N.J. cops helped spy on imam in NYPD
Imam Mohammad Qatanani leading services at the Islamic Center of Passaic County. DON SMITH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
BY HANNAN ADELY
July 10, 2012
New Jersey law enforcement leaders have denied knowing about widespread surveillance of Muslims by New York City detectives, but state police agencies were involved in at least one joint effort: the monitoring of a Paterson mosque.
State authorities worked with the New York City Police Department to monitor the Islamic Center of Passaic County, led by Imam Mohammad Qatanani, police documents show. The surveillance included the use of an informant at the mosque and intelligence gathering during a three-day rally for the imam in his fight against deportation.
Because of his strong relationship with law enforcement leaders, Qatanani said, he was taken aback by news of New Jersey’s involvement.
“It was very upsetting for us, especially when our mosque is maybe the most open mosque for all law enforcement and elected and appointed officials,” Qatanani said in an interview.
Top New Jersey officials, including the governor, for months have denied that they knew the full extent of spying by the NYPD at Muslim businesses, mosques and schools in the state — even while NYPD spokesman Paul Browne insisted New Jersey police had been informed.
Governor Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
New Jersey law enforcement had limited involvement but didn’t know the full scope of NYPD activities, officials in the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office said. Spokesman Leland Moore said New Jersey officers have done intelligence gathering through the Joint Terrorism Task Force, where they served alongside the NYPD and FBI in counterterrorism efforts, but he declined to be specific.
Such work was going on in 2006, when the NYPD had its eye on the Islamic Center of Passaic County. That year, the NYPD Intelligence Division compiled a report that included a list of mosques in the region that were under surveillance. The report notes that the Derrom Avenue mosque was covered by an informant through the New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism.
The NYPD Strategic Intelligence Unit also had sources infiltrate a three-day rally for Qatanani outside Newark’s Immigration Court Building in May 2008 “for intelligence gathering purposes,” documents showed.
An NYPD sergeant contacted the Newark Police Department and the New Jersey State Police beforehand to let them know, according to the document. “Both agencies will have coverage to work along side members of the [NYPD] Strategic Intelligence Unit,” the report states.
The documents were obtained by and posted on the website NYPD Confidential. One of the documents also notes the NYPD had identified 30 “ethnic hot spots” in Paterson, 19 in Jersey City and seven in Edison, but no further information was available.
Leaders at the Islamic Center of Passaic County, one of the largest mosques in the state, said they had suspected they were ¬under surveillance. That was clear, said Executive Director Mohamed El Filali, when particular sermons were brought up during Qatanani’s deportation trial that could have been known only if someone was listening inside the mosque.
But El Filali said he assumed the Federal Bureau of Investigation was responsible. He noted criticisms of NYPD surveillance by top state law enforcement leaders and elected officials in the wake of the spying scandal.
“They have denied it all along,” he said. “We don’t spy on you guys. We don’t help people spy on you. They would come in and break bread with us.”
“It just leads me to believe they are fully participating and fully engaging and they’re not giving us the full story,” he continued.
It’s unclear what motivated the surveillance, but while the mosque was under watch, the federal government was building a case against Qatanani.
Qatanani came to the U.S. on a religious visa in 1996 and applied for legal permanent residency three years later but was denied. The Department of Homeland Security alleged that Qatanani once had links to Hamas, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, and that he failed to disclose that he had been arrested and convicted by Israelis in 1993.
Qatanani has denied ever having links to Hamas and told U.S. authorities that he had been detained by Israelis, but that they had never charged him with anything and never convicted him.
An immigration judge ruled in Qatanani’s favor in 2008, ordering that he be granted permanent resident status.
The trial showcased support for the imam from religious and law enforcement officials across New Jersey, who portrayed the imam as a voice of moderation and someone who helped build bridges between Muslims and authorities.
The government appealed the judge’s ruling. The next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 26.
Last week, Qatanani filed suit against the FBI and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in U.S. District Court in Newark to release records that could have bearing on his case.
Qatanani said he does not fear surveillance because those exposed to the mosque will learn the community wants acceptance and peace. Still, he hopes New Jersey authorities would be more open about their involvement in surveillance.
“If they want to continue to build bridges with the Muslim community, it is important to come forward and say what they did,” he said. “Our bridges are very strong. We ask them now to keep these bridges.”
Source: The Record