Google Paranoia in a September 12 World
It got me. Paranoia. Who is watching? What are the consequences in a September 12 world of things that used to be innocent?
I began researching materials online that advise, in English, how someone might travel to Syria and join Islamic State (IS). Several media outlets mentioned an ebook IS created along those lines, but none linked to it or dove deep into what it said. I set out to find it, Googling away with “how to join Islamic State,” and “advice for jihadi travel.” I eventually found the ebook with the term “hijrah.” Used in canon to refer to Mohammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina, the word today colloquially refers to those who leave home for jihad.
The ebook is brief, titled simply Hijrah to the Islamic State, some 50 pages with pictures and maps. The advice is mostly stuff you’d think people could figure out on their own. Bring a sturdy backpack, don’t tell Turkish immigration officials you are headed to Syria, don’t call attention to yourself in the airport, that sort of thing. There are a bunch of Twitter handles included so you can make contact with IS, but the few I checked were dead accounts.
You could probably do better with Lonely Planet (which also advises travelers not to call attention to themselves, but to avoid being targeted by thieves, not anti-terror forces.) I found another site just for women seeking to join IS, assuring the traveler she’ll be in female-only accommodations and that they have diapers and baby stuff available. Otherwise, it was all about bringing books to read on the long trip and not forgetting needed medicines.
I wrapped up my research with a quick buzz through Orbitz to see flight choices. New York was the default starting point because Orbitz had it already there from my previous searches. You can fly nonstop from the United States to Turkey, and then take a taxi to the Syrian border. Flights directly into Damascus involve a couple of stops, and most require you fly out of Newark. Jihad starts in Jersey, what a hassle.
All in all, not much of story in the hijrah ebook, and certainly nothing at the they’re-seducing-our-kids-into-terrorism level, though New York Timescalled it “a remarkable ISIS travel guide” and authorities in the UK want to ban it from social media. The ebook is in reality near useless, except as another boogie man for westerners to point to.
But I started to worry.
Look at me: I Googled up a how-to manual for jihadis. I’d previously read al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine online (Islamic State has its own online magazine, and I read that too.) I looked into travel to Syria. I sought out a good translation of “hijrah.” Everything I did, I did from an office desk. It was all on the Internet, with no secret meetings in shadowy places. So it was OK, like going to the library, right?
But I started to panic. How long until this reached critical mass, when some piece of software went “bing!” and some new protocol was applied to me? I have an international trip planned in a few weeks (plain vanilla Asia). Will I get selected for additional screening? Will I be questioned trying to exit or, later, when I re-enter the United States? Have I become paranoid? Should I be? Is it wise or stupid to worry about these things?
I remember discussing the Jeffrey Sterling Espionage Act case with an attorney friend, the case that at one point threatened to send reporter James Risen to jail for not revealing his sources. My friend said the case was probably one of the last of its kind. So the government learned its First Amendment lesson I asked? No, she said, next time the government won’t have to threaten a reporter; most reporters will either shy away from such stories, their editors will kill the reporting to avoid an expensive legal battle, or the government will already know who they talked to.
I’m certain I am no James Risen. I’m pretty sure I didn’t write a more detailed story about the Islamic State travel guides because there was little to say, that the links I left out above were of little value. Google works at your house, too, if you really want to see them, and you’re not afraid of that, are you? The algorithms they—whoever they are—use are smart enough to see that I’m just a curious writer, and you’re just a curious reader, and none of us plans on joining IS, right?
I still wrote the lawyer’s phone number in the back of my passport. Can’t be too careful these days, as people say. Threats are everywhere.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.