Does Monitoring Muslim Communities Stop Terrorist Attacks?

The Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force
The Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force (Illustrative photo: Secret service)

The mosque attended by the recent New York terrorist had previously been under surveillance from an NYPD program that was later cancelled. News of this has led some to wonder whether or not cancelling the program was a mistake. When evaluating counter-terrorism methods, it’s important to be objective. The metric that really matters is “Did the program work?” So, the question to be asked is: Could a cancelled Muslim community surveillance program have stopped the recent terror attack in New York?

If the success record of that program in stopping terrorists is anything to go by, that seems unlikely.

 

The Demographics Unit

New York terrorist Sayfullo Saipov, who killed eight people in the October 31, 2017 terrorist attack in Manhattan, attended the Omar Mosque in Paterson, New Jersey. Prior to 2014, the NYPD monitored the mosque as part of a program called the Demographics Unit (Zone Assessment Unit after 2010).

The program deployed agents to chart a map of the demographics of the New York Muslim community, including mosques, cafes, bookshops and hangouts. It saw agents attend mosque lectures, record license plates and take aerial photos of the mosque, among other things. Perhaps most controversially, it focused on 28 different “ancestries of interest,” explicitly profiling groups by race.

The aim of the program was to provide background information that would hep inform the police and enable them to target investigations more clearly, as well as know where to look once an investigation was underway.

 

Backlash

When the Associated Press (AP) revealed the existence of the Demographics Unit, a backlash ensued. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called it part of “unconstitutional” surveillance which “imposed an unwarranted badge of suspicion and stigma on law-abiding Muslim New Yorkers.”

Two federal lawsuits were launched against the NYPD for discrimination. Although the program was challenged in the courts, it was not found to be illegal, as Clarion’s Ryan Mauro has previously discussed.

“The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself,” Judge Martini said in issuing a judgement that the program did not violate law. “The motive for the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but to find Muslim terrorists hiding among the ordinary law-abiding Muslims.”

Islamist apologist Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, championed the cause against the police. In 2014, along with other activist leaders, she met with Police Commissioner William Bratton to lobby against the program. At that meeting, John Miller told her the NYPD were shutting down the program.

“The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community,” Sarsour told The New York Times in 2014. “Those documents, they showed where we live. That’s the cafe where I eat. That’s where I pray. That’s where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community.”

Sarsour has long championed dubious causes to deflect honest conversations about terrorism. But we shouldn’t reflexively support something just because Linda Sarsour opposes it. What matters is whether or not the NYPD’s Demographics Unit actually produced results. 

 

Did it Work?

From 2002,the NYPD spent a lot of money through the Demographics Unit building an extensive network of files detailing various Muslim communities in New York City. But the unit never brought in information which produced a lead, investigation or arrest.

“I never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a Demographics report, and I’m here since 2006,” said Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, then commanding officer of the NYPD Intelligence Division, in a federal court deposition in 2012. “I don’t recall other ones prior to my arrival. Again, that’s always a possibility. I am not aware of any.”

This is not to say that the NYPD intelligence division does not do outstanding work, they do and they have stopped many terrorist plots. But no arrests came from this program.

A key counter-terrorism success was the Herald Square case of 2004. Shahawar Matin Siraj was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in a plot to bomb the Herald Square underground subway station. CBS News records an unnamed NYPD official as saying the work of the Demographics Unit identified a specific Brooklyn bookstore as a hotspot, which led to the investigation.

However, other records show that the case began with civilians calling in tips about Siraj to the NYPD as they found him suspicious. Following up, the NYPD deployed an informant to the field who asked questions, built a case and ultimately arrested Siraj and an accomplice. It is highly likely these arrests could have been made without the information from the Demographics Unit. No records from the unit were even submitted in the trial.

Former NYPD deputy commissioner for public information Paul J. Browne argued that arrests were never the goal of the unit. On the contrary, they were to provide background intelligence that might help investigating officers once a case was underway.

“The officers assigned to the unit didn’t infiltrate terrorist groups or spy on them,” he told the New York Post. “They provided investigators who did with road maps as to where terrorists might gravitate in the metropolitan area in advance of an attack or to hide after one.”

Hector Berdecia, former supervisor of the Demographics Unit, disagreed. He even described the program to New York Magazine as “a bunch of bull****.” Lamenting the lack of real police work the program involved, he noted that his detectives all seemed to ended up carrying out suspiciously extensive surveillance on certain expensive Muslim-owned restaurants, where they were authorized to spend their expense accounts in order to keep cover.

Don Borelli, former FBI special agent in charge of the New York Joint Counter-terrorism Task Force, concurred that in his eyes the program was a waste of time. He wrote an op-ed for the New York Daily News in 2014 in support of the decision to close the Demographics Unit. Recalling the case of Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested for a failed subway bombing plot, Borelli wrote:

“Interestingly enough, the NYPD demographics unit had detailed files on Zazi’s neighborhood in Flushing during the period in which he was becoming radicalized. It kept files on businesses and visited coffee shops believed to be hangouts for potential terrorists. The unit even visited the travel agency where Zazi bought his ticket to travel to Afghanistan for terrorism training.

So why wasn’t Zazi identified until he was driving to New York from Denver to blow up the subway? Because the program was ineffective. The mission of the demographics unit was to spot the terrorists in the haystack, but again and again it failed to do so.”

 

Was Cancelling It a Mistake?

Three years after the end of the program, there has now been an attack from one of the mosques surveilled. While some members of the mosque were shocked at last week’s attack, others were less so.

“I totally get what he did,” Omar Mosque attendee Abu Mohammad told The Daily Mail. “It’s in response to Muslims dying every day as a result of this ongoing conflict. Why doesn’t the media cover that? The U.S. needs to get out and let us run our own affairs. But as long as they meddle and interfere, these terrorist attacks will continue to happen.”

The problem of radicalism still remains and must be dealt with. Yet the approach to solutions must be evidence-based.

In this author’s opinion, had the Demographics Unit still been operational, it would not have stopped the New York attack.

 

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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.