City University student Jawad Rasul was shocked to learn his name was mentioned in a 2008 police report – but he is just one of scores of Muslim students under the eye of the NYPD
Ryan Devereaux in New York
Jawad Rasul believes the undercover officer who wrote about him in a police report posed as a student on City University's campus.
Nearly four years after the NYPD listed his name in documents aimed at uncovering potential terrorists, Jawad Rasul is speaking out. The 24-year-old says he would like to help the department in its efforts at fighting homegrown threats. One of the first steps, he argues, is eliminating the kinds of covert surveillance programs that have targeted people like him.
Rasul was named in a police report compiled on April 21, 2008. He was one of 18 Muslim students who traveled to upstate New York that day for a whitewater-rafting trip. Among the group was an undercover officer who monitored the outing, noting topics of conversation and counting the amount of times they prayed.
"In addition to the regularly scheduled events (rafting), the group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature," the report noted. Since it was issued there has been no indication the NYPD brought terrorism-related charges against any of the students.
According to Rasul and his fellow students, the man they believe to have been the undercover officer was a regular at their City University New York campus. He was most often found in a central area used by Muslim students to pray, chat, and nap between classes. Rasul described him as "older than the rest of the students", possibly in his "mid 20s" and "ethnically Pakistani". When asked if the undercover officer prayed with the students, Rasul replied: "Of course."
"From what I remember, he would be the guy who just sit back and listen and, you know, smile and sometimes laugh at your jokes but not add a lot," Rasul told the Guardian.
As far as Rasul can recall, the man said he was studying engineering but hardly talked about academics and did not appear to be a student. "I don't think anyone ever saw him in class."
Last week a reporter with the Associated Press called Rasul and told him his name had appeared in the rafting trip report.
Rasul recalled the conversation: "He was like, 'What do you think?' I said 'I'm speechless. I don't know what to say.'"
"You always hear about the NYPD spying on this group or that group, but having your name come up, it just brings everything home," Rasul added.
The type of police surveillance program Rasul was targeted by has been the object of a growing controversy in New York City. In August of last year AP began publishing stories detailing how, in the wake of September 11, the New York York City police department, with the help of the CIA, built one of the most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies in the nation.
The NYPD's counter-terrorism efforts have involved sending undercover officers into local mosques, even when a specific crime is not being investigated. The department has also mapped out New York City's ethnic communities and identified 28 "ancestries of interest", including "American Black Muslim" and over two dozen largely Muslim nations.
Over the weekend the news organization revealed the NYPD had monitored Muslim college students at over a dozen schools throughout the northeastern United States. While reports of NYPD surveillance in New York City schools was first reported in October, the scale of the program outside of the city was unknown.
According to the latest reports, NYPD cyber intelligence officers observed Muslim students' websites as part of a "daily routine" from at least 2006 to 2007 and potentially longer. No evidence of wrongdoing on the part of students who were monitored has been reported.
On Wednesday the AP disclosed the fact that the department had also conducted extensive surveillance efforts in New Jersey's largest city, Newark, for months during 2007. According to a 60-page police report, officers with the department's demographics unit mapped and photographed 16 mosques, labeling them "Islamic Religious Institutions." Numerous restaurants are also profiled in the report, including a Dunkin' Donuts.
The operations were carried out while the while the Newark police department was being run by a former high-ranking NYPD official. Newark Mayor Cory Booker claims he was never informed about the surveillance program and did not authorize it.
The NYPD has defended its intelligence gathering operations, arguing that it only follows leads about suspected criminal activity. While critics say the department's programs lack transparency and oversight, the NYPD says it follows the same rules as the FBI.
The recent NYPD reports reveal the department has taken a keen interest in Muslim student associations, which it refers to as MSAs.
In an email to the Guardian, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne pointed to a dozen individuals arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the United States and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations.
Browne noted that Anwar Al Awlaki – an American citizen and a radical cleric killed by a US drone in Yemen – was "president of the MSA at Colorado State University in the mid-1990s". Browne also referred to Adam Gadahn, whom he described as "al-Qaida's English language spokesman" and affiliated with "MSA at USC".
Micha Balon, 19, observed a consequence of the NYPD's MSA focus firsthand. Days after the news first broke that the department had monitored Muslim students in New York City, she says she noticed a new sign posted at her MSA meeting place at Hunter College.
"About four days afterwards, I came to my MSA to pray," Balon recalls. "I saw a sign up that said 'Please refrain from having political conversations in MSA.'"
Balon says her MSA president told her the sign was intended to ensure the "safety" of the students. Balon said that while the sign eventually disappeared, the significance of its presence has not. She's noticed that discussing controversial political topics now makes other MSA members uncomfortable.
"I'll bring up Palestine or I'll bring up the revolutions happening in the Arab world and I'll get a look. And that look is kinda like, 'What are you doing? You're putting us all in danger,'" Balon said.
She believes the NYPD is losing out on potentially valuable sources of information by casting such a wide intelligence net.
"I think that what the NYPD is doing is very counterproductive," Balon explained. "They're taking the members of the community that are students, that are workers, that are family people, that are just regular, everyday people and making them feel as if they're the bad guys."
Rasul, meanwhile, argues programs such as the one that targeted him and his fellow students on the rafting trip further alienate young Muslims on the fringes of society, making them easier prey for eloquent and exploitative Jihadists.
"This pushes them even further," he explained. Rasul said he wants the NYPD to know its current strategy of monitoring Muslims is misguided. "The right way is to be proactive and start a campaign of actually engaging these youth."
Rasul – born in Pakistan – is hardly an enemy of American democracy.
"When I applied for naturalization, my application did not go through for four years," Rasul explained. "Finally someone told me you should write to your congressman."
That's what he did, and one month later he had an interview and became a citizen. Rasul says the experience made him a "believer" in the democratic process.
"That kind of experience basically changed my whole perspective on democracy in the United States," he said.
Rasul believes that if the NYPD made an effort to highlight such stories of non-violent political change among at-risk people – Muslim or otherwise – and spent less time monitoring innocent citizens, the department would see a decrease in homegrown threats and an increase in community trust.
"I don't want the NYPD to think I'm going against them and bashing them or anything like that," Rasul said. "I actually want to help them to do what they want to do in a better way, in a more positive way."
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