[Pnews] Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Decade of Resistance
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Tue May 31 10:58:09 EDT 2016
Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Decade of Resistance - Rewire
May 26, 2016, 8:02pm Kanya D’Almeida
This is the third and final article in /Rewire/’s “Living in the
Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in
the series here <https://rewire.news/tag/no-separate-justice/>.
In the early hours of May 21, 2009, Alicia McWilliams was woken by a
frantic phone call from her sister, saying that the FBI had just raided
their other sister Elizabeth’s home. In an interview with /Rewire,/
McWilliams says she couldn’t decipher her sister’s hysterical words, and
so switched on the local news, which was blowing up with the alleged
”Bronx Terror Plot,” flashing scenes of her nephew, David
Williams—Elizabeth’s son—being led away in handcuffs on terrorism charges.
McWilliams says she knew right away that there was something wrong with
that picture, suspicions that only deepened as she learned the details
of how an FBI informant had befriended her nephew and three other
low-income Black Muslim men and involved them in a convoluted scheme
that would include attacking synagogues in New York City and an Air
National Guard base in Newburgh, New York.
She tells /Rewire/ on the phone her first thought was that the entire
plot smacked of the days of COINTELPRO—the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI)’s counterintelligence program that spied on and
infiltrated various political groups throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
Ushered into existence in 1956 to squash the Communist Party, the
program quickly turned its attention to groups like the Black Panther
Party in order to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise
the Black Liberation Movement.
Feeling a sense of déjà vu during the early days of her nephew’s arrest,
she watched as the government and the media spun a narrative of four
violent extremists plotting to blow up Jewish houses of worship in the
name of jihad, obscuring the vulnerability and desperation of the men
involved and the active role played by the informant.
The plot was so outrageous that even Judge Colleen McMahon, who presided
over the Newburgh Four trial and ultimately sentenced them to decades in
after a jury returned a guilty verdict, concluded
Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie
[one of the defendants in the case], whose buffoonery is positively
Shakespearean in its scope … I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt
that there would have been no crime here except the government
instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.
But for McWilliams, who was “scared to death” at the time, simply
acknowledging the injustice of the government’s counterterrorism tactics
was not enough. She felt compelled to fight back. The two-month-long
surrounding the “Bronx Terror Plot” saw her either sitting in the
courtroom or standing on the steps of the federal courthouse in White
Plains, New York, protesting the war on terror in both its domestic and
She talked to the press. She marched in the streets. Even after the
trial ended in a guilty verdict, she did not let up: Every waking moment
was spent fighting with her sister Elizabeth on David’s behalf.
Before long, she connected with other advocates and began speaking on
panels alongside the family members of hundreds of Muslims who have been
incarcerated on terrorism charges
She remembers a time when she was the only Black woman and non-Muslim in
those organizing spaces. “It was new for me,” she tells /Rewire/. “I was
different: I’m very outspoken, I cuss a lot. But they accepted me as a
sister. Because I was saying and doing what they all wanted to—I was
standing up and cussing out the government for taking our boys away.”
In the third part of /Rewire/’s “Living in the Shadow of
Counterterrorism” series, we talk to some of the families and activists
who have spent the past decade and a half fighting to expose religiously
biased federal policies that have fanned the flames of Islamophobia and
torn hundreds of American families apart.
At the heart of their struggle is a campaign called No Separate Justice,
a nationwide effort to unite groups fighting on multiple fronts and
across various marginalized populations
<http://no-separate-justice.org/issues/> to highlight the
criminalization of Muslims in the United States.
This past January Zurata Duka
an ethnic Albanian immigrant whose story /Rewire /reported on
previously, entered a Philadelphia prison where three of her four sons
were being held pending a court hearing. There, for the first time in
eight years, she held them in her arms.
Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir Duka had been arrested in 2007, in connection
with an alleged plot to attack the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.
The plot turned out to be manufactured by the FBI with the help of
confidential informants, who worked for months to try and record
evidence of the Dukas’ involvement in the plan.
Though the prosecution was unable to establish proof that the brothers
had agreed to the plot, and despite the fact that the FBI’s own
that the brothers were ignorant of the plan, a jury found them guilty
and sentenced all three to life in prison, with an additional 30-year
sentence for the youngest, Eljvir.
Imprisoned far from home—in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Colorado—the
three brothers almost never see their parents, siblings, or the children
that both Dritan and Eljvir left behind. For years they were even cut
off from physical contact with their family as the government shuffled
them between multiple high-security federal detention centers, where
they were held for long periods in isolation. To this day Eljvir remains
in solitary confinement.
The fact that Zurata Duka was able to embrace her sons after nearly a
decade was thanks in large part to a coalition of individuals and
organizations who have worked for years to keep alive the case of the
Fort Dix Five, as the Duka brothers and their two co-defendants came to
be known in the media.
Under legal and social pressure, New Jersey District Judge Robert B.
Kugler—the same man who presided over the original trial and sentenced
the brothers back in 2009—agreed in 2015 to hear a motion for retrial
based on the contention that the brothers had received ineffective
counsel. At the time of writing, he had yet to issue a ruling.
A few months ahead of that hearing, a woman named Lynne Jackson drove
down to the Camden courthouse in New Jersey along with several other
activists and unfurled a huge banner that read ”Free the Fort Dix 5.”
It was a freezing November day, she tells /Rewire/ in a phone interview,
but the members of the Fort Dix Five Family Support Committee clustered
passing out leaflets about the Duka brothers’ case, which had captured
national headlines back in 2009.
At one point, Jackson says, two courthouse officials came outside to ask
what the protesters were doing.
“I think they were surprised that people hadn’t forgotten about the
Dukas, that two months before they were scheduled to appear their
supporters were standing around in the freezing cold behind a massive
banner,” Jackson says. “How could we forget such an injustice? It keeps
me awake at night. So this is what we do: We try to keep these cases alive.”
Jackson’s support for Muslim Americans’ rights dates back to 2007, when
she and several other concerned citizens came together around the cases
of Yassin Aref <http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-2nd-circuit/1355196.html>,
an Iraqi Kurdish refugee, and Mohammed M. Hossain, a Bangladeshi
immigrant, who were convicted in 2006 on terrorism charges.
Both men were residents of Albany, New York. Aref had been a well-known
imam, and Hossain the owner of a struggling local pizzeria, when an
undercover FBI informant named Shahed Hussain showed up
<http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/11/nyregion/11plot.html?_r=0> in the
community with gifts, promises of cash loans, and stories of his
involvement with a Pakistani terrorist group, according to court
testimony, the /New York Times /reported/./
For months the informant attempted to engage Hossain
discussions about terrorist activity. One such conversation, which was
caught on tape and subsequently played at trial, the /Times/ reported,
involves the informant claiming that the $50,000 loan he had promised to
the pizzeria owner came from the sale of a missile launcher that would
eventually be used to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York.
Ultimately, the defendants were tried and convicted on charges of
providing material support
to a terrorist network.
As /Rewire/ has reported previously
the federal government has used material support statutes to incarcerate
hundreds of Muslims since 9/11. Legal scholars contend
<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/03/opinion/03cole.html?_r=0> that while
the laws originally sought to prohibit citizens from providing fiscal
support, weapons, or intelligence to designated terrorist groups, courts
have interpreted the statutes far more broadly in the decade since
September 11, convicting individuals whose faith or ideology
supposedly “predispose” them to violence.
According to the complaint filed against the two Albany men, Hossain’s
only “crime” was to accept a loan from the FBI informant, while Aref did
nothing but witness that loan in his capacity as an imam, as per Islamic
custom—actions that the prosecution charged amounted to money laundering
in the service of a terrorist organization.
Shocked by the extent to which the government had gone to infiltrate
their community and ensnare two Muslim men in a bogus scheme, residents
like Jackson began to mobilize. She joined the Muslim Solidarity
Committee, which had sprung up in 2006 as a kind of hub
<http://www.nepajac.org/aref&hossain.htm> for supporters of Aref and
Activists quickly realized that, far from being an aberration unfolding
in their town, the Aref and Hossain case represented a pattern in which
federal law enforcement practices were eviscerating the rights and
liberties of many Muslim residents, Jackson tells /Rewire. /Faced with
what was clearly a nationwide trend, the committee folded into a larger
effort known as Project SALAM (Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims),
becoming just one of several chapters around the country.
Project SALAM now falls under an even broader umbrella group, the
National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF). The coalition’s
legal director, Kathy Manley, tells /Rewire/ in a phone interview: “We
work with rights groups and families to defend Muslim residents who are
being—or might be—prosecuted, not for something they did, but because of
what the government fears they /might do/.”
She referred to this legal strategy of prosecuting individuals who have
not committed a crime as preemptive prosecution. It is a term that
neatly sums up the FBI’s post-9/11 counterterrorism program
whose most controversial feature has been the widespread use of
confidential informants to involve Muslim residents in
government-manufactured terrorist plots.
As of 2014, counterterrorism operations accounted for 40 percent of the
bureau’s $3.3 billion operating budget, according to a 2014 report
by Human Rights Watch. Informants likely account for a significant
portion of those funds: as of 2007 the FBI had about 15,000 confidential
on its payroll, up from 1,500 in the 1970s
Families and organizers with the No Separate Justice campaign are all
too familiar with this tactic and—in some cases—with the informants
*The Newburgh Four: Sowing the Seeds of Solidarity*
In the spring of 2008, Shahed Hussain, the same informant who targeted
Aref and Hossain in Albany, showed up in the economically depressed town
of Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City.
Over several months, he set about infiltrating
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3WeAPUHVtc> eateries and houses of
worship, including the Masjid Al-Ikhlas, whose congregation counted many
Black American Muslims.
As the mosque’s imam, Salahuddin Muhammad, noted in the 2014 HBO
documentary /The Newburgh Sting
<http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-newburgh-sting>/, most of the
congregation was put off by Hussain’s extremist views, including his
conservative attitude toward women and his talk of jihad. But one man,
James Cromitie, was taken in by Hussain’s flashy car and promises of
money, and the two struck up a friendship.
Over time, Hussain convinced
Cromitie and three other men to participate in a plan that involved
attacking synagogues in the Bronx and firing missiles at a U.S. air base
in Newburgh. Hussain offered the men $250,000 for their efforts. One of
the men lured by this extravagant promise was Alicia McWilliams’ nephew,
David Williams, a young Black Muslim convert who’d grown up in Brooklyn
but had returned to Newburgh in 2009 to help care for his young brother
Lord. According to reports, Lord had recently been diagnosed with a
terminal liver disease.
As Anjali Kamat reported
for /Democracy Now!/ in 2010, Lord needed a liver transplant in order to
survive, a medical procedure the Williams family could not afford. In
fact, all of the men ensnared in Hussain’s plan were struggling
financially. They had also served time in prison, and one of them, a
Haitian-born immigrant named Laguerre Payen, was a paranoid schizophrenic.
Kamat added, “[Payen] lived in a one-room occupancy in Newburgh’s crack
alley. When he was arrested, there were open containers of urine [in]
his room, because he was too afraid to walk down the hall to use the
restroom. This man, we’re supposed to believe, is a terrorist.”
On May 20, 2009, as they attempted to carry out the fake operation, all
four men were apprehended and three of them, including Cromitie and
Williams, were subsequently sentenced
to 25 years in prison for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction
in the United States. At least two of the defendants maintain
they had planned to foil the plot all along.
After receiving that fateful call from her sister following the arrest,
Alicia McWilliams began connecting with advocates from Project SALAM and
NCPCF and speaking out against the policies put into place since 9/11
that were explicitly targeting Muslim Americans.
But organizing around domestic terror cases is no easy task. Family
members have told /Rewire/ that the stigma of the word alone has pitched
them into poverty and isolation, as relatives, religious communities,
and prospective employers disappear from their lives, fearing guilt by
McWilliams says that back in 2009 many of the women she met—women who
are now at the forefront of the No Separate Justice movement—were still
in the shadows, silent for fear of being retaliated against.
“I told them, ‘You gotta come out and let people know you won’t be
quiet,’” she tells /Rewire/.
Two women in particular were deeply affected by McWilliams’ words:
Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories /Rewire /has reported on
In multiple interviews with /Rewire/, Parveen explains that McWilliams
often gave her the courage to speak out in public—something she had
never done prior to her son, Matin, being targeted by an informant and
sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of providing material support
to terrorism. Parveen says she and McWilliams have sat by each other
during the most challenging times. A devout Muslim, Parveen once even
accompanied McWilliams to church.
“Now Mama Shahina is out there doing her thing,” McWilliams says,
referring to the monthly vigils that the No Separate Justice campaign
hosts outside the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown
Manhattan, where Parveen can often be heard advocating on behalf of
McWilliams lives too far away to attend the vigils, but she says she
remains connected to her “sisters.”
“These are beautiful women,” McWilliams tells /Rewire/, “And we love
each other unconditionally.”
*Fighting on Multiple Fronts*
McWilliams, who often refers to her nephew’s case as “COINTELPRO all
over again,” was not the only person /Rewire /interviewed for this
series to draw parallels between the current counterterrorism effort and
the counterintelligence operations of old.
Laura Whitehorn, a former political prisoner who was incarcerated for 15
years in connection with the Resistance Conspiracy
undertaken by white anti-imperialists in 1985—recalls speaking about the
history of COINTELPRO at one of the earliest conferences of families
affected by terrorism prosecutions, back in October of 2011.
“I talked about the number of incarcerated Black Panthers who are still
in jail, about the murder of Fred Hampton
[a member of the Panther Party], which was engineered by the FBI and
carried out by the Chicago police, and about how COINTELPRO framed,
arrested, and assassinated so many people who were part of militant
movements in the ’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” Whitehorn tells /Rewire/.
“Afterwards some of the women, the mothers who had not yet become as
active in the movement, came up to me with tears in their eyes, two of
them speaking to me through a translator, and said, ‘We never knew that
your government did this.’”
She says the No Separate Justice vigils have provided a space for unity
between populations that have historically been incarcerated for
so-called radicalism—including Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, and
white anti-imperial activists—and the Muslims who are now being targeted
by the federal government.
The monthly gatherings outside the MCC draw an eclectic crowd, with each
case attracting activists from across the political spectrum. Vigils
held in honor of the Holy Land Five
for instance—a group of Palestinian men whose charitable contributions
to local Palestinian communities was deemed a form of “material support”
for Hamas, the governing authority of the Gaza Strip—drew scores of
Palestinian rights groups and anti-Zionist Jewish activists, including
members of Adalah-NY and Al-Awda NY.
When Shahina Parveen or other South Asian immigrants have been in the
spotlight, members of the youth and worker-led Desis Rising Up and
Moving (DRUM) have turned out in large numbers.
Meanwhile, cases like that of Shifa Sadequee, a Bangladeshi American who
was convicted on terrorism charges in 2009 and whose story /Rewire/
covered at length
earlier in this series, has drawn support from queer activists
and groups organizing around political prisoners. According to Shifa’s
sister Sonali, supporters of U.S. political prisoners were among the few
people who stood by the Sadequee family when Shifa was arrested back in
“Large parts of the immigrant Muslim community in Atlanta [where the
family lived at the time] were completely hands off,” Sonali tells
/Rewire/ in a phone interview. “It was heartbreaking: No one wanted to
deal with the issue, they didn’t even want to touch it, to come close to
Their support came instead from Black activists, including those
involved with the Jericho Movement, a nationwide effort to free
political prisoners in the United States. Both sisters had rallied with
folks from Jericho, particularly around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a
Black journalist and author who has spent over 30 years in prison,
almost all of them on death row. While ostensibly convicted for the 1981
shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer, advocates believe that
Abu-Jamal was incarcerated for his radical views on Black liberation and
his outspokenness as a reporter and radio personality.
The sisters had also participated in efforts to free imam Jamil Abdullah
Al-Amin, known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, when he was chairperson of
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A resident of Atlanta,
Georgia, Al-Amin has been a “target of the government due to his radical
beliefs,” according to reports
His supporters claim he was framed for the shooting deaths of two
sheriff’s deputies in 2000.
“There was a powerful Black Muslim community already in place that
understood the issues we were dealing with, that took up Shifa’s case
and basically gave us whatever support we needed,” says Sonali. As
Shifa’s case unfolded, it became clear to his family and his supporters
that he, like many Black activists, had been targeted largely for his
political views. His sisters say the prosecution relied heavily on
Shifa’s religious teachings, his political opinions and his work as a
translator of Arabic texts when pressing their case to the jury. The
framework within which movements for political prisoners have organized
for years became a crucial one for understanding Shifa’s situation, they
Activists from Atlanta’s queer community, as well local groups like
stood behind the family from day one—even when members of their own
Bangladeshi Muslim community shunned them.
“It was such a blessing, such a relief, to have this politically
conscious community in place,” Sonali tells /Rewire/. “They kept us going.”
And yet, while echoes of COINTELPRO shimmer in the current landscape,
some say the situation Muslim residents face today is unique.
“Back then the FBI mostly targeted political activity,” Whitehorn tells
/Rewire./ “Now they seem more interested in building a fake narrative
that citizens of the United States are at risk of, or endangered by,
Muslims—even those without political leanings.”
She points to politicians like Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican
presidential nominee, whose inflammatory rhetoric—including his call for
a ban on Muslims entering the United States
to have fanned Islamophobic sentiment. Since the 2016 presidential
election campaigns began, there has been a documented uptick
in anti-Muslim violence, from 154 reported incidents between January and
December of 2014, to 174 by the end of 2015.
But while families and advocates are alarmed by right-wing rhetoric,
they are quick to highlight prevailing policies that have, over the past
15 years, pitched hundreds of families and whole communities into fear
“If Trump becomes the definition of what Islamophobia looks like, more
‘polite’ or legalized forms of injustice might be made more acceptable
in the process ” Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at
Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ movement, tells /Rewire,
/pointing to controversial counterterrorism
that have unfolded, unchecked, under the Obama administration.
“I am heartened by the rising movements pushing back against Trump and
Islamophobia but I worry about the ways in which our attention to
Republican candidates’ extremism gives a pass to what has already
happened, and continues to happen, to many Muslim families in this
country,” she says.
In the last two years alone, which saw the November 2015 Paris attacks
<http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34818994> and the December 2015
shootings in San Bernardino
California, 85 individuals in the United States have been arrested on
charges relating to involvement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
(ISIS), according to an April 2016 report
by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. The average age
of those arrested is 26, and 54 percent of the cases involved an
informant or undercover agent.
So the national security apparatus grinds on. The only thing standing
between it and scores of Muslim American families under surveillance is
this small women-led movement that has taken on the impossible challenge
of fighting extreme religious intolerance with interfaith unity.
As Alicia McWilliams says to /Rewire: /“We’re making some progress but
we gotta do more. People need to start showing up for us, speaking out
for us. My Muslim sisters and I, we’re fighting—but we can’t do this alone.”
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