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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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

But Amy Jo Lyons, the FBI assistant special agent in charge for counterterrorism, refused to bug the mosque. She said the federal law wouldn't permit it.

The NYPD made other arrangements. Cohen's informants began to carry recording devices into mosques under investigation. They hid microphones in wristwatches and the electronic key fobs used to unlock car doors.

Even under a TEI, a prosecutor and a judge would have to approve bugging a mosque. But the informant taping was legal because New York law allows any party to record a conversation, even without consent from the others. Like the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, the NYPD never demonstrated in court that al-Farooq was a terrorist enterprise but that didn't stop the police from spying on the mosques for years.

And under the new Handschu guidelines, no one outside the NYPD could question the secret practice.

Martin Stolar, one of the lawyers in the Handschu case, said it's clear the NYPD used enterprise investigations to justify open-ended surveillance. The NYPD should only tape conversations about building bombs or plotting attacks, he said.

"Every Muslim is a potential terrorist? It is completely unacceptable," he said. "It really tarnishes all of us and tarnishes our system of values."

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Al-Ansar Center, a windowless Sunni mosque, opened in Brooklyn several years ago, attracting young Arabs and South Asians. NYPD officers feared the mosque was a breeding ground for terrorists, so informants kept tabs on it.

One NYPD report noted that members were fixing up the basement, turning it into a gym.

"They also want to start Jiujitsu classes," it said.

The NYPD was particularly alarmed about Mohammad Elshinawy, 26, an Islamic teacher at several New York mosques, including Al-Ansar. Elshinawy was a Salafist — a follower of a puritanical Islamic movement — whose father was an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks, according to NYPD documents.

The FBI also investigated whether Elshinawy recruited people to wage violent jihad overseas. But the two agencies investigated him very differently.

The FBI closed the case after many months without any charges. Federal investigators never infiltrated Al-Ansar.

"Nobody had any information the mosque was engaged in terrorism activities," a former federal law enforcement official recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the investigation.

The NYPD wasn't convinced. A 2008 surveillance document described Elshinawy as "a young spiritual leader (who) lectures and gives speeches at dozens of venues" and noted, "He has orchestrated camping trips and paintball trips."

The NYPD deemed him a threat in part because "he is so highly regarded by so many young and impressionable individuals."

No part of Elshinawy's life was out of bounds. His mosque was the target of a TEI. The NYPD conducted surveillance at his wedding. An informant recorded the wedding, and police videotaped everyone who came and went.

"We have nothing on the lucky bride at this time but hopefully will learn about her at the service," one lieutenant wrote.

Four years later, the NYPD was still watching Elshinawy without charging him. He is now a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, which was also filed by the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project at CUNY School of Law and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"These new NYPD spying disclosures confirm the experiences and worst fears of New York's Muslims," ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi said. "From houses of worship to a wedding, there's no area of New York Muslim religious or personal life that the NYPD has not invaded through its bias-based surveillance policy."

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