NEW YORK (AP) — Even as the New York Police Department sent undercover officers into Muslim neighborhoods to detect possible terrorist activities in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, government officials there and elsewhere have sought to build relationships in Muslim communities and pledged to ensure that Muslims aren’t targeted for discrimination.
Outreach programs have operated in Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Washington — all have large Muslim communities — while law enforcement around the country has stepped up investigative efforts to stave off attacks.
But the inherent tensions caused by this duality of missions is perhaps most visible in New York. It is the only U.S. city that al-Qaida has successfully attacked twice and continues to be the target of terror plots. New York also is home to the country’s most aggressive local police department investigating counterterrorism.
“It seems to many of the leadership here, there are two kind of authorities they are playing — one is in the forefront which is very cooperative,” said Zaheer Uddin of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York. “And there is another authority, which is playing against Islam and Muslims, going against the First Amendment and the security of this country.”
Uddin asked, “Are we partners, or are we a suspicious community?”
A months-long investigation by The Associated Press, published Wednesday, revealed that the NYPD has dispatched teams of undercover officers, known as “rakers,” into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program. They’ve monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as “mosque crawlers,” to monitor sermons, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. NYPD officials have scrutinized imams and gathered intelligence on cab drivers and food cart vendors, jobs often done by Muslims.
The NYPD denied that it trolls ethnic neighborhoods and said it only follows leads.
On Wednesday, one Muslim advocacy group urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD’s programs in New York Muslim communities as a result of details revealed in the AP’s report.
“These revelations send the message to American Muslims that they are being viewed as a suspect community and that their constitutional rights may be violated with impunity,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The Justice Department must initiate an immediate investigation of the civil rights implications of this spy program and the legality of its links to the CIA.”
The Justice Department said it will review the request to investigate.
In the decade since the September 2001 attacks, government officials in New York also have met with Muslim leaders and exchanged cellphone numbers. They’ve attended religious services, dinners and teas, and spoken at community meetings. The FBI recently hosted an event for 500 young Muslims in Brooklyn to build trust and get to know federal law enforcement with a bomb-sniffing dog, scuba boat and helicopter on display.
“I go and visit mosques on a regular basis,” NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly told the AP, adding that he also holds question-and-answer sessions and planned to attend several dinners with members of the Muslim community during the holy month of Ramadan this year.
The police department in 2006 hired Sidique Wai, an African immigrant and member of the New York Muslim community, to coordinate the NYPD’s citywide community outreach program. He said the interaction and outreach between the community and police is unprecedented.
“The majority of the faith-based — particularly the Muslim leaders throughout the city — are absolutely appreciative of the unprecedented relationship with the police department,” Wai said. “I’m not aware of a deliberate effort on the part of NYPD to profile people.”
The former head of the FBI’s field office in New York said he was aggressive and deliberate in reaching out to Muslim communities.
“I know it helped it terms of community relations, a sense of openness and acceptance by the FBI of the community, tamping down the inclination to think they might be singled out or (the) focus of untoward scrutiny,” said Mark Mershon, who ran the office between 2005 and 2008 and is currently a Colorado-based private detective and investigative consultant.
Some Muslim community leaders in New York aren’t satisfied. They have complained about aggressive tactics the department uses to collect intelligence and about a video, “The Third Jihad,” shown earlier this year to some members of the NYPD during a training session. Kelly, the police commissioner, explained in a letter in March that the film was not part of the department’s training program and said it was shown in the background while members of the NYPD were filling out administrative paperwork before a training session.
The video includes images of terror attacks, Osama bin Laden and U.S. Muslim leaders praising the 2001 hijackers, news reports about terror plots and experts talking about the threat of radical Islam. Muslim leaders were outraged by the film because they said it was anti-Islam.
“The NYPD’s use of certain intelligence tactics in houses of worship — such as paid informants, agent provocateurs and mosque surveillance — are not only misleading as security measures but compromise the duty of the law enforcement acting under the color of state law,” Muslim community leader Aisha Al-Adawiya wrote in a July 22 letter to Kelly.
Wai said these issues have been raised and addressed at the many forums held throughout the Muslim community. He said people ask about profiling, and they get answers. “They may not be the answers that they want to hear,” he said.
Not all New York Muslim leaders are complaining.
“There was a time when police would rush into the mosque with their boots on,” Mustapha Senghor, chairman of the Harlem Islamic Cultural Center, said during a July pre-Ramadan conference in New York. “They do not do that anymore. Congratulations, commissioner. For that we thank you, very much.”
“We love you, commissioner,” Senghor said. “You have imams who are extensions of the police force. You include us, you talk to us, you ask us what we are feeling. It makes us feel we are part of the city, and not that people are against us.”