Federal authorities arrested a Bangladeshi national Wednesday morning for allegedly plotting to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City's lower Manhattan. School acquaintances describe the 21-year-old suspect, Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, as “very passionate about his Islamic religion.” Nafis thought that he was working with al-Qaeda operatives in his attempt to detonate what he thought was a 1,000-pound bomb in front of the Fed building on Liberty Street. But the device was a fake supplied to him by undercover FBI agents who had been tracking his activity, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and NYPD’s Ray Kelly said Wednesday afternoon.
Commissioner Kelly said Nafis’ planned sabotage was the 15th terrorist plot in the city thwarted by law enforcement since the 9/11 attacks.
Nafis came from Bangladesh in January and evidently as a cover for his terrorist plans enrolled in Southeast Missouri State University. After the spring semester, he moved to New York City. By July 5th, through phone calls and Facebook messages, he was trying to recruite a local Muslim to join him in “jihad” (war or struggle) against the United States. Later, he said that he and a confederate named “Yaqueen” expected to launch a “very, very, very, very big” attack. He suggested at one point that he and his confederates “just want to meet our lord as soon as we can.” Last month, he moved to 93rd Ave. in Jamaica, Queens and started final preparations for the attack. However, Nafis was surrounded by undercover federal agents introduced by the local informant as al-Qaeda operatives.
Debate among city Muslims about how to stop terrorism
The case amplifies a large debate among city Muslims about whether the police ought to do more covert surveillance or more cooperation with the Muslim community in order to prevent terrorist plots.
A source within the community told the FBI about Nafis’ plans. The would be terrorist also told the federal informant that he dismissed American Muslims and Muslim sheikhs as “Talafi,” the Arabic word to describe people who are not true Muslims.
Some Muslim leaders point to the role of the informant and the fact that they are seen as the enemy by the wannabee terrorist as facts that argue for less emphasis on covert spying on the American Muslim community and more active cooperation.
Daisy Khan, co-founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement headquartered here in the city, told A Journey in an interview before the terrorist attack was prevented yesterday that she believed that the more that the police openly cooperated with city Muslims, the more successful the police will be in gaining trust and stopping terrorist plots.“All it [the extensive covert surveillance] does is create deep distrust,” she said. “I don’t know what [the surveillance] has amounted to. If there was open engagement and mechanism by which we could cooperate, we could work with law enforcement.”
However, some Muslim leader say that they feel vindicated by their support of the controversial support of the NYPD’s covert surveillance program.
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Leadership Coalition, told A Journey that Muslims must take an active stand against terrorism by allowing the police to do the work they deem necessary.
“We thank God every day for the NYPD,” Jasser says. “For too long, the NYPD has come under a systematic and coordinated assault by highly-politicized Islamist organizations.”
Last March, Imam Qazi Qayyoom of Jackson Heights, Queens and thirty other imans gathered at One Police Plaza at the NYPD headquarters for a rally sponsored by the American Islamic Leadership Coalition.
Dismissing the approaches of Khan and Jasser, several local Muslims tweeted that they suspected that the FBI and NYPD tricked Nafis into a terrorist plot. Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-Muslim journalist who defaced one of the anti-Jihad posters in the NYC subway system, tweeted, “We have seen so many entrapments here in the US.” Cyrus McGoldrick, who works at the Council of American-Islamic Relations in New York seconded the suspicions, “FBI leads idiot into an #entrapment case. Thank God we give them so much money to manufacture crimes.”
The federal case is the latest sting operation against wannabee terrorists.
Four men were convicted in 2009 in a plot to bomb synagogues and shoot down military planes with missiles — a case that began after an FBI informant was assigned to infiltrate a mosque in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York City. The federal judge hearing the case criticized the government's role in nurturing the plot.
In 2004, a Pakistani immigrant was arrested and convicted for a scheme to blow up the subway station at Herald Square in midtown Manhattan. His lawyers argued that a police informant set up their client by agitating him with pictures of abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
The build-up of covert surveillance of NYC Muslims
In the aftermath of 9/11 the New York Police Department loosened its rules and expanded its covert surveillance within New York City and elsewhere. The police set up a “Demographics Unit” with Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu speakers to compile information obtained through internet searches and undercover work inside mosques, Islamic community centers, and political organizations. In a June article in Commentary magazine, Mitchell D. Silber, the director of NYPD intelligence analysis from 2007 to 2012, said that the unit’s mission was to identify “venues of radicalization” or “hot spots,” ethnic concentrations and events that might be venues of radicalization. The unit issued daily intelligence reports for a period of time.
An Associated Press’ investigation also discovered that the NYPD expanded the boundaries of its covert surveillance to encompass the entire northeast region and beyond. Some undercover officers even accompanied 18 Muslim students on a whitewater rafting retreat in upstate New York.
On the federal level the 2001 Patriot Act relaxed the rules for intelligence gathering, expanded domestic surveillance and greatly increased deportation of illegal immigrants. By 2003, 13,000 Arabs and Muslims faced deportation. The U.S. Justice Department itself admitted that the government had violated the rights of hundreds of immigrants by jailing them without cause or evidence of terrorist ties.
Controversy over the Muslim Student Association
The NYPD has put an emphasis on surveillance of Muslim Student Association (MSA) groups at local colleges and universities. As part of their weekly surveillance work, the police investigated the student groups’ blogs, websites and forums to detect any signs of terrorist threats, suspicious activity, or radical tendencies
The alarm over the Muslim Student Association will only grow louder with the news that the terrorist Nafis who attempted to attack the Federal Reserve was the vice president of the association during the brief time that he was a student at Southeastern Missouri State University, fellow students told the New York Daily News.
Mushfiqur Rahman, a sophomore at the school, said he spoke to Nafis several times, but mostly about religion. “We chit-chatted about the Islamic religion,” Rahman said. “He said he was very passionate about the Islamic religion in a positive way.” Another student Jim Dow recalled that Nafis tried to convert him to Islam and left a Qu’ran with him to read. Nafis told Dow that Osama ben Laden could not have been involved in the 9/11 attacks because a true Muslim would do such a thing.
Some experts say that the student association has a long history of connections with radical Islam. The Investigative Project Report, a comprehensive data center on radical Islamic terrorist groups, notes that the Muslim Student Association began at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1963 under the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist organization with a history of violence and radical religious views that are an “ideological underpinning for all modern Sunni Islamic terrorist groups.” The student group continues to promote the radical views of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the data center.
However, many observers say that the student association is like many campus groups that are open to whomever comes and utilizes volunteers. The character of the campus groups changes constantly. MSA supports Muslim cooperation with police in their anti-terrorism investigations. In a press release MSA National President Zahir Latheef said, “MSA National has always been an organization willing to work alongside law enforcement agencies to help keep our communities safe.” However, Latheef has also criticized the NYPD for over-zealous covert surveillance of ordinary Muslim students.
Support for police covert surveillance as essential to anti-terrorist activties
Following the initial AP report in August 2011, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly defended the surveillance work, explaining how the mapping program allowed the NYPD to find dangerous terrorist threats. Kelley pointed out at yesterday’s press conference that this current plot was the fifteenth one uncovered since 2001. In 2004 the NYPD dismantled the plans of conspirators Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay to plant a bomb in the Herald Square subway station. In 2010 the NYPD arrested Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte in New Jersey as they were in route to Somalia for terror training with an al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist group.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to support the NYPD’s work beyond the city limits as a case of being professionally thorough. Representative Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, agrees with Mayor Bloomberg and has been vocal about the city’s goal of uprooting terrorism throughout the country.
The public also supports the city government’s anti-terrorist activities. Among New Yorkers, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 82 percent of respondents believed the NYPD had been effective in fighting terrorist threats. A lesser majority—63 percent—approved of the way the New York police were conducting their job. 58 percent believed that its activities were conducted in a legal manner. Only 29 percent thought the police were unfair in their treatment of Muslims.
Yet, some federal authorities have misgivings about the expanded covert surveillance of the NYPD. In March Michael Ward, the agent in charge of the Newark division of the FBI, told the New Jersey Record that the surveillance has “starting to have a negative impact” on its relations with the Muslim community, making the FBI’s job “much, much, much harder.”
However, this time the FBI , NYPD and members of the Muslim community worked together.
With additional reporting by Tony Carnes.