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Raking the Coals of Bigotry: How the NYPD's Surveillance Apparatus Targets Muslims

A new book details the story of how the Central Intelligence Agency worked with New York police to invade the private lives of Muslims.

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The police department is trying to be in every Muslim neighborhood at once. There is no limit on what they could spy on. The Intelligence Division has even gone so far as to keep tabs on Muslim-dominated soccer and cricket teams in leagues the police department has set up. The spy unit also owns a taxicab  — registered under a fake name — that it uses to conduct surveillance operations. One informant trailed a Brooklyn imam to his wedding and took notes on the festivities. “We have nothing on the lucky bride at this time but hopefully will learn about her at the service,” a police lieutenant wrote in an internal document.

But despite the blanketing of Muslim communities with police informants and undercover officers, the NYPD Intelligence Division has been largely inept when it came to busting real terrorist plots. The terrorist plan Apuzzo and Goldman devote much of the book to is a vehicle used to detail tensions between the NYPD and the FBI — and to show how blanketing innocent communities with spies didn't work when law enforcement needed crucial information.

Goldman and Apuzzo’s highly descriptive on the ground reporting, coupled with sources deep within the intelligence community, puts the reader right in the center of a frightening 12 days where Najibullah Zazi, Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay came close to carrying out their bombing plan. The three high school friends, all naturalized Muslim immigrants, traveled to Pakistan to train to fight the American occupation of Afghanistan. Instead, they were radicalized by the United States’s incessant and deadly drone strikes in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas and convinced by senior al-Qaeda officials to turn on their home country and wreak havoc. One of the most enthralling parts of the book takes place on the eighth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. After being tipped off by an email sent by Zazi, FBI agents had tracked him as he sped cross-country from Denver to New York with explosives in his car. Apuzzo and Goldman detail one particularly nail-biting moment:

Zazi walked to the intersection of Stone Street and Broadway, a 15-minute walk from where the Twin Towers crumbled. Nervous FBI agents watched for almost an hour as Zazi hung around talking to the man running his coffee cart and joking with former customers [...]

Zazi left about 9:15 a.m., heading back the way he came. For the 24-year-old, the expedition was nothing more than a ruse. If anyone questioned what he was doing in New York, Zazi wanted to be able to say that he came back to check his coffee cart. Now he could.

He descended into the Bowling Green subway station, this time hopping the 5 train to Grand Central. Once he arrived, Zazi hustled up the stairs, cutting his way through the crowds. He stepped behind a pillar and, in the bustle, the surveillance team didn't notice him darting down the stairs and onto a 7 train to Queens.

Panicked, the surveillance team canvassed the dim, low-ceilinged station for Zazi [...] [A]s the             professionals say, [Zazi] was in the wind. Gone.

The FBI's mistake of letting Zazi out of their sight is nothing compared to the NYPD Intelligence Division's errors, though.

When the FBI and the Joint-Terrorism Task Force needed information about Zazi and his friends, the NYPD Intelligence Division couldn’t deliver. The police had extensive data on Zazi’s neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. They had even documented in police files the mosque where Zazi prayed and the travel agency Zazi and his friends used to buy tickets to Pakistan to train with al-Qaeda. Yet “they still didn’t know where the terrorists were,” write Goldman and Apuzzo. “And they didn’t know anything about Zazi, Medunjanin, or Ahmedzay...[W]hen it mattered the most, the files told them nothing.”

 
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