NYPD’s Search for Cafes in Which Terrorists Would Be Comfortable

It’s bad enough that the NYPD continues its Muslim spying program in spite of their Intelligence Division Chief’s admission that they have not derived a single lead from it. But look more closely at the astoundingly stupid rationalizations that Thomas Galati gave in his deposition for the program.

Galati imagines that if NYPD were ever faced with an imminent terrorist threat, the demographic mapping they had already done would allow them to figure out right away where the terrorist might go.

When we are faced with a threat or we have information about a threat that is present and we need to go out and we need to try and mitigate that threat, we have to be able to, at our fingertips, find what is the most likely location that that terrorist is going to go to and hide out amongst other people from the same country.

Let’s consider how this worked in practice the single time it might have applied.

When the FBI alerted the NYPD that Najibullah Zazi was heading back to NYC with the intent to blow up some subways, the NYPD knew exactly who to go to. They called Zazi’s Imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali, who not only knew him but had taught him and some of his accomplices. So that part worked.

What didn’t work is that Afzali promptly tipped off Zazi and his father, making it more difficult to develop a case against Zazi’s accomplices.

Media reports quoting anonymous FBI officials have suggested the NYPD botched the case when it showed a picture of Najibullah Zazi, the Denver shuttle-bus driver at the heart of the investigation, to Ahmed Afzali, a Queens Imam and sometime police informant. Afzali, the reports say, first called Zazi’s father Mohammed, then Najibullah himself, alerting them to the probe. The FBI, which had been monitoring the calls, was then forced to move immediately to arrest the Zazis — much sooner than it had planned.

[snip]

When Zazi traveled to New York ahead of the anniversary of 9/11, the FBI as a precaution alerted the NYPD. That’s when officers from the NYPD’s intelligence unit consulted Afzali. “It looks like they did this on their own initiative — they really trusted this Imam,” says the law-enforcement official. “But if they’d consulted with the bureau first, they’d have been told not to talk to anybody.”

So far Galati’s logic works if you want to make sure terrorists are tipped off by their close associates.

But it gets worse.

Central to the Galati’s explanation for the NYPD’s retention of the content of conversations about events–such as a Quran-burning, in the passage below (or, presumably, opposition to a drone strike)–is that it provides insight into whether a terrorist would be “comfortable in” a particularly environment.

Q I think you’ve told me that the fact that at this particular location where there are Pakistanis speaking Urdu, the Zone Assessment Unit heard two men complaining about the [redacted-Quran burning] That fact alone, their complaint expressed to each other doesn’t make it more likely that this is a place where a terrorist would go?

A It doesn’t make it more likely or less likely. It’s a tool for us to look for that person that we’re looking for that has that same characteristic that’s going to hide or recruit within a place that he or she is comfortable in.

For a terrorist person that we’re trying to secrete themselves in this particular community, I can’t tell you it’s more likely or less likely. It’s a tool for us to look in the right place.

[snip]

A I’m taking the conversation as a whole. I’m looking in that conversation. I’m seeing Urdu. I’m seeing them identify the individuals involved in that are Pakistani. I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in and I’m retaining that for the fact that I can retain it, if it’s going to help me detect or prevent a potential unlawful or terrorist attack.

[snip]

I think what’s important for us is, if the conversations indicate support for let’s say Osama Bin Laden or Iran or depends on a particular conversation, it’s important for us to know because that might be a place that a terrorist could recruit from. So, the content of the conversations may give us an idea of the place that a terrorist would be comfortable being in, so he could recruit from a location like that. [my emphasis]

It’s one thing to suggest that a terrorist might find recruits in cafes where people earlier expressed support for Osama bin Laden. It’s an entirely different thing to say that any Muslim who expresses concern about Quran-burning or drone killings would be a good mark for recruitment.

Even assuming Galati uses this fluffy language about comfortable terrorists to avoid talking about political speech, which is forbidden, why would you assume a terrorist is going to hide out where he’s most comfortable?

Particularly when you consider some of the NYPD’s assumptions. Even within heavily Muslim communities the NYPD has not profiled chains, with the exception of (all Bangladeshi-owned, I think) Dunkin Donuts. As I’ve shown, they looked at the Muslim owned local businesses in the immediate neighborhood of Faisal Shahzad’s hawala, but not the 7/11 that employed many of the Pakistanis who knew Shahzad’s hawala operator. And all that’s before you consider the very generic chains the 9/11 terrorists used. That is, the NYPD is looking where smart terrorists are least likely to hide out, both because they’re not looking at non-Muslim or corporate owned businesses and they’re assuming terrorists would look for comfort, not anonymity.

Then there’s an even funnier assumption. NYC experienced its first al Qaeda related threat in 1993, when the Egyptian Blind Sheikh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s Pakistani nephew teamed up to bomb the World Trade Center. 9/11 was masterminded by KSM, but carried out mostly by Saudis.

And yet here is what the head of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division
had to say about looking for Pakistani terrorists like KSM and Ramzi Youssef.

But, this is the person that is going to commit a terrorist attack. To value what’s in here, that I know if I’m looking for a terrorist who is Pakistani, from a region in Pakistan who speaks Urdu, I’m not going to waist [sic] my time in a restaurant where they speak Arabic.

This is sort of like when the NYPD returned to one establishment of a particular ethnicity (it appears to be Pakistani) three times in quick succession in January 2010, apparently in response to some big event. Three very obvious events would be the drone strike in al-Majala on December 17, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attack on a Northwest flight on December 25, 2009, and Humam al-Balawi’s attack on CIA’s base in Khost on December 30, 2009. So an American attack purportedly aimed at Saudis and Yemenis, an attack by a Jordanian, supported by Pakistanis, in Afghanistan, and an attack by a Nigerian, supported by Yemenis and Saudis. How would any of those events be tied to one ethnicity?

So not only is this program ineffective, but its entire premise–or at least the one Galati has adopted to try to avoid Handschu violations–defies all the recent history of real terrorism in NYC and globally. As Galati would tell it, the NYPD has spent 9 years hunting for the kind of monolingual terrorists who won’t step out of their comfort zone when they, of all entities, should know those aren’t the kind of terrorists that might threaten NY.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

12 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    The plain fact of the matter is that with the demonstrated cluelessness of the NYPD’s CIA-on-the-Hudson operation, they would have never gotten close to sussing out the location much less the identities of the 9/11 hijackers.

    Almost 11 years after 9/11 and the NYPD is still looking in all the wrong places. It’s almost as if the entire NYPD rationale for its bumbling intelligence operation revolves around: “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego Osama Bin Laden?”

    Should tell them that OBL is no longer among the living?

    Nah.

  2. rosalind says:

    heh. Jeremy Scahill tweet: ‘I basically use the NYPD “counterterrorism” documents to find great new restaurants and cafes.’

  3. emptywheel says:

    @rosalind: Yeah, I told him he shoudl FOIA his record bc if he’s NOT in there, in spite of sitting in Lebanese cafes in Brooklyn watching Al Jazeera and complaining about drone strikes, then they’re CLEARLY profiling.

  4. MadDog says:

    OT – But I thought it worth mentioning. Wired’s Julian Sanchez has an interesting piece up today that I found well worth the read:

    Did Bush’s Broadband Deregulation Upend His Own NSA Wiretapping?

    “As Congress prepares to reauthorize the controversial FISA Amendments Act of 2008 — which effectively legalized the notorious warrantless wiretap program launched by President Bush — much about the law remains shrouded in secrecy: The National Security Agency has refused to give legislators even a rough estimate of how many Americans’ communications have been swept up in the digital dragnet.

    Yet even four years after the FAA’s passage, one of the biggest mysteries isn’t how the law has been used, but why it was necessary in the first place. One surprising — but surprisingly plausible — explanation points to the unexpected consequences of broadband deregulation.

    In other words, it seems entirely plausible that the Bush administration’s deregulation of cable broadband service accidentally led to a secret court refusing to approve a sizable chunk of the NSA’s wiretapping activities. That ruling then precipitated a dramatic political battle full of overblown claims of threats to America and eventually resulted in the passage of a measure expanding the NSA’s ability to intercept communications inside the United States…”

  5. Eric Hodgdon says:

    Being in the Western US is rather dull compared to NYC. Jamming those spooks, law enforcement ?, could be a pastime more worthwhile than any other.

    The greatest threat to the US are the public servants in Washington DC, etc.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Or the asinine way the NYPD explains its illegal eavesdropping is to muddy the pool the way McCarthy did by constantly changing the number of alleged communists who worked at the State Dept. (He finally hid behind the extremist argument that IF there were one, it would be too many.)

    Perhaps the eavesdropping is broader and subsidized by the Feds and its private contractors. Perhaps it’s not about finding one potential, would be, might thinkaboutit violent criminal. Perhaps it’s about legitimizing the eavesdropping, or better still, on notoriously doing it despite all criticism of it.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @Morris Minor: Like bees to a honeypot. The FBI would seem to prefer investigating peaceniks and vegans than right wing criminals. That would be consistent with past practice of opposing progressive activists, working hard to assassinate their characters, while other arms of the government recruit right wing activists to fight for, say, cuba libre.

  8. Eric Hodgdon says:

    @Morris Minor: Who are they nasty to? Everyone? Anyone? occupy? Or, just to questions?

    Operations require people in quantity and quality and strictly within the law.

    If the FBI chooses the wrong side, then they can not succeed. If the FBI chooses to operate outside of the law, they are terrorists. If the FBI chooses to evade accountability, they choose wrongly. If the FBI chooses to follow illegal orders, or no orders, they must be removed.

    The FBI is welcome to discuss these issues with me if they choose to.

    The FBI is our servant and the FBI must never forget this most important point in their chain of command – the People are in charge and in control and at all times.

    This fundamental truth is largely forgotten by my fellow citizens. My fellow citizens must assert their inherent rights and become mature in the necessary responsibilities required to make our systems function as designed.

    This design is the Constitution, with amendments, and the Declaration of Independence. The design does not necessarily include modifications made outside of these documents when they attempt usurpation or alteration or limitation.

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