FBI’s Effort to Coerce Muslims into Spying on Muslims is Worse Than You Think

(pic via The Nation)

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Nabil Mouad dreamed of being a professional footballer, a dream that was within his reach given he was selected for Morocco’s national junior development squad as a teenager. His dream would end abruptly in the United States, however, when he was jailed for threatening to “blow up” the University of South Florida’s soccer coach during a heated altercation, which came after the coach misplaced Mouad’s scouting video tape.

Were Mouad not a Muslim, this story would’ve presumably started and ended there, but because he is a Muslim immigrant from Morocco, he was arrested and jailed on terrorism charges, and kept in solitary confinement for six weeks.

“During my time in prison, agents from the FBI or [Department of] Homeland Security spoke with me many times, trying to pressure me into spying on Muslims,” Mouad told me when I spoke with him via phone earlier this year.

Mouad refused their offer, claiming such an act would be in conflict with his faith. He told me the officers threatened him with deportation if he didn’t comply. Later that same year, 2006, charges were dropped against Mouad and he was indeed deported to Morocco, where he resides today.

While accounts of law enforcement agencies coercing Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants into becoming informants have been reasonably well documented, the extent of the US government’s effort to create a nation of Muslim informants has remained well guarded.

A newly published paper by Diala Shamas for The Brooklyn Law School Journal, however, reveals not only the alarming breadth and scope of the US government’s efforts to recruit Muslim informants, but also the coercive and cruel tactics US law enforcement agencies use to target and recruit.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the US government has carried out widespread surveillance of Muslim American communities, including the targeting and monitoring of mosques, Muslim organizations, businesses, neighborhoods, and social media accounts. To police these spaces frequented and engaged by Muslim Americans and immigrants, law enforcement agencies have come to depend on Muslim informants, which only further accentuates the climate of fear and suspicion these communities increasingly live with.

“Law abiding individuals with no prior criminal record make desirable recruits, given their ability to be inconspicuous, and their possession of the linguistic or cultural knowledge of the targeted community,” observes Sharmas. “They are not, however, as vulnerable to traditional criminal-informant-pressuring methods, which are typically effectuated through the criminal process.”

To coerce Muslims into spying on their neighbors and communities, US law enforcement agencies target what a FBI training presentation dubbed “immigration vulnerabilities,” while another presentation, according to Sharmas, urged officers to leverage “immigration relief dangle.”

Here, the FBI adopts both a “carrots” and “sticks” approach. Whereas the former tactic incentivizes recruitment via promises to upgrade visa status or accelerate residency applications of either the targeted recruit and/or his family, the latter threatens deportation, promises visa application/renewal denial or revocation of current visa status.

“FBI agents’ threats are credible. While precise details about the contours of the FBI’s authority to influence immigration outcomes remains murky, the existence of a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) program called the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP) presents one procedural vehicle through which FBI agents can interfere in a pending immigration matter,” notes Sharmas.

The FBI also uses the “No-Fly List” as another means to coerce Muslims into spying on their friends, family members, and communities, and the case of Muhammad Tanvir is illustrative. While working at a discount retail outlet, FBI agents approached Tanvir, according to Sharmas, and asked him to work as an informant.

“Tanvir saw no reason to get involved, and he had a number of reservations: he had no knowledge of any unlawful activities; he did not need anything from the FBI; he was concerned about the dangers inherent to working as an informant, and spying on his community went against his religious beliefs,” writes Sharmas.

When Tanvir declined the agents’ offer, they became “increasingly aggressive,” but to no avail. Tanvir stuck firm. Months later, however, when he tried to board a flight to Pakistan to visit his unwell mother, he was told by immigration officers he would not be allowed to board the flight. When he called the FBI, they told him he had been placed on a no-fly list until he agreed to work with them.

As of 2016, there were more than 80,000 names listed on the US government’s no-fly list, and because the “criteria for inclusion are so broad and vague,” many end up on it merely for exercising their First Amendment protected right to free speech, including posting a message on Facebook or Twitter. When Muslims try to have their name removed from the no-fly list, the FBI often uses that as opportunity to coerce that individual into becoming an informant.

There are also numerous accounts of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security using the threat of releasing embarrassing information to coerce Muslims into becoming informants. Journalist Trevor Aaronson reported how a former FBI counterterrorism official had told him, “We could go to a source and say, ‘We know you’re having an affair. If you work with us, we won’t tell your wife.”

Also, there’s the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and an American citizen assassinated by a US drone strike in 2011. Despite having strongly condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and despite being welcomed by the US government, including the Pentagon, as “moderate” Muslim preacher, the FBI nevertheless tracked his every movement, discovering he had a weakness for soliciting prostitutes. When al-Awlaki refused the FBI’s request to spy on his community, the bureau threatened to go public with this information. It has been speculated that this was a big part of the reason al-Awlaki turned against the US government and fled the United States.

All across the country, and on daily basis, FBI agents are turning up on the doorsteps of properties owned and leased by Muslim occupants, including their places of employment, even pulling some off the street, and asking whether or not they are willing to spy on behalf of the US government.

As of 2008, the FBI maintained a roster of more than 15,000 informants, with a great number of these tasked with infiltrating Muslim communities, with some paid up to $100,000 per case. It has also been estimated that for every officially listed US government informant, there are another three unofficially listed informants, who are known within law enforcement circles as “hip pockets.”

Creating a nation of Muslim informants is bad for the United States and poses a threat to the country’s democratic character. “The way a society treats its informants or handles its covert police actions provides insight into its broader political, cultural, and social dynamics,” observes Sharmas, while Malin Akerstrom, a sociologist and surveillance studies scholar, notes, “All societies demand that citizens report on each other to a certain extent. How much and the range of behavior expected to be reported varies between countries…The more totalitarian and the more interested their leaders are in suppressing criticism the more the informer systems will be used.”

Today, the Oval Office is not only occupied by a US President that attacks his critics and the free press in a manner that would make most dictators blush with embarrassment, but also is inhabited by a constellation of individuals long associated with the Islamophobia Industry, including Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton; and his top diplomat, Mike Pompeo. Thus there’s every reason to believe that the Muslim informant program has been ramped up dramatically since 2008, and even more significantly during the Trump presidency.

The Muslim informant program is not only bad for Muslim Americans and immigrants, but also for all Americans, because ultimately the identity of the government’s target population changes over time, but the systems used to carry out that surveillance expand and proliferate. Today it’s the Muslims. Tomorrow it might be you.

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Columnist for Middle East Eye. Host of Channel The Rage. Activist against Islamophobia. Read more about CJ here: www.patreon.com/cjwerleman