Some Americans worry that American mosques may be teaching hostility to America and encouraging terrorist attacks on the U.S. They want mosques to be watched by the government.
Since 2002, FBI undercover agents have been authorized to visit mosques to gather information about what’s going on in the Muslim community, even when there’s no evidence of illegal activity. However, electronic wiretaps can only be used when there is evidence of illegal activity.
In 2003, the FBI decided to count the number of mosques in various regions of the country, in order to help determine how many terrorism investigations and wiretaps were needed in each region.
In 2005, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate, “Efforts by extremists to obtain training inside the U.S. is also an ongoing concern. Although there are multiple reports and ongoing investigations associated with the paramilitary training activities of suspected extremists nationwide, the majority of these cases involve small groups of like-minded individuals who are inspired by the jihadist rhetoric experienced in radical mosques or prison proselytizing.”
In 2005, the press reported that mosques were in fact being watched by the government. “In general, mosques and other houses of worship do not have special protection from surveillance under U.S. law … Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, several federal investigations have used informants, surveillance and electronic eavesdropping to gather information about mosques.” Groups Criticize Romney’s Comments: Massachusetts Governor Urged Wiretapping of Mosques and Monitoring of Attendees, The Washington Post, September 16, 2005
In 2006, the NYPD revealed that it had placed a Bangladeshi-American Muslim undercover detective into the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn Muslim community for two years starting in October 2002. His job was to be a “walking camera.” Detective Was ‘Walking Camera’ Among City Muslims, He Testifies, The New York Times, May 19, 2006
In 2008, the government confirmed that some mosques in California had been under surveillance. San Diego Union-Tribune, May 22, 2008.
In 2010, an FBI informant (Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani Muslim) testified that the FBI sent him to New York mosques in 2007, 2008, and 2009 to pose as a wealthy businessman and to look for Muslims expressing radical ideas. At one of those mosques, Hussain met four Muslim men who joined him in a plot (which was actually an FBI sting operation) to bomb synagogues and shoot down military planes. Those four Muslim men were convicted in October 2010.
Arguments By Those Who Oppose Watching Mosques
1. There is no evidence that large numbers of mosques have been used to plot terrorist attacks. If people associated with a few mosques have engaged in illegal activity, that doesn’t mean the privacy of all mosque-goers should be violated. Furthermore, the government has limited resources. Those resources should be focused on specific individuals suspected of specific illegal activity.
2. If Muslims wanted to plan a terrorist attack, they would do it somewhere private (like the 9/11 hijackers did), not at a public place like a mosque.
3. American Muslims should feel free to say whatever they want about American foreign policy and America in general. Open discussions are healthy for our democracy, and they give people an opportunity to let off steam. When discussions are held publicly, the whole community can participate. This gives people a chance to hear opposing points of view and become better informed. But if Muslims are being watched, they will move their discussions to private places, where the whole community (including people with differing perspectives) cannot participate. Many law-abiding Muslims have already cut back on their public comments for fear of drawing unwanted governmental attention.
4. Information gathered by the government about the political views of Muslims will be misused. When the government finds people at a mosque who express hostility to America or American foreign policy, the government will visit these people’s employers and neighbors to conduct harassing investigations. In addition, the government will find a way to go after them (for example, for immigration violations or tax violations) even if they pose no threat to the U.S. Knowing that political speech could expose one to harassment or selective prosecution for non-terrorism offenses will stifle free speech and weaken our democracy.
5. The government needs information from Muslims about what’s going on in the Muslim community. Therefore, the government needs to build trusting relationships with Muslims. Monitoring of Muslims will alienate them, make them feel as if they are not accepted as “real Americans,” make them less trusting of the government, and make them less comfortable cooperating with the government.
6. Muslims are capable of policing their own institutions. Muslims can keep an eye on who’s using mosque facilities, and monitor what is happening at mosques. Muslims can inform the government if there is a problem. For example, California Muslims informed the FBI in 2007 that Craig Monteilh (a non-Muslim FBI informant posing as an angry Muslim in California mosques) was trying to recruit Muslims for terrorist plots.
Arguments By Those Who Favor Watching Mosques
1. Mosques are an important source of information about thinking within the Muslim community. Muslims associated with various mosques around the country have been accused or convicted of posing a threat to the U.S. For example, an FBI undercover operative, Elie Assaad (Lebanese Catholic), infiltrated a Florida mosque in early 2001 in order to monitor mosque-goer Imran Mandhai. Assaad says he came across Mohammed Atta at the mosque a few months before 9/11. Assaad and Atta worshipped together at the mosque and spent time together. Based on their conversations, Assaad became suspicious that Atta might pose a threat to the U.S., and Assaad informed the FBI about Atta. However, the FBI was not interested in Atta, and Assaad was told to focus his attention on Imran Mandhai, who was later convicted of plotting to bomb electrical power stations around Miami. After 9/11, Atta was identified as the lead 9/11 hijacker. In another example, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi attended the San Diego mosque run by Imam Anwar Al Awlaki. When Imam Al Alwaki moved to a Virginia mosque in early 2001, al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour attended that mosque. After 9/11, al-Midhar, al-Hazmi, and Hanjour were identified as 9/11 hijackers. After 9/11, Imam Al Awlaki was accused of inspiring several plots targeting America. In another example, Muslims who attended Brooklyn’s Al-Farooq Mosque were convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the subsequent plot to blow up various NY landmarks. The government needs to be able to find dangerous people as quickly as possible, and mosques are the one place where a wide net can be cast.
2. While attacks might not be planned at mosques, anti-American rhetoric at mosques can give the government an idea about whom to watch outside the mosque.
3. Muslims are aware that undercover government agents have been watching mosques since 9/11. Despite this, many Muslims have continued to speak freely about all issues, including American foreign policy and how they feel about America, and they haven’t been prosecuted for that.
4. The government needs to know who is hostile to the U.S. These people will not be prosecuted for their criticism of American foreign policy or for hostility to America, but they should be watched to see if they pose a threat, or to see if someone tries to recruit them for violent activity.
5. Many Muslims are hesitant to snitch on fellow Muslims. Therefore, the government cannot count on Muslims to provide information about what’s going on inside the community; the government has to go out and get this information by itself. In addition, the government can use mosques to actively recruit sympathetic Muslims as informants.
6. Mosques are generally open institutions. Anyone can come in. By monitoring mosques, the government is helping protect law-abiding Muslims, who do not want their mosques used for illegal activity, such as recruitment of young Muslims for violence. Government surveillance also gives mosques a “clean bill of health” that reduces public suspicion of American Muslims by assuring other Americans that there are no hidden threats at those mosques.