Muslim Communities See Informers In Their Midst

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The Islamic Center of Bay Ridge is one of a handful of mosques that the NYPD is known to have infiltrated at one time.

Photo by: Aaron McElroy

The Islamic Center of Bay Ridge is one of a handful of mosques that the NYPD is known to have infiltrated at one time.

Many of New York’s Muslims believe they are being watched—that informants are in their midst, undercover officers are in their mosques, that they aren’t safe in their homes and that someone listens to their phone calls. Those fears would seem exaggerated, even hysterical, if it weren’t for the fact that the NYPD—already known to operate a network of informants—has, over the past two years, announced that dangerous, radical ideology is pervading the city’s Muslim community.

Fears of “sleeper cells” or “homegrown terrorists” have been heightened ever since September 11, but concern about domestic terrorists swelled after the 2005 London-transport-system bombings, which were perpetrated by people raised in Britain. About a year after those bombings, the NYPD hired Richard Falkenrath, an expert on weapons proliferation who worked on President Bush’s transition team, national security staff and 2004 campaign. Two months into his NYPD tenure, Falkenrath appeared before the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security committee.

Citing the NYPD’s “great deal of knowledge of local extremist, radical and militant individuals and groups,” Falkenrath said that Al Qaeda’s “powerful radical influence on the city’s younger generation—especially among its sizable Muslim community—continues to pose a serious threat from within…. We consider the fuel that ignited this inside threat—extreme militant ideology and influence—as the most critical challenge in addressing this inside threat in New York City.” He concluded: “The possibility of a ‘homegrown’ terrorist attack against New York City or any other American city is real and is worsening with time as the radical process unfolds.”

Falkenrath’s comments attracted little attention, even though they apparently marked the first time a city official had suggested that New York Muslims were becoming radicalized in a way that made them an “inside threat.” There was more buzz the following August when the NYPD’s Intelligence Division released a report called “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” The 90-page study was, according to Time magazine, “The most sophisticated government analysis of the homegrown terrorism threat to be made public in the United States.” The report, written by NYPD intelligence analysts Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, examined five terrorist plots—including the London attacks, the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh—and concluded that the plots fit a pattern in which radical Islam drove the participants to their deeds.

Silber and Bhatt posited a four-stage radicalization process. “Pre-radicalization” is the period before exposure to jihadi-Salafi Islam, a radical interpretation of the Muslim faith. “Self-identification” is what happens when a “cognitive opening or crisis” leads a person to explore radical Islam. “Indoctrination” occurs when the person “wholly adopts jihadi-Salafist ideology” and decides that “action” is required, usually with the help of a “spiritual sanctioner.” finally, “jihadization” happens when the person decides to become a “holy warrior.” The report says “there’s no useful profile to assist law enforcement” but also claims that the four-step pattern “provides a tool for predictability.” Not everyone who starts the radicalization process finishes it, of course, but that “does not mean that if one doesn’t become a terrorist, he or she is no longer a threat,” it reads. “Individuals who have become radicalized…may serve as mentors and agents of influence to those who might become the terrorists of tomorrow.” That means anyone who starts the process is a threat. And that’s where the report really breaks new ground. “Taken in isolation, individual behaviors can be seen as innocuous,” but when seen as part of a process of radicalization, they look more menacing, the report reads. Hence “the need to identify those entering this process at the earliest possible stage.” To help with that identification, the report identifies clues that a person has started down the path to radicalization. It names mosques, cafés, cabdriver hangouts, student associations, hookah bars and bookstores as potential “radicalization incubators” and lists “signatures” that someone has adopted Salafism, including “giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling,” along with “wearing traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard” and “becoming involved in social activism and community issues.” Later, the report contends that a hallmark of the indoctrination stage is that “rather than seeking and striving for the more mainstream goals of getting a good job, earning money, and raising a family, the indoctrinated radical’s goals are non-personal and focused on achieving ‘the greater good.'” It also posits that the spread of radicalization in Europe has been exacerbated by the continent’s “generous welfare systems” and “immigration laws that don’t encourage…assimilation.”

New York, it seems, doesn’t suffer from those policy shortcomings, but Silber and Bhatt nonetheless contend that “radicalization continues permeating New York City, especially its Muslim communities.”

Critics of the NYPD’s approach take issue with much of the radicalization report—not just what it says, but what it leaves out. The study looks at 11 cases of terrorism that all involve Muslims; Oklahoma City’s Timothy McVeigh, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph (who bombed the 1996 Olympics, a health clinic and a nightclub in Atlanta) are recent homegrown terrorists who don’t make the cut, and neither do other terrorists from domestic groups like the Animal Liberation front or Earth Liberation front.

What’s more, the report “doesn’t follow the rules of inference, because it doesn’t look to see if the features it sees as connected to violence are present in a broader spectrum of cases in such a way as to make the correlation they are suggesting suspect,” says Aziz Huq, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. for instance, a concern for the “greater good,” which nonterrorists from Dorothy Day to Jerry Lewis have exhibited, might not be a useful predictor of potential violence.

The central conclusion of the report regarding New York—that radicalization is spreading here—gets little support among people who live and work in the city’s Muslim communities. Sure, it’s easy to find terrorist propaganda videos on Atlantic Avenue, but that doesn’t mean an increasing number of people are watching them. Teachers College Professor Louis Cristillo, who has studied the city’s Muslim community, believes there is actually less radicalization post-September 11 because mosques and community centers all suspect that informers are in their midst. Cristillo released a survey this spring of Muslim high school students. Only 25 percent attended a mosque weekly. More than 55 percent said most or all of their friends were non-Muslims. One radical group, the Islamic Thinkers Society (whose website refers to the Holocaust as the “Hollowca$$t”) has been active in New York City but is widely shunned. Radical websites are unlikely to reach a broad swath of Muslim youth, either. “On a daily basis, Muslim students are six times more likely to be looking for music than anything related to Islam,” let alone radical Islam or violent ideology, Cristillo reports.

At a recent NYU counterterrorism conference, Jessica Stern, a John F. Kennedy School of Government scholar of worldwide Muslim terrorism, praised the NYPD report. But she noted that predictions of an imminent radicalization of American Muslims “might be an exaggeration.” She added, “Because Muslim Americans are better off than average Americans, I would be very surprised.”

The key question is how the NYPD report will be used. It’s already influencing debate within security circles nationwide; a May report by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security committee adopted the department’s methodology. What’s unclear is whether the NYPD will employ Silber and Bhatt’s findings to guide its own operations in the Muslim community. “It provides the most articulate justification for infiltration,” Huq says. “The NYPD has said the report is not affecting operations at all. I think that’s very unlikely. Even if only by osmosis, the report is going to affect the kind of tactics that will be used.” Those tactics are likely to include more religious and racial profiling, he warns.

Samuel Rascoff probably knows what the report is supposed to be used for, but he did not respond to requests for an interview. The 30-something Rascoff is a former Supreme Court clerk and aide to L. Paul Bremer, who was the United States’ administrator in Iraq. From 2006 to this spring, he served as the NYPD’s director of intelligence analysis before taking a post at the NYU School of Law.

Last year, Rascoff (who can speak or read Hebrew, Arabic, French, Spanish and Farsi) spoke at a counterterrorism conference in Canada. When he reached the podium, Rascoff stressed that the views he expressed were his own and not those of the NYPD. Then he mounted an argument for how spying on New Yorkers might protect, rather than imperil, civil liberties.

Rascoff’s basic idea is simple: The criminal justice system is poorly suited to addressing the terrorist threat because it has to wait for illegal activity to emerge, and that means waiting until it’s too late. “Radicalization may culminate in violence, but a good deal of radical activity is, from a constitutional and, indeed, a criminal standpoint, benign,” he said. In the end, the problem with criminal prosecution is “it cannot address protocriminal activity.”

That’s why Rascoff advocates a new “intelligence paradigm” for counterterrorism, “focused not on arrest, trial and conviction but situational awareness, prevention and, where necessary, interdiction and disruption,” in which “success is measured not in how many bad guys are put behind bars but in how many bad events are prevented from coming to pass in the first instance.” The secret to success is the looser rules that intelligence collectors face. “Even constitutionally protected activity, to the extent that it may pose a threat to society, may become a subject of intelligence gathering and analysis,” he said. That allows intelligence agents to track a person who “may have just begun to reveal evidence of criminal intent” by watching not just individual suspects, but also families, schools, houses of worship, chat rooms and prisons. This traipsing into constitutionally protected activities is OK, Rascoff argues, because in the intelligence paradigm, no one faces jail time; in other words, no one loses any physical liberty. Of course, people might face invasions of their civil rights to privacy and expression. Those rights are “critically important,” Rascoff says. But they are also negotiable.

“My argument here can be understood as a form of rights utilitarianism. Rights may be better protected by a forward-leaning posture that prevents the next attack and, with it, a profound backlash—and that backlash could take the form of popular reprisals or, as is more often the case, state action directed at aggressively getting to the bottom of the threat,” Rascoff said.

“Of course, to the rights absolutist, this form of argument can never be persuasive,” Rascoff added. “But to those of us who understand that a balance between rights and security must be struck, the prospect of doing so with the most sophisticated information and analysis ought to be welcomed, both from the standpoint of maximizing liberty and maximizing security.”

It’s an interesting argument, even if it does justify governmental intrusion with the threat of even greater governmental intrusion or a vigilante backlash down the road. What it doesn’t address is what happens if an attack occurs despite Rascoff’s “forward-leaning posture.” Would there be an even greater backlash? This scenario is of particular interest to communities that have already encountered the intelligence paradigm.

Mohammed Razvi of the Council of Peoples Organizations says that immediately after September 11, some people in his community slept in their cars because they feared getting picked up by federal agents if they ventured home. “We had law enforcement agents coming into the community to find people when their name matched some kind of database,” Razvi recalls. “federal agents, they’re not just high school graduates. They used words like ‘affiliation,’ ‘associate,’ ‘Are they your confidant?’ When a person says, ‘Yes,’ all of sudden they’re handcuffed.” The exact extent of such actions is almost beside the point. “If one community member is in fear of law enforcement, that news travels like lightning,” he adds. “The fear of law enforcement deporting someone, it doesn’t matter what language you speak.”

That crackdown has coincided with events that, advocates in the community say, suggest a larger hostility toward Muslims: hate crimes, the controversy over an Arabic high school, the deportation of a 16-year-old Queens girl as a suicide-bomb risk, the detention of New York Muslims on their way to a religious conference in Toronto, the farcical debate over whether Barack Obama is a Muslim. Then there are the spies.

“It’s frightening, the level of informants that are in our community,” says DRUM’s Monami Maulik, who adds that she has worked on at least a dozen cases of community members getting in trouble because of something they told an informant. Some get a warning first, Maulik says, “people telling them flat-out in our community, ‘I’ve got to tell you right now I’m being paid by DHS. I know you and you shouldn’t talk to me.'” Maulik adds: “People are being coerced as well as being rewarded to snitch on their neighbors. These are ordinary people.”

Cristillo, the Teachers College professor, has also detected high levels of suspicion. Muslims tell him that “sometimes when they walk into a mosque in which they would be perceived as a stranger, they’re sometimes looked at as if they’re the object of suspicion,” he says. “So this is sowing mistrust even within the Muslim community.”

As the NYPD report points out, only one “homegrown plot” has emerged so far in the five boroughs: the 2004 arrest of two men who were plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station. The radicalization report describes that plot in detail over several pages. Nowhere does it mention that the “spiritual sanctioner” in that case was on the payroll of the NYPD to the tune of $100,000.

The sanctioner was Osama Eldawoody, an Egyptian who testified that he became an informant after he was twice visited by law enforcement agents checking out post-September 11 tips (which proved false). In the summer of 2003, at the direction of his NYPD handler, Eldawoody visited the Al Noor mosque on Staten Island; he’d visit there 100 times in the next year. Then in late August 2003, he visited the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a mosque on fifth Avenue. Next door to the Islamic Society was the bookstore where Eldawoody met Shahawar Matin Siraj, a 20-year-old Pakistani who worked there.

Over the next year, Eldawoody traveled to the Islamic Society mosque and the bookstore dozens of times. Siraj introduced him to a friend, James Elshafay. The three men talked religion and politics; on a couple of occasions later in 2003, Eldawoody later testified, Siraj mentioned an interest in bombs and other sinister things, but apparently nothing serious enough that his NYPD handler wanted the encounters tape-recorded. As a result, the full content of those conversations are unknown. Eldawoody only began taping after May 3, 2004. On that day, according to the debriefing report filed by his NYPD handler, Eldawoody described the number of people attending services at the mosque. Routine stuff. But then he described a visit to the bookstore in which Siraj and Elshafay “expressed anger at the photos of the Iraqi prisoners [at Abu Ghraib] and in not so many words told [Eldawoody] that they are prepared to avenge the above. They did not elaborate in any way on the meaning of this.”

From that point on, Eldawoody’s conversations with Siraj and Elshafay were surreptitiously taped, and the tapes, as Siraj’s own lawyer Martin Stolar says, “sound terrible”— full of allusions to violence and a desire on Siraj’s part to “burn these motherfuckers.” Other statements muddy the picture a bit. Siraj, for example, said one day that Elshafay was “crazy…he wants to do crazy things, attacks, blowups, stuff like that.” It’s unclear why Eldawoody thought the police needed to know that Siraj was “very excited” about the Michael Moore movie “fahrenheit 9/11.” Eventually, the men conceived a plot to bomb the 34th Street-Herald Square subway station. The true authorship of that plan is disputed. Prosecutors say the tapes show that Siraj came up with it. Stolar argues that Eldawoody, nearly twice Siraj’s age and more experienced in religious matters, drove the plot. On at least one occasion Siraj hesitated about being part of the plan, but when Eldawoody questioned him, Siraj retreated and said he merely didn’t want to place the bombs or kill anyone but would serve as a lookout. On August 21, 2004, the three men cased the subway station. Six days later, Elshafay and Siraj were arrested. There were no actual explosives; at one point in the case, prosecutor Todd Harrison told the judge, “Frankly, there are no specific allegations of terrorism.” Elshafay testified against Siraj and received a five-year sentence. After a five-week trial, a federal jury found Siraj guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He is appealing, challenging the content of the instructions that the judge gave to the jury.

Stolar was not surprised by the outcome. No stranger to unsympathetic defendants (there’s a sketch in his office of Stolar holding a hand grenade during one of three trials he participated in for a suspected drug kingpin), he thinks Siraj faced an uphill battle. “It’s an extremely difficult task to convince someone to acquit a Muslim of terrorism,” Stolar says. “Half of the potential jurors were dismissed because of antiMuslim views. It was amazing. It was an astonishing amount of true hatred of Muslims.” The day after Siraj was convicted, immigration authorities rounded up members of his family, who had been seeking asylum. They are now fighting deportation to Pakistan. Asked through an interpreter why she thinks her family was detained, Matin’s mother Shahina Parveen says, “Because they wanted to silence the truth. We were talking very loudly and letting people know about the injustice that happened.”

Siraj’s defenders insist that if it weren’t for the informant’s prodding, Siraj never would have conceived of the plan to bomb the subway. But what if there had been a real bomb in that backpack. Would Siraj have used it or condoned its use?

“Oh yeah. Yeah,” Stolar says with a nod. “He was completely talked into it. He was convinced it was the right thing to do. The logic of it escapes me, how blowing up a subway station was supposed to bring home the troops from Iraq. But that was the idea.” The Siraj conviction continues to reverberate among the city’s Muslims. “The case crystallized people,” says the Brennan Center’s Huq. “The kind of prosecutions we’re seeing in federal court leave the community with the assessment that their community has been targeted for intense scrutiny.”

But that community is no monolith, especially when it comes to relations with the NYPD—a subject of tension between activists, who say the police have targeted them, and community leaders, who see local authorities as an ally in the face of intense federal pressure. Some community leaders, Maulik says, “have really pushed collaboration. There’s this whole message of ‘Don’t make enemies of our community.'” There is disagreement, too, over whether police officers always adhere to the mayor’s executive order prohibiting them from asking about immigration status.

Razvi, for one, is not critical of the NYPD. He says he works closely with the police, and the decorations in his office are evidence of this assertion: There are pictures of him with police officials and a diploma from the Citizens’ Police Academy. He is angry about immigration roundups and deportations. About the rest, he sounds resigned.

“If a phone call comes from an international number, yes, they’re being monitored. Is my phone? Absolutely. Do I feel that the mosque is being monitored? Absolutely,” he says. “That’s just something that we have to live with.”