When in last week’s presidential debate Donald Trump suggested that Muslims in the United States should “report when they see something going on,” he sparked a satirical backlash on Twitter mocking the idea that every Muslim has some secret knowledge of terrorism.
But the FBI has also aggressively sought terrorism leads from Muslim Americans; a presentation published by The Intercept last month suggested looking for informants in mosques and Muslim student associations, and that disclosure has prompted its own pushback. Several student leaders contacted us to decry the bureau’s invasion of spaces where young Muslims thought they could just be themselves.
Nabintou Doumbia, a sophomore at Wayne State University in Detroit, described her MSA as “a place where you hang out and feel comfortable, see friends, have real, raw discussions about anything, including controversial things, say, feminism, or very serious discussions about spirituality and your relationship to God.”
“You work so hard to build that trust, to have people open up in a space,” said Doumbia. The effect of government surveillance, she said, was that “you start to notice very subtle things, like being careful with the words that you use, and you notice your Muslim peers doing the same thing. There are times I’m not speaking, because I’m worried about how it might be heard.”
The presentation, which was prepared for the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence, instructed agents on how to cultivate informants among Yemeni communities, with an emphasis on identifying “younger, more devout sources.”
The presentation stated, “Since we’re looking for young people re-engaging with their Islamic faith, the local MSA is a great place to start.” It also suggested looking on Facebook “to find individuals who are dramatically increasing their levels of piety.”
But by contemplating the targeting of MSAs, the FBI undermined a prized refuge for a group of students facing unique pressures.
“You have all the normal stress of college, from academics, from being away from home and family,” said Maheen Ahmed, a recent graduate of UC Davis who was president of her MSA. “And then on top of that, because you’re Muslim, you always have to be on your guard, who you are hanging out with, who you’re talking politics with.”
Although the presentation, which is undated, appears to have been prepared in 2010 or 2011, Muslim student leaders interviewed by The Intercept said that it adds to a long list of revelations of undue scrutiny of Muslim communities.
The idea that the FBI may be recruiting informants in student groups brought back unpleasant memories for Ibaad Sadiq, who was president of the MSA at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, when it came out that the NYPD had deployed undercover officers in MSAs around New York and New England, and had a safe house near campus from which to monitor Rutgers students.
“There was such a chilling effect,” said Sadiq. “There was a lot of talk of people just suspecting random people who they thought might be spying on them, a lot of worry in the community. People’s parents told them to stop going to MSA. We had to go through a lot to regain trust.”
The NYPD disbanded the “Demographics Unit” responsible for widespread surveillance of Muslim communities, including student groups, in early 2014, admitting that it had never generated a lead. Despite the unit’s closure, the NYPD apparently hasn’t ceased using undercover operations on campuses; Gothamist reported last year on the case of an undercover cop who was active in Brooklyn student groups until at least sometime in 2015.
Maheen Ahmed, who is now on the board of MSA National, said that her community had still been reeling from learning of Craig Monteilh, an FBI informant who trawled mosques in Southern California and then went public about it. She said awareness that law enforcement might be watching made many Muslim students she encountered as a regional organizer reluctant to get involved in political or advocacy work.
Ahmed, Sadiq, and Doumbia each highlighted their frustration with a thread running between comments like Trump’s at the debate, government “countering violent extremism” initiatives aimed at Muslim communities, and this FBI presentation.
“It’s like people think that Muslims are all privy to who the terrorists are among us, like it’s some secret we’re keeping,” said Sadiq.
“When you have people like Trump saying we need the Muslims to report things,” said Doumbia, “you sit with it, and you sit with yourself, and you think: Is that all my country thinks I’m good for?”