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Backlash Against NYPD’s Covert Surveillance of Muslim Students

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(update below)

Student associations at schools in the northeastern United States have demanded the attorney general probe the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) “secret surveillance” of students in their associations. The demand comes after investigative reporting published by the Associated Press revealed the NYPD conducted surveillance of Muslim students at Rutgers University, Yale, Columbia, New York University (NYU), University of Buffalo and other schools.

Students and administrators were not aware of the program before the AP published their story. Most of the schools’ administrators appear to have remained neutral when asked to react to news that their students were under surveillance. The City College of New York (CCNY), however, put out a bold statement:

The City College of New York does not accept or condone any investigation of any student organization based on the political or religious content of its ideas…Absent specific evidence linking a member of the City College community to criminal activity, we do not condone this kind of investigation.

University at Buffalo also responded with a strong statement in support of students:

UB does not conduct this kind of surveillance and if asked, UB would not voluntarily cooperate with such a request…As a public university, UB strongly supports the values of freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, and a reasonable expectation of privacy.

And, the spokesman for Columbia University, Robert Hornsby, stated:

Like New York City itself, American universities are admired across the globe as places that welcome a diversity of people and viewpoints. So we would obviously be concerned about anything that could chill our essential values of academic freedom or intrude on student privacy,

The story of the University at Buffalo student surveilled is one of the most chilling stories in the NYPD reports the AP examined.

The student, Khan, was “a board member of the Muslim Student Association at the University at Buffalo.” She received an announcement for an upcoming conference, “Fifth Annual Convention of Reviving the Islamic Spirit.”

At the time, there were no details on who would be speaking. AP reports Khan never even went to the conference. She only forwarded it to other students in a Yahoo chat group. But, this was enough to attract the attention of the NYPD, which began to link her to “radical” scholars who were scheduled to speak at the conference.

The above photo is a section of the report showing how the NYPD’s Cyber Intelligence Unit connected Khan to Tariq Ramadan. The history shows how Ramadan had been a target of the US government for some time. His visa was revoked because he gave money to a Palestinian group. It was reinstated in 2010 after Ramadan filed a lawsuit.

The report noted other speakers: Siraj Wahaj, a New York imam, once listed on a “3 ½-page list of people” considered to be alleged co-conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir, two “prominent Muslim scholars” that have given lectures at “top universities.” Wahaj has never been charged with anything and, as AP notes, “Yusuf met with President George W. Bush at the White House following the 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Paul Browne, spokesperson for the NYPD (who’s job it is to lie about what the police department is actually doing) says, “Students who advertised events or sent emails about regular events should not be worried about a ‘terrorism file’ being kept on them. NYPD only investigated persons who we had reasonable suspicion to believe might be involved in unlawful activities.” This is grossly insensitive.

In the NYPD mindset, Khan was now linked to Muslim radical scholars, who have been tracked by the US government. If she were to be politically active, the government would most certainly be able to look at this report. If she wanted to support Palestinians or any Muslim groups abroad, the surveillance would resume. Though she did nothing wrong, her political activism could, in that mindset, justify subjecting her friends and family to more covert and unjustified surveillance.

These may all be students, who have done nothing wrong, but that lets the NYPD off the hook. Do not ignore the previous investigative reporting the AP has done, which revealed the NYPD conducted surveillance of Muslims and mosques. The NYPD was looking for “signs” of “Iranian terrorists.” The NYPD also “shadowed” Muslims who changed their names. And, the CIA helped the NYPD spy on Muslims.

This is not the first time there have been revelations on the NYPD’s spying on students in the past year. In October 2011, AP reported Muslim student groups at Brooklyn College and other city universities were being monitored.

…undercover officers from the department’s Special Services Unit attended events organized by Muslim students, the official said, as did members of the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, a secret squad that used plainclothes officers of Arab descent to monitor neighborhoods and events.

The NYPD’s Cyber Intelligence Unit used speakers of Arabic, Persian and other languages to monitor the websites of Muslim student organizations. They trolled chat rooms and talked to students online…

Why does the NYPD need all this surveillance?

It could be how the government gets its next batch of Muslim “terror suspects” to target and entrap in sting operations, not dissimilar to what happened with the Newburgh Four. It could be how the NYPD helps the government ensure that no student groups build strong ties with any charities or nonprofit groups in the Middle East, who might aid Palestinians or Muslims suffering directly or indirectly as a result of the US government’s unbridled support for Israel and the “war on terrorism.” Or, it could be this is just another front in the war on solidarity activist groups in America.

The threat of homegrown Muslim terrorism is “overblown.” A stunning fact is that, since the 9/11 attacks, Muslim-American terrorist plots have killed only 33 people. In contrast, there have been over 150,000 murders in the US. Gang violence is much more of a problem for Americans than the threat of homegrown terrorism. However, the NYPD does not appear to be working to keep Americans safe. It appears to be working as a tool of US empire, an agency that watches and invades the privacy of anyone who says anything that might threaten America’s projection of power in the Middle East.


Below is Democracy Now!’s coverage of NYPD’s secret surveillance of Muslim students. The show focuses on an aspect of the report that I unintentionally glossed over.

AP uncovered an instance where the NYPD sent an undercover cop on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York. The agent recorded the names of students and submitted a report that mentioned the number of times they had prayed. (The number was actually incorrect.)

Jawad Rasul, one of the students who went on the trip, appeared on the show this morning. He said of the undercover cop:

Sometimes he would say he lived in Westchester, sometimes he lived in Long Island. He would always be available for all the trips, even though he said that he worked. And we didn’t see him attending a lot of classes, but he used to always be in the lounge area.

Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was also on the show. He discussed the surveillance of students at Yale University.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."