[Pnews] NYPD Undercover "Converted" To Islam To Spy On Brooklyn College Students - 2 Women Charged

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 30 12:46:50 EDT 2015


*http://gothamist.com/2015/10/29/nypd_undercover_brooklyn.php*


  NYPD Undercover "Converted" To Islam To Spy On Brooklyn College Students

by Aviva Stahl <http://gothamist.com/author/Aviva%20Stahl> in News 
<http://gothamist.com/news> on Oct 29, 2015 2:58 pm

On the leafy Midwood campus of Brooklyn College, a lecture at the 
school’s Islamic Society had just ended when a woman stood up and asked 
to take the Shahada, the Muslim testimony of faith.

Nobody knew the woman with light skin and dark hair, who appeared to be 
in her twenties. In a voice that lilted up at the end of each sentence, 
she began professing her new beliefs. “Melike Ser” or “Mel,” was not a 
student and had no apparent connections to the school, but the students 
embraced her anyway, excited about her conversion.

This past April, four years after Mel’s public act of faith, two Queens 
residents, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, were arrested and charged 
<http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/02/new-york-women-arrested-homemade-bomb> 
with allegedly planning to build a bomb. The US Justice Department 
issued a release 
<http://www.justice.gov/usao/nye/pr/April15/2015-April-2.php> stating 
that the women were linked to members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian 
Peninsula and the Islamic State, and revealed that a Detective from the 
NYPD’s Intelligence Bureau was heavily involved in bringing the women to 
justice.

Among the ISO members, some of whom ran in the same social circles as 
Velentzas and Siddiqui, the arrests set off a chain of frantic text 
messages, phone calls, and Facebook posts: “Mel” wasn’t “Mel.” She was 
an undercover cop.

Three Brooklyn College graduates who had been close to the undercover 
officer told Gothamist of the intimate ties she developed with Muslim 
students, her presence during some of the most private moments of their 
lives, and the fear they endured when they learned her true identity.

“I felt violated,” said Jehan, 30, who met Mel years ago in the Brooklyn 
College ISO prayer room. (At their request, Gothamist has used 
pseudonyms for all the women interviewed.)

“You trust someone, you talk to them. And they were just gathering 
information about your community.”

While little is known about the case against Velentzas and Siddiqui, 
including how and why the NYPD came to involve an undercover officer in 
the alleged plot, it appears that Mel made an aggressive effort to 
befriend and surveil law-abiding Muslims years before she ever met her 
alleged targets, and did so at least up until December of 2014, eight 
months after the de Blasio administration pledged to stop the NYPD’s 
blanket surveillance of innocent Muslims 
<http://gothamist.com/2014/04/15/nypd_dissolves_unit_that_spied_on_m.php>.

“Muslim New Yorkers are still fighting for basic human rights,” the 
Mayor said at a Ramadan dinner 
<http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics/mayor-de-blasio-discusses-shutdown-nypd-demographics-unit-ramadan-dinner-blog-entry-1.1854356> 
at Gracie Mansion in July of last year. “We recently shut down the 
Demographics Unit at NYPD, which conducted surveillance on Muslim New 
Yorkers. Because it’s unfair to single out people on the sole basis of 
their religion.”

Two individuals with close knowledge of Velentzas and Siddiqui’s case 
confirmed that Mel is the undercover officer identified in the criminal 
complaint.

Ramzi Kassem is a professor at CUNY School of Law and also directs the 
school’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR 
<http://www.law.cuny.edu/academics/clinics/immigration/clear.html>) 
project, which provides legal advice to New Yorkers affected by 
counterterrorism practices.

“For an undercover to be seeded in a community for that long without a 
specific target raises some deeply troubling questions about the 
direction of policing in our city,” he said. “Casting blanket suspicion 
on entire communities does not square with most New Yorkers’ 
understanding of the police’s role in our democratic and open society.”

Jehan has lived in New York City for 25 years. “I grew up here. To have 
this happen because of your religion, or your political views, it's 
scary. You feel alienated. And you don’t feel like this is your home.”

At first, Mel seemed warm and friendly, if a bit eager. “She was very 
nice, very charming,” said Shereen, who studied psychology at Brooklyn 
College and now works as a psychotherapist. “She wanted to do everything 
with us.”

Mel told the ISO women that she was a recent Rutgers College graduate 
who had grown up in Queens. She said that she was of Turkish descent and 
had been born into a Muslim but non-practicing family.

The women active in Brooklyn College’s Islamic Society were diverse. 
They majored in women’s studies, psychology, pre-med and political 
science, hung out with friends, crushed on boys, and nurtured their 
newfound political consciousness. They were coming of age in a city 
scarred by 9/11, and although their Muslim identity did not define them, 
it shaped their everyday lives.

But they knew their behavior was being scrutinized by the authorities. 
After 9/11, both the NYPD and the FBI revamped their approach to 
terrorism investigations and began operating under a policy of 
preventive prosecution [PDF 
<http://harvardnsj.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Vol-4-Brown-FINAL.pdf>]. 
In an internal document from 2007 [PDF 
<http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/downloads/pdf/public_information/NYPD_Report-Radicalization_in_the_West.pdf>], 
the NYPD identified particular indicators of radicalization—“wearing 
traditional Islamic clothing,” giving up drinking or smoking, and 
“becoming involved in social activism.” In the NYPD’s model of measuring 
threats, which have since been broadly criticized 
<https://www.aclu.org/blog/debunked-nypd-radicalization-report-just-wont-die>, 
young people were a key target.

Shereen, then 25, and a close friend, Faizah, were responsible for 
introducing new converts like Mel to the basic tenets of Islam. One day 
in early April 2011, Mel asked Faizah to meet her on campus. “Faizah 
told me afterward that Mel asked her some strange questions, like, ‘What 
is all this about jihad?’” Shereen recalled. “And asking about people 
who do suicide bombing.”

For Shereen and Faizah, Mel’s questions were a red flag. They suspected 
she was digging for information on the political beliefs of ISO members, 
possibly even pressing them to make incriminating statements.

At the time, Brooklyn College’s ISO was known for adhering to a 
particularly conservative interpretation of Islam. The group was 
segregated on the basis of gender, and the men and women did not spend 
time together socially. Mel was surrounding herself with women who 
covered their faces and wore long robes, but she did not even wear a 
hijab. Her religious practices did not seem to change, at least in the 
initial years the women knew her, and Mel never mentioned struggling 
with her new dual identity, a common experience for converts of any faith.

It was as though Mel’s decision to take the shahada, and the time she 
spent amongst much more observant Muslim women, had no affect on her or 
her religious practice. Soon some ISO members began to doubt that her 
conversion was genuine.

Mel was also always available to attend events and social gatherings, 
regardless of the time of day or the day of the week. “She would mention 
how she works full time,” said Rumaysa, 24, “and so then it got me 
thinking, is she working at these events?”

In August 2011, about half a year after Mel appeared at Brooklyn 
College, the AP began publishing a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning 
articles <http://www.ap.org/Index/AP-In-The-News/NYPD> documenting the 
NYPD’s spying in Muslim communities.

One month later, NYPD Confidential reported 
<http://nypdconfidential.com/columns/2011/110919.html> that an 
undercover cop had been sent to spy on Muslim students at Brooklyn 
College, despite a 1992 memorandum of understanding [PDF 
<http://www.qc.cuny.edu/about/security/Documents/NYPD.MOU.pdf>] that 
barred New York City police from entering CUNY campuses without permission.

After the NYPD Confidential story broke, Brooklyn College President 
Karen Gould denied that the administration had known about the 
undercover officer [PDF 
<http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/aca_facultycouncil/110913_Com_Minutes.pdf>], 
and condemned “the alleged intrusion of the NYPD into campus life.”

Muslim students continued to believe they were being watched. They 
decided to seek legal advice to discuss their concerns about Mel. In 
October, Shereen and another student approached Diala Shamas, who at the 
time was a lawyer at the CLEAR project at CUNY Law. The organization had 
recently facilitated a workshop for the Brooklyn College Muslim group 
about informants.

"Women at Brooklyn College shared their suspicions with us," Shamas 
recalled. "Unfortunately, this happens a lot. CLEAR receives concerns 
about potential informants or undercovers, and we can rarely help 
definitively confirm their suspicions. We do advise people to stay away 
from someone who makes them feel uncomfortable."

The students also tried to do their own digging. In February 2012, 
Rumaysa searched online to try to find out if Melike Ser was who she 
said she was.

“I tried Googling any combination [of her name] that could possibly 
bring up even a picture of her,” she said. “But nothing showed up, 
absolutely nothing.”

Without a way to corroborate their suspicions, the women decided to stay 
silent. “We just said, no, maybe that’s just how [Mel] is,” recalled 
Shereen. “Maybe we’re just too paranoid.”

It was also a question of faith. Backbiting without proof is strongly 
frowned upon in Islam, as is shunning a convert.

Mel continued to immerse herself in the student community, attending 
Islamic education classes, social gatherings, and trips to museums and 
the aquarium.

Shereen says Mel attending at least two bridal showers for ISO women, 
one of which was held in a Brooklyn College event space: "Mel shows up 
with this huge cake that she carried on the train."

In time, she was privy to some of the most intimate moments of the 
women’s lives, once even attending a wedding as a bridesmaid of a fellow 
ISO member.

By 2014, the Brooklyn College women had graduated, but the former 
students still encountered Mel around the city— at NYU, John Jay 
College, the MAS Youth Center <http://www.masyouthcenter.com/>, the 
Muslim Community Center in Sunset Park, Masjid Al-Farooq on Atlantic 
Avenue, and the Brooklyn Islamic Center 
<https://www.facebook.com/Brooklyn-Islamic-Center-BIC-131310266901225/> 
in Mapleton, where Mel was last seen on December 30 of last year. When 
the women saw Mel, they generally tried to avoid her.

Just a few months later, Velentzas and Siddiqui were arrested. The NYPD 
and FBI were broadly praised for their apparent success in foiling a 
homegrown terrorist plot. In an interview on FOX's “The Kelly File,” 
<http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/07/01/peter-king-megyn-kelly-isis-4th-july-threat-real-deal> 
New York Congressman Peter King called on Americans to “wake up and 
realize that we have to put political correctness aside … there are … 
too many people like this across the country.”

“These were two very, very dangerous individuals, these two women,” King 
said.

Four propane gas tanks, as well as instructions for how to turn them 
into explosive devices, are said to have been found in Siddiqui’s home, 
and according to the criminal complaint 
<http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/02/nyregion/criminal-complaint-filed-against-queens-women.html>, 
the two women had in-depth conversations with the undercover officer 
about their violent aspirations.

The complaint details how the women read up on and took notes on various 
different ways to build bombs, and browsed Home Depot for potential 
ingredients. Velentzas allegedly openly praised the 9/11 attacks and had 
a photograph of Bin Laden as the background on her phone; Asia Siddiqui, 
meanwhile, was supposedly “close” with Samir Khan, the 
Pakistani-American editor of al-Qaeda's English-language /Inspire/ magazine.

“The way to read an indictment like the one in this case, is with a 
great deal of skepticism,” says attorney Gideon Orion Oliver.

Oliver was co-counsel for Ahmed Ferhani 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/nyregion/ahmed-ferhani-pleads-guilty-in-plot-to-blow-up-synagogue.html>, 
who was also prosecuted for terrorism after an NYPD undercover sting. In 
December 2012, Ferhani pled guilty to five-terrorism related offenses 
and one hate crime charge, and is currently serving ten years in prison.

According to Oliver, in the Ferhani case and many others, the undercover 
officers develop “really profound and predatory” relationships with 
their targets, building emotionally intimate and even familial ties over 
the course of many months or years.

“The government and the undercover officers have significant roles in 
manufacturing what they then characterize as the defendants’ plots,” he 
said.

The case of the Newburgh Four—one of the most commonly cited examples of 
"entrapment" in the War on Terror—underscores the manipulative tactics 
sometimes used by informants and undercover cops to secure arrests. 
David Williams, one of the Newburgh Four co-defendants, said the FBI 
informant promised him the money he needed to pay for his younger 
brother’s liver transplant 
<http://www.villagevoice.com/news/were-the-newburgh-4-really-out-to-blow-up-synagogues-a-defendant-finally-speaks-out-6430182> 
if Williams participated in the plot.

Jose Pimentel was accused to trying to build a pipe bomb in 2011, and 
repeatedly smoked marijuana with his government informant 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/nyregion/for-jose-pimentel-bomb-plot-suspect-an-online-trail.html?pagewanted=2&partner=rss&emc=rss>, 
who was with him “virtually every step of the plot.” 
<http://gothamist.com/2011/11/23/lone_wolf_terror_suspect_gets_new_a.php> The 
federal government, citing Pimentel's mental state 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/nyregion/for-jose-pimentel-bomb-plot-suspect-an-online-trail.html> 
(he had allegedly tried to circumcise himself) and the NYPD undercover's 
involvement declined to pursue charges against Pimentel 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/20/nyregion/manhattan-man-pleads-guilty-to-reduced-charges-in-terror-case.html>.

According to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report 
<https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/07/21/illusion-justice/human-rights-abuses-us-terrorism-prosecutions> 
that documented patterns of rights violations in terrorism prosecutions, 
“the government—often acting through informants—is actively involved in 
developing [terrorism plots], persuading and sometimes pressuring the 
target to participate, and providing the resources to carry it out.”

In Velentzas and Siddiqui’s case, the undercover officer established a 
friendship with at least one of the women as early as 2013, according to 
the criminal complaint.

The two women are not alleged to have been in the process of planning a 
specific attack, and according to the criminal complaint, Velentzas 
repeatedly stated she would not want to harm any “regular” people, 
instead targeting police or military personnel.

The NYPD undercover allegedly observed Velentzas pull a knife from her 
bra to demonstrate to Siddiqui how to stab people, then remarked, “Why 
can’t be [sic] some real bad bitches?”

Velentzas later said, according to the complaint, “if [the government] 
was to put all the information about the three of us together, we 
legitimately, to these people, look like a cell.”

At one point, the complaint states that the undercover officer 
downloaded and printed out The Anarchist Cookbook for the two women, 
even bookmarking the section that outlined how to build fertilizer bombs.

Within a few days of the arrests, Shereen and other Brooklyn College 
graduates—who said they ran the same social circles as Velentzas and 
Siddiqui but did not know them personally—learned the name of the 
officer in the case and realized their longstanding suspicions about Mel 
were correct.

Neither Velentzas nor Siddiqui attended Brooklyn College. None of the 
women interviewed knew how or when the pair had met Mel.

A protective order in place since July prohibits the defendants’ legal 
team from releasing the officer's assumed name. The protective order 
also covers any discovery in the case, which may leave the public in the 
dark about the undercover’s role in the alleged offenses and her 
apparent infiltration of Muslim communities.

Lawyers for Velentzas and Siddiqui declined to comment for this story, 
citing "the existing protective order and other constraints."

For Shereen, finding out induced a kind of trauma, and it changed her. 
“For three days I couldn’t eat, sleep,” Shereen told Gothamist. “I 
covered all the cameras on my phone.”

Assistant Vice President Jason Carey said that Brooklyn College had not 
been notified of any undercover activity on campus.

“Our number one priority is the security of our campus and we do not 
condone any activity that could harm our students and faculty,” he said 
in an email. According to the communications office, however, Brooklyn 
College has never asked the NYPD for more details on the alleged 
placement of cops on campus or demanded an end to the practice.

A set of rules called the Handschu Guidelines prohibit the NYPD from 
spying on political or religious organizations without specific 
information linking the group to a crime.

“There is no doubt that the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, 
Counterterrorism Bureau, and other aspects are engaging in sweeping 
investigations at unprecedented levels of communities ‘demographically’ 
targeted by the NYPD through its ‘Muslim Surveillance’ and other similar 
programs,” Oliver said.

He added, “What practical constraints Handschu imposes on the NYPD in 
any of those investigations is a very big open question given the NYPD’s 
total lack of transparency about the lengths its agents go to in these 
cases.”

Martin Stolar is one of the original plaintiffs’ attorneys in the 
ongoing /Handschu v. Special Services Division 
<http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/a-never-ending-lawsuit-turns-40/>/ 
lawsuit, which challenges the city’s surveillance of and investigations 
into political and religious groups.

Stolar says that the NYPD’s spying on Brooklyn College students was only 
legal under Handschu if there was reasonable suspicion that a member had 
intent to commit a crime. If a participant in the ISO had sent an email 
expressing their desires to plan an attack, for example, and 
infiltrating the ISO was the best way to investigate the individual’s 
potential criminal behavior, Handschu would permit the placement of an 
undercover inside the group.

“If there was no criminal predicate but just curiosity or a desire to 
scout out Muslim students, there is a violation,” he said.

In addition to facing ongoing lawsuits for violating Handschu during 
counter-terrorism investigations, the NYPD was also questioned for its 
potentially illegal surveillance of Black Lives Matters protesters 
<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/nypd-black-lives-matter-surveillance_55d609a1e4b055a6dab3407a>. 


The NYPD’s press office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Mel appeared at Brooklyn College before the extent of the NYPD’s 
surveillance of Muslims was revealed, and remained a constant presence 
at least until the beginning of this year—so the revelations about her 
identity also suggest that little has changed on the ground when it 
comes to the policing of Muslim communities, despite promises by the new 
administration to the contrary.

Karen Hinton, a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office, wrote in an email 
that "The NYPD only carries out terrorism investigations into specific 
individuals or suspected terrorist organization—not communities, not 
religions.

"These investigations into specific individuals are carried out under a 
layered oversight regimen. Investigations by the NYPD Intelligence 
Bureau follow the Handschu guidelines in accordance with a federal court 
ruling. Both the Mayor and Commissioner Bratton are committed to keeping 
crime low, preventing terrorism and hate crimes. With that comes the 
obligation to police fairly and constitutionally. We will never waiver 
from that commitment."

A 2011 Mother Jones investigation 
<http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/08/fbi-terrorist-informants> 
established that in addition to the undercover police or FBI officers 
assigned to infiltrate Muslim communities, there are about 15,000 FBI 
informants planted around the US, many of whom have the same task. In 
some sense, what makes the experiences of the Brooklyn College students 
most unusual is not that they were spied on, but that they found out 
about it—that their paranoia was warranted.

“There are a few of us who trust each other, and that’s good that we 
have each other—some don’t even have that,” said Shereen. “But in the 
back of all our minds, there’s always that suspicion, that either, you 
are [a spy], or you think I’m one.

“We’re acting like criminals, even though we haven’t done anything.”

/Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based journalist who primarily writes about 
prisons, especially the experiences of terrorism suspects and LGBTQ 
people behind bars. Follow her @stahlidarity 
<http://www.twitter.com/stahlidarity>./

-- 
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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