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NYPD spied on Muslim students 480km away

New York police deployed monitors far away from their jurisdiction, and placed undercover officers in Muslim student associations.
Detectives trawled Muslim students' websites and spoke to local authorities about staff at the University at Buffalo campus, pictured above.
Detectives trawled Muslim students' websites and spoke to local authorities about staff at the University at Buffalo campus, pictured above.

NEW YORK // The New York Police Department monitored Muslim college students far more broadly than previously known, at schools far beyond the city limits, including the elite Ivy League colleges of Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.

Police talked to local authorities about professors 480 kilometres away in Buffalo and even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students' names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed.

Detectives trawled Muslim student websites every day and, although professors and students had not been accused of any wrongdoing, their names were recorded in reports prepared for the New York police commissioner, Raymond Kelly.

Asked about the monitoring, police spokesman Paul Browne provided a list of 12 people arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the US and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations, which the NYPD referred to as MSAs.

Jesse Morton, who this month pleaded guilty to posting online threats against the creators of the animated TV show South Park, had once tried to recruit followers at Stony Brook University on Long Island, Mr Browne said.

"As a result, the NYPD deemed it prudent to get a better handle on what was occurring at MSAs," Mr Browne said. He said police monitored student websites and collected publicly available information, but did so only between 2006 and 2007.

"I see a violation of civil rights here," said Tanweer Haq, chaplain of the Muslim Student Association at Syracuse.

"Nobody wants to be on the list of the FBI or the NYPD or whatever. Muslim students want to have their own lives, their own privacy and enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that everybody else has."

In recent months, information has surfaced about secret programmes the NYPD built with help from the CIA to monitor Muslims at the places where they ate, shopped and worshipped.

Details were also revealed about how police placed undercover officers at Muslim student associations in colleges within the city limits; this revelation has outraged faculty and student groups.

Though the NYPD said it follows the same rules as the FBI, some of the NYPD's activities go beyond what the FBI is allowed to do.

Mr Kelly and the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg. have said repeatedly that the police follow legitimate leads only about suspected criminal activity.

But the latest documents mention no wrongdoing by any students.

In one report, an undercover officer describes accompanying 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York on April 21, 2008.

The officer noted the names of people there who were officers of the Muslim Student Association.

"In addition to the regularly scheduled events (rafting), the group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature," the report says.

Jawad Rasul, one of the students on the trip, said he was stunned that his name was included in the police report. "It forces me to look around wherever I am now," Mr Rasul said.

But another student, Ali Ahmed, whom the NYPD said appeared to be in charge of the trip, said he understood the police department's concern.

"I can't blame them for doing their job," Mr Ahmed said. "There's lots of Muslims doing some bad things and it gives a bad name to all of us, so they have to take their due diligence."

City College criticised the surveillance and said it was unaware the NYPD was watching students.

"The City College of New York does not accept or condone any investigation of any student organisation based on the political or religious content of its ideas," the college said.

"Absent specific evidence linking a member of the City College community to criminal activity, we do not condone this kind of investigation."

Mr Browne said undercover officers go wherever people they're investigating go. There is no indication that, in the nearly four years since the report, the NYPD brought charges connecting City College students to terrorism.

Student groups were of particular interest to the NYPD because they attract young Muslim men, a demographic that terrorist groups frequently draw from. Police worried about which Muslim scholars were influencing these students and feared that extra-curricular activities such as paintball outings could be used as terrorist training.

Danish Munir, an alumnus adviser for the University of Pennsylvania's Muslim Student Association, said he believes police are wasting their time by watching college students.

"What do they expect to find here?" Mr Munir said. "These are kids coming from rich families or good families, and they're just trying to make a living, have a good career, have a good college experience. It's a futile allocation of resources."

Updated: February 20, 2012 04:00 AM



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