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Darryl Li, Anthropology, The University of Chicago

  • When: April 14, 2021, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: Zoom: To register, contact Sophie Kofman at

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Comedy of Terrors: Conspiracy Law, National Security Fictions, and the Origin Story of al-Qa‘ida

From Charlottesville to the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, the resurgence of extra-state forms of white supremacy has often been framed as a problem of conspiracy theorizing, occasioning calls for a reassertion of the rule of law. In contrast, this paper examines the judiciary itself as a longstanding site of conspiracy theorization of a somewhat different kind. It revisits one of the first criminal cases of the War on Terror, where prosecutors targeting an Islamic charity in Chicago faced the question of explaining and narrativizing something called "al-Qa'ida" within the terms of U.S. conspiracy law -- was it a well-defined organization, a loose network, or a free-floating brand? In order to make its case, prosecutors filed a pleading summarizing documents seized in an overseas raid that it characterized as the minutes of the founding meeting of al-Qa'ida. The ensuing dispute over rules governing the use of hearsay evidence produced a striking outcome: a prosecutorial filing of dubious quality excluded by a judge nonetheless went on to enjoy a curious citational afterlife in other litigation via expert witness testimony and eventually in published histories of al-Qa'ida now considered canonical. By treating doctrinal artifacts such as the law of conspiracy, evidentiary rules, and pleading standards as ethnographic objects, this paper theorizes the judiciary as a site of contestation in the crafting of "national security fictions" -- a specific genre of artifice whose tenuous coherence and legitimacy may shed light on better-known forms of conspiracy theorizing.

Photo and bio courtesy of the University of Chicago, Department of Anthropology.

Darryl Li is an anthropologist and attorney working at the intersection of war, law, migration, empire, and race with a focus on transregional linkages between the Middle East, South Asia, and the Balkans.

Li is the author of The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity (Stanford University Press, 2020), which develops an ethnographic approach to the comparative study of universalism using the example of transnational "jihadists" -- specifically, Arabs and other foreigners who fought in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia Herzegovina. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research conducted in Bosnia and a half-dozen other countries, the monograph situates transnational jihads in relation to more powerful universalisms, including socialist Non-Alignment, United Nations peacekeeping, and the U.S.-led "Global War on Terror." He is at work on a second project on migrant military labor (frequently called "mercenaries" or "military contractors") across the Indian Ocean.

Li has participated in litigation arising from the "War on Terror" as party counsel, amicus, or expert witness, including in Guantánamo habeas, Alien Tort, material support, denaturalization, immigration detention, and asylum proceedings. He is a member of the New York and Illinois bars.

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