Stop the Reckless Spying on Muslims

The New York Police Department is out of control, and it's making Americans less safe.

The United States spends millions flying diplomats around the planet to bolster America's relationship with the Muslim world. Meanwhile, its reservoir of trust among the Muslim community at home is rapidly being depleted -- courtesy of the New York Police Department (NYPD).

On Feb. 20, Yale University President Richard Levin expressed his anger at the NYPD's extensive surveillance of American Muslim students, which has included monitoring students' emails and websites, events and speakers, and activities -- not only at Yale, but at universities across the northeast. In one frequently cited incident, an undercover police officer accompanied students from the City College of New York on a white-water rafting trip, noting their topics of conversation and the frequency of their prayers. This type of surveillance, Levin wrote, "is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States."

New York City's top officials, however, have shown no inclination to rein in the NYPD's obsessive monitoring of American Muslims. Mayor Michael Bloomberg made light of the Yale president's concerns, calling them "cute" and "ridiculous." He then attacked Levin: "Yale's freedoms to do research, to teach, to give people a place to say what they want to say is defended by the law enforcement throughout this country."

Far from supporting academic freedom, the NYPD has done tremendous damage to campus life. Far from "keeping the country safe," as Bloomberg stated, the NYPD is making us less safe.

I've worked with Muslim students across the United States -- offering media training, leading workshops debunking common and pernicious myths about Muslim history, and giving lectures on Islamic law, Muslim identity, and the value of civic engagement. These students are bright, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and remarkably civic-minded. Targeting them is not merely offensive and contrary to American values and principles, but clueless. Don't take my word for it, either. The students on whom the NYPD is spying attend some of the highest-caliber universities in the world: Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and New York University, among others.

American Muslims are, in fact, the most accomplished and educated segment of the global population of 1.5 billion Muslims. Our successes are American successes, and they undeniable evidence of America's pluralism and promise. Restrictions on our rights fuel extremist arguments that Muslims will never be accepted as equals in the West. For those like me who have spent years trying to shrink the trust deficit, this is a tremendous setback.

Put yourself in the shoes of an American Muslim student: One day, you learn that NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly cooperated in the production of a hateful pseudo-documentary on Islam -- the film alleges American Muslim organizations are conspiring to take over the United States -- even though his office initially denied his role in the project and hid the fact that the film was screened to some 1,500 officers. Would you feel that law enforcement still has your best interests in mind?

The NYPD's surveillance efforts seem to be shockingly extensive and targeted specifically at American Muslims. As discovered by the Associated Press, which won a prestigious Polk Award for its investigation, the NYPD under Bloomberg has engaged in a massive effort to compile information on Muslims, including spying on New York City mosques. In the process, the NYPD has exceeded the limits set even by the FBI and has frequently pursued its investigations for no discernible purpose and based on no evident allegations. The only relevant consideration for the NYPD seems to have been that all Muslims are worth spying on.

On Feb. 22, we learned that the NYPD's activities extend to Newark, New Jersey. The Associated Press's Matt Apuzzo reported that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was not told about what he termed the NYPD's "disturbing" spying activities across state lines. Christie called for the state's attorney general to investigate the NYPD's actions, concluding on a note of frustration: "NYPD has developed a reputation of asking forgiveness rather than permission."

In his news conference, Bloomberg was dismissive regarding the concerns raised about the NYPD's activities. He acknowledged that the department had to "respect people's right to privacy" but argued that the NYPD had not violated that right. Confusingly, he also said that the NYPD had to be "proactive" and pursue "allegations" -- though, again, no such allegations have come to light.

These revelations have produced tremendous frustration and disappointment in Muslim communities. On Feb. 20, the Muslim community at New York University held a students-only town-hall meeting to consider how to respond to NYPD actions. On Feb. 22, Columbia University held an open town hall that allowed many Muslim students to vent their concerns and fears. Similar discussions are taking place across the region.

Some might argue that the damage to American Muslims' trust in the U.S. policing system caused by the NYPD's activities is a necessary evil -- a bearable cost in order to keep the city safe. They could hardly be more wrong.

The NYPD's tactics have failed to yield any benefits to American security, in part because of the police force's faulty assumption that religiosity causes terrorism. The equation of Islam with violence is the reason the NYPD believes it must spy on all Muslims. But this is ignorance masquerading as police work.

University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman has found that a remarkably small number of Muslims actually "radicalize," to use the common term, and subsequent research has demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of American Muslims reject terrorism. Gallup has also conducted polls finding that the more religious a Muslim is, the less likely he or she is to find violence attractive.

By undermining its relationship with American Muslims, the NYPD also risks making the United States less safe. Every U.S. law enforcement agency may have missed Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, but an immigrant Muslim vendor alerted authorities to the smoking SUV and in doing so saved many lives. He's not alone. Blogger Aziz Poonawalla has exhaustively detailed the immense contributions American Muslims make to U.S. national security. For example, in the years following the 9/11 attacks, 40 percent of domestic terrorist plots by Muslims have been foiled through tips and assistance from American Muslims themselves. Since 2009, that number has jumped to 50 percent.

New York officials need to repair the damage that the NYPD has already done and take steps to ensure that its destructive tactics aren't repeated. Bloomberg should acknowledge the NYPD's wrongdoing, reveal the true scope of its clandestine activities, apologize for the real pain and harm it has caused, and establish a mechanism of civilian oversight to ensure that such activities do not take place again.

Targeting American Muslims for no other reason than their faith, across New York and the region -- it's worrying enough for Americans' civil liberties. But the NYPD's behavior also widens a worrying gap between law enforcement and the American Muslim community. "If you see something, say something," the NYPD tells us. But what happens when you have good reason to fear that if you say something, you'll be the object of suspicion instead?

Let's imagine you're a young, alienated, impressionable Muslim college kid. Every day you hear common stereotypes about Islam and Muslims; when you turn on the news, all you see is inaccurate conflations of Islam with violence. You feel nobody understands you or your faith. There are only a few people you can talk to, who you trust will understand you, treat you with dignity and respect, and act with your best interests in mind. They probably include your local imam or college chaplain.

But you won't ask the awkward questions if you believe everything you say is spied on, the places you go are monitored, and the police assume, based on your name or faith, that you are a danger to society.

Whom, then, will you turn to? And how does that make us any safer?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Al Qaeda on the Ropes

The terrorist group is reeling. But that doesn't mean the fight is over.

On Feb. 10, 2012, the emir of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, officially accepted Somalia's al-Shabab movement's pledge of allegiance. In a video statement, Zawahiri crowed that such displays indicate that "the jihadi movement is growing with God's help." This may have been true just before and after the 9/11 attacks, when "homegrown" jihadi extremists in Western countries and regional affiliates valued the al Qaeda brand. But today, al Qaeda's core organization in Pakistan is battered, the effort to spur homegrown jihadists in the West has faltered, and its regional affiliates are more often losing ground than gaining it.

Public displays of unity don't change the reality that -- more than a decade after their greatest triumph -- al Qaeda's central leadership and its affiliates are generally in decline.

After 9/11, al Qaeda's model seemed destined to spread. The plan was to support and inspire affiliate organizations, from the Philippines through Indonesia and into South Asia, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa. The central leadership would organize major attacks and develop propaganda while al Qaeda's web of regional partners traded their local reach for the use of a global brand that helped attract recruits, financial donors, and attention.

Affiliates from Indonesia to Iraq seemed to gain ground, spreading al Qaeda's ideology to reject Western cultural and political influence among local governments and conducting major attacks that showed their relevance. At least five close allies or co-branded al Qaeda affiliates conducted a major operation during the mid-2000s: Jemaah Islamiyah in Bali and Jakarta, al Qaeda's followers in Riyadh in 2003 and afterward, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters in Iraq, and groups in Algeria and Yemen against targets from oil facilities to U.N. offices. And new battlegrounds showed promise: Al-Shabab surged into Mogadishu, and the Pakistani Taliban threatened Pakistan's government.

Al Qaeda's expansion was particularly worrisome in regions where extremists could play on deep Islamist roots within the population. Indonesia, with a long history of Islamist politics, harbored the best-organized group beyond core al Qaeda. The string of attacks in Saudi Arabia looked like it might represent growing extremism among the conservative population of the Arabian Peninsula. Jihadists gathered in Iraq, which they considered this generation's Afghanistan, igniting sectarian tensions and briefly threatening to dominate swaths of western Iraq.

Yet a decade later, the strategy is faltering in almost every arena. Some affiliates remain focused on local agendas; others have been crippled by their own mistakes and operational successes against them. Two legs of al Qaeda's three-legged stool, the core group in Pakistan-Afghanistan and the affiliates, are weak. The third leg, so-called homegrown jihadists, has not shown the capability to pose more than a modest threat. Al Qaeda's allies are lethal and broadly dispersed, but they show little sign of producing the global revolution they espouse.

So what happened?

Al Qaeda was partially a victim of its own violent success. Political overreach and excessive violence undercut its claim to be a protector of Islam in the face of Western imperialism. Those failures have proved debilitating during the Arab Spring, where al Qaeda has been a sideshow to tech-savvy young people and more mainstream Islamist groups. Al Qaeda's schizophrenic reaction to the revolt in Libya -- backing the popular movement against Muammar al-Qaddafi but warning against the Western support for the uprising that helped the opposition succeed -- is symptomatic of a leadership that wants to stay relevant but has little street appeal. Al Qaeda's contortions reflect its desire to remain relevant in a dynamic news cycle by embracing wide-ranging affiliates, an approach that carries risk because many potential affiliates have little operational capability.

Another problem for al Qaeda is that its brand is now closely identified with controversial suicide attacks that kill Muslims. Al Qaeda's senior leaders are aware of that danger. Just after 9/11, al Qaeda's leadership hesitated to embrace North African militants, even as those fighters talked openly of their transition from a local revolutionary group to one with al Qaeda-like goals. The leaders remembered the backlash against violent and doctrinaire jihadi movements, especially the murder of tens of thousands of Muslims in Algeria during the 1990s. Zawahiri saw firsthand the unintended consequences of excessive violence undermining jihadi movements in Egypt in the 1990s, and he tried to steer al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate away from publicly reveling in its violence against Iraqis.

Counterterrorism successes have played a role as well in weakening al Qaeda. The decapitation of leadership across al Qaeda affiliates has limited these groups' ability to plot major attacks and has undermined the resonance of al Qaeda's message when prominent communicators are either captured or killed. Such activities have spurred popular backlash in some arenas, but they have no doubt had a major impact on the al Qaeda organization itself. Sometimes killing leadership has redirected the strategic focus of affiliates. From Marwan in the southern Philippines through Hambali, Dulmatin, and Abu Bakar Bashir in Indonesia, to Zarqawi in Iraq, Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin in Saudi Arabia, and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the elimination of leadership figures has moved the focus of jihadi affiliates toward local concerns rather than the United States.

As a result, some affiliates have abandoned the al Qaeda moniker, both to avoid attention from the United States and due to the weakening of the al Qaeda brand. Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate abandoned the label in 2006 and now operates as the Islamic State of Iraq. And the Yemeni Ansar al-Sharia, which has seized swaths of territory near the southern port of Aden, seems to have a relationship with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but has avoided taking the al Qaeda name. Jihadi groups with the most expansive local agenda seem to avoid the al Qaeda brand.

Another problem is that al Qaeda's affiliates tend to "think global" when they are losing the ability to "act local." There is dissonance between al Qaeda's effort to build a global brand and its ability to project power in regional settings. Al-Shabab is a good example. Pushed out of Mogadishu and battered by the international community and tribal forces in Somalia, the group is less capable of projecting power in Somalia today than it was three years ago. Even reports of the group's recruitment of Westerners over the past half-decade, many of which came from the Somali-American community around Minneapolis, have declined amid a renewed push against extremism. Al-Shabab's decision to swear allegiance to al Qaeda comes at a moment of weakness, not strength.

One measure of al Qaeda's decreased brand is the attention it gets in international media. After 9/11, the international community pilloried Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, for showing al Qaeda propaganda videos at length. Today, though such propaganda is available online, the reach of such material is an order of magnitude smaller. Al Jazeera is no longer seen as too close to jihadists, but rather as a critical media outlet that has contributed some of the most daring and powerful coverage of the Arab uprisings. The impact is that voices like Zawahiri's are largely unheard outside already friendly circles.

These successes come not just from Western powers but from political leaders across the globe who confronted al Qaeda, even when doing so required serious political courage. Operations in the southern Philippines, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria have limited the affiliates' ability to build the sort of networks Jemaah Islamiyah used to devastating effect a decade ago. Consistent U.S. intelligence and military assistance to these countries has been vital, from sharing technical information that helped local units track terrorists to military backing for strikes in isolated areas, such as the Philippines' archipelago.

None of this is to say that al Qaeda is dead. Jihadists in Iraq are aggressively eyeing Syria, where sectarian dynamics and escalating violence offer the group an opportunity to project influence. Besides the still-dangerous al-Shabab in Somalia, al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate has proved resilient and forceful locally, and the allied group Ansar al-Sharia has proved its ability to take and hold territory amid the country's political unrest.

It's important to remember, though, that the fight against al Qaeda was begun not to prevent jihadists from exerting power in Yemeni political squabbles, but to limit attacks on the United States and the West. That's why the elimination of Awlaki was significant: not because he was the leader of AQAP -- he wasn't -- but because as an American, he was uniquely positioned to threaten the United States. Effective counterterrorism policy must be efficient to be sustainable. That means killing or detaining individuals that offer al Qaeda unique capabilities to threaten the United States; it also means being willing to call al Qaeda's bluff by responding with resolute subtlety to empty provocations.

Al Qaeda's leaders brag that they only have to plant their black flag in a far-flung corner of the globe in order to provoke a massive, and potentially counterproductive, American response. Ten years after 9/11, we should not hesitate to attack real threats, but must be tenacious enough to carefully ensure that we are reacting to a persistent threat, not the empty fluttering of an al Qaeda that intends to provoke us into hurting ourselves.

Al Qaeda is down, but not out. The group's ideology is now global, and a small but serious rash of homegrown arrests underscores the persistence of this message over the course of years. Carefully calibrated and quietly delivered counterterrorism support -- training, money, technology, even military backing -- to regions that face an ongoing threat, from Africa's Sahel to the southern Philippines, could prevent a local Qaedist group from evolving into a more globally oriented threat. Engagement with the Islamists who gain power in the new Arab world, such as in Egypt, Tunisia, and potentially Syria, will be critical. Recent arrests of extremists in Tunisia highlight how more moderate Islamist groups can help isolate radicals on the fringe. But the outcome of the Arab revolutions is far from clear; Syria, Yemen, Libya, and even Egypt could slip into chaos. And al Qaeda, while very much in decline, is patient.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images