By Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo
A paid informant for the New York Police Department's intelligence unit was under orders to "bait" Muslims into saying inflammatory things as he lived a double life, snapping pictures inside mosques and collecting the names of innocent people attending study groups on Islam, he told The Associated Press.
Shamiur Rahman, a 19-year-old American of Bengali descent who has now denounced his work as an informant, said police told him to embrace a strategy called "create and capture." He said it involved creating a conversation about jihad or terrorism, then capturing the response to send to the NYPD. For his work, he earned as much as $1,000 a month and goodwill from the police after a string of minor marijuana arrests.
"We need you to pretend to be one of them," Rahman recalled the police telling him. "It's street theater."
Rahman said he now believes his work as an informant against Muslims in New York was "detrimental to the Constitution." After he disclosed to friends details about his work for the police — and after he told the police that he had been contacted by the AP — he stopped receiving text messages from his NYPD handler, "Steve," and his handler's NYPD phone number was disconnected.
Rahman's account shows how the NYPD unleashed informants on Muslim neighborhoods, often without specific targets or criminal leads. Much of what Rahman said represents a tactic the NYPD has denied using.
One of his earliest assignments was to spy on a lecture at the Muslim Student Association at John Jay College in Manhattan. The speaker was Ali Abdul Karim, the head of security at the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque on Bedford Avenuein Brooklyn. The NYPD had been concerned about Karim for years and already had infiltrated the mosque, according to NYPD documents obtained by the AP.
Rahman also was instructed to monitor the student group itself, though he wasn't told to target anyone specifically. Steve, his handler, told him to take pictures of people at the events, determine who belonged to the student association and identify its leadership.
Rahman said police never discussed the activities of the people he was assigned to target for spying. He said police told him once, "We don't think they're doing anything wrong. We just need to be sure."
On some days, Rahman's spent hours and covered miles in his undercover role. On Sept. 16, for example, he made his way in the morning to the Al Farooq Mosque on Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn, snapping photographs of an imam and the sign-up sheet for those attending a regular class on Islamic instruction. He also provided their cell phone numbers to the NYPD.
That evening, he spied on people at Masjid Al-Ansar in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Informants like Rahman are a central component of the NYPD's wide-ranging programs to monitor life in Muslim neighborhoods since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Police officers have eavesdropped inside Muslim businesses, trained video cameras on mosques and collected license plates of worshippers. Informants who trawl the mosques — known informally as "mosque crawlers" — tell police what the imam says at sermons and provide police lists of attendees, even when there's no evidence they committed a crime.
The programs were built with unprecedented help from the CIA.
Police recruited Rahman in late January, after his third arrest on misdemeanor drug charges, which Rahman believed would lead to serious legal consequences. An NYPD plainclothes officer approached him in a Queens jail and asked whether he wanted to turn his life around.
The next month, Rahman said, he was on the NYPD's payroll. Secretly, Rahman was mining his new friends for details about their lives, taking pictures of them when they ate at restaurants and writing down license plates on the orders of the NYPD.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not immediately return a message seeking comment about Tuesday. He has denied widespread NYPD spying, saying police only follow leads.