The FBI envisioned infiltrating mosques and Muslim student associations to look for young Yemenis to serve as informants, according to an internal presentation obtained by The Intercept.
The document suggests that agents scour Facebook “to find individuals who are dramatically increasing their levels of piety — that’s the demographic you want.”
“Since we’re looking for young people re-engaging with their Islamic faith,” it continues, “the local MSA [Muslim Student Association] is a great place to start.”
The 24-slide presentation, prepared for a Source Development Unit in the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence, is titled “Responding to the Yemeni Threat: Scenarios for CHS Development,” using the bureau’s lingo for informants, which it calls “confidential human sources.”
It’s not clear if the presentation describes a specific program that was put into action or whether it was meant to offer general tips for cultivation of sources who could provide information related to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate. The document appears to suggest identifying potential informants solely on the basis of their religious affiliation or national origin, which could violate FBI rules meant to curb profiling and discrimination.
The document is undated, but from references in the text, it appears to have been prepared around 2010 or 2011 by Centra Technology Inc., a company selling intelligence services. Centra Technology has had regular contracts with the FBI since 2008, including for training courses vaguely described in contract records as “analytic tools and techniques.” Centra did not respond to a request for comment.
According to FBI operating guidelines originally promulgated in 2008, agents are allowed to use a variety of tactics when it comes to seeking information to identify potential informants or recruiting particular individuals, including database searches, physical surveillance, and even combing through someone’s trash. Still, the current version of the guidelines state that someone should not be targeted as an informant “based solely on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or activities protected by the First Amendment, or a combination of only such factors.”
It’s not clear how looking at expressions of piety and attendance at a Muslim student group would not run afoul of that guidance. An FBI spokesman declined to answer specific questions about the document, instead providing a statement saying that the FBI conducts investigations under guidelines that are “intended to ensure that FBI employees act in accordance with the law and the Constitution.” He added that “all Confidential Human Source relationships with the FBI are voluntary.”
According to the FBI’s guidelines, investigations involving academic or religious groups are considered “sensitive investigative matters” and require extra supervision and particular rules for deploying undercover officers or informants, as do investigations of mosques. The presentation does not mention any such sensitivities.
“The FBI’s focus on Muslim student groups does not make anyone safer,” said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who directs CLEAR, an initiative that works with communities affected by counterterrorism policies. “It also comes at the expense of students whose college experience is no longer a time for intellectual exploration and the building of lasting friendships but a paranoid nightmare where certain thoughts are taboo and your classmate might be an informant.”
FBI surveillance of mosques and Muslim communities in the past has generated controversy, as has the bureau’s aggressive use of its army of informants — which grew to over 15,000 in the years after the 9/11 attacks. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents showing that the FBI had used “mosque outreach” programs ostensibly meant to build relationships with Islamic communities in order to collect intelligence. There is a long-running lawsuit over an FBI informant who was sent into mosques in Southern California in 2006 and 2007.
Federal authorities investigating the influence of the Islamic State in the United States have increased their use of informants and sting operations. In the past two years there have been 101 Islamic State-related cases in U.S. courts, and 59 percent of them involved the use of informants or undercover agents, according to a report released in July by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.
Many of the individuals who actually carried out attacks motivated by violent Islamic ideologies in recent years were known to authorities, illustrating the difficulty in predicting who may become violent. Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub this year, had been the subject of an FBI investigation involving informants; the suspect in recent bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey, Ahmad Khan Rahami, was reported to the FBI by his own father.
The Centra Technology presentation obtained by The Intercept is undated but the figures mentioned in it suggest that it was prepared around 2010 or 2011. It focuses on the threat to the United States posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, and mentions the radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan, who published the jihadist magazine Inspire. Both were killed in a drone strike in 2011; the presentation references their influence on would-be terrorists in the United States, but in such a way that it remains unclear if they were still alive when it was written. It also mentions Sharif Mobley, an American citizen who has been in prison in Yemen since 2010. (The FBI interviewed Mobley in 2010 after he was arrested by Yemeni authorities on terror charges, which were later dropped; Mobley’s family denies that he has any ties to extremism.)
The presentation’s authors were especially interested in Salafism, a conservative form of Sunni Islam, and the influence of particular schools in Yemen, including al-Iman University, in Sanaa, and schools they call “DAHN,” perhaps a reference to Dar Al Hadith, a group of Salafist schools where foreign converts studied and in which Western intelligence agencies have long been interested. (The Intercept spoke to one Yemeni-American who was questioned by the FBI in 2011 about both institutions.)
Yet the presentation admits that “institution of study is of limited predictive value” and there is “no systematic way of identifying who has become radicalized.” The only commonalities between the individuals they had identified — presumably referring to people who had left the United States to join AQAP — were that they were all between the ages of 20 and 40, and “‘born again’ Muslims — either converts to Islam or people who had rediscovered their faith in mid-life.”
“Our ‘threat pool’ consists of born-again muslims who have traveled to Yemen or who intend to do so. However, there are thousands of such people, and very few of them become AQ groupies,” the presentation asks. “How do we weed out the true threats?”
The FBI thought it could get to them by looking for “younger, more devout sources” — specifically, “young Salafists.” They wanted people who had been or were thinking of going to Yemen, or were “in the social circles where travel for overseas study is discussed.” It also suggests that agents “focus on recruiting young Salafists of any ethnic background,” who could serve as “human tripwires — they’re the ones who can tell you when people they know begin to move in the takfir/jihad direction.”
Under headings like “Finding Your Salafis” and “Seducing the Salafis,” the presentation suggests that “existing sources in local mosques should be able to tell you about groups of young Salafis in the community,” and advises that agents take advantage of undercover operations “that capture discussions between Salafis,” study Facebook profiles for signs of increasing “levels of piety,” and target “the local MSA,” or Muslim Student Association.
The goal was “to look for people at the edges who are in the same circles, but not radical enough” to warrant opening an investigation into. The presentation suggests exploiting doctrinal disputes and making appeals to potential sources who may “hold views that strike us as extreme,” but who are not “jihadists of the AQ stripe.”
The focus in the document on young, pious Muslim students echoes a now-discredited effort by the New York City Police Department to monitor Muslim student groups as part of widespread surveillance of Muslim communities and businesses in and around New York. The NYPD sent undercover police officers onto college campuses in the city and across the Northeast, and monitored students’ online interactions. Internal records showed that the NYPD was especially interested in Muslim student associations, which they defined as “a university-based student group, with an Islamic focus, involved with religious and political activities.” Some groups drew NYPD interest because they had invited “salafist speakers,” according to the AP, while another had “students who are politically active and radicalizing.” The program was exposed in 2011 and the department eventually disbanded the unit in charge, admitting that it had never generated a lead.
In 2011, when the Associated Press first reported on the NYPD surveillance, the FBI insisted that its agents were bound by stricter rules, and in fact, that the NYPD’s clumsiness was interfering with the bureau’s investigations. Given that the presentation says the FBI was looking for informants with specific insights into Al Qaeda, it’s possible that the approach would have been more tailored and required more supervision than the kind of blanket surveillance of entire neighborhoods and establishments that the NYPD engaged in. Yet the presentation does suggest broad scrutiny of Yemeni populations, and does not mention rules governing that type of surveillance. The presentation notes that the “FBI has access to thousands of Yemeni immigrants residing in the U.S.” and was “developing strategies for identifying people in the U.S. with familial connections to specific tribes.” The presentation encourages agents to “know where the Yemenis in your [Area of Responsibility] are from,” and to ask their existing sources “to find individuals from the relevant regions.”
“I don’t think there is much difference between this approach and what the NYPD was doing, in that it is identifying religious practice or ethnicity as an indicator of association with terrorism,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The fixation on Salafism was common in both agencies, German said. He pointed to other FBI materials that include references to Salafism “as the foundation from which terrorism arises, which is an inaccurate and simplistic idea.”
The NYPD had produced a heavily criticized report that drew a direct link between commonplace religious activity and terrorism; FBI materials from the same time period also described a simple theory of a line from conversion to jihad, and identified mosques and other associations as places where radicalism might grow. German says that the FBI’s current radicalization theory “tends to be more vague about what indicators they should look for, I think because we know there aren’t reliable indicators” of propensity to violence.
Yet, he said, the FBI is still “looking at the general population and trying to predict where someone will go bad — a broad-brush approach that amounts to profiling — as opposed to looking at where there’s actual evidence.”