Human Rights

'You Might Get Hit By a Car': The Chilling Threats Used to Force Muslims Into Becoming Informants

In the post-9/11 world, informants are a major tool law enforcement uses to infiltrate Muslim communities.

Photo Credit: zimand/Shutterstock.com

The man on the tape voiced a chilling threat to the Muslim-American who refused to become an informant. “You might get hit by a car—that is not a threat. That is a solid piece of advice,” FBI agent Peter Smith told Naji Mansour, an American living abroad.

In May, Mother Jones reporter Nick Baumann publishedan investigative story revealing how the FBI hounded Mansour and his family after he refused to inform on Muslim communities for the U.S. government. The hit-by-car threat was only one of the ways agents tried to turn Mansour into a U.S. asset.  

But the story of Mansour is only the tip of the iceberg.  The FBI and other law enforcement agencies like the New York Police Department (NYPD) have used threats and coercion to beef up their army of informants. In the post-9/11 world, informants have been a major tool law enforcement has used to infiltrate Muslim communities in the hopes of picking up tips on terrorism. Since the September 11 attacks, the FBI has put more than 15,000 informants on its payroll.

In 2008, Mansour, who was living in Kenya at the time, had come into contact with two alleged members of the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, both of whom would later be killed in a U.S. drone strike.  That encounter lead to Kenyan counter-terror agents detaining Mansour. When he was released, he went to the U.S. Embassy to clear his name. But that visit put him on the FBI’s radar. They asked him to become an informant. He refused. They asked him again six weeks later, and received the same answer. Then, on June 30, 2009,  he and his wife were arrested in South Sudan, where they were then living. A former diplomat told Baumann that US officials in the country “said he would be freed if he cooperated with the FBI.”

Mansour was eventually freed from prison, but the FBI made his family’s life hell. His mother, Sandra, was fired from a position with USAID. His sister was detained at a Kenyan airport. Mansour told Baumann he’s scared to travel out of the country because he might be detained and tortured.

Mansour’s story is an extreme example of how the FBI has sought to use Muslim-Americans while prosecuting the “war on terror.” Informants in drug cases and other crimes usually have some kind of connection to the crime the police or FBI are trying to crack. But as former FBI official Mike German told Baumann, “The problem for many American Muslims who have been approached by the FBI to become informants is that they aren't involved in criminal conspiracies and don't have relationships with criminals. Instead, they are being asked to spy broadly against their religious community. That creates a conundrum because the person may be perfectly willing to help the FBI fight terrorism but simply has no information to provide.”

The FBI’s strategy of approaching random Muslims and threatening them if they don’t become informants is the subject of a recent lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR), a project at City University of New York’s law school. The organizations charge that the FBI has approached four American Muslims with no criminal records. They had a proposition for them: become informants or be placed on the “no-fly” list, which bars them from traveling because of alleged links with terrorism. The four refused, so the FBI has kept them on a list that’s easy to get onto but extremely hard to get off. The result, as lawyers Ramzi Kassem and Baher Azmy write in Al Jazeera English, is that their plaintiffs “have been unable to visit wives, children, sick parents, and elderly grandparents overseas for years. They have missed funerals. They have lost jobs, been stigmatized and isolated within their communities, and suffered severe financial and emotional distress.”

The NYPD is another law enforcement agency that has an extensive array of informants to spy on Muslims. Since 9/11, the police force, with the help of CIA agents, has embarked on a massive spy campaign targeting northeastern Muslims. While the NYPD under Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month it was closing the Demographics Unit, which sent plainclothes detectives into Muslim-owned businesses and mapped out Muslim communities, the use of informants continues.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Joseph Goldstein exploring the agency’s use of informants. Goldstein reported that NYPD officers from its Citywide Debriefing Team combed the city’s jails for Muslim immigrants held on petty crimes like driving without a valid license. The officers pull them aside and ask if they would like to help the NYPD by spying on their communities. Sometimes the immigrants are held a few hours longer than usual because NYPD officers want to ask whether they can go into their mosque and keep tabs on fellow worshippers.

The New York Times article came two years after Associated Press reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo told the story of Shamiur Rahman, a young Bangladeshi-American who had been facing minor marijuana charges.  Rahman agreed to be an informant for the NYPD in exchange for goodwill and $1,000 a month. Rahman was tasked with infiltrating a Muslim student group, and also eavesdropped on mosques and sent back reports to his NYPD handler. He says he was told to “bait” Muslims into saying inflammatory things, which Rahman could then catalog and send back to the NYPD.

Eventually, Rahman became fed up with his role as an informant. He quit in October 2012, saying the activities he engaged in were “detrimental to the Constitution.”

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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