The spying unleashed on the heart of Brooklyn’s Muslim community has been intense. Muslims in Bay Ridge have seen it all: Informants who have burrowed deep into mosques to take recordings of sermons. Unmarked vehicles that have trailed prominent community members. Secret police documents that detail Muslim-owned businesses in the area.
By now, Muslims in New York City take it as a given that the police are around them, peering into their religious centers and taking down notes on what community members say. While the surveillance has ripped at the Muslim community’s fabric, sowing distrust, everyday life goes on much the same. But that doesn’t mean prominent Muslims are taking renewed revelations that the New York Police Department (NYPD) labeled mosques as “terrorist enterprises” in stride. They’re upset and angry.
Last week saw the publication of documents by the Associated Press’ Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman detailing how the NYPD launched at least a dozen “terrorism enterprise investigations” (TEI) targeting New York City mosques. The latest revelations about the surveillance dragnet–coupled with the release of Goldman’s and Apuzzo’s new book–have renewed focus on the NYPD’s secretive spy program, built since 9/11 with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency and modeled on Israeli methods of controlling the West Bank.
The TEI designation allows NYPD Intelligence agents–the secretive division of the police that spearheads the surveillance program–to infiltrate mosques like the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. Agents employed by the NYPD attend religious institutions and record sermons, using tools like wristwatches with microphones in them. The documents also reveal how the NYPD has tried to infiltrate community organizations like the Bay Ridge-based Arab American Association of New York, a secular service agency catering to immigrants.
“You know we’ve been seeing these leaks for like at least two years now. So nothing was shocking to me,” Linda Sarsour, the young, fast-talking born-and-bred Brooklynite told me as we sat in the office of the Arab American Association of New York, where she is the executive director. “But this time, for the first time, I felt hurt, like personally hurt. I was like what, my organization?”
Compounding the anger Sarsour felt is the fact that she has met with city officials and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly countless times, even playing soccer with the police and sitting next to Kelly at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s annual iftar. (Since the publication of the AP’s series on NYPD spying, Sarsour refuses to meet with Kelly, saying she would only do so on her terms where Kelly would listen to the Muslim community’s concerns.)
Sarsour’s office is located on 5th Ave in Bay Ridge, a main street in a neighborhood where Muslim life is central to its beating heart. The stores have Arabic writing on them along with English; Egyptian flags flutter out of storefronts. The call to prayer bursts out of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge on a recent Friday afternoon.
Inside the Arab American Association office, immigrants wait their turn to get consulted on things like jobs, government services and where to go to college. The organization is thriving, providing essential services to the local population. But it is here where Sarsour has encountered who she thinks are clearly NYPD-employed informants–usually young, Arab or Muslim men with criminal backgrounds striking a deal with the police.
In mid-2011, Sarsour says a twenty-something man who said he was a Palestinian who studied in Libya called her office to speak to Sarsour about graduate school options. Sarsour said there were social workers who could help him. The suspected informant, who said his name was Emad, didn’t give up.
Soon after his initial call with Sarsour, Emad called the office and asked if she was in. She was–and he then intercepted her as she was on her way into her office. But when he sat down with Sarsour, he forgot his back story. Sarsour pressed him on what he was doing there, and eventually told him she knew who he was working for. She saw him again in March 2011, when he showed up to a Columbia University event featuring the Palestinian-American poet, Remi Kanazi.
Documents released by the Associated Press add further detail to the NYPD’s targeting of Bay Ridge Muslims. A 2009 document lists Sarsour’s organization as a target, and describes the ideal informant for infiltrating the Arab group. The informant should be Palestinian, Egyptian, or Jordanian, the document says, and a successful business owner who speaks Arabic.
“Do other nonprofits deal with that?” asks Sarsour. “Does somebody get up in the middle of a non-profit and say, ‘we think this is an informant?’ I feel like, right now, that’s exclusively a Muslim thing.”
Another police target in the neighborhood is the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. Reda Sheta, the former Egyptian imam at the mosque who was profiled in a four-part New York Times series, was under the police’s watchful eye. In 2011, the AP’s Eileen Sullivan revealed that at the same time Sheta was working hand in hand with the FBI and NYPD, the police were tracking him. He was listed as a Palestinian–erroneously–who was a “radical” leader on a NYPD document recently released by the AP; the same document lists the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge as a “mosque of interest.”
The mosque, founded in 1984, came into the unwanted spotlight in 2004 when a Pakistani immigrant with an IQ of 78–just above the level of mental retardation– who prayed there was arrested and charged with trying to blow up the Herald Square subway station. The case was built with the help of an NYPD informant paid over $100,000. The mosque was also the place where the killer of a 16-year-old Jewish American occasionally prayed, though mosque officials denounced the crime as an “act of terrorism.”
The Islamic center has been under surveillance since 2003. The police designation of it as a “terrorism enterprise” allowed NYPD Intelligence agents to put the entire mosque under surveillance, as long as it had facts that “reasonably indicate” that two or more people were involved in plotting terrorism. That means that countless numbers of innocent Muslims attending the mosque have been swept up in the police’s surveillance.
When Zein Rimawi, a Palestinian-American hailing from the village of Beit Rima, found out that his mosque was tarred with the brush of terrorism, he wasn’t surprised. The 59-year-old man who co-founded the mosque and now sits on its board says that there’s at least three informants currently at his mosque who record the imam’s sermons. Inside the Bay Ridge mosque, Rimawi holds court, smiling and drinking water as he greets other mosque members. He’s affable, but his tone shifted into a more angry and low voice when asked for his reaction to the latest revelations.
“They just want to infiltrate our community,” he says as he sits in a chair near t-shirts with the words “Free Egypt” that the mosque is selling. “I don’t like it. It’s illegal. It violates my rights. And after that, did they find that we’re doing anything illegal? That’s the question. After they spend millions and millions of dollars, what did they come with? Did they find anything? That’s my question to all of them.”
The question of the legality of the program is now being litigated in three separate cases–two of them in New York City, and one them in New Jersey, where the police also venture to conduct spying. But for now, the police continue to put entire Muslim communities under surveillance.
“It wouldn’t fly in the Christian community. It wouldn’t fly in the Jewish community. It wouldn’t fly in any other religious community,” said Sarsour. “Why is it okay that it’s happening to Muslims? Beyond me.”