NYPD labeled mosques as terrorist organizations, report says

New revelations about the NYPD's aggressive antiterror practices suggest that mosques and Muslim groups are being probed for terrorist activity, even when there's no evidence of it.

Seth Wenig/AP
People hold signs while attending a rally to protest New York Police Department surveillance tactics near police headquarters in New York Wednesday.

Just weeks after a federal judge found the New York Police Department had illegally targeted minorities with its contentious stop-and-frisk policy, confidential police documents reveal the department has also secretly designated mosques as “terrorist organizations” – a label that gives police greater leeway to infiltrate and conduct surveillance on Muslim houses of worship, even without any evidence of criminal activity.

The department calls these probes “terrorism enterprise investigations,” according to documents acquired by the AP. The policy allows police to investigate anyone associated with the targeted mosque or Muslim community group. The investigations can stretch on for years, even if charges are never brought, the AP reports.

The program points to the scope of New York's aggressive antiterror practices. No other law enforcement agency – including the FBI, which criticized the NYPD's investigations of mosques in New Jersey last year – is known to be employing such tactics, and the new report comes as the NYPD faces increasing scrutiny.

The administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg was already facing a lawsuit over the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims, in addition to the legal challenge over the department's policy of stopping and frisking anyone who could reasonably be thought to be involved in serious crime. The revelations about terrorism enterprise investigations will only stoke the outrage among civil libertarians.

“One of things that’s new here is the extent to which they were designating entire mosques as terrorist organizations,” says Hina Shamsi, director the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, and an attorney leading the suit against the city. “The NYPD has viewed Muslim religious beliefs and associations as worthy of stigma and suspicion without any indication of criminal wrongdoing, and that is unconstitutional religious discrimination, pure and simple. All New Yorkers – Muslims and non-Muslims – deserve better from their police force.”

Wednesday’s revelations prompted the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Muslim groups to call for the Department of Justice to investigate the policy of terrorism enterprise investigations. "The NYPD has proven itself unwilling or unable to respect the constitutional and religious rights of minorities, and it is now up to the Department of Justice to step in," said council board member Lamis Deek in a statement.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly denounced the charges Wednesday morning, calling the AP investigation “a fair amount of fiction” on the MSNBC show “Morning Joe.”

“We have an agreement, the Handschu agreement, that has been authorized by a federal judge,” Commissioner Kelly said to host Joe Scarborough. “We follow that agreement to the letter – or that stipulation, I should say – and it authorizes us to do a whole series of things. Certainly investigations are part of it.”

“We follow leads wherever they take us,” he continued. “We’re not intimidated as to where that lead takes us, and we’re doing that to protect the people of New York City.” Kelly also said the AP reporters, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, who have written a series of articles investigating the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims, were simply trying to hype a book based on their Pulitzer Prize-winning reports.

The NYPD’s rules for its enterprise tactics stem from the 2003 revision of the Handschu agreement. The name refers to a 1971 lawsuit in which a woman named Barbara Handschu sued the NYPD for spying on protesters and liberals during the Vietman War, prompting new rules for police surveillance in 1985.

But after 9/11, a former CIA executive, David Cohen, told a federal judge in 2002 that mosques could be used "to shield the work of terrorists from law enforcement scrutiny by taking advantage of restrictions on the investigation of First Amendment activity." 

So the federal judge rewrote the Handschu rules, saying "fundamental changes in the threats to public security” should permit cops to monitor political or religious speech whenever the "facts or circumstances reasonably indicate" a group of two or more people might be planning a terrorist attack.

One of the groups under surveillance was the Arab American Association of New York, a non-religious social services organization that provides immigrants with English language and citizenship classes, as well as running a food pantry and after-school programs.

A secret police document obtained by the AP described the department’s plans to find an informant to get on the association’s board of directors. The document described the potential informant as a male between the ages of 40 to 60, preferably Palestinian or Yemeni, and an owner of a small business.

“This is all well thought out, this infiltration of our organization,” says Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Brooklyn-based association. “This is not just a random, ‘Let’s just find someone.’ And really, when you see your name in a secret NYPD document, I’m sure any New Yorker would be outraged.”

Many imams and other New York Muslims declined to talk about the revelations after numerous calls to mosques around the city. Some said they did not want to bring unwanted attention to their communities – the kind of chill against speaking out that the ACLU suit alleges.

“The level that we learned, which is to infiltrate the board, and the operations of our secular organization, is beyond anyone’s imagination,” says Ms. Sarsour, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. “It chills free speech in our communities, too. It obstructs the freedom to worship, really, when you know that the mosque you attend is being designated a terrorist organization.”

One of the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit, Asad Dandia, a sophomore at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, helped found a charitable organization called Muslims Giving Back. Founded in 2011, the small student group provides groceries for needy families.

Mr. Dandia’s organization was infiltrated by a police informant in 2012, according to the complaint. Dandia invited the informant to his home for dinner and to meet his parents, and even to spend the night. The informant gave the police pictures of people at the group's meetings, obtained after Dandia “friended" him on Facebook.

But the informant eventually revealed himself after the group heard from a credible source that it was being targeted by the NYPD. The ACLU complaint says the group then lost its meeting location at a local mosque, while donations declined. It has also been unable to attract new members, and current members worry another informant may be in their midst.

"I am constantly frightened. What if I say the wrong thing?" said Dandia in an ACLU statement. "Islam requires giving back to the community that which you have been given by God. I've done nothing wrong and yet I am unable to practice Islam fully because of what the Police Department did to me."

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