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NYC Police recruit Muslims to be informants

By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
New York Times

NEW YORK - One man was a food cart vendor from Afghanistan, arrested during an argument with a parking enforcement officer over a ticket. Another was an Egyptian-born limousine driver, picked up in a prostitution sting. Still another was an accounting student from Pakistan, in custody for driving without a valid license.

The men, all Muslim immigrants, went through similar ordeals: Waiting in a New York station house cell or a lockup facility, expecting to be arraigned, only to be pulled aside and questioned by detectives. The queries were not about the charges against them, but about where they went to mosque and what their prayer habits were. Eventually, the detectives got to the point: Would they work for the police, eavesdropping in Muslim cafes and restaurants, or in mosques?

Beginning a few years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a squad of detectives, known as the Citywide Debriefing Team, has combed the city’s jails for immigrants — predominantly Muslims — who might be persuaded to become police informants, according to documents obtained by The New York Times, along with interviews with former members of the unit and senior police officials.

Last month, the Police Department announced it had disbanded a controversial surveillance unit that had sent plainclothes detectives into Muslim communities to listen in on conversations and build detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped. But the continuing work of the debriefing team shows that the department has not backed away from other counterterrorism initiatives that it created in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Indeed, in the first quarter of this year, according to police officials, the team conducted 220 interviews.

The Times reviewed two dozen reports generated by the debriefing team in early 2009. Together, the documents and the interviews offered an up-close view of how the squad operates, functioning as a recruiter for the Intelligence Division, the arm of the department that is dedicated to foiling terrorist plots. But they also showed that the division’s counterterrorism mission had come to intersect in some new — and potentially uncomfortable — ways with the department’s more traditional crime-fighting work.

They showed that religion had become a normal topic of police inquiry in the city’s holding cells and lockup facilities. Some reports written by detectives after debriefing sessions noted whether a prisoner attended mosque, celebrated Muslim holidays or had made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The report on the food cart vendor described the location of his Flushing mosque and noted that worshipers were a “mix of Afghani, Persian (Iranians) and Pakistani.” The Egyptian limousine driver said he “considers himself to be a Sunni Muslim” but “has not prayed at a Mosque in quite some time,” according to the report.

Debriefing Prisoners

Detectives have long relied on informants, including drug addicts and underworld figures. But the informants are typically asked to provide information about crimes they know about or other criminals with whom they are acquainted. By contrast, the Citywide Debriefing Team has sought to recruit Muslims regardless of what they know. Police officials described the interviews as voluntary, but several Muslim immigrant interviewees reached by The Times said they were shaken by the encounters.

John Miller, the deputy commissioner in charge of the Police Department’s Intelligence Division, said the debriefing team had emerged from the department’s urgent need in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks for a cadre of sources around the city who might be helpful in counterterrorism. One way to fill that gap, he said, was to look to the hundreds of thousands of people arrested by the department every year.

“We were looking for people who could provide visibility into the world of terrorism,” he said. “You don’t get information without talking to people.”

The debriefing team, he said, was extending an old, proven police technique — debriefing prisoners for what they might know about local crimes — and applying it to counterterrorism. “Has it had a learning curve?” said Mr. Miller, who previously led police counterterrorism efforts in Los Angeles under Commissioner William J. Bratton. “Yes, but it has also been effective.”

A former lieutenant in the Intelligence Division, William McGroarty, who retired last year, described the team as a “great asset” and said it provided “a big percentage” of the informants who were later parceled out to other units in the Intelligence Division.

The department’s wide-ranging surveillance of mosques and Muslim civic institutions and businesses has stoked controversy since The Associated Press first published documents detailing the monitoring in 2011. The A.P. mentioned the existence of the debriefing team that year but did not elaborate on its activities. Little had been publicly known about how the detectives went about identifying potential informants and the nature of their jailhouse interviews.

Police officials described the debriefing team’s interviews as “conversations,” as opposed to interrogations. But many of those interviewed said that as Muslim immigrants in a post-9/11 world, they felt they had little choice but to cooperate.

Reduced Charges

Bayjan Abrahimi, the food cart vendor from Afghanistan, was expecting to be released quickly after his arrest in March 2009 because of a dispute over a parking ticket. But three detectives came to interview him at the Harlem station house where he was being held.

They wanted to know “about Al Qaeda, do you know these people?” recalled Mr. Abrahimi, 31, who moonlights as a D.J. at Afghan weddings in Queens.

Mr. Abrahimi pleaded ignorance, but the questions continued. Detectives asked him about the mosque he attended and the nationalities of other Muslims who prayed there. They wanted to know about his brother, a taxi driver in Mazar-i-Sharif, in eastern Afghanistan. In the end, they made him a proposition: Would he be willing to visit mosques in the city and gather information, maybe even travel to Afghanistan?

“I say, ‘O.K., O.K., O.K., because I want to finish,’ ” Mr. Abrahimi said. “At this time, I’m really scared.”

The detective’s report on Mr. Abrahimi offered a sense of just how far into his personal life they had plumbed, noting that Mr. Abrahimi’s father had died fighting the Russians in Afghanistan a generation before and that Mr. Abrahimi now lived with his mother and a brother in Flushing, Queens.

He spent his “free time in library reading and learning English,” according to the report. The report noted that Mr. Abrahimi agreed to provide detectives with the overseas phone number of his brother, the taxi driver. “Subject believes other family members would help if asked,” the report stated. Mr. Abrahimi was willing, if the Police Department requested, “to attend services at other locations and travel,” according to the report, which concluded by endorsing Mr. Abrahimi as “suitable for assignments locally and outside the city” and described him as showing “high potential to be used as an asset.”

After his release from jail — Mr. Abrahimi is uncertain but said he believed that the charges against him were simply dropped — he never heard from the detectives again, he said. In a recent interview, however, he remained troubled by the 2009 episode, trembling at the memory.

Moro Said, the Egyptian-born limousine driver picked up on prostitution charges, provided a similar account of what happened to him the month before Mr. Abrahimi’s arrest. Mr. Said, 57, said he was driving in Flushing when he pulled over because he thought a woman needed directions. The woman was an undercover police officer, and Mr. Said was arrested and brought to central booking in Queens.

Mr. Said expected to be brought before a judge, when officers led him out of a holding cell. He found himself in a small room, where a police officer offered to make his case go away.

“If you can help us, everything will be O.K.,” Mr. Said recalled the man as saying. When Mr. Said asked what was wanted in return, “He says, ‘You just go to the mosque and the cafe and just say to us if somebody is talking about anything, anything suspicious.’ ”

Mr. Said said he found it coercive that they would ask him to become an informant while he was in custody. While he was waiting, Mr. Said said an Afghan prisoner was also taken out and interviewed by the same investigator.

“It’s not appropriate,” said Mr. Said. “They’re fishing. You’re in trouble with the law and they are the law.” He said that by agreeing to do some of what the investigator asked him to do, he was simply trying to placate the police, “because I’m in a situation and they can make it bigger, believe me, they can make it bigger.” He said that when a detective called him about a week later to schedule a meeting, he declined, and “then I hang up.”

“I don’t want to be a spy on anybody,” Mr. Said said in a phone interview. “I hate spying.”

‘Noncoercive Sessions’

Mr. Miller described the debriefings as “noncoercive sessions where people had the ability to opt out at any time.” The goal was not to conduct an interrogation but to start a conversation and eventually build a relationship, he said. Investigators were trained to let the interview subject drive the conversation, he said, adding that religion might come up in that context.

“It’s not a thing where they sit down and say, ‘Are you a Muslim or a Sunni or a Shiite?’ ” Mr. Miller said. “That’s the kind of thing that comes up in conversation.”

Police officials credited the debriefing team, which they said dated to at least 2004, with generating a string of important cases and investigations. It was instrumental, they said, in identifying an informant who was later involved in the case against Jose Pimentel, a Manhattan man who had become fascinated by the American-born Muslim militant Anwar al-Awlaki, and later pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge. Police officials said the debriefing team also had led to information about individuals providing weapons to the Taliban, as well as fraudulent visas to the United States originating out of Guyana.

In 2007 and 2008, the squad’s 10 investigators conducted more than 1,000 interviews, mostly in jails and during home visits with people on probation, according to the documents reviewed by The Times. Police officials say the pace has remained roughly the same, along with the size of the unit. A document dated Nov. 19, 2008, notes that in less than two years, the debriefing team shared the names of 171 people who expressed willingness to become confidential informants with other detective squads, including one known as the Terrorist Interdiction Unit.

Mr. McGroarty, the former Intelligence Division lieutenant, said that when detectives needed an informant for a specific investigation, they would ask the debriefing team to help them find a suitable person.

Bobby Hadid, a former sergeant with the unit and himself a Muslim immigrant from Algeria, said he had become increasingly uncomfortable with what he and his colleagues were doing, particularly when it came to asking questions about religion of many of the prisoners, who had been arrested for petty crimes or violations.

“We are detectives of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division,” he said. “We are there to collect intelligence about criminal activity or terrorism. Why are we asking, ‘Are you Muslim?’ ‘What mosque do you go to?’ What does that have to do with terrorism?”

Once a well-regarded investigator who had worked on the F.B.I.-led Joint Terrorism Task Force before being tapped to join the Intelligence Division, Mr. Hadid was eventually removed from the force after being convicted of perjury in a case unrelated to his counterterrorism work. The conviction, which he is appealing, involved his role as a translator in a murder investigation that had led to his being sent to France.

According to Mr. Hadid, each morning, detectives with the debriefing unit received a list of immigrants, cataloged by country of origin, who had been arrested in New York the previous day. Arrestees from Middle Eastern and other predominantly Muslim countries, typically, attracted the most interest from detectives, along with prisoners with Arabic-sounding names, Mr. Hadid said. Periodically, there would be directives for the detectives to focus on immigrants of a specific nationality.

A 2007 document showed the team interviewed 564 people from 66 countries. More than a third came from the Middle East; another sixth came from Southeast Asia; and just under a tenth came from Africa.

Held a Few Hours Longer

“Please don’t let him through until my guys talk to him,” Mr. Hadid recalled saying when calling ahead to a precinct or lockup facility to ask that a prisoner be held until his detectives arrived. As a result, Mr. Hadid said, these immigrants remained locked up a few hours longer.

After each interview, the detectives filed detailed reports about the prisoner that were entered into a database. In many instances, they included the names of relatives, including children: “Subject daughter is ‘Myriam’, age 6 and youngest child is ‘Omar’ age 2 years,” stated part of a six-page report filed about a furniture salesman, who had been arrested for driving without a license and making an improper left turn.

At times, the information supplied would seem of greater relevance to a sociologist studying assimilation than to police detectives. During one interview, a detective asked about where Somali immigrants tended to gather. “Subject stated that a popular restaurant for Somalis is uptown in NYC,” the detective wrote. “This is a Korean ‘all you can eat’ restaurant.”

In reports reviewed by The Times, prisoners provided information about crimes or people who were harassing them. One report provided information about suppliers of khat leaves, a stimulant popular among immigrants from the Horn of Africa. In another report, an Egyptian immigrant who joined the United States military named several men who he believed were part of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and who were pressuring him to hand over his military pay because “it was unholy money.”

Not every interview ended with a prisoner agreeing to become an informant. One Somali, a detective noted in his report, “wishes to get out of jail first before making a decision.”

In interviews, other men said they had agreed to become informants to placate the police, but had little intention of following through. “You’re going to agree with the cops and try to help your situation in any way possible,” said one man, the son of Egyptian immigrants, who was arrested at age 19 over a stolen fountain pen.

The man, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, recalled being surprised when detectives began asking him where he prayed and other queries “that had nothing to do with the incident.”

After he was released from the station house, the man began getting calls from a detective. They met once at a shopping mall, and the detective offered to pay him if he would visit different mosques and report back to the police on “what was going on.”

He said he had told the detective that he needed to focus on college and could not become an informant. When the detective called again, the man did not pick up.

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