Blackmailing Muslims

May 15, 2014

Nicole Colson reports on the latest revelations about the NYPD's spying on Muslims.

AFTER MONTHS of criticism, the New York Police Department (NYPD) announced in April that it was shutting down its controversial "Demographics Unit."

While the name suggests some kind of bland polling company, the "Demographics Unit" was a notorious division of the NYPD formed after 9/11, which engaged in widespread surveillance and infiltration of New York's Muslim community. As the New York Times put it, the unit "dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped."

Undercover "rakers" not only watched local businesses like clubs and cafes, as well as religious congregations, they even watched those playing cricket and engaging in other recreational activities--targeting people from a list of 28 countries, as well as Black Muslims from the U.S.

In essence, the NYPD program treated all Muslims as suspect based simply on religious affiliation. "The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community," Linda Sarsour, of the Arab American Association of New York, explained to the Times. "Those documents, they showed where we live. That's the cafe where I eat. That's where I pray. That's where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community."

NYPD "intelligence" chief John Miller
NYPD "intelligence" chief John Miller

But, according to a new report from the Times, the practices of the NYPD went far beyond surveillance and eavesdropping--delving into outright blackmail to get Muslims to act as conduits of information to the cops.

The Times details how, for years, Muslims in jail for petty crimes--including an Afghan food cart vendor arrested during an argument with a parking enforcement officer over a ticket; an accounting student from Pakistan arrested for driving without a valid license; and a 19-year-old of Egyptian descent arrested over a stolen fountain pen--have been targeted by a squad of detectives, known as the "Citywide Debriefing Team," which offered reduced charges in exchange for spying on the Muslim community.

In the first quarter of this year alone, the debriefing team conducted 220 interviews with people in jail. In 2007 and 2008, the 10 investigators on the team conducted more than 1,000 interviews in jails--and, sometimes, in people's homes.

WHILE RECRUITING informants is considered standard police procedure, the potential recruits are typically identified because of their knowledge about actual crimes or people engaged in criminal activity. But the debriefing team sought to recruit Muslims regardless of any such knowledge. A Times review of two dozen reports from debriefing team interviews:

showed that religion had become a normal topic of police inquiry in the city's holding cells and lockup facilities. Some reports written by detectives after debriefing sessions noted whether a prisoner attended mosque, celebrated Muslim holidays or had made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The report on the food cart vendor described the location of his Flushing mosque and noted that worshipers were a "mix of Afghani, Persian (Iranians) and Pakistani."

Each morning, detectives from the team would reportedly receive lists of immigrants, categorized by country, who had been arrested the day before. Those from Middle Eastern country or with "Muslim-sounding" names reportedly received the most attention.

In what police officials called "conversations," but which the Times suggests were actually interrogations, Muslims in custody were "asked" to cooperate with police. Multiple people the Times interviewed said they felt intimidated--and thought they would face higher charges if they didn't agree to cooperate.

Bayjan Abrahimi, the food cart vendor from Afghanistan, who was arrested in March 2009 over a parking ticket, told the Times that three detectives came to interview him in jail, asking him about his mosque, the nationality of those who worshipped there, and "al-Qaeda."

Eventually, they asked him if he would visit mosques in the city and gather information--or even travel to Afghanistan. Abrahimi agreed under pressure, although he never provided the NYPD with any information. According to the Times:

The detective's report on Mr. Abrahimi offered a sense of just how far into his personal life they had plumbed, noting that Mr. Abrahimi's father had died fighting the Russians in Afghanistan a generation before, and that Mr. Abrahimi now lived with his mother and a brother in Flushing, Queens. He spent his "free time in library reading and learning English," according to the report.

The report noted that Mr. Abrahimi agreed to provide detectives with the overseas phone number of his brother, the taxi driver. "Subject believes other family members would help if asked," the report stated. Mr. Abrahimi was willing, if the Police Department requested, "to attend services at other locations and travel," according to the report, which concluded by endorsing Mr. Abrahimi as "suitable for assignments locally and outside the city" and described him as showing "high potential to be used as an asset."

Moro Said, an Egyptian limousine driver, was pressured in a similar manner while in jail on a charge relating to prostitution. Said was taken from a holding cell into an interrogation room, where he was told everything would be okay for him as long as he agreed to help police by reporting on any "suspicious" conversations at his mosque or in neighborhood cafes. "They're fishing," Said said. "You're in trouble with the law, and they are the law," he said.

AFTER YEARS of protests and no response from the NYPD, newly appointed Commissioner William Bratton has now made a public show of the decision to disband the Demographics Unit--a sign that many people are pointing to hopefully as the dawn of a new era under liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But the NYPD has made no move to disband the Citywide Debriefing Team. In a not-so-surprising twist, John Miller, the deputy commissioner currently in charge of the NYPD's "Intelligence (sic) Division," which controls the Citywide Debriefing Team, was previously in charge of "counterterrorism efforts" in Los Angeles--under Bratton. He recently defended the debriefing team and its methods to the Times as "effective."

When asked, the NYPD was only able to name a single case in which information from the debriefing program resulted in a conviction. In that case--involving an alleged would-be pipebomber named Jose Pimentel--the defense says Pimentel was entrapped by an informant, who repeatedly smoked marijuana with him and who was seeking his own plea deal on drug charges.

Miller passed off the high-pressure encounters between detectives and Muslims in the city's jails as "non-coercive sessions where people had the ability to opt out at any time." As for the focus on religious affiliation? "It's not a thing where they sit down and say, 'Are you a Muslim or a Sunni or a Shiite?'" Miller told the Times. "That's the kind of thing that comes up in conversation."

But even one of New York's "finest" is speaking out against the practice. Bobby Hadid, a Muslim immigrant from Algeria and former sergeant with the unit, told the Times that he became uncomfortable its practices. "We are detectives of the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division," he said. "We are there to collect intelligence about criminal activity or terrorism. Why are we asking, 'Are you Muslim?' 'What mosque do you go to?' What does that have to do with terrorism?"

The intensive policing of Muslim communities in New York and elsewhere since 9/11 has everything to do with scapegoating, not terrorism. The wide surveillance net and police use of entrapment, often targeted against the most vulnerable, has contributed to an ongoing climate of repression against Muslim communities, while doing nothing to stop domestic terrorism--which is far more likely to be a product of the far right in the U.S.

As a CNN report noted last month:

[S]ince 9/11 extremists affiliated with a variety of far-right wing ideologies, including white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants, have killed more people in the United States than have extremists motivated by al-Qaeda's ideology...Moreover, since 9/11 none of the more than 200 individuals indicted or convicted in the United States of some act of jihadist terrorism have acquired or used chemical or biological weapons or their precursor materials...

But the NYPD--and other police forces across the country--continue to target entire Muslim communities.

When the NYPD announced it was disbanding the Demographics Unit last month, civil rights attorney Martin Stolar told the Gothamist website that this wasn't enough: "I want them to say that they're getting rid of not just the unit, but the kind of policing that the unit did. Is it still going to be blanket surveillance of where Muslims hang out? Are they going to stop this massive surveillance?"

If the latest revelations are any indication, the answer to the final question is a resounding "no."

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