Rabat – In the heat of the 2016 elections in the US, one of the presidential candidates suggested that police needs to “patrol” Muslim neighborhoods, in response to the controversy about monitoring of mosques by the FBI and police units, and the concern about the rising numbers of domestic terrorist attempts. Cruz never elaborated on his remarks, but his comments sparked a wave of outrage (more from Democrats, and from the Islamist organization CAIR than from within Muslim communities) and accusations of unconstitutionality and Islamophobia. However, leaving aside the expected partisan reactions, his suggestion was neither unprecedented nor particularly radical. Indeed, physical, non-electronic surveillance in public spaces is completely constitutional in the United States (with no particular need to elaborate); the issue here was whether the police could profile particular neighborhoods on the basis of religion. Indeed, while there may be some questions about the length of targeted surveillance against specific subjects (though according to at least some rulings, even warrantless digital surveillance of a felon in public space can go on indefinitely), police patrolling is not aimed against anyone in particular, and therefore does not trigger Fourth Amendment concerns.
That too, on second glance, is not particular controversial. The president has no control over police patrols; where police activity is allocated is up to each individual city. Cruz was expressing nothing more than wishful thinking in light of his understanding of the problem. This was not a policy that his (or anyone’s) administration would have been able to implement. But there is little to argue about even on city level in terms of legality of such a program. Although there are certainly neighborhoods predominantly populated by immigrants and descendants of immigrants from Muslim majority countries, anyone can live there -and non-Muslims do. Despite what may be perceived as awkward wording, the police presence in such neighborhoods would extend to anyone who lives there, not just Muslims, and though heightened religious profiling could raise questions, the police presence could just as well protect Muslims (and others) who reside in those neighborhoods from terrorists, who frequently prefer to live in places where they can easily blend in, and for that reason more often than not actually do reside in Muslim majority neighborhoods. Furthermore, there was no proposal that religious profiling should take precedence over hard evidence of criminal activity, conspiratorial behavior (under US Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act statutes), or evidence of connections to the jihadist netherworld.
Indeed, Cruz’s recommendation seems downright minimalist compared to actions that Morocco, certainly a Muslim majority country, has taken to secure its own citizenry from the spread of violently Islamist ideology. One aspect of Morocco’s successful counterterrorism strategy is the monitoring of Mosques by the government. Thanks to the implementation of that strategy dozens of jihadist networks have been dismantles since 2002. But Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with no specific limitations against such forms of surveillance, and with an established state religion; by contrast, the United States is a republic (not, contrary to popular perception, a democracy), with specific protections against establishment of state religion, as well as the government’s interference with religious practices.
Furthermore, additional concerns arise from the fact that imams (as well as any other religious leaders) may have fiduciary relationships with their congregants, and there is a reasonable presumption that such a religious space is privy to that relationship, and therefore government surveillance is particularly restrictive. For instance, electronic surveillance of a place of worship would generally require a search warrant; critics have long since considered the FISA court controversial due to the popular perception that it rubber stamps federal electronic surveillance warrant requests. Other courts require a significant showing of probable cause in any electronic surveillance requests. That, however, does not mean that no there is no reason to watch mosques in the United States or that it has not been done. In the past. Counterterrorism studies have shown that there are sophisticated networks of organizations with jihadist connections all over the United States. Nearly 4 percent (over 80 mosques) out of ove 2,000 mosques in the United States, registered as of 2010, was known to have jihadist connections. That number might be constantly in flux, but what remains clear is that a number of well established congregations has not had significant changes since that dates.
Some of the worst offenders were home to known terrorists, including the 9/11 suicide bombers; while others openly propagated violence. Such mosques are considered “radical”; it is less clear whether mosques that embrace revolutionary Islamist imams and ideology, but do not openly call for violence in pursuit of the future caliphate, have been studied separately. The FBI has continued surveillance of suspected criminal and terrorist activities; under RICO statues, even an otherwise lawful act in furtherance of criminal activity would be fair game. Interestingly, similar programs instituted by city police departments, such as the NYPD, drew outrage, negative publicity, lawsuits, and in New York’s case, were eventually ended by Mayor De Blasio. Civil liberties advocates criticized the program for singling out Muslim institutions and engaging in discriminatory practices; although in many cases, the NYPD relied on volunteer informants, rather than on secretive wiretaps, ACLU and Islamist organizations such as CAIR, claimed that any surveillance at all would have a chilling effect.
In the end, however, NYPD and other city surveillance programs were PR failures rather than constitutional violations. For instance, the city, at the time, failed to make clear that any religious institution that was suspected of facilitating criminal activity, particularly if that criminal activity involved direct threats of violence and endangered human lives, would be subject to the same type of surveillance. They further failed to explain that terrorists, embedded in mosque presented grave danger to the image of the Muslim communities, and would target non-Islamist Muslim with greater fervor than non-Muslim. Finally, very little has been written about the extent of the cooperation between Muslim communities and the law enforcement. Instead, critics managed to equate Islamists and terrorists with all Muslims, defaming the face of the many innocent people who did not wish to see a den of criminal activity blossom in their communities, and wanted even less to see their children targeted and recruited by violent or extremist organizations. The worst failing, however, was the ability to communicate clearly that there would be no generalized targeting of all Muslim institutions on the basis of religion; rather, the targets – whether imams, mosques themselves, or particular congregants and their cohorts would be targeted as any criminal target in a plot. These would be the people who’d be overheard plotting elsewhere or who had strong associations with suspects in other ongoing investigations, or who had a history of violence and little evidence that they have every stopped.
One of the criticisms that could be easily levied against these institutions is that many imams there came from other countries, were poorly vetted, or emerged from communities and organizations with known terrorism-related issues. On the other hand, detractors could argue that volunteer informants might not be all that reliable, and that it could be difficult to corroborate individualized accounts, and establish more than hearsay and chatter among various people who could not be immediately implicated in anything. And this is where Morocco’s experience could come in handy. First, taking intelligence-sharing to new levels could preclude accusations of random and baseless targeting. Moroccan authorities could help identify individuals who have connections to international terrorism or radical organizations,, and help verify various factors that go into identifying serious suspects.
Second, they could work closely with the law enforcement to bring many of these agencies on the same page and build skills in understanding additional factors that should be considered red flags with respect to the types of suspects that are not necessarily violent, but who contribute to radicalization and facilitate other criminal activity. Third, while only a minority of Islamists ever becomes violent, the ultimate goal of that ideology is violent, and even the non-violent methods used are dangerous and harmful to US security and society – and in some cases escalate to the next level in a way that is not always easy to predict. One could argue that Islamism is by nature radical, aimed at violent ends and even without any expectation of immediate violence, highly dangerous and bears an automatic reasonable suspicion that should invite closer investigation.
Third, vetting imams, working with the communities to maximize cooperation, and empowering voices that can counter the established narratives and falsehoods under the pretense of legitimacy requires strong understanding of cultures and mindsets that goes beyond simple ability to trace criminal networks and associations. Experts at such vetting, who are friendly, moderate, experienced, and have legitimacy of their own, could be central to the reevaluation of these security measures. Disrupting bad narratives and exposing lies and trickery is just as important as catching criminals and terrorists, and in fact, is the major failing of the law enforcement and public policy in the United States. Radicalization by foreign imams is just a symptom of our poor ability to understand and deal with a much larger problems. Closer partnership with a country that can help us navigate these challenges, within the context of our own laws and social expectations, can help us avoid repeating many of the deadly mistakes we have made in the past.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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