August 28, 2013

NYPD designates some mosques as terrorism organizations

The designation allows the NYPD to send undercover officers into mosques, and legally record and spy on imams.

The Associated Press

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click image to enlarge

Visitors socialize outside the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge and mosque, after a Jumu'ah prayer service on Aug. 16, 2013, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The New York Police Department targeted the mosque as a part of a terrorism enterprise investigation beginning in 2003, spying on it for years. The mosque has never been charged as part of a terrorism conspiracy.

AP

The document, which appears to have been created around 2009, was prepared for Kelly and distributed to the NYPD's debriefing unit, which helped identify possible informants.

Around that time, Kelly was handing out medals to the Arab American Association's soccer team, Brooklyn United, smiling and congratulating its players for winning the NYPD's soccer league.

Sarsour, a Muslim who has met with Kelly many times, said she felt betrayed.

"It creates mistrust in our organizations," said Sarsour, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. "It makes one wonder and question who is sitting on the boards of the institutions where we work and pray."

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Before the NYPD could target mosques as terrorist groups, it had to persuade a federal judge to rewrite rules governing how police can monitor speech protected by the First Amendment.

The rules stemmed from a 1971 lawsuit, dubbed the Handschu case after lead plaintiff Barbara Handschu, over how the NYPD spied on protesters and liberals during the Vietnam War era.

David Cohen, a former CIA executive who became NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence in 2002, said the old rules didn't apply to fighting against terrorism.

Cohen told the judge 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."

NYPD lawyers proposed a new tactic, the TEI, that allowed officers to monitor political or religious speech whenever the "facts or circumstances reasonably indicate" that groups of two or more people were involved in plotting terrorism or other violent crime.

The judge rewrote the Handschu rules in 2003. In the first eight months under the new rules, the NYPD's Intelligence Division opened at least 15 secret terrorism enterprise investigations, documents show. At least 10 targeted mosques.

Doing so allowed police, in effect, to treat anyone who attends prayer services as a potential suspect. Sermons, ordinarily protected by the First Amendment, could be monitored and recorded.

Among the mosques targeted as early as 2003 was the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge.

"I have never felt free in the United States. The documents tell me I am right," Zein Rimawi, one of the Bay Ridge mosque's leaders, said after reviewing an NYPD document describing his mosque as a terrorist enterprise.

Rimawi, 59, came to the U.S. decades ago from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"Ray Kelly, shame on him," he said. "I am American."

It was not immediately clear whether the NYPD targeted mosques outside of New York City specifically using TEIs. The AP had previously reported that Masjid Omar in Paterson, N.J., was identified as a target for surveillance in a 2006 NYPD report.

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The NYPD believed the tactics were necessary to keep the city safe, a view that sometimes put it at odds with the FBI.

In August 2003, Cohen asked the FBI to install eavesdropping equipment inside a mosque called Masjid al-Farooq, including its prayer room.

Al-Farooq had a long history of radical ties. Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheik who was convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks, once preached briefly at Al-Farooq. Invited preachers raged against Israel, the United States and the Bush administration's war on terror.

One of Cohen's informants said an imam from another mosque had delivered $30,000 to an al-Farooq leader, and the NYPD suspected the money was for terrorism.

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