Belén Fernández · The NYPD's Demographic Unit

Last year the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD, with help from the CIA, had set up an extensive surveillance operation to spy on Muslims both in the city and over the state line in New Jersey. Known informally as the Demographic Unit, it employed a network of undercover officers (a.k.a. ‘rakers’) and informants (‘mosque crawlers’).

Raymond Kelly, New York’s police commissioner, said that unwarranted surveillance of certain ethnic groups did not infringe their civil rights, though ‘there’s always going to be some tension between the police department and so-called civil liberties groups because of the nature of what we do.’

Kelly wrote the preface to Radicalisation in the West: The Homegrown Threat, the NYPD’s 2007 clinical foray into the Muslim psyche. One of its insights is that ‘giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes’ may be a sign of ‘progression along the radicalisation continuum’. (Given that ‘urban hip-hop gangster clothes’ make you much more likely to be stopped and frisked by an NYPD officer, it seems you’re damned if you wear them, damned if you don’t.) The report lists common ‘radicalisation incubators’:

Though the locations can be mosques, more likely incubators include cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores.

In other words, pretty much anywhere. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the NYPD should have responded with a new and improved approach to terrorism:

Where once we would have defined the initial indicator of the threat at the point where a terrorist or group of terrorists would actually plan an attack, we have now shifted our focus to a much earlier point—a point where we believe the potential terrorist or group of terrorists begin and progress through a process of radicalization.

Law enforcement has made its own contributions to the radicalisation process. Osama Eldawoody was paid handsomely for incriminating Shahawar Matin Siraj, a Pakistani American, in a plot to blow up a New York subway station. Siraj, who never got anywhere near any bombs but was recorded on tape saying that he wanted ‘no killing’ and would have to ask his mother’s permission, was given a 30-year sentence. Eldawoody, who posed to Siraj as a co-conspirator, isn’t mentioned in the NYPD report’s account of Siraj as ‘homegrown threat’.

Last month I met with Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York, which is based down the street from the bookshop where Siraj worked in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She listed several other cases that have helped make the local Muslim community ‘scared shitless’. Syed Fahad Hashmi, a US citizen and graduate of Brooklyn College, was kept in solitary confinement for more than three years before being convicted of providing material support to terrorists: he had given temporary accommodation in London to a man who supplied al-Qaida members with ‘military gear’ such as socks and ponchos.

Sarsour said that Muslim parents in Brooklyn, instead of warning their children about drugs and sex, were giving them lectures on the importance of self-censorship. There’s a widespread belief that the purpose of law enforcement is to incriminate rather than protect Muslims, which means people are less likely to report crimes such as domestic violence or theft to the police.

According to the NYPD report,

as individuals progress through the indoctrination phase, they most likely have already sought, found and bonded with other like-minded individuals. This loosely knit but cohesive group of people forms a cluster—an alliance based on social, psychological, ideological, and ethnic commonalities.

It almost sounds like a police department.


  • 16 June 2012 at 10:02am
    Phil Edwards says:
    This reminds me of what people used to say about awful official warnings that cannabis could be a gateway drug to heroin - "a high proportion of junkies started with cannabis; an even higher proportion started with milk".

    That wasn't quite right then, & dismissing the idea of "radicalisation" wouldn't be quite right now. If we assume that there is such a thing as a jihadist bomber, it is reasonable to assume that those people weren't born and brought up as bombers - they went through a process of learning and differential association to get to where they are. And it's not totally unreasonable to assume that for every bomber there are (say) ten wannabe bombers, 100 people who would stash the gear if asked, 1000 people who think planting bombs is a good idea, 10,000 who aren't totally convinced it's a bad idea, and so on.

    The question is what you do with that model - what level of the pyramid of radicalisation you concentrate police resources on. The trouble is, if you actually want to make a difference - if you want to catch that one bomber, or stop him becoming a bomber in the first place - you need to go in as near the top of the pyramid as possible: you need to be feeling the collars of those ten wannabes, or at the very most some of the 100 active sympathisers (and even at that level you're liable to get a few people who basically haven't done anything). And reliably identifying 100 people in a population of several million isn't that much easier than reliably identifying one.

    In terms of preventive policing, the radicalisation model doesn't actually help. What it does give the police is roughly the same as what the 'gateway drug' model gave the Drug Squad in the 70s - a nice big target of several hundred thousand identifiable people who can be policed aggressively, and a nice big threat that can be used to justify it. If you police aggressively you'll make arrests, and if the threat seems big enough you'll get convictions - everybody wins.