How has a watch so universal in its appeal that it has appeared on the wrists of both Barack Obama and Napoleon Dynamite earned a reputation that could see you imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for owning one? Read on to find out...
What do hipsters and jihadis have in common? Aside from a penchant for bushy beards, the answer is: probably not much. Or so you would’ve thought. Several years ago, information dissidents Wikileaks came into the possession of documents linking Casio’s iconic F-91W watch to terrorist bomb makers. The U.S. military even lists the unassuming digital timepiece as “the sign of al-Qaida," owing to the fact that the Islamist organization uses them to produce improvised explosives. But how did an accessory so widely available that you can pick it up at American Apparel manage to achieve such deadly notoriety?
First introduced to the market in 1991, the F-91W is an absolute design classic. Created for extreme functionality, it has more or less everything you could ever want from a watch if you were to find yourself stranded in the wilderness with Bear Grylls (or, say, the mountains of Tora Bora with Ayman al-Zawahiri): it’s waterproof, precise (losing no more than 30 seconds in a given month), has a stopwatch, seconds timer, an alarm, an hourly beep, a backlight, it tells the date as well as the day of the week, and has an average battery life of seven years – which is probably more than triple the product lifecycle of most modern technologies. And all at an official retail price of $18.95, although you can find them on the internet for even less.
Created in an age before designed obsolescence, Casio got everything so incredibly right the first time around that the only real update to their iconic timepiece over the past quarter century has been the introduction of a handful of new colorways. Although the Japanese watchmaker doesn’t make its sales figures public, it’s widely considered a best seller and the quintessential archetype quartz watch. The yin to the Rolex Submariner’s yang, and arguably what James Bond would wear were he ever to find himself really, really broke.
While this amalgamation of practical qualities could broadly be considered appealing to most people, what makes the F-91W particularly useful for people who like to blow shit up is its countdown timer, which can be easily adapted into a detonator for an improvised explosive device [IED]. Said to be handed out to apprentice bomb makers at al-Qaeda training camps, the watch face can be hooked up to a circuit board, some 9-volt batteries and plastic explosives with little difficulty, then set to detonate as easily as fixing your morning alarm. With a maximum timer of 23:59:59, it’s adaptable and allows would-be bombers to put plenty of distance between themselves and the ensuing explosion.
Realistically you could just as easily make an IED out of a bedside alarm clock or a cheap Nokia phone, but what makes the F-91W stand out is its time-tested reliability and the standardization that it offers. If you want to make multiple IEDs, they should, in theory, have very little variation between them; as such, you want your timers to come from the same respected manufacturer. The result of this — according to those aforementioned Wikileaks documents — is that the infamous U.S. offshore detention center at Guantanamo Bay now lists the watch as a “suspicious item” that could be used as contributing proof to have you detained in its cells.
It all sounds like a pre-internet urban legend, the sort that never pops up in conversation anymore because we’ve all got smartphones in our pockets that can bulldoze factual inaccuracies with a quick glance at Wikipedia, but it’s true. Guantanamo detainee reports that went public in 2011 reveal that 32 inmates were in possession of a F-91W at the time of their apprehension, while a further 20 were caught with its metallic cousin, the A159W. In many of these reports an explicit link is made between the Japanese watchmakers products and DIY explosives, stating: “The detainee was captured with a Casio F-91W watch. This model has been used in bombings that have been linked to al Qaida and radical Islamic terrorist improvised explosive devices.” Not to mention that photographic evidence proves that Osama Bin Laden was a fan as well. What more proof do you need?
Well, if you’re the world’s leading superpower, the answer is: not much. According to Guantanamo Bay leaks, “approximately one-third of JTF-GTMO detainees that were captured with these models of watches have known connections to explosives, either having attended explosives training, having association with a facility where IEDs were made or where explosives training was given, or having association with a person identified as an explosives expert.” Now, you’ll probably agree that this is outrageously broad and circumstantial – after all, the sheer ubiquity of Casio watches for all the reasons listed earlier makes these sorts of associations practically unavoidable. By that same flimsy reasoning, the detainees in question also have stylistic affinity to a young Barack Obama.
This fact isn’t lost on Gitmo’s Casio-owning detainees, seven of whom, according to this list, poked holes in the U.S. military’s logic when their watches were referenced in their Guantanamo Combatant Status Review Tribunals. “Millions and millions of people have these types of Casio watches”, said detainee 154, Mazin Salih Musaid Al Awfi, “If that is a crime, why doesn’t the United States arrest and sentence all the shops and people who own them? This is not a logical or reasonable piece of evidence.” Not that that ever stopped the Bush administration. After all, 48 of those interred at the Cuba-based facility can’t be put on trial because there isn’t enough evidence to convict them, or the evidence that’s there simply isn’t reliable enough, so says The New York Times.
But regardless of whether or not any of this is justified, the fact remains that Casio watches have a long record of illicit functionality. One of its earliest references as a bomb-making component was in a Washington Post article published in 1996, which documented the rise of homemade bombs specifically designed to evade airport security. The article mentions two men by the names of Abdul Hakim Murad and Ramzi Ahmed Yusef who were on trial for planning to bomb U.S. airliners using a combination of 9-volt batteries, bottles of contact solution filled with nitroglycerin and “a commonly available Casio watch.”
The components could be smuggled onto a plane in separate parts then assembled on board – something Yusef put into practice in December 1994 on a flight from Manila to Tokyo, where he placed the device in the life jacket pouch beneath another passenger's seat before disembarking the plane at its stopover point in Cebu. The bomb detonated on the second leg of its journey towards the Japanese capital, killing the passenger who was seated on top of it and injuring another 10 more.
Since the turn of the millennium and the rise of the war on terror, numerous Casio-powered IEDs have been found in Afghanistan and Pakistan (hence the links to al-Qaeda), while its legacy continues to endure to the present day. In May this year, a Queens-born, wannabe ISIS militant was arrested for plotting a terrorist attack in New York. According to the NY Daily News, “Saleh performed internet searches for the terms ‘watch’, ‘casio’, and ‘vacuum’... these searches reflect Saleh’s efforts to identify and obtain components required to create an explosive device.”
Yet labeling Casio’s timepieces as terrorist watches reeks of media sensationalism. Can anyone really claim ownership of such a populist product? It’s like calling Coca-Cola “the pornstar soda” because it’s likely that a lot of people in the adult industry drink it – alongside people in every other walk of life. But one inescapable fact the Japanese firm will never be able to shake off is that their products can be easily adapted to serve nefarious means, although we’ll probably never know what came first: the affinity or the ability. Are Casio products popular with al-Qaeda because they’re useful for making IEDs, or was the brand already their watchmaker of choice, and their discovery as a nifty bomb detonator was merely some twisted coincidence?
It’s likely that, if asked, Casio would simply outline the target market for the F-91W as "pretty much everyone." But, as countless unfortunate fashion brands have learned over the years, when you create something and release it to market — whether it's Timberland boots, Stone Island jackets or a uniquely affordable digital timepiece — you relinquish almost all control over who buys it. In this case it seems the company was the victim of its own success. Although, ultimately, the list of further victims is sadly far longer.
Words by Aleks Eror for Highsnobiety.com