A New York Police Department (NYPD) officer pretended to convert to Islam and assumed the role of a Brooklyn College student at the Islamic Society in New York City as part of a covert operation to spy on Muslims.
The officer, who went by the name of Mel, short for Melike, spent four years earning the trust of Muslim students at the college as part of an NYPD operation to spy on Muslims, according to New York’s daily weblog Gothamist.
According to the report, the covert operation led to the arrest of two women, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, both Queens residents, who were charged with allegedly planning to build a bomb.
The women were linked to members of the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS), both global extremist outfits, according to a press release issued by the US Justice Department.
Students who have since been made aware of the undercover operation have said how they now feel violated after discovering Mel’s true identity. Three Brooklyn College graduates who had been close to the undercover officer told Gothamist of the intimate ties she had developed with Muslim students and her presence during some of the most private moments of their lives. “Mel immersed herself in the student community, attending Islamic education classes, social gatherings, and trips to museums and the aquarium.”
The Mayor of New York, Bill deBlasio has openly criticised such surveillance and declared at a Ramazan dinner that Muslim New Yorkers were “still fighting for basic human rights.”
“We recently shut down the Demographics Unit at NYPD, which conducted surveillance on Muslim New Yorkers. Because it’s unfair to single out people on the sole basis of their religion,” he added.
“For an undercover to be seeded in a community for that long without a specific target raises some deeply troubling questions about the direction of policing in our city,” Professor Ramzi Kassem at CUNY School of Law said.
New York attorney Gideon Orion Oliver explained how undercover detectives “develop really profound and predatory relationships with their targets,” to create an intimate bond of trust between them. After spending so much time and getting to know a vast amount of the target’s life, “the government and the undercover officers have significant roles in manufacturing what they then characterise as the defendants’ plots,” Oliver claimed.
Four propane gas tanks, as well as instructions for how to turn them into explosive devices, are said to have been found in Siddiqui’s home, and according to a criminal complaint, the two women had in-depth conversations with the undercover officer about their violent aspirations. Many of the cases dealt with by the NYPD often involve a form of ‘entrapment’ to secure evidence that will later lead to arrests.
Brooklyn College authorities; however, denied having any prior information of the undercover operation at the campus, saying they were not notified of any such activity by the NYPD. Specific guidelines expressly prohibit the NYPD from monitoring political or religious organisations unless there is suspicion of a crime taking place.
Students at the college’s Islamic Society say they feel skeptical and paranoid. “In the back of all our minds, there’s always that suspicion, that either, you are a spy, or you think I’m one,” a female Muslim student said. “We’re acting like criminals, even though we haven’t done anything.”
After 9/11 attacks, both the NYPD and the Federal Bureau of Investigation revamped their approach to terrorism investigations and began operating under a police of preventive prosecution. The NYPD began to look for particular indicators of radicalisation such as the ‘wearing of traditional Islamic clothing,’ giving up drinking or smoking, and ‘becoming involved in social activism.’
In the NYPD’s model of measuring threats, which have been criticised, young people were also a key target.