Counting Mosques and Muslims

As reported by Michael Isikoff in the February 3, 2003 issue of Newsweek, top aides to FBI Director Robert Mueller told the FBI’s 56 field offices to count the number of mosques in their localities and develop “demographic profiles” which would be used to set numeric goals for counterterrorism investigations and national security wiretaps. 

When FBI executive assistant director Wilson Lowery Jr. gave a briefing to Congressional staffers about the initiative, “eyebrows went up.”  The FBI claimed they needed this information to detect “sleeper cells.”  It was strongly denounced by the ACLU and other civil rights groups.

Later in 2003, the US News and World Report (December 20) revealed that the FBI was secretly monitoring for radiation at more than 100 Muslim sites, including mosques, homes and businesses in the Washington DC areas, and sites in at least five other cities.  The FBI said it did not need warrants to carry out the monitoring, and was doing so because of intelligence about Al Qaeda’s plan to use a dirty bomb and the existence of “cells in the US trained to blend into Muslim communities.”

Fears about the blanket targeting of Muslims and Arab Americans were intensified when FOIA lawsuits showed that specially-tabulated population statistics on Arab Americans had been provided to the Department of Homeland Security at its request. A DHS spokesperson said “the information is not in any way being used for law enforcement purposes.  It’s being used to educate the traveler” (New York Times, July 30, 2004).  

In November 2007 an outcry by community and civil rights groups forced the Los Angeles Police department to drop its plan to map the geographic distribution of Muslims in Los Angeles and “look at their history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status and social interactions” (New York Times, November 9, 2007). 

But the issue has not gone away.  In July 2010, ACLU offices across the country filed Freedom of Information Act requests asking the FBI to turn over material related to its project to “map” racial and ethnic demographics, “behaviors” and “life style characteristics.” In response to the ACLU of Maryland's request, the FBI sent back hundreds of totally redacted (or blank) pages. The FBI’s mapping project came to light when its internal Domestic Intelligence Operations Guide was made public in redacted form through a previous FOIA lawsuit.

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