NEW YORK – The New York Police Department recommended increasing surveillance of thousands of Shiite Muslims and their mosques, based solely on their religion, as a way to sweep the Northeast for signs of Iranian terrorists, according to interviews and a newly obtained secret police document.
The document offers a rare glimpse into the thinking of NYPD intelligence officers and how, when looking for potential threats, they focused their spying efforts on mosques and Muslims. Police analysts listed a dozen mosques from central Connecticut to the Philadelphia suburbs. None has been linked to terrorism, either in the document or publicly by federal agencies.
The Associated Press has reported for months that the NYPD infiltrated mosques, eavesdropped in cafes and monitored Muslim neighborhoods with plainclothes officers. Its spying operations were begun after the 2001 terror attacks with help from the CIA in a highly unusual partnership.
The May 2006 NYPD intelligence report, entitled "US-Iran Conflict: The Threat to New York City," made a series of recommendations, including: "Expand and focus intelligence collections at Shi'a mosques."
The NYPD is prohibited under its own guidelines and city law from basing its investigations on religion. Under FBI guidelines, which the NYPD says it follows, many of the recommendations in the police document would be prohibited.
The report, drawn largely from information available in newspapers or sites like Wikipedia, was prepared for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. It was written at a time of great tension between the U.S. and Iran. That tension over Iran's nuclear ambition has increased again recently.
Police estimated the New York area Shiite population to be about 35,000, with Iranians making up about 8,500. The document also calls for canvassing the Palestinian community because there might be terrorists there.
"The Palestinian community, although not Shi'a, should also be assessed due to presence of Hamas members and sympathizers and the group's relationship with the Iranian government," analysts wrote.
The secret document stands in contrast to statements by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said the NYPD never considers religion in its policing. Kelly has said police go only where investigative leads take them, but the document described no leads to justify expanded surveillance at Shiite mosques.
The document also renews debate over how the NYPD privately views Muslims. Kelly has faced calls for his resignation recently from some Muslim activists for participating in a video that says Muslims want to "infiltrate and dominate" the United States. The NYPD showed the video to nearly 1,500 officers during training.
Documents previously obtained by the AP show widespread NYPD infiltration of mosques. It's not clear, however, whether the May 2006 report prompted police to infiltrate the mosques on the list. One former police official who has seen the report said that, generally, the recommendations were followed but he could not say for sure whether these mosques were infiltrated.
A current law enforcement official, also familiar with the report, said that since it was issued the NYPD learned that Hezbollah was more political than religious and concluded that it's not effective to monitor Shiites.
Both insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program.
On Thursday, Kelly described the document as a "contingency plan," though that is not mentioned in the document and there is nothing indicating what would trigger such a contingency.
"This was a 2006 document that talked about what we would do if there were hostilities involving Iran," he said. "It seems to me that it would be prudent for us to have plans in that regard."
Neither David Cohen, the NYPD's top intelligence officer, nor department spokesman Paul Browne responded to emails or phone calls from The Associated Press this week.
Iran is an overwhelmingly Shiite country, but Shiites are a small percentage of the U.S. Muslim population. By contrast, al-Qaida is a Sunni organization and many U.S. leaders consider Shiite clerics as allies in the fight against homegrown extremism. Shiites are often oppressed overseas and many have sought asylum in the West.
The document is dated just weeks after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress that, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran."
Even now, the U.S. remains particularly concerned with Iran, not only because of its nuclear research but also because intelligence officials don't believe they know how Iranian sympathizers inside the United States would respond if the two countries went to war. By far, the largest group of Iranians in the U.S. lives in or around Los Angeles. Yet the NYPD, with a smaller Iranian population that police estimated at about 8,500 in New York City, shared the concerns about reactions to an open military conflict.
Asad Sadiq, president of the Bait-ul-Qaim mosque in the Philadelphia suburb of Delran, N.J., said the NYPD was being unfairly broad.
"If you attack Cuba, are all the Catholics going to attack here? This is called guilt by association," Sadiq, a dentist, said after seeing his mosque in the NYPD document. "Just because we are the same religion doesn't mean we're going to stand up and harm the United States. It's really absurd."
The AP showed the document to several veteran counterterrorism analysts. None said they had seen anything like it.
"It's really problematic if you make a jump from a possible international conflict to saying therefore we need to monitor Shiite mosques writ large," said Brian Fishman, the former research director at West Point's Combatting Terrorism Center. "It doesn't follow."
For instance, the NYPD analysts focused much of the report on the Alavi Foundation, a New York nonprofit group that the federal government has since accused of being secretly controlled by the Iranian government. Analysts then looked at a mosque where Alavi members prayed and that police say may have been linked to an effort to buy information about rocket technology for Iran.
There is no explanation, however, for how those suspicions warranted expanding surveillance to other Shiite mosques, including those far outside the department's jurisdiction in Connecticut and New Jersey.
"Any time that you begin to isolate certain communities from a policing perspective because you think there's risk, you have the potential that somebody overreaches," said Robert Riegle, a former Department of Homeland Security analyst who oversaw efforts to work with state and local agencies.
At the Al-Mahdi Foundation mosque in Brooklyn, worshippers intoned their prayers Wednesday while touching their foreheads to disks of clay on the floor, a Shiite tradition.
"After 1,400 years, the Shias are being targeted in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, everywhere," Imam Malik Sakhawat Hussain said after being told that his mosque was in the NYPD document. "If U.S. authorities become suspicious of the Shias, I would say we are a very oppressed community of the world."
At the Masjid Al-Rahman, a prayer hall in the basement of a Brooklyn apartment building, manager Abo Maher was surprised to see his mosque on the NYPD's list of Shiite locations.
"This isn't even Shia," he said. "Their information is wrong."
The police department's Demographics Unit, the secretive squad of plainclothes officers used to monitor restaurants, social clubs and other gathering spots, found similar issues in Iranian neighborhoods, one former NYPD official recalled.
Muslims make up only a fraction of New York's Iranian community so squad members returned from their rounds in Iranian neighborhoods and reported finding Jews and Christians, the former official said.
Sadiq, the New Jersey mosque president, said about 250 families — mostly Pakistanis and Indians and few Iraqis — attend his mosque. Every few years, he said, an FBI agent stops by, introduces himself and asks whether there's been any radical rhetoric in his mosque and whether he knows anyone with connections to Iran. The most recent meeting was just Wednesday, he said, and the NYPD would be welcome if it came openly.
The intelligence unit operates in secrecy with little outside oversight. The City Council is not told about secret intelligence programs. And though the unit operates under the auspices of a federal anti-drug task force and receives federal money, it is not overseen by Congress. The Obama administration, including the Justice Department, has repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether it endorses the NYPD's tactics.
"They think that they can do whatever they want and get away with it," Sadiq said.
The document also suggests a broader international intelligence mission than the department has previously acknowledged. The NYPD has officers stationed in 11 foreign cities such as London, Paris, Madrid, and Tel Aviv, where they work with local police and act as the NYPD's eyes and ears overseas.
In their recommendations for the foreign liaison unit, analysts wrote that officers should: "Focus international intelligence collection on the Iranian threat, to include the activities of the IIS, Hezbollah, Hamas etc. throughout Europe and the Middle East."
NYPD officers abroad are not supposed to be spies and do not answer to the U.S. director of national intelligence or the CIA station chiefs who coordinate America's efforts to gather intelligence on Iran. In fact, the NYPD's international officers aren't even paid by the department. Rather, the program is paid for through a nonprofit foundation that raises money from corporate donors.
It has not previously been known that the NYPD would consider gathering overseas intelligence on Iranian intelligence services. The police department does not disclose details about the inner workings of the international program to the City Council, to Congress or to U.S. intelligence agencies.
View the NYPD document: http://bit.ly/wYrAUX
Contact the Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations (at) ap.org
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