In 2006, St. Louis-based activist and academic Mark Chmiel received a message on his answering machine from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI wanted to talk to Chmiel about trip three years ago that he and other St. Louis activists took with the International Solidarity Movement to the West Bank, in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. When Chmiel’s attorney reached out to the FBI, they did not respond.
Chmiel later wrote that he was motivated to travel to the West Bank by Palestinians’ calls for volunteers, international organizations’ inability to deal with the occupation, and his own country’s complicity in Israel’s actions. The International Solidarity Movement, or ISM, which would be Chmiel’s vehicle, encourages international volunteers to come to the occupied territories and engage in nonviolent direct action against the occupation. During the delegation Chmiel was on, Israel soldiers opened fire on a Palestinian protest and injured one of the St. Louis activists. An aging Holocaust survivor who was also part of the delegation was subjected to a humiliating and invasive search when departing from Israel.
These deprivations of rights experienced by Americans at the hands of Israeli authorities, however, were not what interested the FBI. Instead, the FBI was conducting an international terrorism investigation into Chmiel and another activist from the delegation (The Intercept reached out to the second activist, who asked that their name be withheld).
Neither Chmiel nor the general public ever learned of the official terrorism investigation until now. Its existence was revealed by hundreds of pages of FBI files about the International Solidarity Movement obtained by The Intercept through a public records request. The documents make references to other investigations from FBI field offices around the country involving ISM or its members, but many of the files are so heavily redacted that it is impossible to tell what they refer to. In at least some instances, the FBI appears to be monitoring the political activity of ISM members or at the very least noting ISM affiliation of subjects of FBI monitoring.
It is clear, however, that the FBI conducted at least two major investigations into ISM. In addition to the international terrorism investigation into the two St. Louis activists, the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office initiated a domestic security investigation into ISM as an organization.
“These cases demonstrate the FBI’s unwillingness to distinguish non-violent civil disobedience protesting government policy from terrorism.”
Nothing in the documents suggests any of these investigations ever resulted in criminal charges. Instead, the documents reveal sprawling investigations involving FBI field offices in multiple states and the national headquarters, as well as local law enforcement. FBI agents resorted not only to confidential informants and physical surveillance, but a scandal-prone unit formed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks accessed the phone records of at least one activist. In both investigations, the FBI relied heavily on biased right-wing publications making fantastical claims of questionable veracity.
The investigations, the documents show, cast a wide net. Other groups making nonviolent objections to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories were named as associates of ISM; their board members and other affiliations were listed in the documents simply owing to glancing associations with the group under investigation.
Throughout the documents, the political beliefs of ISM members and other Palestinian solidarity activist were treated as though they were synonymous with terrorism. The approach is of a piece with the FBI’s long history of using its intelligence and national security powers to track domestic dissent.
“These cases demonstrate the FBI’s unwillingness to distinguish non-violent civil disobedience protesting government policy from terrorism,” Michael German, a former FBI agent and current fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, who reviewed the documents, told The Intercept. “The first” — the Los Angeles probe — “shows the FBI doesn’t even follow its own rules in opening Terrorism Enterprise Investigations. And the second” — in St. Louis — “shows the FBI’s use of tools designed to target foreign enemies against Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.”
The documents obtained by The Intercept were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in February 2015. The FBI, however, only began handing over the files in the fall of 2019 after litigation. While the FBI purports to have processed all documents exclusively in its possession, it maintains that it located other records that originated with or mention other government agencies and declined to release them. (The files also reference a separate earlier probe, based out of Los Angeles, into four individuals instead of ISM as an organization. Despite the allusions to this investigation in the documents the FBI sent in response to The Intercept’s FOIA request, no documents directly from the investigation were included in the released materials.)
For ISM members, the episode is a surreal view into the priorities of America’s premier law enforcement and domestic intelligence agency. “The fact that ISM was under this kind of extensive investigation is ridiculous and a complete waste of taxpayer money,” ISM co-founder Huwaida Arraf told The Intercept. “ISM has always been open and transparent about who we are, what we do, and what we stand for, which is purportedly what this country stands for — freedom and human rights.”
In March 2004, the FBI’s St. Louis Field Office launched its international terrorism investigation of two local ISM activists. Despite spending two years investigating the pair, the FBI ultimately concluded neither one of them had broken any U.S. laws or posed any threat to national security. Handwritten notes scrawled in the margins of both FBI files read “no leads no evidence.” The FBI concluded the two were merely pro-Palestinian activists.
Why the FBI ever thought the activists were guilty of anything other than First Amendment-protected activity remains unclear. The stated reasoning for the investigation is that the pair were members of ISM and that they traveled to the occupied Palestinian territories with the group. Yet the files indicate multiple St. Louis activists went on an ISM delegation to the Palestinian territories; why only the two were singled out is never explained.
This association with ISM appears to have been enough to warrant the probe. Local FBI agents had met with an “asset” of “unknown reliability” who informed them about ISM. Agents followed up by looking up ISM in the FBI’s automated case system, which was an electronic system used to maintain files about the FBI’s investigative, intelligence, and administrative activities. Whatever records they found — agents described the search as “cursory” — led them to link ISM to Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian resistance group that is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. But the links rested on thin reeds: The agents reported that “some persons who claim affiliation with the ISM are suspected of having loyalties, or sympathizing with Hamas or other more radical pro-Palestinian groups. ISM claims to be a peaceful movement that utilizes nonviolent direct action protest tactics to drive Israel from the Palestinian areas.”
The result of this purported association of some unnamed individuals within ISM’s orbits with international terrorists — as well as supposed links to domestic anarchists — the St. Louis Field Office took it upon themselves to investigate the two activists to “assess any possible terrorism links,” launching the terrorism investigation.
Despite turning up no real evidence of any wrongdoing, the FBI was able to pull the phone records of at least one of the two activists. According to the documents obtained by The Intercept, the FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit processed Chmiel’s phone records and found “one telephone number in CAU analysis of Chmiel’s phone was linked to a highly classified CIA cable.”
The FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit, which was created after the September 11 attacks to support terrorism investigations by analyzing phone records, was heavily criticized during this period by the Office of Inspector General for obtaining phone records without first getting either a grand jury subpoena or what is known as a national security letter.
How the Communications Analysis Unit obtained Chmiel’s phone records or what justification was provided is unknown. In the document that mentioned links to the CIA cable, the preceding paragraph mentioned a grand jury subpoena, but redactions make it impossible to know what the subpoena dealt with. (The second activist’s file also contains a redacted reference to a grand jury subpoena.) The FBI was never an intended recipient of the CIA cable and the CIA proved slow to share its contents with the FBI, the document says.
While the CIA foot-dragging was used to put off closing one activist’s case even after other had been closed, eventually the agents relented. “For this reason further delay of this closing communication is not deemed feasible,” the file said, referring to internal cable that would officially end the probe. The case was closed on March 21, 2006.
A mere three months after the St. Louis investigation was opened, the FBI’s Los Angeles Field office launched its own investigation into ISM. This time, it was a so-called Terrorist Enterprise Investigation — a type of probe reserved for groups that seek political or social change through violence or force — that would last until 2005.
Throughout the documents related to the investigation, the FBI again conflated political beliefs with terrorism. According to FBI documents outlining the justification for the probe, ISM members ‘“predisposition to anti-capitalist and anti-global philosophy” — an apparent reference to the anti-globalization movement — “coupled with their sympathetic views on the Palestinian cause gives rise to the concern that ISM members can be directed, coerced, or through their own volition, be the purveyors of acts of terrorism.”
As part of their investigation, the Los Angeles Field Office developed confidential informants, circulated articles from a right-wing website, and tracked the domestic arrests of ISM members for civil disobedience, according to the documents. When profiling “key ISM leaders/associates,” the FBI took care to note the activists’ nationalities and religious backgrounds, recording that certain individuals were “Palestinian,” “Palestinian-American,” or “born from a Jewish family.”
Despite the murky justifications for the investigation, information about the probe made its way around federal and local agencies. Though the LA Field Office initiated the investigation, officials at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., were both aware of and supportive of the probe, according to the documents.
In November 2004, an FBI counterterrorism unit scheduled a meeting to take place at headquarters to “assess the current investigative activity to date, share intelligence, and to coordinate and formulate strategy for future investigation of the ISM.” The Washington-based counterterrorism unit requested the Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Texas field offices all send representatives to the meeting. It’s not clear from the documents released by the FBI whether the meeting took place or what came of it. Many details of the meeting are redacted in the FBI documents, including one entirely redacted entity that agents are to meet with as part of the investigation.
The FBI sent information about the purpose of the meeting to a legal attaché — the term of art for FBI offices stationed in embassies abroad. The FBI has 63 such overseas offices, including a Tel Aviv office that covers Israel and the Palestinian territories. The location of the legal attaché on the correspondence about the ISM meeting was redacted on the grounds that releasing that information “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions” — though such information is not removed from publicly released documents as a matter of course.
In her statement to The Intercept, Arraf, ISM co-founder, noted that ISM was frequently in touch with diplomatic outposts in the Middle East. “In the occupied Palestinian territory,” she said, “we were, and continue to be, in touch with embassies and consulates, including that of the United States.”
The LA investigation into ISM also touched offices beyond those at the Washington meeting. During the investigation, agents in Chicago; Springfield, Illinois; Boston; Minneapolis; Atlanta; Richmond, Virginia; Cleveland; Houston; San Francisco; and elsewhere all followed leads, gathered evidence, and in at least on case conducted physical surveillance. In a number of instances, local police aided these efforts.
Four months after the investigation was opened, the FBI files mention for the first time that the probe centered on claims that ISM members were “conspiring to violate neutrality laws through direct actions against the Israeli government for its occupation of Palestine and to commit other criminal acts within the U.S.”
This invocation of the Neutrality Act in the LA investigation is illustrative of the law’s controversial history of selective enforcement. Originally passed in 1794 to prohibit private citizens from engaging in military expeditions against nations the U.S. is at peace with, the law remains on the books and has been enforced as recently as 2016. It has, however, not been neutrally applied. Controversially, the U.S. government refused to apply the law to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 or the 1980s Contra war to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Attempts to strike down neutrality act convictions based on its blatant selective enforcement, however, have been rejected by courts.
The FBI’s contorted reliance on this law to justify investigating nonviolent political action in support of Palestinian human rights is line with this history of politically convenient selective enforcement.
The FBI’s LA investigation was also based on a claim that ISM activists “have shown a loose association with foreign terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Islamic Jihad activists” — referring to a host of armed Palestinian groups considered to be terrorists by the U.S and Israel. Associations with domestic groups were also wrapped in: The case file cites ISM’s supposed connection to the Ruckus Society, a civil society group that shares skills about nonviolent direct action, as a justification for the LA investigation. A document dated December 13, 2004, says the Ruckus Society itself is “currently the subject of a Terrorist Enterprise Investigation out of San Francisco.” The FBI documents identify the Ruckus Society as an “anarchist” group, frequently using the term interchangeably with domestic terrorism group.
A key source for the FBI’s claim that ISM had loose associations with foreign terrorist organizations appears to be FrontPage Magazine, a website run by the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center that frequently launches broadsides against pro-Palestinian activists. According to the South Poverty Law Center, FrontPage “has become a platform for publishing a plethora of far-right and anti-Muslim writers and commentators.” The December 13, 2004, memo on the investigation cites to two separate FrontPage articles.
In addition to drawing on loose allegations of associations of ISM with foreign terrorist organizations to justify the investigation, the FBI also tracked ISM’s own domestic associations.
“In Dr. King’s time, surveillance was justified in terms of alleged Communist influence; in recent years, surveillance has been justified by alleged association with terrorists. In both cases, U.S. citizens were employing nonviolent action to confront injustice and oppression.”
The Los Angeles Field Office noted a “strong association” between the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker activist group, and the ISM.” Later in the case file, it is noted that ISM often fundraises with “other Islamic organizations” — though ISM has no religious affiliation. The case file contains unfounded claims that Al-Awda: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition; Stop U.S. Tax-funded Aid to Israel Now; and Palestine Solidarity Movement are alternative names for ISM, as opposed to separate organizations who work for a similar cause.
One special agent, according to files, also discovered on the internet that a member of ISM was also a member of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, a group now known as the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. The special agent detailed information that appeared on the U.S. Campaign’s website about the group’s political views and listed the names and organizational affiliations of all the campaign’s board members. The FBI didn’t need to go beyond the U.S. Campaign’s website to gather this information.
While the investigations could be viewed as harmless, since they ultimately failed to turn up any evidence of terrorism, but they are in line with a dark side of the FBI’s history. ISM turned out to be exactly what it said it was — entirely nonviolent — yet the FBI still justified its probes through paranoid views of political associations. It wasn’t just that the federal government was monitoring political speech, the FBI treated certain forms of speech as evidence of terrorism. Supposed opinions of ISM members on political economy make them likely to become terrorists. It is taken for granted that associating with anarchists is akin to associating with terrorists.
It seems the FBI’s investigation resulted in little more than thousands of pages of documents that did little other than to make the FBI itself perhaps the greatest threat, by spying on First Amendment-protected speech. Today, with the knowledge that he was under investigation, Chmiel reflected on the the FBI’s history of spying on social justice activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how the targeting of such activism is ongoing. “In Dr. King’s time, surveillance was justified in terms of alleged Communist influence; in recent years, surveillance has been justified by alleged association with terrorists,” Chmiel said. “In both cases, U.S. citizens were employing nonviolent action to confront injustice and oppression.”