By Matt Apuzo
NEW YORK — When a Danish newspaper published inflammatory cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in September 2005, Muslim communities around the world erupted in outrage. Violent mobs took to the streets in the Middle East. A Somali man even broke into the cartoonist’s house in Denmark with an ax.
In New York, thousands of miles away, it was a different story. At the Masjid Al-Falah in Queens, one leader condemned the cartoons but said Muslims should not to resort to violence. Speaking at the Masjid Dawudi mosque in Brooklyn, another called on Muslims to speak out against the cartoons, but peacefully.
The sermons, all protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, were reported back to the NYPD by the department’s network of mosque informants. They were compiled in police intelligence reports and summarized for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Those documents offer the first glimpse of what the NYPD’s informants — known informally as “mosque crawlers” — gleaned from inside the houses of worship. And, along with hundreds of pages of other secret NYPD documents obtained by The Associated Press, they show police targeting mosques and their congregations with tactics normally reserved for criminal organizations.
They did so in ways that brushed against — and civil rights lawyers say at times violated — a federal court order restricting how police can gather intelligence.
The NYPD Intelligence Division snapped pictures and collected license plate numbers of congregants as they arrived to pray. Police mounted cameras on light poles and aimed them at mosques. Plainclothes detectives mapped and photographed mosques and listed the ethnic makeup of those who prayed there.
“It seems horrible to me that the NYPD is treating an entire religious community as potential terrorists,” said civil rights lawyer Jethro Einstein, who reviewed some of the documents and is involved in a decades-old, class-action lawsuit against the police department for spying on protesters and political dissidents. The lawsuit is known as the Handschu case.
The documents provide a fuller picture of the NYPD’s unapologetic approach to protecting the city from terrorism. Einstein said he believes that at least one document, the summary of statements about the Danish cartoons, showed that the NYPD is not following a court order that prohibits police from compiling records on people who are simply exercising their First Amendment rights.
“This is a flat-out violation,” Einstein said. “This is a smoking gun.”
Kelly, the police commissioner, has said the NYPD complies with its legal obligations: “We’re following the Handschu guidelines,” Kelly said in October during a rare City Council oversight hearing about the NYPD surveillance of Muslims.
The AP has reported for months that the NYPD infiltrated mosques, eavesdropped in cafes and monitored Muslim neighborhoods. New Muslim converts who took Arabic names were compiled in police databases.
Recently, the NYPD has come under fire for its tactics. Universities including Yale and Columbia have criticized the department for infiltrating Muslim student groups and trawling their websites. Police put the names of students and academics in reports even when they were not suspected of wrongdoing. And in Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker said he was offended by the NYPD’s secret surveillance of his city’s Muslims.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not respond to an email seeking comment. Browne has previously denied the NYPD used mosque crawlers or that there was a secret Demographics Unit that monitored daily life in Muslim communities.
The NYPD spying operations began after the 2001 terror attacks with unusual help from a CIA officer. The agency’s inspector general recently found that relationship problematic but said no laws were broken. Shortly after that report, the CIA decided to cut short the yearlong tour of an operative who was recently assigned to the NYPD.
Kelly, the police commissioner, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been emphatic that police only follow legitimate leads of criminal activity and do not conduct preventive surveillance in ethnic communities.
“If there are threats or leads to follow, then the NYPD’s job is to do it,” Bloomberg said last year. “The law is pretty clear about what’s the requirement, and I think they follow the law. We don’t stop to think about the religion. We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there.”
But former and current law enforcement officials either involved in or with direct knowledge of these programs say they did not follow leads. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the secret programs. But the documents support their claims.
Officials say that David Cohen, the deputy commissioner for intelligence, was at the center of the efforts to spy on the mosques.
“Take a big net, throw it out, catch as many fish as you can and see what we get,” one investigator recalled Cohen saying.
The effort highlights one of the most difficult aspects of policing in the age of terrorism. Solving crimes isn’t enough. Police are expected to identify would-be terrorists and move in before they can attack.
There are no universally agreed upon warning signs for terrorism. Terrorists have used Internet cafes, stayed in hostels, worked out at gyms, visited travel agencies, attended student groups and prayed at mosques. So, the NYPD monitored those areas. In doing so, they monitored many innocent people as they went about their daily lives.
Using plainclothes officers from the Demographics Unit, police swept Muslim neighborhoods and catalogued the location of mosques, identifying them on maps with crescent moon icons, the well-known symbol of Islam. The ethnic makeup of each congregation was logged as police fanned out across the city and outside their jurisdiction, into suburban Long Island and areas of New Jersey.
“African American, Arab, Pakistani,” police wrote beneath the photo of one mosque in Newark.
“Mosque in private house without any signs. Observed 25 to 30 worshipers exiting after Jumma prayers,” police wrote beneath another Newark mosque photo.
As the Demographics Unit catalogued Internet cafes, hostels, grocers and travel agencies, officers noted how close the businesses were to mosques.
Investigators looked at mosques as the center of Muslim life. All their connections had to be known.
Cohen wanted a source inside every mosque within a 250-mile radius of New York, current and former officials said. Though the officials said they never managed to reach that goal, documents show the NYPD successfully placed informants or undercovers — sometimes both — into mosques from Westchester County, N.Y., to New Jersey.
The NYPD used these sources to get a sense of the sentiment of worshippers whenever an event generated headlines. The goal, former officials said, was to alert police to potential problems before they bubbled up.
After the fallout from the Danish cartoons, for instance, the informants reported on more than a dozen conversations inside mosques.
Some suggested boycotting Danish products, burning flags, contacting politicians and holding rallies — all permissible under the law.
“Imam Shamsi Ali brought up the topic of the cartoon, condemning them. He announced a rally that was to take place on Sunday (02/05/06) near the United Nations. He asked that everyone to attend if possible and reminded everyone to keep their poise if they can make it,” according to a report prepared for Kelly.
At the Muslim Center Of New York in Queens, the report said, “Mohammad Tariq Sherwani led the prayer service and urged those in attendance to participate in a demonstration at the United Nations on Sunday.”
When one Muslim leader suggested they plan a demonstration, a person involved in the discussion to obtain a sound permit was, in fact, working for the NYPD.
All that was recorded in secret NYPD files.
The closest anyone in the report came to espousing violence was one man who, in a conversation with an NYPD informant, said the cartoons showed the West was at war with Islam. Asked what Muslims should do, he replied, “inqilab,” an Arabic word that means changing the political system. Depending on the context, that can mean peacefully or through an upheaval like a coup. The report, which spelled the word “Inqlab,” said the informant translated it as “fight” but the report does not elaborate further.
Even when it was clear there were no links to terrorism, the mosque informants gave the NYPD the ability to “take the pulse” of the community, as Cohen and other managers called it.
When New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor were killed Oct. 11, 2006, when their small plane crashed into a Manhattan high-rise apartment, fighter planes were scrambled. Within hours the FBI and Department of Homeland Security said it was an accident. Terrorism was ruled out.
Yet for days after the event, the NYPD’s mosque crawlers reported to police about what they heard at sermons and among worshippers.
At the Brooklyn Islamic Center, a confidential informant “noted chatter among the regulars expressing relief and thanks to God that the crash was only an accident and not an act of terrorism, which they stated would not be good either for the U.S. or for any of their home countries.”
Across the Hudson River in Jersey City, an undercover officer reported a pair of worshippers at the Al-Tawheed Islamic Center reacted with “sorrow.”
“The worshippers made remarks to the effect that ‘it better be an accident; we don’t need any more heat,'” the officer reported.
Another informant told his handler about a man who became agitated after learning about the crash. The man urged the informant not to go into Manhattan until it was clear what was going on, the informant said.
Five days after the crash, long after concerns that it was terrorism had passed, the NYPD compiled these reports into a memo for Kelly. The report promised to investigate the man who had appeared agitated.
“A phone dump will be conducted on subject’s phone for that day and time period,” the memo said.
In some instances, the NYPD put cameras on light poles and trained them on mosques, documents show. Investigators could control the cameras with their computers and use the footage to help identify worshippers. Because the cameras were in public space, police didn’t need a warrant to conduct the surveillance.
If the NYPD badly wanted to know who was attending the mosque, they could write down the license plates of cars in the mosque parking lots, documents show. In some instances, police in unmarked cars outfitted with electronic license plate readers would drive down the street and record the plates of everyone parked near the mosque.
Abdul Akbar Mohammed, the imam for the past eight years at the Masjid Imam Ali K. Muslim, a mosque in Newark that was cataloged in NYPD’s files, said of the program: “They’re viewing Muslims like they’re crazy. They’re terrorists. They all must be fanatics.”
“That’s not right,” he said.
In 2006, the NYPD ordered surveillance at the Masjid Omar, a mosque in Paterson, N.J., a document shows. There’s no indication that the surveillance team was looking for anyone in particular. The mosque itself was the target.
“This is reportedly to be a mosque that is attended by both Palestinian and Chechen worshipers,” the document reads. “This mosque has a long history in the community and is believed to have been the subject of federal Investigations.” Federal law enforcement officials told the AP that the mosque itself was never under federal investigation and they were unaware the NYPD was monitoring it so closely.
Police were instructed to watch the mosque and, as people came and went from the Friday prayer service, investigators were to record license plates and photograph and videotape those attending.
“Pay special attention to all NY State license plates,” the document said.
The brief file offered no evidence of criminal activity.
To conduct such broad surveillance as the NYPD did at Masjid Omar, FBI agents would need to believe that the mosque itself was part of a criminal enterprise. Even then, federal agents would need approval from senior FBI and Justice Department officials.
At the NYPD, however, such monitoring was common, former police officials said.
The Omar mosque sits in central Paterson in a neighborhood heavily populated by Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs. It’s about 20 miles west of Manhattan. About 2,000 worshippers meet regularly at the Sunni mosque, which was once a church.
On a recent Friday, the three-story high, cream-colored mosque bustled with activity.
About 200 men crowded the crimson carpet in the main hall as Imam Abdelkhaliq El-Nerib led prayers from a gold-painted pulpit at the front of the room. Wall hangings with Arabic script and geometric patterns hung on either side of the pulpit. Dozens more worshippers knelt on a blue tarp spread outside. The mosque has two services on Fridays to accommodate the large congregation.
“We’re not committing a crime, so of course we take issue with them spying on our people just because they’re praying in the mosque,” El Nerib said through a translator. “To track people who are frequent visitors to the mosque simply because they are coming to the mosque negates the freedom of religion that is a fundamental right enshrined in this country’s Constitution.”
Members of the mosque pointed out errors in the police document. The address, for instance, is wrong. And though the document says Chechens attended the mosque, worshippers said they had never heard of any. Most attendees are Palestinian, said El-Nerib, who’s Egyptian.
El-Nerib said he has a good relationship with local police. He, like others interviewed at the mosque, said they have nothing to hide.
“Whether it’s in public or private, we say the same thing: We are loyal American citizens,” El-Nerib said. “We are part and parcel of this society. We have lived here, we have found nothing but safety and security and protection of our rights.”
Associated Press writers Chris Hawley and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.
View the NYPD documents: www.ap.org/nypd
NYPD cartoons: http://apne.ws/zVwtCt
NYPD Omar: http://apne.ws/wsrSvN
NYPD crash: http://apne.ws/xB9kVM
Contact the Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations (at) ap.org
Follow Apuzzo and Goldman at http://twitter.com/mattapuzzo and http://twitter.com/goldmandc
February 23, 2012 02:06 PM EST
Copyright 2012, The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.