Universities have been expressing concern and even outrage over Associated Press reports that the New York Police Department spent six months in 2006-2007 keeping tabs on Muslim Student Associations at 16 colleges in the northeast, including Columbia, Yale, Rutgers and NYU.
Some university presidents and spokesmen complained that the NYPD’s surveillance activities, conducted without clear evidence of criminal activity, could have a chilling effect on the rights of free speech and association on their campuses.
Richard Levin, president of Yale, said, “I am writing to state, in the strongest possible terms, that police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States.”
But senior police officials say that the university spokesmen, including Levin, did not contact the department to hear its explanation of what law enforcement had done, and not done to keep New York and the surrounding area safe.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and his top spokesman, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, have repeatedly asserted that the department’s surveillance does not infringe on civil rights and liberties. The NYPD’s counter-terrorism program has also been adamantly defended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Charles Schumer, City Council Member Peter F. Vallone Jr., City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and other traditional champions of free speech and civil liberties.
In an emailed statement, Browne called the criticism “knee-jerk reactions with little understanding of what actually transpired or why.” Browne gave the A.P. twelve specific cases of serious activities associated with the Muslim student groups, along with the not-so-secret observation that “some of the most dangerous Western Al Qaeda linked/inspired terrorists since 9/11 were radicalized and/or recruited at universities in Muslim Student Associations.” But the A.P. gave these cases and the NYPD’s account of its program short shrift.
Observing the Handschu Guidelines
In a speech Saturday at Fordham University, Commissioner Kelly said that the department’s initiative and the reports it produced were both legal and appropriate. He said all were in accordance with the so-called Handschu Guidelines, a set of rules developed–in settlement of a Black Panther suit in the 1970s–to protect people engaged in political protest.
And yes, Kelly added, the guidelines authorize police to “visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public” and “to conduct online search activity and to access online sites and forums on the same terms…as members of the public.” The NYPD was also authorized to “prepare general reports and assessments…for purposes of strategic or operational planning.”
A Federal judge had loosened the guidelines in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks at the department’s request. The guidelines, Kelly said, begin with a general principle: “In its effort to anticipate or prevent unlawful activity, including terrorist acts,” they state, “the NYPD must, at times, initiate investigations in advance of unlawful conduct.”
In an apparent swipe not only at the A.P., but also at the university presidents and spokesmen who have parroted the press agency’s allegations about the NYPD’s counter-terrorism investigations without bothering to verify the accuracy of their charges, Kelly said, “anyone who intimates that it is unlawful for the Police Department to search online, visit public places, or map neighborhoods has either not read, misunderstood, or intentionally obfuscated the meaning of the Handschu Guidelines.”
A “broad base of knowledge” was critically important to his department’s ability to investigate terrorism, he said. So police had attempted to determine “how individuals seeking to do harm might communicate or conceal themselves. Where might they go to find resources or evade the law? Establishing this kind of geographically-based knowledge saves precious time in stopping fast-moving plots,” Kelly said.
While “the vast majority” of Muslim student associations and their members turned out to the law-abiding, he said, the department had found “too many cases in which such groups were exploited. Some of the most violent terrorists we’ve encountered were radicalized or recruited at universities.”
Founded by Members of the Muslim Brotherhood
It also helps to know a little about the history of the Muslim Student Associations themselves and why terrorists would see them as natural recruiting grounds. According to Steven Emerson, who has tracked radical Islamist groups for years, the MSA was founded in the U.S. in 1963 by members of the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, which recently won a resounding victory in Egypt’s post-revolution parliamentary elections, has long sought to create a global Islamic state governed by “sharia,” or Islamic law. While the group itself now claims to have renounced violence and embraced spreading Islam through democratic means, it has historically had a secret component operated with little or no transparency. And Muslim Brotherhood splinter groups, such as the far more militant Islamic Group and Islamic Jihad have boasted about their violent exploits, such as the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Another spin-off, Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamists who now rule Gaza, rejects Egypt’s peace treaties with Israel and remains on the U.S. terrorist list.
The department’s six-month review of MSAs of the tri-state area, Kelly said, uncovered some activity that appeared to be anything but benign. For example, in November of 2006, detectives learned that Siraj Wahaj, an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had spoken to students at the MSA of the University of Buffalo, apparently in search of recruits. In November, 2006, detectives learned that Jessie Curtis Morton, then a leader of the Islamic Thinkers Society whom it had been watching for some time, given his advocacy of violence, had spoken and tried to recruit followers at Stony Brook University. His own web site, Kelly said, had posted articles from “Inspire,” the on-line magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which included articles such as “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Morton’s own website became a platform for “murderous ideology and a meeting place for various violent actors.”
A graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Morton recently pled guilty to “using his position as a leader of Revolution Muslim Internet sites to conspire to solicit murder.” Specifically, Morton admitted encouraging others to kill the writers of South Park after they had depicted Mohammad dressed in a bear suit. Morton also urged violence against an artist who organized “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day” in reaction to the threats.
In April of 2007, detectives learned that Yousuf Khattab, Morton’s co-founder of Revolution Muslim, had also spoken at Brooklyn College’s Islamic Society, apparently trolling for recruits. Over the years, Kelly said, ten people who had been arrested on terrorism charges had been in contact with Revolution Muslim. Among them are Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte, two New Jersey-based Muslims, whom the NYPD, working with the FBI and New Jersey law enforcement agencies, stopped at JFK en route to join Al Shabaab, the terrorist organization, in Somalia in 2010.
Kelly denied that his department had infiltrated MSAs throughout the Northeast as the A.P. has reported. When the 2006-2007 review had uncovered such potentially criminal or dangerous terrorism-related conduct, he said, the NYPD had opened a preliminary inquiry, or launched formal investigations, again, in accordance with the Handschu guidelines. Such investigations were regularly reviewed by department lawyers and discontinued unless the investigation reasonably indicated that an unlawful act had been, was being or would likely be committed, the police said. The NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence was required to issue written authorization whenever undercover officers or confidential informants have been used in such terrorism inquiries, the NYPD asserts.
Some of the department’s concerns about some individuals associated with MSAs have clearly been borne out, Kelly and Brown have said. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas bomber recruited by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who tried to blow up a Detroit bound jet in 2009 wearing explosive-lined underwear, had been the head of the Muslim Student Association at the University College of London. Anwar Al-Awlaki, the radical American Muslim cleric of Yemeni descent and former head of AQAP who was linked to a dozen far-flung plots and was killed by an American drone last year, was president of the MSA at Colorado State University in the mid-1990’s. Adam Gadahn, Al Qaeda’s English-language spokesman, was an active MSA member at the University of Southern California. Ramy Zamzam, prior to his conviction in Pakistan last year for attempting to join the Taliban and kill American troops, was president of the MSA’s Washington D.C. council. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who had plotted against New York City landmarks, was a member of the MSA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The list goes on.
Consider the case of Adis (aka, Mohammad) Medunjanin, whose terrorism trial is scheduled to begin in New York in early April. Medunjanin’s name may not ring any terrorism bells, but he stands accused of being a co-conspirator of a far more infamous would-be suicide bomber–Najibullah Zazi, the 27-year-old Afghan-American who has already pled guilty to planning suicide bombings in New York’s subway stations in September, 2009. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the plot against New York’s transit system which was blessed by Al Qaeda “one of the most serious terrorist threats to our nation since September 11th, 2001.”
“We Love Death”, Said the Former Wide Receiver
Medunjanin, who was arrested in January, 2010, was one of two of Zazi’s high school classmates in Flushing, Queens. According to government affidavits and documents filed by the government in the case, which include his own statements to the FBI, he traveled with Zazito Pakistan in 2008, where Qaeda recruited the three of them for the suicide “martyrdom” attack in New York. A Bosnian immigrant who came to America in 1994, he was naturalized in 2002, lived and worked in Flushing and played running back and wide receiver for his high school football team. At Queens College, he graduated with a major in economics in June, 2009. Working as a security guard for Stellar Management at the time of his arrest, Medunjanin led the FBI on a high-speed chase through Queens, during which he invoked the name of Allah in a 911 emergency call, telling a 911 dispatcher “We love death more than you love life,” the refrain he had learned from al-Qaeda trainers who were inspiring recruits like him to kill and commit suicide. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, receiving military-style training from al-Qaeda, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, and providing material support to al-Qaida. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
In his recently published book on Islamist terrorist plots against the west, “The Al Qaeda Factor,” Mitchell D. Silber, the NYPD’s director of intelligence analysis, says that all too little is known about how Zazi, Medunjanin, and a third high-school friend and alleged co-conspirator, Zarein Ahmedzay, were radicalized. But Silber concludes that it wasn’t until Medunjanin got to Queens College that he became obviously religious, began growing a beard, and spending more time in a mosque and with Zazi.
‘So Religious’ He Was ‘Intimidating’
Medunjanin was known at Queens College as a “respected figure” in the Muslim Student Association, and a frequent visitor to its prayer room, where he worshiped “two or three times a week.” One associate said that while he was “highly regarded for his knowledge of Islam,” many considered him “so religious” as to be “intimidating.”
The NYPD’s interest in how Muslim students like Medunjanin were radicalized dates back to foiled and successful terrorism plots in Britain. In March, 2004, British authorities disrupted an Al Qaeda plot in the U.K. to kill as many people as possible and cause unprecedented disruption. The terrorists in the cell had already gotten about 1,300 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that could be used to make bombs and had considered potential targets — a shopping mall, nightclub, the 4,200 mile network of underground, high-pressure gas pipelines across the country, a football stadium, the British Parliament, and a 12-page list of synagogues. Four of the seven conspirators were either university students, drop-outs, or graduates. At least one of them was an active member of Brunel University’s Islamic Society.
Though that plot was foiled, Britain was unlucky the next time. In July, 2005, coordinated bomb blasts ripped through London’s public transport system during the morning rush hour, killing 52 commuters and injuring 700. One of the suicide bombers was a recent graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University; another was a recent Leeds drop-out, and a third was a student at Thomas Danby College in Leeds.
In August of 2006, British and American authorities foiled another Al-Qaeda conspiracy to detonate liquid explosives aboard nine transatlantic flights from the U.K. to the U.S. and Canada. The plotters intended to detonate liquid explosives over the Atlantic Ocean. Four of the nine core plotters were either current university students, drop-outs or graduates from London Metropolitan University, City University, Brunel University, and Middlesex University. One was the former president of London Metropolitan University’s Islamic Society.
As early as 2005, terrorism literature was highlighting the danger of university campuses as a venue for Islamist radicalization and jihadi recruitment.
Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz, President Barack Obama’s Senior Director for Global Engagement and charged with countering violent extremism on the National Security Council, published a book that year, “Radical Islam Rising.” The book highlighted the importance of the college campus as a radicalization and recruiting ground based on his interviews with hundreds of British militants. “This [young university students] is the dominant recruitment pool for al-Muhajiroun,” he warned.
The NYPD quickly sensed that the trend was not limited to Britain. Two New Yorkers arrested in connection with the 2004 plot, Mohammed Junaid Babar and Syed Fahad Hashmi, both of whom pled guilty to Al Qaeda-related terrorism offences, had been radicalized to militant Islam through their involvement in university-based activities in the New York branch of al-Muhajiroun. This group, as well as Babar and Hashmi, actively recruited at Brooklyn College and Queens College MSA’s.
Concerned about such radicalization trends and Al Qaeda’s targeting of colleges and universities as recruiting grounds, which the NYPD highlighted in a 2007 report on the growing threat of “homegrown” Islamist threat taking root in the country, Commissioner Kelly wanted to understand more fully what was occurring at local universities through an open source search initiative. Beginning in November of 2006, the NYPD’s intelligence division spent six months conducting internet searches and other reviews of publicly available websites for universities and colleges in and around New York City to determine if radicalization and recruitment were occurring on university campuses, and if so, to what extent. Based on these reviews, NYPD officials say, intelligence analysts cataloged what they found in 23 bi-weekly reports. Specifically, they searched for speakers, conferences and events at MSAs that might support terrorism or provide a recruiting venue among potentially vulnerable students for such known extremist Islamist groups as al-Muhajiroun, the Islamic Thinkers Society, and Revolution Muslim. To ensure that nothing was missed, “more rather than less information” was cataloged, one NYPD official said.
NYPD officials said that most of the speakers, conferences and events held at MSA’s in the tri-state area were “non-threatening in nature.”As a result, the review ended in May, 2007. Police say that none of the information contained in the weekly reports was entered into any law enforcement databases.
The university spokesmen who criticized the NYPD seem to have accepted the A.P.’s assertions about the nature of the NYPD’s monitoring on faith. None of them ventured to explain why they had not contacted the police for comment before speaking out.
Joseph A. Brennan, the Associate Vice President for University Communications at the University of Buffalo, had previously stated that the university had not been contacted by the NYPD prior to the monitoring and “did not provide any information to the NYPD.” If asked for such cooperation, the statement added, the university “would not voluntarily cooperate with such a request.”
“The university had no reason to doubt the accuracy of the Associated Press report,” vice president Brennan said in an email, when asked why it had assumed that the press account was accurate.
Nor did New York University attempt to verify the accuracy of the A.P. account before stating that it “stands in fellowship with its Muslim students in expressing our community’s concerns over these activities.” John H. Beckman, a university spokesman, also declined to say what NYU would do if the police sought its cooperation in a terrorism case. The university, he said, would not comment on a “hypothetical.”
Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger reiterated his university’s criticism. “While we appreciate the daunting responsibility of keeping New York safe, law enforcement officials should not be conducting such surveillance of a particular group of students or citizens without any cause to suspect criminal conduct,” the statement said. Through a spokesman, he, too, declined to discuss what Columbia would do if asked for cooperation with a police terrorism investigation. Columbia, the spokesman said, “does not answer hypothetical questions about security matters.”