[News] FBI Opened Terrorism Investigations Into Nonviolent Palestinian Solidarity Group

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 6 10:53:21 EDT 2020


  FBI Opened Terrorism Investigations Into Nonviolent Palestinian
  Solidarity Group

Chip Gibbons - April 5, 2020

_In 2006, St._ Louis-based activist and academic Mark Chmiel received a 
message on his answering machine from the Federal Bureau of 
Investigation. The FBI wanted to talk to Chmiel about trip three years 
ago that he and other St. Louis activists took with the International 
Solidarity Movement to the West Bank, in the Israeli-occupied 
Palestinian territories. When Chmiel’s attorney reached out to the FBI, 
they did not respond.

Chmiel later wrote that he was motivated to travel to the West Bank by 
Palestinians’ calls for volunteers, international organizations’ 
inability to deal with the occupation, and his own country’s complicity 
in Israel’s actions. The International Solidarity Movement, or ISM, 
which would be Chmiel’s vehicle, encourages international volunteers to 
come to the occupied territories and engage in nonviolent direct action 
against the occupation. During the delegation Chmiel was on, Israel 
soldiers opened fire on a Palestinian protest and injured one of the St. 
Louis activists. An aging Holocaust survivor who was also part of the 
delegation was subjected to ahumiliating and invasive 
search when departing from Israel.

These deprivations of rights experienced by Americans at the hands of 
Israeli authorities, however, were not what interested the FBI. Instead, 
the FBI was conducting an international terrorism investigation 
into Chmiel and another activist from the delegation (The Intercept 
reached out to the second activist, who asked that their name be withheld).

Neither Chmiel nor the general public ever learned of the official 
terrorism investigation until now. Its existence was revealed by 
hundreds of pages of FBI files about the International Solidarity 
obtained by The Intercept through a public records request. The 
documents make references to other investigations from FBI field offices 
around the country involving ISM or its members, but many of the files 
are so heavily redacted that it is impossible to tell what they refer 
to. In at least some instances, the FBI appears to be monitoring the 
political activity of ISM members or at the very least noting ISM 
affiliation of subjects of FBI monitoring.

It is clear, however, that the FBI conducted at least two major 
investigations into ISM. In addition to the international terrorism 
investigation into the two St. Louis activists, the FBI’s Los Angeles 
Field Office initiated a domestic security investigation into ISM as an 

    “These cases demonstrate the FBI’s unwillingness to distinguish
    non-violent civil disobedience protesting government policy from

Nothing in the documents suggests any of these investigations ever 
resulted in criminal charges. Instead, the documents reveal sprawling 
investigations involving FBI field offices in multiple states and the 
national headquarters, as well as local law enforcement. FBI agents 
resorted not only to confidential informants and physical surveillance, 
but a scandal-prone unit formed in the wake of the September 11 
terrorist attacks accessed the phone records of at least one activist. 
In both investigations, the FBI relied heavily on biased right-wing 
publications making fantastical claims of questionable veracity.

The investigations, the documents show, cast a wide net. Other groups 
making nonviolent objections to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian 
territories were named as associates of ISM; their board members and 
other affiliations were listed in the documents simply owing to glancing 
associations with the group under investigation.

Throughout the documents, the political beliefs of ISM members and other 
Palestinian solidarity activist were treated as though they were 
synonymous with terrorism. The approach is of a piece with the FBI’s 
long history <https://rightsanddissent.org/fbi-spying/> of using its 
intelligence and national security powers to track domestic dissent.

“These cases demonstrate the FBI’s unwillingness to distinguish 
non-violent civil disobedience protesting government policy from 
terrorism,” Michael German, a former FBI agent and current fellow at the 
Brennan Center for Justice, who reviewed the documents, told The 
Intercept. “The first” — the Los Angeles probe — “shows the FBI doesn’t 
even follow its own rules in opening Terrorism Enterprise 
Investigations. And the second” — in St. Louis ­— “shows the FBI’s use 
of tools designed to target foreign enemies against Americans exercising 
their First Amendment rights.”

The documents obtained by The Intercept were released in response to a 
Freedom of Information Act request filed in February 2015. The FBI, 
however, only began handing over the files in the fall of 2019 after 
litigation. While the FBI purports to have processed all documents 
exclusively in its possession, it maintains that it located other 
records that originated with or mention other government agencies and 
declined to release them. (The files also reference a separate earlier 
probe, based out of Los Angeles, into four individuals instead of ISM as 
an organization. Despite the allusions to this investigation in the 
documents the FBI sent in response to The Intercept’s FOIA request, no 
documents directly from the investigation were included in the released 

For ISM members, the episode is a surreal view into the priorities of 
America’s premier law enforcement and domestic intelligence agency. “The 
fact that ISM was under this kind of extensive investigation is 
ridiculous and a complete waste of taxpayer money,” ISM co-founder 
Huwaida Arraf told The Intercept. “ISM has always been open and 
transparent about who we are, what we do, and what we stand for, which 
is purportedly what this country stands for — freedom and human rights.”

      St. Louis Investigation


In March 2004, the FBI’s St. Louis Field Office launched its 
international terrorism investigation of two local ISM activists. 
Despite spending two years investigating the pair, the FBI ultimately 
concluded neither one of them had broken any U.S. laws or posed any 
threat to national security. Handwritten notes scrawled in the margins 
of both FBI files read “no leads no evidence.” The FBI concluded the two 
were merely pro-Palestinian activists.

Why the FBI ever thought the activists were guilty of anything other 
than First Amendment-protected activity remains unclear. The stated 
reasoning for the investigation is that the pair were members of ISM and 
that they traveled to the occupied Palestinian territories with the 
group. Yet the files indicate multiple St. Louis activists went on an 
ISM delegation to the Palestinian territories; why only the two were 
singled out is never explained.

This association with ISM appears to have been enough to warrant the 
probe. Local FBI agents had met with an “asset” of “unknown reliability” 
who informed them about ISM. Agents followed up by looking up ISM in the 
FBI’s automated case system, which was an electronic system used to 
maintain files about the FBI’s investigative, intelligence, and 
administrative activities. Whatever records they found — agents 
described the search as “cursory” — led them to link ISM to Hamas, the 
Islamist Palestinian resistance group that is classified as a terrorist 
organization by the U.S. But the links rested on thin reeds: The agents 
reported that “some persons who claim affiliation with the ISM are 
suspected of having loyalties, or sympathizing with Hamas or other more 
radical pro-Palestinian groups. ISM claims to be a peaceful movement 
that utilizes nonviolent direct action protest tactics to drive Israel 
from the Palestinian areas.”

The result of this purported association of some unnamed individuals 
within ISM’s orbits with international terrorists — as well as supposed 
links to domestic anarchists — the St. Louis Field Office took it upon 
themselves to investigate the two activists to “assess any possible 
terrorism links,” launching the terrorism investigation.

Despite turning up no real evidence of any wrongdoing, the FBI was able 
to pull the phone records of at least one of the two activists. 
According to the documents obtained by The Intercept, the FBI’s 
Communications Analysis Unit processed Chmiel’s phone records and found 
“one telephone number in CAU analysis of Chmiel’s phone was linked to a 
highly classified CIA cable.”

The FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit, which was created after the 
September 11 attacks to support terrorism investigations by analyzing 
phone records, was heavily criticized 
during this period by the Office of Inspector General for obtaining 
phone records without first getting either a grand jury subpoena or what 
is known as a national security letter.

How the Communications Analysis Unit obtained Chmiel’s phone records or 
what justification was provided is unknown. In the document that 
mentioned links to the CIA cable, the preceding paragraph mentioned a 
grand jury subpoena, but redactions make it impossible to know what the 
subpoena dealt with. (The second activist’s file also contains a 
redacted reference to a grand jury subpoena.) The FBI was never an 
intended recipient of the CIA cable and the CIA proved slow to share its 
contents with the FBI, the document says.

While the CIA foot-dragging was used to put off closing one activist’s 
case even after other had been closed, eventually the agents relented. 
“For this reason further delay of this closing communication is not 
deemed feasible,” the file 
said, referring to internal cable that would officially end the probe. 
The case was closed on March 21, 2006.


Illustration: Leonardo Santamaria for The Intercept

      Los Angeles Investigation

A mere three months after the St. Louis investigation was opened, the 
FBI’s Los Angeles Field office launched its own investigation into ISM. 
This time, it was a so-called Terrorist Enterprise Investigation — a 
type of probe reserved for groups that seek political or social change 
through violence or force — that would last until 2005.

Throughout the documents related to the investigation, the FBI again 
conflated political beliefs with terrorism. According to FBI documents 
outlining the justification for the probe, ISM members ‘“predisposition 
to anti-capitalist and anti-global philosophy” — an apparent reference 
to the anti-globalization movement — “coupled with their sympathetic 
views on the Palestinian cause gives rise to the concern that ISM 
members can be directed, coerced, or through their own volition, be the 
purveyors of acts of terrorism.”


As part of their investigation, the Los Angeles Field Office developed 
confidential informants, circulated articles from a right-wing website, 
and tracked the domestic arrests of ISM members for civil disobedience, 
according to the documents. When profiling “key ISM leaders/associates,” 
the FBI took care to note the activists’ nationalities and religious 
backgrounds, recording that certain individuals were “Palestinian,” 
“Palestinian-American,” or “born from a Jewish family.”

Despite the murky justifications for the investigation, information 
about the probe made its way around federal and local agencies. Though 
the LA Field Office initiated the investigation, officials at FBI 
headquarters in Washington, D.C., were both aware of and supportive of 
the probe, according to the documents.

In November 2004, an FBI counterterrorism unit scheduled a meeting to 
take place at headquarters to “assess the current investigative activity 
to date, share intelligence, and to coordinate and formulate strategy 
for future investigation of the ISM.” The Washington-based 
counterterrorism unit requested the Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, 
and Texas field offices all send representatives to the meeting. It’s 
not clear from the documents released by the FBI whether the meeting 
took place or what came of it. Many details of the meeting are redacted 
in the FBI documents, including one entirely redacted entity that agents 
are to meet with as part of the investigation.


The FBI sent information about the purpose of the meeting to a legal 
attaché — the term of art for FBI offices stationed in embassies abroad. 
The FBI has 63 such overseas offices, including a Tel Aviv office that 
covers Israel and the Palestinian territories. The location of the legal 
attaché on the correspondence about the ISM meeting was redacted on the 
grounds that releasing that information “would disclose techniques and 
procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions” — though 
such information is not removed from publicly released documents as a 
matter of course.

In her statement to The Intercept, Arraf, ISM co-founder, noted that ISM 
was frequently in touch with diplomatic outposts in the Middle East. “In 
the occupied Palestinian territory,” she said, “we were, and continue to 
be, in touch with embassies and consulates, including that of the United 

The LA investigation into ISM also touched offices beyond those at the 
Washington meeting. During the investigation, agents in Chicago; 
Springfield, Illinois; Boston; Minneapolis; Atlanta; Richmond, Virginia; 
Cleveland; Houston; San Francisco; and elsewhere all followed leads, 
gathered evidence, and in at least on case conducted physical 
surveillance. In a number of instances, local police aided these efforts.

Four months after the investigation was opened, the FBI files mention 
for the first time that the probe centered on claims that ISM members 
were “conspiring to violate neutrality laws through direct actions 
against the Israeli government for its occupation of Palestine and to 
commit other criminal acts within the U.S.”

This invocation of the Neutrality Act in the LA investigation is 
illustrative of the law’s controversial history of selective 
enforcement. Originally passed in 1794 to prohibit private citizens from 
engaging in military expeditions against nations the U.S. is at peace 
with, the law remains on the books and has been enforced as recently as 
2016. It has, however, not been neutrally applied. Controversially, the 
U.S. government refused to apply the law to theBay of Pigs invasion 
of Cuba in 1961 or the 1980s Contra war to overthrow Nicaragua’s 
Sandinista government. Attempts to strike down neutrality act 
convictions based on its blatant selective enforcement, however, have 
been rejected by courts.

The FBI’s contorted reliance on this law to justify investigating 
nonviolent political action in support of Palestinian human rights is 
line with this history of politically convenient selective enforcement.

      The Wide Net

The FBI’s LA investigation was also based on a claim that ISM activists 
“have shown a loose association with foreign terrorist organizations, 
such as Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and 
Islamic Jihad activists” — referring to a host of armed Palestinian 
groups considered to be terrorists by the U.S and Israel. Associations 
with domestic groups were also wrapped in: The case file cites ISM’s 
supposed connection to the Ruckus Society, a civil society group that 
shares skills about nonviolent direct action, as a justification for the 
LA investigation. A document dated December 13, 2004, says the Ruckus 
Society itself is “currently the subject of a Terrorist Enterprise 
Investigation out of San Francisco.” The FBI documents identify the 
Ruckus Society as an “anarchist” group, frequently using the term 
interchangeably with domestic terrorism group.

A key source for the FBI’s claim that ISM had loose associations with 
foreign terrorist organizations appears to be FrontPage Magazine, a 
website run by the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center that 
frequently launches broadsides against pro-Palestinian activists. 
to the South Poverty Law Center, FrontPage “has become a platform for 
publishing a plethora of far-right and anti-Muslim writers and 
commentators.” The December 13, 2004, memo on the investigation cites to 
two separate FrontPage articles.

In addition to drawing on loose allegations of associations of ISM with 
foreign terrorist organizations to justify the investigation, the FBI 
also tracked ISM’s own domestic associations.

    “In Dr. King’s time, surveillance was justified in terms of alleged
    Communist influence; in recent years, surveillance has been
    justified by alleged association with terrorists. In both cases,
    U.S. citizens were employing nonviolent action to confront injustice
    and oppression.”

The Los Angeles Field Office noted a “strong association” between the 
American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker activist group, and the 
ISM.” Later in the case file, it is noted that ISM often fundraises with 
“other Islamic organizations” — though ISM has no religious affiliation. 
The case file contains unfounded claims that Al-Awda: The Palestine 
Right to Return Coalition; Stop U.S. Tax-funded Aid to Israel Now; and 
Palestine Solidarity Movement are alternative names for ISM, as opposed 
to separate organizations who work for a similar cause.

One special agent, according to files, also discovered on the internet 
that a member of ISM was also a member of the U.S. Campaign to End 
Israeli Occupation, a group now known as the U.S. Campaign for 
Palestinian Rights. The special agent detailed information that appeared 
on the U.S. Campaign’s website about the group’s political views and 
listed the names and organizational affiliations of all the campaign’s 
board members. The FBI didn’t need to go beyond the U.S. Campaign’s 
website to gather this information.

While the investigations could be viewed as harmless, since they 
ultimately failed to turn up any evidence of terrorism, but they are in 
line with a dark side of the FBI’s history. ISM turned out to be exactly 
what it said it was — entirely nonviolent — yet the FBI still justified 
its probes through paranoid views of political associations. It wasn’t 
just that the federal government was monitoring political speech, the 
FBI treated certain forms of speech as evidence of terrorism. Supposed 
opinions of ISM members on political economy make them likely to become 
terrorists. It is taken for granted that associating with anarchists is 
akin to associating with terrorists.

It seems the FBI’s investigation resulted in little more than thousands 
of pages of documents that did little other than to make the FBI itself 
perhaps the greatest threat, by spying on First Amendment-protected 
speech. Today, with the knowledge that he was under investigation, 
Chmiel reflected on the the FBI’s history of spying on social justice 
activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how the targeting of such 
activism is ongoing. “In Dr. King’s time, surveillance was justified in 
terms of alleged Communist influence; in recent years, surveillance has 
been justified by alleged association with terrorists,” Chmiel said. “In 
both cases, U.S. citizens were employing nonviolent action to confront 
injustice and oppression.”

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