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FBI accused of targeting Islamic leaders, pressuring them to become informants

FBI accused of targeting Islamic leaders, pressuring them to become informants
The FBI is pressuring law-abiding Islamic community leaders throughout the United States to spy on fellow Muslims in an effort to sniff out extremism in the US in what amounts to religious profiling, a top Muslim civil rights organization has alleged.

Mosques in California, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, and other states have been targeted for surprise visits by FBI agents seeking Muslim leaders to act as informants on members of their communities or congregations, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

“It’s happening all over the country," said Ibrahim Hooper, a CAIR spokesman, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The agents are approaching these community leaders at mosques with basic questions that quickly turn into something different: pressure to become informants.”

Concerned over potential civil rights violations, CAIR has urged Islamic leaders across the nation to seek out legal counsel should the FBI approach them.

“For us, the issue is one of civil rights,” Hooper said. “Too often these interactions are done in private and people feel coerced. Because ISIS (militant jihadist group Islamic State) is a hot topic, they’re going to mosques. It’s all based on the round-up-the-usual-suspects style of law enforcement.”

CAIR civil rights attorney Jennifer Wicks said no imam or other leader “has been detained in any way or taken from one setting to another” as of late, but, nevertheless, interrogation tactics can vary.

“These visits aren’t based on people being suspected of doing anything wrong. It’s because this is a Muslim community. That’s why people are being targeted," Wicks said.

“However, the FBI's over-broad and coercive use of informants in mosques, reports of outreach meetings being used for intelligence gathering and other acts of abuse demonstrate that community leaders should engage legal professionals to ensure the protection of their rights and those of their congregations,” Wicks said in a statement.

The number of cases involving FBI intimidation of Muslims in the US is on the rise, according to Florida attorney Hassan Shibly, who said he has represented 33 clients this year who have claimed the FBI has made efforts to compel them to share information on their religious beliefs, political opinions, and other topics.

Sometimes, Shibly said, the FBI will attempt to lay “the groundwork for a charge of giving false information to a law enforcement officer. That’s the trick to get them to cooperate.”

“In Orlando, they pressured one citizen who happened to be Muslim to spy on mosques, Islamic restaurants and hookah lounges or they would throw him in jail,” he told the LA Times. “In another case, they approached an imam with pictures of a woman they claimed would testify of an affair unless he helped them. These are law-abiding Muslims, not criminals.”

Shibly said he has taken some of these cases to court, accusing the FBI of illegalities.

"The FBI thinks it can get away with bending the law," he said. "Many Muslims come from Third World countries where such practices are common fare for the secret police. But in the U.S. you don’t expect such blackmail, with threats of deportation or worse."

Mosque leaders in California and Minnesota contacted by the LA Times would not comment on any FBI pressure, based on fear of retaliation.

The FBI would not comment on CAIR’s national alert, but spokesman Paul Bresso told the LA Times in a statement that the law enforcement agency respects civil rights of all citizens and “we value our partnerships with the Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities as they are partners in our efforts to stem crime, violence and civil rights violations."

The US Department of Justice recently announced a pilot program in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis that calls on social and mental health workers, religious leaders, and police departments to watch for Islamist-extremist recruiting in those areas.

Glenn Greenwald (AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski)

In 2011, Muslims in California attempted to sue the FBI for spying, they alleged, using informants to fracture the cohesiveness of law-abiding communities. Yet a federal judge eventually dismissed the suit, claiming the disclosure of a potentially unconstitutional domestic spy program might reveal sensitive state secrets.

The controversial discriminating practice of surveillance on US Muslims after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks came to public prominence in 2011, when The Associated Press reported on New York City Police Department's spying on Muslims in New York City and neighboring New Jersey.

In February, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the NYPD, saying that the covert police operation that sent undercover officers into area mosques to conduct surveillance on innocent Muslims was not unconstitutional. In April, it was reported that the NYPD unit that was tasked with spying on Muslim communities was supposedly disbanded.

In July, journalist Glenn Greenwald, keeper of the trove of documents leaked by Edward Snowden that exposed mass global surveillance by the National Security Agency, reported that 202 prominent Muslim-Americans had been surveiled by the NSA.