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11 Jun, 2012

Are Security Agencies Spying on Muslim Travellers Worldwide?

A lawsuit filed on June 6 against the New York Police Department exposing how it allegedly spies on Muslim communities, businesses, mosques and individuals has raised serious questions about whether security and intelligence agencies of the U.S. and its geopolitical allies also similarly spy on Muslims, especially Muslim travellers, worldwide. With patience running thin amongst Muslim travellers as they face increasingly unchecked discrimination, stigmatization and harassment, it is only a matter of time before frustration brims over and more exposures and legal action follow.

Security agencies have had a field day since 9/11 marketing themselves as being “part of the solution” against what is now widely seen as a global problem, terrorism. Although terrorism has historically cut across all castes, colours and creeds – from Ireland and Sri Lanka to Spain and Uganda – in recent years, it has been almost always associated in the public mind with Islam and Muslims. As U.S., Israeli and Western intelligence agencies have made “Islamic terrorism” their prime target, it would be fair to ask whether Muslim travellers have been singled out for surveillance and espionage to the same extent as the Muslim communities, businesses and individuals in the U.S. Are Muslim visa applications, travel movements, financial transactions, credit card spending, hotel stays, mobile phones, etc., all being similarly monitored and scrutinized?

Regardless of whether or not it goes to trial, the lawsuit is a veritable expose of the surveillance techniques and methodologies used by the NY Police Department. Seeking some check and balance against police is a normal part of the democratic process, which is what has made the United States a much-admired country. Security and intelligence agencies, however, are known to operate free of any accountability and outside the purview of the rule of law. Many “security agencies” providing services right across the air-transport chain are owned and operated by Israeli companies. The Muslim travelling public has every right to know who is accessing this information and for what purpose it is being used.

Just as the patience of the U.S. Muslim communities, businesses and individuals has snapped, so too it is only a matter of time before cases begin to surface about how the rights of the world’s Muslim travellers are being similarly violated, both by governments and the private companies they employ. This could also include the many multinational companies providing products and services across the entire travel chain. Whistleblowers, lawyers, human rights activists, media and others seeking to address the growing violations of privacy and encroachment of global travel freedoms are all set to have a field day.

Indeed, the lawsuit provides ample data. Filed on June 6 by Glenn Katon and Farhana Khera, representing Muslim Advocates, and Ravinder S. Bhalla of Bhalla & Cho, Llc, the lawsuit is categorised as a civil rights action “to remedy the illegal targeting of New Jersey Muslims for surveillance based solely upon their religion. It says the “plaintiffs seek an injunction prohibiting the NYPD from targeting them for unconstitutional surveillance, expungement of all records made pursuant to past unlawful spying, a declaratory judgment, and nominal damages.”

The lawsuit alleges that in early 2002, soon after the September 11 attacks, the NYPD began a secret spying program to infiltrate and monitor Muslim life in and around New York City. Focussing specifically on New Jersey Muslims, the NYPD is alleged to have “conducted surveillance of at least twenty mosques, fourteen restaurants, eleven retail stores, two grade schools and two Muslim Student Associations, in addition to untold numbers of individuals who own, operate, and visit those establishments. The Department has also created over twenty precinct-level maps of the City of Newark, noting the location of mosques and Muslim businesses and the ethnic composition of the Muslim community.”

According to the lawsuit, the NYPD Program utilies numerous forms of surveillance in its monitoring of Muslim communities, including its surveillance of Muslim communities in New Jersey. It alleges, for example, the following tactics:

(+) NYPD officers snap pictures, take video, and collect license plate numbers of congregants as they arrive at mosques to pray, making records of those in attendance. They also mount surveillance cameras on light poles and aim them at mosques. Officers can control the cameras with their computers and use the footage to help identify worshippers.

(+) The Department also utilizes informants and undercover officers, who report, among other things, which businesses are owned or frequented by Muslims, which stores sell halal meat, the subject of conversations heard at mosques, and where religious schools are located.

(+) The NYPD uses undercover officers called “rakers” to monitor daily life in neighborhoods believed to be heavily Muslim. Rakers surveil places like bookstores, bars, cafes, and nightclubs.

(+) The NYPD also has informants called “mosque crawlers” who monitor sermons and conversations in mosques and report back to the NYPD. Mosque crawlers are used at particular mosques as part of a broader plan for blanket surveillance of Muslim communities. The Department has sought to have an informant inside every mosque within a 250-mile radius of New York City and has, in fact, prepared an analytical report on every mosque within 100 miles, including Plaintiff MFI and at least two of the members of CINJ. Upon information and belief, the NYPD’s mosque crawlers have monitored thousands of prayer services in mosques, collecting detailed information about worshippers simply because they are Muslim, without evidence they engaged in any wrongdoing.

(+) Rakers and mosque crawlers have monitored discussions in mosques about the controversy surrounding the publication of a Danish artist’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, the results of which were included in a February 2006 report. That report documents twenty-three conversations at twenty mosques. None of the information collected showed any indication of criminal activity. The NYPD prepared a similar report after an accidental plane crash in Manhattan in October 2006. Upon information and belief, the Department prepares many such reports targeting Muslims, none of which even allegedly involve any wrongdoing.

(+) Using mosque crawlers, rakers, and other officers and agents, the NYPD has documented painstaking details of Muslim life, including in New Jersey. For example, Department surveillance reports note the fact that flyers are posted in shops advertising for Quran tutoring; a picture of a mosque hangs in a grocery store; a restaurant serves “religious Muslims;” customers visit a Dunkin’ Donuts after Friday prayer; a restaurant is located near a particular mosque; employees or customers of establishments are observed wearing “traditional clothing;” Muslim prayer mats are hanging on the wall at an Indian restaurant; and a store posts a sign that it will be closed on Friday in observance of Friday prayer.

(+) The NYPD also closely monitors the activities of Muslim Student Associations at colleges and universities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. It places informants or undercover officers in many MSAs, without any indication whatsoever of criminal activity or any connection whatsoever to wrongdoing.

(+) NYPD officers monitor the web sites of Muslim student organizations, troll chat rooms, and talk to students online. Undercover NYPD officers sometimes pose as students to attend MSA events. One officer went on a rafting trip with an MSA and recorded how often students prayed and that they discussed religious topics.

(+) On a weekly basis, the Department also prepares an MSA Report on schools, including reports on Rutgers New Brunswick and Rutgers Newark. Its reports include the names of professors, scholars, and students without any indication that they engaged in wrongdoing.

(+) To facilitate its surveillance of entire Muslim communities, the NYPD also creates maps indicating the location of mosques, restaurants, retail establishments, and schools owned by or serving Muslims, as well as ethnic populations from heavily Muslim countries. The Department has over twenty such maps of Newark, New Jersey.

(+) The NYPD also inspects records of name changes and compiles databases of new Muslim converts who take Arabic names, as well as Muslims who take names that are perceived to be “Western.”

Says the lawsuit, “The NYPD Program is founded upon a false and constitutionally impermissible premise: that Muslim religious identity is a legitimate criterion for selection of law-enforcement surveillance targets, or that it is a permissible proxy for criminality, and that the Muslim community can therefore be subject to pervasive surveillance not visited upon any other religious group or the public at large.

“Through the Program, the NYPD impermissibly discriminates on the basis of religion and singles out Plaintiffs’ religion for disfavor and unequal treatment by police. By targeting Muslim organizations and individuals in New Jersey for investigation solely because they are Muslims or believed to be Muslim, the Program casts an unwarranted shadow of suspicion and stigma on Plaintiffs and, indeed, all New Jersey Muslims.”

The lawsuit also outlines in detail how each Plaintiff has suffered from the alleged stigmatization.

For example, Syed Farhaj Hassan is a New Jersey resident and soldier who did 14 months of active duty in Iraq, including a period in military intelligence. The lawsuit says he has decreased his mosque attendance significantly since learning that the mosques he attends have been under surveillance “because he has a reasonable and well-founded fear that that his security clearance would be jeopardized” and thus affect his career.

Two plaintiffs, the Masjid al-Haqq and Masjid Ali K. Muslim have been a part of the Newark community for thirty and over forty years, respectively. Both mosques are alleged to have seen a decline in attendance and contributions.

All Body Shop Inside & Outside owns and operates a retail store and cafe in downtown Newark. Its owners, Gary Abdul Karim Abdullah and Hamidah Z. Abdullah, are Muslims. “A photograph and description of their store is included in the NYPD’s Newark report, which has been widely publicized. Since people learned that All Body Shop Inside & Outside was under NYPD surveillance, the number of customers visiting the store has decreased and some customers have told the owners by telephone that they did not feel comfortable visiting the location because of the threat of NYPD surveillance.”

Unity Beef Sausage Company owns a halal meat store in downtown Newark. The store typically experiences a rush of business after Friday prayer services, when many Muslims do food shopping and run errands. That rush slowed considerably immediately after the Newark report became public.

According to the lawsuit, the NYPD has designated 28 countries and “American Black Muslim” communities as “ancestries of interest.” These are: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Chechnya, Egypt, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, U.A.E., Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Yugoslavia.

They constitute about 80% of the world’s Muslim population. All but five of the countries on the list are more than three-fourths Muslim. Of these five, all but two countries are majority Muslim and one of the remaining two countries is India, which alone is home to 11% of the world’s Muslims.

However, the lawsuit claims that the Department does not surveil all people and establishments with “ancestries of interest,” but expressly chooses to exclude people and establishments with such “ancestries” if they are not Muslim. Thus, for example, the NYPD does not surveil Egyptians if they are Coptic Christians, Syrians if they are Jewish, or Albanians if they are Catholic or Orthodox Christian.

Says the lawsuit, “The NYPD’s blanket surveillance of Muslims casts guilt on all people of that faith by suggesting that Muslims pose a special threat to public safety. As targets of the NYPD’s discriminatory Program, the Plaintiffs and other New Jersey Muslims have, as a result, been gravely stigmatized and will continue to suffer, significant stigma.

It notes that New York City officials support the surveillance on the basis of their religion is appropriate and will continue. It quotes NY City Mayor Bloomberg as having stated publicly, “We’re doing the right thing. We will continue to do the right thing.” Police Commissioner Kelly has said, “We’re going to continue to do what we have to do to protect the city.”

However, the lawsuit says, “Under our Constitution, however, what the NYPD may not do is to continue to target Muslims for investigation and pervasive surveillance simply because they are Muslims.”