Imam Yassir Fazaga remembers the panic he felt. He remembers opening up the electrical sockets in his office and searching behind his computer monitor, looking for recording devices. In conversations with congregants, especially unfamiliar ones, he had doubts. “Who else is an informant? Who else is spying on me?” he recalls thinking.
It was the mid-2000s, and Fazaga had just learned that in the years after 9/11, the FBI had sent a man to spy on the community at his mosque in Mission Viejo, Calif., where Fazaga was the religious leader. The informant, a man with a criminal history who had worked for the FBI for years, had recorded hundreds of hours of audio and video conversations and helped the bureau listen in on private conversations between congregants and their spiritual advisors, according to allegations made in court documents. He’d even gone so far as to propose to two other community members that “we should bomb something.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Patriot Act and other government measures vastly expanded the bureau’s authority to surveil Americans, and it reportedly increased its use of informants to record numbers in the decade after the attacks. Of the more than 970 terrorism defendants prosecuted by the DOJ since 9/11, more than one third were caught up in FBI stings; and about 300 of those cases involved the use of informants, according to the Intercept. State and local law enforcement groups also got much more aggressive in their methods post-9/11. In 2018, the New York Police Department settled a lawsuit that accused it of illegally infiltrating student groups and mosques in a program that ran from around 2002 to 2014—an endeavor that the NYPD acknowledged led to no credible intelligence leads.
It’s impossible to know the full extent of the post-9/11 surveillance apparatus, in part because many programs remain secret, but civil rights groups say Muslims were unfairly targeted because of their religion. “We were all deemed as suspects until proven innocent,” says Hussam Ayloush, the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Los Angeles branch. “We were all deemed as guilty until proven innocent.” Recent studies, including a 2019 survey of FBI activity in Southern California, suggest law enforcement agencies target Muslim American communities in a discriminatory way by predominantly asking questions about their religious practices or mosques in interviews at their homes. And for many Muslim Americans, the post-9/11 increase in government surveillance has combined with the well-documented spike in Islamophobic incidents against them to unsettling effects. In a 2017 Pew Survey of U.S. Muslims, about half reported that they believe their fellow citizens view them as anti-American and that they experienced at least one incident of discrimination in the year before taking the survey.
Categories: Good governance