Faheem Qureshi was 13 years old when the war on terror came crashing into his life. Faheem lived in the village of Ziraki, in the tribal regions of northwestern Pakistan. He was coming home from a long day of errands and prayers when the missile struck. Flames ran up the left side of his body. Shrapnel tore through his stomach and peppered his eyes. Faheem spent 40 days in the hospital and lost 17 relatives, including two uncles and his 21-year-old cousin, that day. It was January 23, 2009, and it was President Barack Obama’s first drone strike. Thousands more would rain down on the areas surrounding Faheem’s home in the years that followed. At least 66 children died in those strikes, victims of a covert war that the whole world knew about and the U.S. government refused to acknowledge.
Faheem Qureshi is one of the names that Spencer Ackerman, author of the new book “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump,” wants readers to remember. Adham Hassoun is another. A Palestinian refugee, Hassoun was arrested in 2002 for donations he made to Muslim charities in the 1990s and charged under the Patriot Act, a sweeping surveillance law hastily passed in October 2001. After refusing to spy on his community and mosque as an informant for the federal government, Hassoun spent four years in solitary confinement before going to trial, after which he was locked away for a decade and half. After serving his sentence, Hassoun was handed to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency that itself owes its very existence to the September 11 attacks. Under President Donald Trump, the third American president to preside over the war on terror, a previously unused provision of the Patriot Act would become the basis for Hassoun’s indefinite detention on U.S. soil. He was, in the words of the FBI, “a casualty of war.”
For Ackerman, the stories of Faheem Qureshi, Adham Hassoun, and others like them were critical to bringing his debut book to life, a reminder of the millions of human beings around the world who were, and continue to be, impacted by the “global war on terrorism” that President George W. Bush declared 20 years ago next month. Fusing history and analysis born out of nearly two decades of reporting, Ackerman makes the case that the Trump years were the logical conclusion of a multidecade borderless war without end. He writes that Trump, then a New York City real estate magnate, was among the first to recognize “the 9/11 era’s grotesque subtext — the perception of nonwhites as marauders, even as conquerors, from hostile foreign civilizations — was its engine.”
Once in office, Ackerman argues that Trump internalized and weaponized the war’s most important lesson of all: “The terrorists were whomever you said they were.”
A Pulitzer Prize winner whose work has appeared in the Daily Beast and The Guardian, Ackerman this year chose to go independent, partnering with an editor to publish his journalism via Substack. He spoke to The Intercept about the disconnect in how the U.S. security state has historically responded to the nation’s oldest, deadliest form of terrorism — that of the white supremacist far right — and its world-altering response to the September 11 attacks. Ackerman recounted how events early on in Trump’s presidency, particularly the reemergence of key figures from the war on terror as top administration officials, motivated him to write “Reign of Terror”; spoke about the people whose stories shaped the book; and shared his analysis of the state of the war on terror today — and where it might go next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to set the prologue of “Reign of Terror” in Elohim City, Oklahoma — a far-right paramilitary compound that Timothy McVeigh visited in the weeks before the Oklahoma City bombings — in the early 1990s? What was the significance of that place and time to your larger argument?
As I was writing the book, this was one of the first things I saw really vividly, that I felt strongly about — how it needed to proceed both narratively and, accordingly, structurally to bring the critique home.
It is often very hard to see the whole war on terror, because, particularly 20 years on, we don’t tend to think of it as one thing. We tend to think of it as like, there’s an Afghanistan War; there’s was an Iraq War; there’s drone strikes; there’s surveillance; and so forth. So we kind of don’t see the whole corpus.
But a way in which you really can see the whole corpus is when you look at a mass casualty terrorism event perpetrated by a white person. And when you look at the terrorist attack that Timothy McVeigh commits in April of 1995, you see really clearly in the aftermath whom it was acceptable to target and whom it was forbidden to target in a way that prefigures the response to 9/11 in a kind of scary echo.
I wanted those people to be white, because we very, very rarely present the infrastructure of white supremacist terrorism in this country in that same context, with that same understanding.
We start in Elohim City because I was determined to begin this book with a journalistic cliché. I wanted to kind of mirror all of the journalism you have read over the past 20 years where the reporter puts himself valiantly in danger, travels to the terrorist training camp, and watches these people, who he treats almost zoologically, exercise through muddy truck tires and go across monkey bars and so on and so forth — I wanted those people to be white, because we very, very rarely present the infrastructure of white supremacist terrorism in this country in that same context, with that same understanding.
I wanted to take the reader to a part of northeastern Oklahoma where, in plain sight, one of the leading figures of late 20th century, white supremacist infrastructure was allowed to basically exist as his, like, mini, weird, white caliphate.
The response to Oklahoma City entirely leaves out the expansive transformations in law, known as material support statutes, that criminalize association and authorize surveillance on people who are several steps away from an actual act of violence; all of that is immediately on the table after 9/11, when terrorism isn’t white.
“Reign of Terror” is clearly the product of extensive historical and journalistic research. It is also deeply infused with a particular argument. It’s not just laying out the facts, it’s making a case. Give us the origin story of how it came into being.
Basically, like two years into the Trump administration, we had got kind of bombarded with explanations about how Trump came to be, and some of them were compelling, others weren’t, but all of them seem to me kind of incomplete, especially as Trump surrounds himself with all of these figures from the war on terror. But none of that seemed to knit itself up in a lot of the discourse around Trump into anything beyond, like, “Oh, that’s weird. That’s a coincidence.” Or, and this was the liberal discourse, these are the saviors of our respected institutions, coming to the defense of America, aligned against Donald Trump.
I was, through my journalism at the time, very focused on specific, small stories and was kind of constantly encouraged to break news. And when I would get to explanatory sections of pieces I was writing, I would just find those the hardest to write, because I wanted to go very deep on that and not in fact on the news break that I had at the top of the piece and was the whole reason for this anyway. And I couldn’t quite get it right.
I was thinking about how symbiotic Trump’s relationship with the war on terror is, and then I started putting myself in a Nexis hole — like, let’s look at what Trump did and said on and about 9/11, or for the Iraq War, or Afghanistan.
Even when he’s going as primarily “The Apprentice” guy, he’s nevertheless, because he is who he is, finding a way to make himself relevant.
Seeing Kelly constantly portrayed, and trying to portray himself after a certain point, as a bulwark or an obstacle to Trump was just, like, it was astonishing to me.
In going through it, that gave me a more expansive way of thinking about who the people around him were, especially because I’ve reported on so many. Particularly John Kelly, the former Guantánamo commander, who, if you were a defense reporter when John Kelly was at SOUTHCOM, the military command responsible for Central and South America, and you covered primarily Guantánamo, you knew John Kelly as the man who broke a hunger strike and instituted a press blackout and treated reporters as the enemy and gave all of these extremely caustic speeches, talking about how it is a betrayal for people, and this is as late as 2010, to not support the wars.
Seeing Kelly constantly portrayed, and trying to portray himself after a certain point, as a bulwark or an obstacle to Trump was just, like, it was astonishing to me. I remembered at that point, most people don’t cover Guantánamo Bay, so maybe you have a responsibility to tell them.
And then finally, the moment where this book all came together for me was reading accounts of the cells that CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] and ICE keep for migrant families, where they’re chilled for as much as a 72-hour stay.
I covered torture, very extensively, military and CIA torture, very extensively, and as soon as I read those accounts, I was taken back to the black site in Afghanistan in November of 2002, where Gul Rahman froze to death, and how there was never any accountability for that. Even though there’s not going to be like a piece of paper that says to CBP and ICE, “Do what the CIA did,” the fact that over time, government bureaucrats in the security agencies learned that there will be no consequence to freezing people in cells, as long as they are the right sort of people, kind of threw “Reign of Terror” together with the quickness.
Speaking of voices who come up again and again in the book: Who is Adham Hassoun, and what role does he play in the history of the war on terror that you tell?
Adham Hassoun is someone who I encountered kind of late in my work on the book, and once I encountered him, I realized I had to tear up so much of it in order to make him a central figure.
He’s someone who the Patriot Act criminalizes, who is convicted ultimately of terrorism charges that have absolutely nothing to do with any act of violence. The ultimate commission of most of what he is said to have done is write checks to banned organizations. All except for one check, which was written shortly afterward, all of the money that he donated to organizations was legal before the Patriot Act, so they retroactively used his charitable donations to refugee causes — this man is himself a refugee — against him. The only reason that even happens is because he refuses to become an FBI informant.
A lot of the presentation of informant work for law enforcement that we tend to get makes it seem like informants are super-engaged citizens who are coming forward to make sure that some disaster doesn’t happen. More often, it is a coercive process based on leverage that law enforcement or a prosecutorial entity has over someone that they can use to generate information about people, rather than necessarily about a crime. And that happens a tremendous amount after 9/11 in Muslim communities, where the FBI, despite its rhetoric, treats American Muslim communities as targets, not people who deserve the protection of the law.
Adham ultimately has the misfortune of having given life advice to a young José Padilla, who he met in a mosque in Miami. Once the Bush administration accused, and later withdrew, the charge that José Padilla was going to set off a radiological bomb, anyone who is in José Padilla’s phone book was in a lot of trouble, and Adham was one of those people.
He got sentenced to 15 years in prison, to include time served. The judge at sentencing notes that the government has not even attempted to connect him to an act of violence, and yet, nevertheless, it was asking for life imprisonment for him. So he serves his entire sentence. He spends the next 13 years in prison and emerges from prison in October of 2017, and Trump is president now.
He’s a Palestinian. He’s a stateless person. He grew up in Lebanon, he came to the United States after the searing experience of having been a young man during the Lebanese civil war. He expects he’s probably headed to Lebanon.
Instead, he is taken to an ICE prison in western New York, near Buffalo. I’m skipping a couple steps here, but basically he learns that he is the first person ever to have Section 412 of the Patriot Act used against him, and Section 412 was one of the major things that civil liberties attorneys in the weeks that they had to object to the Patriot Act raised objections to, because it basically says if someone isn’t a citizen and there’s no place to deport him, the government can imprison him indefinitely, and a senior security official, in this case the Department of Homeland Security secretary, decides every six months to just, like, rubber stamp that or not.
This kept Adham potentially locked up forever, after he had served his criminal sentence. A criminal sentence that, again, only existed because the Patriot Act criminalized what he had already done. And then because he didn’t want to become an informant, he didn’t want to spy on his neighbors and on his mosque. He is in Batavia [New York] and trying, along with some very heroic, local attorneys in Buffalo and the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], to contest his sentence and leave — and also trying find a country where he can go to.
We have, at the very minimum, an obligation to remember his name.
An evidentiary hearing in federal court basically makes it clear that the FBI cannot meet its burden in the hearing — which is just like, demonstrate and allow for cross-examination of that demonstration, your assessment of the danger that Adham Hassoun poses that requires indefinite detention as its remedy — and the FBI and the Justice Department get really mad at the judge for making them do that and, in response, basically concede that they can’t do that, but then appeal her ruling.
So now it’s basically the security state racing to establish that this judge cannot constrain their authority to do this.
Instead of losing that battle, or running the risk of losing that battle, in the summer of 2020, the Justice Department said that Adham Hassoun, who it had been arguing was too dangerous to leave a cage, got put on a plane for Rwanda, where he’s been a free man ever since. And I think it is extremely important when going through the war on terror to remember that this happened to real people — people with souls, and people with names — and the war on terror stole Adham Hassoun’s life. We have, at the very minimum, an obligation to remember his name.
What is the state of the war on terror today, and what do you make of this argument that we’re witnessing the birth of a new war on terror taking shape in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, this one targeting conservatives in the name combating right-wing extremists? Is that happening?
I think right now the security state and the Biden administration are feeling around to see what the limits of that are going to be. From my vantage, they seem not, right now, to be seeking new powers — they’re not asking for a new law to be passed for domestic terrorism, at this point. However, very conspicuously, a lot of attention in congressional hearings and congressional testimony from Justice Department counterterrorism figures, FBI counterterrorism figures, and important congressional figures like Elissa Slotkin on security committees, Mark Warner as well, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have kind of focused on pointing to a right-now-not-really-well-established operational connection between right-wing domestic militants and foreign terrorist figures, like sometimes Ukraine, like the Azov Battalion, or something like that.
That has happened conspicuously enough to make it seem like what the early phase of his responses is about is seeing how to manipulate laws against banned foreign terrorist organizations, to find some measure of connection to target these groups without having to do something politically provocative like pass a law and risk a backlash to that. And that is very consistent with the operations of the war on terror. Once these authorities are granted, there are always going to be creative lawyers and creative intelligence officials to shoehorn the circumstances that fit the current security prerogative for targeting. And so I am keeping an eye out for manifestations of that, and if that fails, then we’ll probably come to see what a fallback position looks like. So that’s sort of the phase I think we might be confronting right now.