Raking the Coals: Islamophobia, Surveillance-Targeting and the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit

By Alex KaneOctober 24, 2013

Raking the Coals: Islamophobia, Surveillance-Targeting and the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit

Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman

THE ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF BAY BRDIGE sits on a bustling avenue steps away from the subway in the southwest corner of Brooklyn. Walk by the white building on a Friday afternoon, and nothing seems out of the ordinary. There are men waiting outside to enter the building to pray, while life goes on as usual around the building. Like any other mosque in New York City, the call to prayer blares out of loudspeakers five times a day; it's the Islamic Society's normality that makes its designation as a front for extremism and violence all the more jarring.

On August 28, the Associated Press disclosed that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) had been labeled the Bay Ridge institution — and 11 other mosques — “terrorism enterprises.”  The designation, which allows the NYPD to infiltrate the mosque and record religious sermons normally protected under the First Amendment, evinced no expressions of shock from Zein Rimawi, the 59-year-old Palestinian-American co-founder of the mosque. The place where he goes to pray has been under the watchful eye of the police since at least 2003. He's used to it by now, though he's still angry that the surveillance exists.

A week after the AP story, we sat in an office at the mosque, surrounded by Qur’ans and a shirt reading “Free Egypt” in protest of the July 3 coup in that country. Rimawi calmly explained to me the presence of NYPD informants inside his mosque that day — “at least three of them,” he noted. I asked him how he could tell who was an informant, and he told me that in a tight-knit Muslim community like Bay Ridge, everyone knows each other. It's easy to spot who's out of place — especially if they're asking a ton of questions.

His experience is by no means unique. Across New York City's 800,000-person strong Muslim community, police infiltration by way of undercover officers or informants — usually people with criminal backgrounds who strike a deal with the NYPD — has become routine. The September 11 attacks sparked the NYPD's transformation from municipal law enforcement agency to domestic intelligence service. Talk to Muslim leaders and activists, and stories of encounters with informants pour out. What emerges from these tales is a portrait of a police force that has tentacles reaching into every nook and cranny of New York City's Muslim world, chilling activism, speech and association.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, is convinced that an NYPD informant came into her office last year to burrow in and feed the cops information about what her group does. The 20-something man, who gave his name as “Emad,” had called her office in mid-2011 to ask about graduate school in the US. Sarsour told him there were social workers who could help him, and the phone call ended. But “Emad” didn't give up. Soon after the initial call, “Emad” caught Sarsour on her way back into the office after she stepped out to grab coffee. She invited him in to her work area, but he forgot his backstory. The jig was up, and she told him she knew who he worked for: the NYPD. Sarsour threw him out of the office. While she fended him off, the experience shook her. “Do other nonprofits deal with that?” Sarsour asked me. “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.”

An informant would be hard-pressed to find any criminal activity inside the Bay Ridge office: the Arab American Association of New York serves the local immigrant community and helps people find jobs and navigate social services. The Association works closely with elected officials; Sarsour has been honored by the White House. Nonetheless, the Associated Press confirmed Sarsour’s fears when they reported that her organization was an NYPD target. A document published by the AP in late August details how the NYPD Intelligence Division, the branch of the police that carries out surveillance, wanted to find a person, preferably a male, to get “onto the board” of the Arab American group. The ideal informant “speak[s] Arabic” and is a “successful business owner.

The reporters who exposed how the police were targeting Rimawi’s and Sarsour’s organizations are Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, a duo of investigative journalists who have been heralded as the “new Woodward and Bernstein.” The two won a Pulitzer Prize for their series detailing NYPD spying on Muslims, a program that was implemented with the help of Central Intelligence Agency officials. Their new book, Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America, builds on the muckraking Apuzzo and Goldman have carried out for the AP since August 2011.

Enemies Within is a meticulously sourced account. While the core of the book is told from the perspective of the FBI agents tasked with stopping a deadly serious al-Qaeda plot to blow up the New York City subways, the subplot of police spying on innocent Muslims is arguably more salient. The book tells the story of a changed America post-9/11, an America where the Constitution has been twisted to allow surveillance targeting a specific religious group.

This exposé of the NYPD's operations landed smack dab in the middle of a raging debate about domestic spying in the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has built up a global surveillance dragnet.

The parallels between the NSA’s and NYPD’s spy programs are manifold. Until the press turned its prying eyes on them, both programs operated in secret. They both imported tactics honed overseas: the NYPD modeled its program on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, while the NSA tested the efficacy of mass surveillance during the height of the Iraq occupation. Both have a “collect it all” model of gathering as much information as possible, no matter how innocuous. And the NSA and NYPD both operate under a questionable veneer of legality.

For all the glaring similarities between the two programs, there’s also a significant difference, as Apuzzo and Goldman point out in a slightly retooled excerpt of the book in New York magazine. In the Northeast of the United States, the Muslim community has dealt with the surveillance state on a much more intense and personal level. The NSA sweeps up the metadata of US citizens — the numbers they are calling, where they are calling from, and the time and duration of the call. That can reveal a lot, but the impact on an individual pales in comparison to the invasive ways the NYPD has targeted the Muslim community.

As Apuzzo and Goldman reveal, the NYPD sends in “rakers” — police officers with Middle Eastern backgrounds — to “rak[e] the coals” of Muslim communities. These “rakers,” the core of what the police called the Demographics Unit (they changed the name in 2010 to Zone Assessment Unit), are the officers who visit businesses in Muslim communities in New York, catalogue the ethnicity of the owners and eavesdrop on conversations in an effort to “gaug[e]” sentiment. “Were [Muslims] laughing, smiling, or cheering at reports of US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did they talk Middle Eastern politics?” That data, largely on innocent people, goes into police files. The “rakers,” and a category of informants known as “mosque crawlers,” are also sent into mosques to keep tabs on what religious leaders and attendees say.

The police department is trying to be in every Muslim neighborhood at once. There is no limit on what they could spy on. The Intelligence Division has even gone so far as to keep tabs on Muslim-dominated soccer and cricket teams in leagues the police department has set up. The spy unit also owns a taxicab  — registered under a fake name — that it uses to conduct surveillance operations. One informant trailed a Brooklyn imam to his wedding and took notes on the festivities. “We have nothing on the lucky bride at this time but hopefully will learn about her at the service,” a police lieutenant wrote in an internal document.

But despite the blanketing of Muslim communities with police informants and undercover officers, the NYPD Intelligence Division has been largely inept when it came to busting real terrorist plots. The terrorist plan Apuzzo and Goldman devote much of the book to is a vehicle used to detail tensions between the NYPD and the FBI — and to show how blanketing innocent communities with spies didn't work when law enforcement needed crucial information.

Goldman and Apuzzo’s highly descriptive on the ground reporting, coupled with sources deep within the intelligence community, puts the reader right in the center of a frightening 12 days where Najibullah Zazi, Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay came close to carrying out their bombing plan. The three high school friends, all naturalized Muslim immigrants, traveled to Pakistan to train to fight the American occupation of Afghanistan. Instead, they were radicalized by the United States’s incessant and deadly drone strikes in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas and convinced by senior al-Qaeda officials to turn on their home country and wreak havoc. One of the most enthralling parts of the book takes place on the eighth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. After being tipped off by an email sent by Zazi, FBI agents had tracked him as he sped cross-country from Denver to New York with explosives in his car. Apuzzo and Goldman detail one particularly nail-biting moment:

 Zazi walked to the intersection of Stone Street and Broadway, a 15-minute walk from where the Twin Towers crumbled. Nervous FBI agents watched for almost an hour as Zazi hung around talking to the man running his coffee cart and joking with former customers [...]

Zazi left about 9:15 a.m., heading back the way he came. For the 24-year-old, the expedition was nothing more than a ruse. If anyone questioned what he was doing in New York, Zazi wanted to be able to say that he came back to check his coffee cart. Now he could.

He descended into the Bowling Green subway station, this time hopping the 5 train to Grand Central. Once he arrived, Zazi hustled up the stairs, cutting his way through the crowds. He stepped behind a pillar and, in the bustle, the surveillance team didn't notice him darting down the stairs and onto a 7 train to Queens.

Panicked, the surveillance team canvassed the dim, low-ceilinged station for Zazi [...] [A]s the             professionals say, [Zazi] was in the wind. Gone.

The FBI's mistake of letting Zazi out of their sight is nothing compared to the NYPD Intelligence Division's errors, though.

When the FBI and the Joint-Terrorism Task Force needed information about Zazi and his friends, the NYPD Intelligence Division couldn’t deliver. The police had extensive data on Zazi’s neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. They had even documented in police files the mosque where Zazi prayed and the travel agency Zazi and his friends used to buy tickets to Pakistan to train with al-Qaeda. Yet “they still didn’t know where the terrorists were,” write Goldman and Apuzzo. “And they didn’t know anything about Zazi, Medunjanin, or Ahmedzay...[W]hen it mattered the most, the files told them nothing.”

The unit also bungled the plan to arrest the Afghans in an episode that highlighted the FBI and NYPD’s tenuous relationship. When the FBI instructed the spy unit to find out everything they could on Zazi and his friends, police agents went to a Flushing imam who doubled as an informant. But the imam ended up tipping off Zazi’s father about the law enforcement pursuit of his son, throwing the FBI’s plans in disarray. They had to arrest Zazi earlier than they had planned to. The mess-up, which sparked heated arguments between the two agencies, was the culmination of years of clashes. The FBI thought the NYPD Intelligence Division was trouble: single-minded, thick-headed, constitutionally suspect and ineffective.

In contrast to the NYPD, the FBI comes out looking like a good, dogged intelligence agency in the book. Buried in the second half of the book, Goldman and Apuzzo sketch out the FBI’s own problems. But these issues should have been highlighted more given their magnitude: the reliance on informants who, lawyers have argued, entrap Muslims in terror plots and the agency's round-up of Muslims post-9/11, many of whom ended up deported over immigration violations.

Like the NYPD, the FBI has used its own power to pressure Muslims into becoming informants in exchange for help. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the FBI has told Muslim-Americans trapped abroad because of their inclusion on a no-fly list that they could get off easily — by spying on their own communities back home in the US. For all the oversight of the FBI — something the NYPD doesn’t have to contend with — parts of the federal agency still view Muslims as targets for spying rather than partners in the fight against terrorism. Far from an aberration in America's post-9/11 landscape, the NYPD is merely the most extreme example of a law enforcement apparatus running roughshod over the rights of Muslim Americans.

What's also missing from Apuzzo and Goldman’s otherwise excellent exposé of the NYPD is the larger political context in which the spying took place. The NYPD's logic is Islamophobic at its core: all Muslims are deemed potential terrorists until they're proven not to be, an inversion of how law enforcement is supposed to work. Yet there's little exploration of how Islamophobic discourse from the media and elected officials contribute to the implementation and acceptance of spying targeting Muslims.

In the same year that Apuzzo and Goldman began reporting on the NYPD's Intelligence Division, New York Republican Peter King set up House hearings to probe “radicalization” among Muslim-Americans — a transparent attempt to cast aspersions on one particular community. In 2010, anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller worked the national media into a frenzy over what was inaccurately labeled the “Ground Zero mosque.” King, Geller and other prominent figures who demonized Muslims directly after 9/11 opened up space for institutions with even more power, like the police, to move a discourse of bigotry into policies of bigotry. In an atmosphere where anti-Muslim sentiment largely went unchallenged, it's no surprise that hardly an eye was batted when the NYPD hired CIA officials to implement an intelligence collection program aimed at law-abiding citizens.

The book presents an undeniably damning portrait of the NYPD’s surveillance operation. Now, it’s up to the courts and lawmakers to decide whether these operations are legal or prudent. Three federal lawsuits are being pursued in reaction to Apuzzo's and Goldman's groundbreaking investigations. The next New York City mayor will have to grapple with the question of continuing or halting the spy operations. Judges and elected officials will have a documented record on which to look back to decide these weighty questions in the coming months: Enemies Within.


 Alex Kane is an assistant editor for the news website Mondoweiss, which covers the Israel–Palestine conflict, and the World section editor at AlterNet.

LARB Contributor

Alex Kane is an assistant editor for the news website Mondoweiss, which covers the Israel–Palestine conflict, and the World section editor at AlterNet. His work has also appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast’s “Open Zion” blog, Vice, BBC Persian, +972 magazine, the Electronic Intifada, Extra!, and Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.


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