Shahawar Matin Siraj immigrated to Queens, N.Y., from Pakistan with his family when he was 16. Siraj began working at his uncle’s Islamic bookshop in Queens where, soon after 9/11, an undercover police officer began coming around and engaging Siraj in conversations about politics and religion. Whatever Siraj said to the officer in those conversations, it was enough for NYPD to soon assign another undercover officer to befriend the young man as well.
That second officer showed Siraj images of victims of American wars in the Middle East and of Guantanamo Bay, and began making up stories about secret terrorist organizations inside the U.S. Over the next year, the undercover agent prodded Siraj to devise a plan to detonate a bomb in New York City, as a means of responding to the U.S. government’s violence. Siraj first agreed but eventually refused to actively participate in the plot, saying, “No, I don’t want to do it.” But after more repeated prodding of the young man, Siraj finally agreed to act as a lookout for others.
A week later, Siraj was called by the NYPD to a police station to deal with an outstanding misdemeanor charge. Upon arrival, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The next day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested and detained Siraj’s mother, sister and father. His mother and sister spent 11 days and his father six months in a New Jersey detention center.
A new report, released last week by New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, documents Siraj’s case alongside two others in which law enforcement has used of legally suspect policing practices that conjure imaginary terrorism plots, which are used to target and entrap Muslims living in the U.S. In each of the three cases the report explores in depth, the defendants were sentenced to 25 years to life for planning terrorist plots that didn’t exist prior to the police or FBI goading them into existence. The FBI and NYPD designed the plots, pushed them on vulnerable young men who had not been involved terrorist organizations and, once the previously law-abiding young men were hooked, triumphantly foiled the supposed danger.
The government’s use of paid, untrained informants, concocted plots and racial profiling of Muslim communities in its frantic effort to stop so-called homegrown terrorism has raised serious human and civil rights concerns. The NYU report builds on a growing body of investigative journalism and advocacy that has called into question both the legality and efficacy of these policing practices. In the past decade, over 200 domestic anti-terrorism cases have used paid informants, according to the Center on Law and Security, also at NYU. Ninety-seven percent of those investigations have resulted in convictions.
In December, Attorney General Eric Holder scoffed at the idea that the FBI’s domestic anti-terrorism practices have amounted to entrapment. “Options are always given all along the way for them to say, ‘You know what, I have changed my mind. I don’t want to do it,’ ” Holder told CBS.
But Siraj in fact told the undercover agent that he did not want to participate. The agent still maintained pressure, pushing the young to play a passive role in a plot that didn’t exist before the agent’s involvement and would never take place.
“They’ve ruined my children’s future, my daughter’s college,” says Siraj’s mother. “Years have been wasted. She’s now the sister of a ‘terrorist.’”
In response to the NYU report, the FBI defended its practices to the Los Angeles Times. “The FBI does not investigate individuals absent specific information that they are committing crimes or pose a risk to national security,” FBI spokeswoman Kathleen Wright wrote by email. “We do not investigate people … based solely on their race, ethnicity, national origin, or religious affiliation. Our internal guidelines expressly prohibit this conduct as well as such tactics to recruit informants.”
But the NYU report tells a different story. Amna Akbar, one of the authors of the report says, “Lax laws and Islamophobic culture, combined with what are no doubt high pressures on the FBI, NYPD, and prosecutors to create ‘results’ in the war on terrorism, have produced dangerous realities and dangerous incentives for the way that law enforcement is interacting with Muslim communities.”
Akbar says the report “makes clear that we all need to look behind the headlines when it comes to terrorism indictments and policing.”