In the wake of the terrorist attack on satirical French publication Charlie Hebdo, some New York Muslim groups are already expecting the worst in terms of increased police surveillance here at home.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, says she received an email from the New York Police Department’s immigrant outreach unit on January 9 explaining that the department’s counterterrorism unit was keeping close tabs in the aftermath of the French attack.
“New York City has the most sophisticated counterterrorism capability in the U.S. There are standing contingency plans in place to adjust police deployments based on any unfolding situation in the world. That includes how we use and where we position and deploy specialized police resources,” the email reads. “The NYPD has a Detective stationed in Paris who has been coordinating with NYPD and we will continue to closely monitor the situation. If you see something, say something.”
But Sarsour found the email disconcerting and interpreted it to mean authorities would be ramping up surveillance efforts on Muslims. “For me, when it says, ‘deployed specialized police resources,’ that tells me ‘informants,’ and I think ‘increased surveillance,’ ” she says. “Based on our community’s experience…we have already been victims to targets of unwarranted police surveillance.”
Detective Ahmed Nasser, the NYPD’s Muslim community liaison, says that message wasn’t the intent of the department: “It’s not about spying, it’s about working with communities — that’s the mission for us.”
The email was sent only a day after former mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared on Fox News to complain that the NYPD’s proclivity for spying on Muslims in their houses of worship was no longer what it used to be in the good old days of his administration.
“I think Mayor de Blasio taking the police out of the mosques in New York was one of the more irrational acts that a mayor could perform,” said Giuliani. “When I was mayor…I surveilled mosques. Would any priest or rabbi have the slightest problem with a police officer at a service? I would think not. If you’re uncomfortable with police officers at your service, you must be saying things that are dangerous.”
Speaking with Geraldo Rivera on WABC, Long Island Republican congressman Peter King said the attacks legitimized Muslim spying programs in the city. “I’m not talking about illegal wiretapping or breaking into people’s homes but to have sources in the community, to know who’s who, to know somebody new has moved in that has a pro-terrorist background or whether or not his people in the local mosque who are being incendiary,” he said, according to the New York Observer. “They should be watched.”
Zead Ramadan, a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York, says he has not received an email like the one sent to Sarsour, but he echoed similar fears. “Generalizations and bigotry [are] going to be heightened tremendously,” he says of the NYPD’s response to the Paris attack. “The first people who suffer are the victims and their families. The second are the ones who are going to be targeted for actions that happened…because of some clearly psychotic lunatics. I think that’s probably going to happen.”
And if it does, Sarsour says, the NYPD will once again be overlooking a very important fact about spying: “Unwarranted mass surveillance does not generate leads,” she says. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. We should be following credible information on suspicion of a crime, or we end up dropping the ball.”
In 2012, Assistant Chief Thomas Galati of the NYPD said the force’s Demographics Unit admitted the unit’s spying tactics had generated no leads in its six years of existence at that time. The Demographics Unit, which was devoted to mapping out potential terror spots throughout the city based on criteria like the languages used or religions practiced in a given region, was renamed the Zone Assessment Unit before being disbanded by Commissioner Bill Bratton in 2014. But despite the demise of the controversial unit, advocates say police have never promised to stop surveilling Muslims.
Now the city is arguing in court that the police department’s infiltration of New Jersey mosques caused no harm other than that “based in [Muslims’] own subjective fears.” But members of New York’s Muslim community feel differently.
Just ask Syed Farhaj Hassan, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve and the lead plaintiff in Hassan v. City of New York, the federal case currently being argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. After he learned from an Associated Press story in 2012 that both New Jersey mosques he attended were on an NYPD surveillance list, Hassan stopped going to one entirely and attended another only once a week, for Friday prayer, because he didn’t want to lose his secret security clearance.
“It stunted any spiritual growth I could have had for the years I stopped. It was me and YouTube — it wasn’t me in a mosque with peaceful people,” he says. “It’s kind of freaky. Here you are minding traffic laws, and the two places you go for spiritual growth are on a BS list.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment on the city’s counterterrorism plans after the Charlie Hebdo attack, referring the Voice to the NYPD. The department’s press office has not responded to an email from the Voice. But Bratton told the Today show on January 13 that the department is reacting here at home to the Charlie Hebdo attack: “We’re very much encouraging our officers…to be even more vigilant than they might be.”
He added that the unit regularly looked through its database to investigate people who may have been of interest in the past. “We’re continually doing those deep types of scrubs,” he said, adding that the NYPD’s counterterrorism unit includes more than 1,000 people and can draw on 5,000 other detectives. “We have nowhere near the level of threats that France or England had in terms of people living within our borders.”