Police informant who ‘crawled mosques’ looking for inflammatory rhetoric speaks out, denounces NYPD

US Politics
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Imam (Photo via ArabianBusiness.com)

An undercover informant who is a 19-year-old Bengali-American has denounced his former work and says the New York Police Department (NYPD) instructed him to “bait” Muslims in New York into talking about terrorism.

Shamiur Rahman was recruited by the NYPD in January after being arrested for the third time on misdemeanor marijuana charges. Rahman claims that the police “told him to embrace a strategy called ‘create and capture,'” according to the Associated Press, which broke the story today. “He said it involved creating a conversation about jihad or terrorism, then capturing the response to send to the NYPD. For his work, he earned as much as $1,000 a month and goodwill from the police after a string of minor marijuana arrests.”

The fact that Rahman was recruited in January of this year proves that NYPD spying on Muslims continues to this day.

Rahman’s story adds details to how the NYPD uses informants as part of its expansive surveillance program targeting Muslims in the Northeast. Previous AP stories on the NYPD’s spy program reported on the widespread use of informants, or in NYPD parlance, “mosque crawlers.” “Mosque crawlers” are used to “tell police what [an] imam says at sermons and provide police lists of attendees, even when there’s no evidence they committed a crime,” according to the AP.

The revelations in the story add ammunition to those who say the NYPD surveillance program is illegal. Under the Handschu guidelines that the police use to conduct counter-terrorism work, “the NYPD can’t retain the information it gathers from such public events unless it is connected to suspected criminal or terrorist activity,” the Brennan Center’s Faiza Patel told ProPublica in February.

Rahman now says that what he was doing was “detrimental to the Constitution.”

Among the activities Rahman pursued was spying on Muslim student groups. The AP reports on Rahman’s spying:

One of his earliest assignments was to spy on a lecture at the Muslim Student Association at John Jay College in Manhattan. The speaker was Ali Abdul Karim, the head of security at the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn. The NYPD had been concerned about Karim for years and already had infiltrated the mosque, according to NYPD documents obtained by the AP.

Rahman also was instructed to monitor the student group itself, though he wasn’t told to target anyone specifically. His NYPD handler, Steve, told him to take pictures of people at the events, determine who belonged to the student association and identify its leadership.

On Feb. 23, Rahman attended the event with Karim and listened, ready to catch what he called a “speaker’s gaffe.” The NYPD was interested in buzz words such as “jihad” and “revolution,” he said. Any radical rhetoric, the NYPD told him, needed to be reported.

Muslim student groups have been specifically targeted over the years by the NYPD. In October 2011, the AP reported on how the NYPD infiltrated a host of Muslim student groups at colleges across the city and outside New York, even in places like Yale. One of the more notorious incidents exposed by the AP was when the NYPD “sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students’ names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed.”

Here’s more details from the AP on Rahman, the informant:

He said he sometimes intentionally misinterpreted what people had said. For example, Rahman said he would ask people what they thought about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, knowing the subject was inflammatory. It was easy to take statements out of context, he said. He said wanted to please his NYPD handler, whom he trusted and liked.

“I was trying to get money,” Rahman said. “I was playing the game.”

Rahman said police never discussed the activities of the people he was assigned to target for spying. He said police told him once, “We don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. We just need to be sure.”

On some days, Rahman’s spent hours and covered miles in his undercover role. On Sept. 16, for example, he made his way in the morning to the Al Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn, snapping photographs of an imam and the sign-up sheet for those attending a regular class on Islamic instruction. He also provided their cell phone numbers to the NYPD. That evening he spied on people at Masjid Al-Ansar, also in Brooklyn.

Text messages on his phone showed that Rahman also took pictures last month of people attending the 27th annual Muslim Day Parade in Manhattan. The parade’s grand marshal was New York City Councilman Robert Jackson.

The revelations of how the NYPD carried out its surveillance program comes at a moment when the Pamela Geller-purchased advertisements have sparked conversation about anti-Muslim bigotry. But as this AP story shows, state-sponsored Islamophobia has become thoroughly institutionalized–and is perhaps more of a threat than the blatant hate-mongering coming out of the network of anti-Muslim activists in the country.

Writing in The Nation last week, Lizzy Ratner picks up on this point:

Though Geller and her crew are fringe elements, they are not random or spontaneous, idiopathic lesions on the healthier whole. They are, quite sadly, part of this country, outcroppings of something big and ugly that has been seeping and creeping through the body politic for years. In the decade since September 11, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry has become an entrenched feature of our political and social landscape…

The Jewish Community Relations Council is another example. While it has issued a firm statement against the Geller ads, its leadership went out of its way last winter to publish an elegiac letter supporting New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and his Muslim surveillance program, and it ultimately joined the wrong side in the Debbie Almontaser witch hunt.

And how about our local politicians—our mayor and city council speaker, for instance, who have spoken eloquently against Geller-style intolerance while supporting police intolerance toward a whole community? Or our national politicians, like Mitt Romney, who can spew Islamophobia—try putting Romney’s infamous comment about Palestinian “culture” on a subway ad and see how that goes over—and still be allowed to run for president? Or our TV shows? Or Fox news?

As Donna Nevel, a founding member of Jews Against Islamophobia, told me in an e-mail, “The Geller ads do not operate alone but take place in the context of the NYPD surveillance program and the ongoing targeting of the Muslim community and communities of color in this city.” The same goes for the country.

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