afghanistan are more important than understanding what avenues forward exist in Uzbekistan. It gives an excuse to not care about Uzbekistan other than as a way to get out of Afghanistan successfully.

"Assessing the human rights situation in Uzbekistan is a tricky business." Joshua Foust writes,  "No one argues with the very basic fact that the Karimov regime is one of the most horrific rights abusers on the planet." Now I'm not sure what the US would do without the NDN, but ever since the new rapprochement there has certainly been no formal complaints about human rights issues, even when real and/or fake people were being punished for Facebook activism. But this week it's gotten far worse.

Three Germans (or people who temporarily lived in Germany, it's all a bit unclear) have been charged with being members of terrorism groups. Two for IMU, one for IJU. That's weird, but hey, people become terrorists, it happens.

Weirder still is the story of Jamshid Muhtorov. Immediately after the story of "man arrested for hanging out on the wrong side of the internet," Sarah Kendzior noted that a man of the same name was a refugee from Uzbekistan for his work as a human rights activist. Her and many others are questioning the FBI's assertions here, and for full disclosure, I'm one of them.

The further reading one does, the more it seems like Muhtorov was arrested for having a beard and an internet connection. The subtitle for the local story is ""Jamshid Muhtorov Grew Beard, Stopped Wearing Western Clothes"and quotes a federal complaint (a legal document purporting evidence required to arrest) saying "'wedding' is code for terrorist event or attack." Muhtorov was on his way to Turkey.

Let it be known that there are far more Uzbeks in Turkey (some of which happen to get married) then terrorists in Turkey. If there was strong enough evidence to arrest Muhtorov in the US, I am very surprised that the US didn't want to follow him up the string to see who he met with in Turkey. The MIT after all is probably very interested in pursuing nasty folk in its territory, as they were victim to al-Qaeda bombings more recently than the US has been. It's more likely that the evidence wasn't strong enough to get Turkey to act or to give more names to pursue, so they just kept him in the US.

The FBI is claiming that Muhtorov gave material support to the Islamic Jihad Union mentioned above, but there's a slight problem. The IJU may not exist. I've written about them before, how the Uzbek government initially blamed them for the Andijon massacre before word got out that this is a terrible thing to say. My nutshell version is:
So all in all, we still don't know what the IJU is about after looking into assertions on what the IJU is about. It's certainly possible that they want to turn the entire Dar al-Islam into a caliphate capitaled at Samarkand. It's also entirely possible that they only exist in the failed state between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that any pan-Turanian branding is just that, branding. 
Everything in the entire Muhtorov story is ill-defined, and instead of pursuing the man to give shape to it and to see just precisely what sort of crimes we're talking about, we're just going to arrest a man for internet perusal and un-American fashion activities.

Muhtorov is certainly the prime - and most widely-covered - example. But since ratcheting ties with Uzbekistan, the US government has arrested one and put the hit out on three others for being anti-Karimov. This is not enough to make a pattern, I admit. But it is absolutely frightening to think that as part of the NDN bargain , the US has decided to begin rolling up on anti-Karimov individuals.

Who is Muhtorov likely to know? Other dissident Uzbeks, to be sure. Any implication by him suddenly cracks into the entire Uzbek opposition in exile and links them to a terrorist group. Any communication, exchange of money, or organization with Muhtorov will be considered liaising with a terrorist in the eyes of the United States if Muhtorov is found guilty. These arrests are worth being followed skeptically. The US counter-terrorism establishment could be given carte-blanche to destroy or at least de-legitamize an opposition movement against a man and an apparatus that " one of the most horrific rights abusers on the planet."

It's not there yet but it's worth keeping an eye on. And it's a hell of a bargain for the rights to use a highway.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Credulity at Arm's Length - The Met and Islamic Art

Long overdue, of course. Over winter break I spent some time in New York, where I have friends, family, and a 1-year-old niece that supersedes either category. New York is also home to the new exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum. I know it's an exhibit of Islamic art, you know it's an exhibit of Islamic art. But there, it's titled "New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia." The title is indicative of the whole experience. The folks at the Met tried real hard to do something big here - they saw it as their onus to bridge West and East in some way. The metaphor I think of initially is a first date; the Met made sure their hair was just so, they were wearing the shirt that brings out their eyes, all of that. But they spent so much time thinking of how it would make the Met appear that they forgot that the purpose is to educate the audience and elucidate aspects of the exhibited culture. And there they missed on what could've been a great opportunity.

The biggest problem with the Met is that it isn't the Aga Khan. The Met doesn't have the Aga Khan Museums' resources, networks, or devotion to a single purpose, and it shows. Rather than AG's devoted galleries and lengthy contextualizations, we have square rooms and flash cards in New York. Everything is segmented and instead of seeing the breadth and depth of Islamic Art, we shuffle from room to room to stare and nod in approval.

It's difficult to get too upset about it. After all, the Met is handcuffed by their environment and their donors. There's only works from where the Met could get works: lots of Iran, a little bit of North Africa. And although there is a small room to describe the collectors, there should really be more. What were they doing in Iran? How did they get these things? What is the provenance, what are the storylines? Instead of those stories, we get...flashcards. It's de rigeur, I suppose, but it could've been much more.

There are two stars to the collection. The first is a copy of Ferdowsi's Shahname which, while impressive, lacks the dynamism of Aga Khan's version. The Aga Khan used page flip technology, had translations in English, Turkish, and Arabic, and had wall-sized screens to turn the miniatures into tangible parts of life. The Met had postcards.

The second star is more telling - the Damascus courtyard in the center of the exhibit. Unlike the rest of the works, the courtyard has context and a story: workers coming into New York to build it out of stone, the importance of a courtyard in traditional life. It had pictures, videos, and lots of context...but not a lick of historicity. And yet its the one getting most of the critical (or at least pop critical) attention.

This may all sound a bit critical of "art for arts sake" and the like, but what I'm trying to do is ask what the museum sees its purpose as. This is a question that my sister could handle far better than me, but I'll still try to answer it.

If the Met only wanted to throw some works on its walls, that's precisely what it would do - and precisely what it has done for other exhibits. Was this new exhibit on Islamic Art supposed to be something new? Something unique? If so, it likely failed. It is perhaps the most sophisticated permanent exhibit in the Met and the most credulous Islamic Art exhibit in the US. But all the same, the art is kept at arm's length. The audience is handcuffed into a system of pointing and gawking rather than interacting with the art or personalizing it. Who are these artists? Why did they feel compelled to create? Meh.

The killer is that the Met knows what they're doing. The neighboring exhibit on Indian painters was incredible. It introduced its audience to the individual painters and their styles, allowing us to see how they portrayed scenes and why those scenes were chosen. Fascinating stuff to be certain.

But the Islamic Art exhibit? If you can't get out of the US, then by all means, its worthwhile. But Toronto's just a short flight away. Check out the AK instead.