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Targeting Muslims

(Image: JR / Truthout)

In August 2002, police were called to a home in Seminole, Florida, by a woman who said her husband had threatened to kill her. She invited them to conduct a search. They found a cache of weapons, including 20 live bombs, mines and more than 30 guns, among them semi-automatic weapons, 50-caliber machine guns and sniper rifles. There was also a list of targets – 50 worship centers across the state.

Little attention outside of Florida was paid to the elaborate plan to bomb the Islamic Center of Pinellas County, target mosques and “kill all rags” drawn up by Robert Jay Goldstein, a Tampa podiatrist. Goldstein was not referred to as a “terrorist” in the limited national coverage and neither was there a mention of his religious background. Goldstein, who was not a Muslim, did not fit the frame.

Muslim communities have borne the brunt of the nation's single-minded focus on terrorism since 9/11. Rather than building up relations of trust, the FBI, through its Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) has, beginning with its “special interest arrests” and mass interviews, adopted the counterproductive strategy of treating Arabs, South Asians and Muslims from other regions as an actual or potential “enemy within.” Their raids have received sensational media coverage, leading the public to assume that Muslims are a unique terrorist threat.

But FBI reports show that Muslims are not, in fact, chiefly responsible for terrorist incidents and plots within the United States. The 2002 – 2005 FBI terrorism report reveals that 23 of 24 recorded terrorist “incidents” were perpetrated by non-Muslims, while 10 of 14 terrorist “preventions” had nothing to do with Muslims. It details terrorist plots that would have dominated the news if Muslims had been involved. As University of North Carolina Professor Charles Kurzman stated in his report, “Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting”: “Muslim-American terrorism makes news. Out of the thousands of acts of violence that occur in the United States each year, an efficient system of government prosecution and media coverage brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to national attention, creating the impression … that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.”

Although government agencies claim they do not resort to the kind of racial and ethnic profiling that had been widely discredited by the end of the 20th century because of its association with the “war on drugs” traffic stops, the facts suggest otherwise. From the compiling of terrorist watch lists to programs like the “Special Registration” National Security Entry-Exit Registration System – where people were asked which mosques they attended and sometimes made to hand over their address books – and Operation Green Quest targeting Muslim charities and businesses believed to be part of a terrorism “money trail,” religious profiling and profiling on the basis of national origin have been central to post-9/11 government policies.

The 2002 revisions to FBI guidelines allowed the Bureau to monitor lawful religious as well as civic and political activity without suspicion of wrongdoing. Before long, FBI supervisors were being ordered to count the number of mosques and Muslims in their areas and use this information to establish a yardstick for the number of terrorism investigations they would carry out. In 2005, it was reported that the FBI – without obtaining warrants – was monitoring for radiation 100 Muslim mosques, homes and businesses in Washington, DC and at least five other cities. After the FBI's guidelines again were revised in 2008 to further ease restrictions on using race and ethnicity as factors in opening investigations, it was revealed through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation that the Bureau's internal Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guide gave agents the authority to collect information about “behaviors” and “life style characteristics” and “map” racial and ethnic demographics. FOIA efforts to discover the substance of the FBI's mapping project have produced hundreds of entirely redacted pages.

At least two police forces had their own mapping projects. An outcry by community and civil rights groups forced the Los Angeles Police Department to drop its plan to map the geographic distribution of Muslims in Los Angeles and “look at their history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status and social interactions.” The intelligence unit of the New York Police Department (NYPD), which works closely with the CIA, learned from the Los Angeles outcry that its own mapping of the city's Muslim neighborhoods “should be kept secret.” According to an Associated Press investigation, the NYPD program “was modeled in part on how Israeli authorities operate in the West Bank” and goes well beyond what is permissible under FBI guidelines.[1]

With this kind of scrutiny, it is not difficult to see why many Muslims feel under siege. FBI and JTTF agents repeatedly show up at their homes and places of work to ask them about personal aspects of their lives and other community members. Any discrepancy in their statements can be used to induce them to become an informant: cooperate with us, or we will charge you with a felony for lying to a federal official.

First-generation Muslims who came to the United States from police states feel especially vulnerable, as they see once vibrant neighborhoods decimated by JTTF raids and arrests – often as a result of information given by informers and agents provocateur who have their own problems with the law.

“Inform or be deported” – this is what the FBI has been telling many Muslims who are not citizens, according to The Wall Street Journal. There have been instances of people having their green cards taken by the FBI and then told they would only get them back if they agreed to inform on fellow Muslims. If they refuse, they would be sent back to their countries of origin. Imams have been threatened with deportation for refusing to work for the FBI, and over 1,000 have been deported on a variety of pretexts. Among those asked to be an informant was Imam Foad Farahi, an asylum seeker, who was offered residency and money to report on specific people in the Miami area. When he refused, he was given the choice of leaving the country voluntarily or facing terrorism charges.

Informants and undercover operatives have played a central role in a striking number of “terrorist plots.”[2] In cases from New Jersey, Albany, Miami, in Lodi, California, and elsewhere, paid FBI informants have infiltrated groups, egged them on and often supplied them with plots and weapons. Informers have provided sometimes reluctant conspirators with the know-how and (fake) bombs in tightly stage-managed “plots” that capture the headlines and demonstrate the FBI is doing its job. Often, clueless participants have been lured with promises of wealth, with informers keeping them on the “jihadist” path when their interest in the mission threatened to peter out.[3]

Examples include the “homegrown terrorists” known as the Liberty City 7, who were not Muslim, although they were initially presented as such. Living in an impoverished Miami neighborhood, this group of poor Haitian immigrants belonged to the Moorish Science Temple, which was infiltrated by a JTTF operative known as “Brother Mohammed” who posed as a member of al-Qaeda. He promised their leader $50,000 in cash, firearms and other equipment if the group would agree to blow up federal buildings and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Even though the FBI itself dubbed the plot “aspirational rather than operational,” federal prosecutors pursued the men relentlessly. In 2009, four years after they were arrested and after two trials ended in hung juries, the federal government convened a third trial and finally got a jury to agree to convict five of the seven men.

A New York synagogue and Jewish center were the targets of a May 2009 “homegrown terrorist” plot. It involved four destitute African-American ex-cons in impoverished Newburgh, New York, one of whom suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and none of whom were regularly practicing Muslims, although the extensive news coverage suggested otherwise. They were given cash, food, rent money, drugs, cell phones, a camera and disabled explosive devices – including a Stinger missile – by an FBI informant who had been convicted of identity fraud and was hoping for a reduced sentence – and was paid $100,000 for his efforts. The plot commanded huge media and political attention when it was “disrupted.” On June 29, 2011, Manhattan US District Court Judge Colleen McMahon, who had called the FBI informant a “serial liar” who perjured himself at trial and stated that the FBI had “created the crime here,” handed down mandatory minimum 25-year sentences to three of the men. “The government did not have to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot – there was no nefarious plot to foil,” she declared.

Just prior to the sentencing of her nephew, who was one of the men convicted following the orchestrated plot, Alicia McWilliams wrote:

The government spent millions of taxpayers dollars on the informant's salary, perks, luxury cars, surveillance equipment, fake weaponry, helicopters, and the dramatic trial…. And the benefits? I may be biased, but I haven't met many people who can say with a straight face that our nation is safer from terrorism as a result of all of this. I also sometimes wonder, what good might those resources have done if they'd been invested in our communities instead?…What I can't understand is spending millions of dollars to set David and the others up, and then to put them in prison for life, which will also cost millions of dollars. Just so the government can have another notch on its belt in the “war on terror?”

In perhaps the most bizarre case involving a government informant, Ahmad Niazi, a worshipper at a mosque in Irvine, California, reported to the FBI that someone at the mosque was making overtly jihadist statements. That someone turned out to be a paid FBI informant and convicted forger, Craig Monteilh, a k a Farouk al-Aziz, who later claimed to have spied for the FBI at several mosques around Southern California and been paid $177,000, tax-free, over a 15-month period. The mosque got a restraining order against him.

The matter did not end there. The FBI then asked Niazi to become an informant, and he refused – whereupon an FBI agent allegedly said he would make his life a “living hell.” Niazi was subsequently charged with perjury, fraud and making false statements. Monteilh, meanwhile, sued his former bosses, alleging his work with the Bureau had put his life in danger.

In February 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought a lawsuit against the FBI on behalf of Muslim plaintiffs, alleging that Monteilh was ordered by the FBI to carry out “indiscriminate surveillance” of Muslims, in violation of their right to freedom of religion. The lawsuit claims that the FBI told Monteilh that, “Islam was a threat to America's national security.” On August 1, Attorney General Eric Holder invoked the state secrets privilege and told the court that forcing the government to reveal information about mosque surveillance could harm national security.

“The FBI is not earnestly looking for Muslims to be their partners,” a Boston community organizer stated. “They are looking for criminals. They assume we are a criminal community, and we are forever burdened with proving that we are not. As long as you think Muslims are the problem, this would be some lousy partnership. Muslims have to be considered part of the solution.”

But it is not always the FBI that is carrying out sting operations. In mid-May, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly held a high-profile news conference at City Hall featuring live-action arrest photos. At the conference,they announced the arrest of two Muslims who “wanted to kill Jews.” One of the men had reportedly been in a psychiatric hospital on more than 20 occasions. This time, it was undercover NYPD agents who befriended the men and provided them with handguns, ammunition and a dud hand grenade a few minutes before the sting was consummated. Interestingly, the FBI declined to get involved, federal prosecutors were apparently never consulted and a state grand jury later threw out the most serious charges against them.

Aware that their places of worship are being monitored and potential informants are being recruited, it is not surprising that many Muslims no longer feel comfortable in mosques. They don't know who can be trusted. They find it difficult to fulfill their religious obligation of charitable giving because the government has used secret evidence to shut down the main Muslim charities.

Muslims' experience of being targeted does not stop there. Against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia stoked by the media, certain advocacy groups, and politicians, Muslims and people perceived to be Muslim frequently encounter harassment on the streets, discrimination at work, and frozen bank accounts. They are targeted for intrusive questions, humiliating searches and long delays at borders and airports. They may be bumped off planes, as were two imams who, in May 2011, were flying to a conference on Islamophobia. Pomona College student Nicholas George never made it onto his plane. In August 2009, having a set of English-Arabic language flash cards in his pocket was enough to get him handcuffed by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, locked up for four hours, and questioned about 9/11 and the language spoken by Osama bin Laden.

If “guilt by association” a half-century ago got people who thought a certain way put on blacklists, today it can get people who worship a certain way, or have an interest in learning Arabic, regarded as “suspicious” and put into surveillance system watch lists. And because databases can be fed information from multiple entry points, there appears to be no straightforward way to clear names, as those who have complained to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about their treatment at airports will attest. People who are innocent of any wrongdoing may well spend their lives as “suspects.”

1. Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, the authors of the AP expose, “With CIA Help, NYPD Moves Covertly in Muslim Areas,” state that, unlike the NYPD program, “the FBI requires evidence of a crime before an informant can be used inside a mosque” and quotes the FBI's general counsel saying the same thing. But under its 2008 guidelines, the FBI can undertake “proactive” assessments, which include the use of surveillance and sending an informant to meetings (and mosques), without a factual basis for suspecting the target of wrongdoing. During the period between March 2009 and March 2011, the FBI opened 82,325 assessments of individuals and groups. It needs some kind of “factual predicate” to open a preliminary or full investigation, and these cannot be based solely on First Amendment activity.

2. A report by New York University's Center on Law and Security has found that undercover agents or informants were relied on in 62 percent of the 156 most significant anti-terrorism prosecutions since 9/11.

3. Among recent high-profile cases involving informers and claims of entrapment was the November 2010 plot to bomb a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. The alleged perpetrator, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali teenager who had been under federal surveillance for six months, was given a dud bomb by an undercover FBI agent. Two days after his arrest, there was an arson attack on a nearby Islamic center. In another case, the lawyer for 23-year-old Antonio Martinez claims his client would not “have had any ability whatsoever to carry out any kind of plan” without the assistance of an FBI informant. Martinez, a recent convert to Islam, was arrested in a sting operation in early December 2010 as he was trying to detonate a fake bomb outside a Baltimore military recruitment center.

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