NYPD's secret "Ancestries of Interest" list guided surveillance of innocent people identified as possible Muslim threats

Continuing in an investigative series on ties between the The New York Police Department and the CIA, and coordinated activities involving Muslim populations in NYC, the Associated Press reports that NYPD collected lists of mosques, restaurants, and other Muslim-owned businesses identified as possible security risks, for reasons that included having religiously devout customers. The report is based on hundreds of pages of internal police documents obtained by the AP.

The records reveal the extent of an undercover effort that initially studied more than 250 mosques in New York and New Jersey and identified hundreds more "hot spots" in a hunt for terrorists. Many showed obvious signs of criminal behavior, but the police explanations for targeting others were less clear.

A Bangladeshi restaurant, for instance, was identified as a hot spot for having a "devout crowd." The restaurant was noted for being a "popular meeting location for political activities."

The documents obtained by the AP, many of which were marked secret, paint the clearest picture yet of how the past decade's hunt for terrorists also put huge numbers of innocent people under scrutiny as they went about their daily lives in mosques, restaurants and social groups. Every day, undercover officers and informants filed reports from their positions as "listening posts" inside Muslim communities.

At the White House, where President Barack Obama recently urged local authorities not to cast suspicion on entire communities, spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment Tuesday on whether it endorsed the tactics outlined in the NYPD documents.

An AP investigation last month revealed that the department maintains a list of "ancestries of interest" that it uses to focus its clandestine efforts. A secret team known as the Demographics Unit then dispatched plainclothes officers into the community to eavesdrop in cafes and chat up business owners.

That effort has benefited from federal money and an unusually close relationship with the CIA, one that at times blurred the lines between domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering.

Read the full report: The Associated Press: Documents show NY police watched devout Muslims.

Image/REUTERS: A demonstrator holds a sign as he marches during a rally held in support of a proposed Islamic cultural centre and mosque in New York.


  1. Oh my God, I ate at a (fabulous) Afghan restaurant near Palo Alto last time I was in the Valley. I suppose I have a Federal bullseye on my head now–as though I didn’t already.

  2. In fact, it was this one: http://local.yahoo.com/info-21341884-kabul-afghan-cuisine-sunnyvale;_ylt=Al4gmtEyDH2pRZPI00ujXcqHNcIF;_ylv=3?csz=Palo+Alto%2C+CA

    All right, coppers, come and get me. I enjoyed the kebab and pumpkin far more than any honest American has a right to.

  3. “ALL Denny’s, Waffle House’s, IHOP’s and local diners, known as ‘Mom and Pop’s’ in the East, Southern, and Midwestern United States were identified as hot spots for having a ‘devout crowd’, frequently mass attended after a ritual gathering on Sundays.”

  4. But remember, this is NOT a war on Islam.  It just so happens that all Muslims are on the list for other reasons.  Classified reasons.

    1. The reasons are not classified. We all saw them happen on TV, around the world over the last 10 years. It is not a war on Islam because thoughtful people understand that Islam does not equal terror, but the terrorists who have caused the MOST havoc over the last decade have claimed to be Muslims.

      It’s easy to mock, but what would your suggestion be in terms of allocating resources?

      1. @ ChicagoD comment well taken… i would allocate resources to getting a time machine to retrospectively get our tanks out of their back yards for the last 4 decades so they didn’t hate us so much in the first place.

        1. Cameron, there’s no point in denying that America has harmed lots of people over the last 40-50 years. On the other hand, the terrorists claiming to be Muslims don’t really seem to care so much about actual harm suffered (see, e.g. Madrid bombing), but rather, the opportunity to make high profile strikes. I think that even the time machine would make little difference.

      2. the terrorists who have caused the MOST havoc over the last decade have claimed to be Muslims.

        LOL, right. I guess first you’re gonna have to define your terms, particularly “terrorist” and “most havoc.” You’re just another jingo at least until then.

        It’s easy to mock, but what would your suggestion be in terms of allocating resources?

        Let’s start by taking some cues from countries with better standards of living and protected freedoms than ours.

        1. Terrorist is easy. They’re the ones flying airliners full of civilians into buildings full of civilians. They’re the ones blowing up discos full of partying young people. They’re the ones running amok through Mumbai murdering civilians. They’re the ones murdering commuters in London and Madrid.

          Most havoc is easy too. See above.

          As for taking cues from other countries . . . OK. Which cues? From whom?

          1. Interesting. I was thinking that since you made the suggestion, you’d have some suggestions. I was thinking Sweden seems to have done a pretty good job integrating immigrants, but then, the US hasn’t really had home grown terror issues since McVeigh. Then I thought about the UK, but they don’t seem to meet either criterion. Maybe you could deign to answer your own question.

            Nah. That’d be too honest. You’re just here to be cute.

          2. You’re just here to be cute.

            What age does that comment make you appear?

            There are several countries that take the money that countries like us spend on wars and propping up dictatorships and spend it on stuff like education and infrastructure and making sure their citizens have health care. How’s an extra trillion dollars for a start?

          3. Yes. Agree on spending more money on internal improvement, less on propping Saddam up until we spend billions to knock him down. In all honesty though, I don’t believe that al Queda would have either not existed, or would have ignored the United States even had we done that. My allocation question assumes that we are where we are, and now we have to deal with where we are.

      3. My suggestion for allocating resources?  How about we look at the history of terrorism in America.  We can name a few attacks and they were horrible, terrible events.  However we can only name a few.  We do not find IEDs in our roads.  We do not suffer mortar attacks or suicide bombers.  When someone goes nuts with a gun and kills 5 people, we call it a national tragedy, not “Thursday.”

        In other words, we are really, really good at preventing terrorism.  We were before we started arresting every person with a camera or family in the Middle East. 

        Furthermore, when I go to a doctor it is because I feel unwell, not because I intend to tell him precisely what treatment I need.  I leave that up to him, because he’s a doctor and he knows medicine better than I (elitist that he is).  In other words, I do not need to provide a solution in order to acknowledge a problem. 

  5. Jack, I would add “Demographics Unit” to the band name list – maybe not hardcore but maybe mathcore or sumthin.

  6. and the correct response to 9/11 would have been?

    Seriously you can’t mock security theatre at airports and say “spend the money on intelligence” and then cry about efforts made on intelligence.  This wasn’t a series of mass arrests, this was people sitting in coffee shops keeping their ears open.  Seems like a pretty reasonable response when you have little idea of the nature or scale of the threat you are facing.

    1. Well said, sir.

      Let’s face it, in today’s world, traditional warfare is being increasingly replaced with guerrilla warfare. In such a situation, people in law enforcement are left with increasingly fewer choices in identifying potential threats. Especially in a large country such as the US, and in dense cities such as NYC.

      Of course this kind of profiling is stupid – but it is stupid for the wrong reasons. As certain demographics get profiled, people with nefarious intentions will start recruiting people outside the target demographic, until said profiling itself becomes meaningless. However, it is silly to say that profiling in itself is meaningless.

      In any event, what would folks have law enforcement and intelligence agencies do? That they be proactive and look out for threats, or find reasons post-hoc, after the damage has been done? These are not easy decisions — and while it is easy to mock them as a passive observer, it is much more difficult when you are accountable for security.

      Besides, nobody’s rights have been violated — you can’t fault the cops for being proactive and just looking out for nutjobs. I’d be just as happy if they looked out for Christian extremists around abortion clinics, because that’s their job.

      Crying wolf is alarmist at best.

      1. They will start recruiting outside the target demographic? Great! Make them go to the effort. Make it more expensive in time and effort. Increasing the costs reduces the number of attacks they can afford. And those recruiting efforts themselves are a useful signal. The more active in outreach they are, the more likely they are to stumble across a tripline and reveal themselves and their efforts.

        This is not a problem, it’s a sign of success.

    2. Seems like a pretty reasonable response when you have little idea of the nature or scale of the threat you are facing.

      What makes you think they have little idea of the nature or scale of the threat?

    3. Maybe you don’t remember mass arrests, but  back in late 2001 and early 2002, the Feds required Muslims from many countries to come in and be interviewed about who they were and what they might be doing and who they knew who might be suspicious.  One of my coworkers was a Pakistani with a green card, and had to go in, as did a lot of people from the West and South Asian ethnic groups hear in Silicon Valley.  Most of them weren’t arrested, which implies a certain level of due process, but a number were “detained” for a while.

      1. Cheney pauses, then tells them to “round up the usual suspects.”
        Theatre is all it was, but there was no Rick, no “Café Americain” and no beginning of a beautiful friendship, (unless you wanted to get shot in the face.)

  7. Testimonial tv commercial: “I went on AncestriesofInterest.com and found out my grandfather flew over Morocco during World War II. I wasn’t sure if that was enough to make me a terrorist, or whether the sins of the fathers would be visited upon their children. But AncestriesofInterest.com cleared it up right away, because there was a little olive icon on grandpa’s name, and on my mom’s, and on my name too. Cuz you know, those people eat a lot of olives. I mean my people, I guess.”

  8. I agree, mixing a “devout crowd” with “political activities” is dangerous. 
    :::looks at neocon christian zealots::::

    1. The US government doesn’t spy on Christian neocon groups (though they do spy on white power movements, some of which claim to be Christian and others are Odinist.)  But they do spy on Quakers, because we’ve traditionally been opposed to war and stubborn about confronting violence.

      To some extent, the Feds spy on Quakers for the same reason PETA complains about fur more than about leather – it’s safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs, and safer to infiltrate peaceful churches than anti-government militias.

  9. Spying on every Muslim in America isn’t intelligence. It’s racist fear mongering and depending on how far that surveillance goes, intimidation. And if we’re so degenerate as a country that our choices are either security theater or racist intimidation, then we’re through. USA RIP.

  10. I love racists, they’re so dumb.  But worse, some of them are so dumb, the don’t even realise they’re dumb.  Like the guy who said to my father that all black people should be sent back to Africa.  My father then asked if said racist would be willing to accompany him to various european countries so they could dig up the corpses of all the black men who died defending the British Isles during WWI and WWII.  Just to make the repatriation complete you understand.  Pin drop.

    We do have similar problems here on Airstrip One, but it’s not really so institutionalised as you have it over there in Oceania.

  11. Just to quibble details. Islam is not a race, it is a religion. An attack on Islam is not racism, it is religious intolerance. One chooses to practice a religion. One does not choose to be an Arab (for example). The mixing of the two causes the argument to be weakened.

    1. Taxi drivers are not a race. But if I hated them and was stupid enough that I didn’t understand the difference between them and, say, Indians, wouldn’t that make me extra racist? Because that’s basically where we are with Islam, where people treat it as if it simply means Middle-Eastern – they even caricature them with Sikh turbans! At that point, does it matter what type of intolerance it was supposed to be?

    2. That’s a fair point.  It’s quicker and easier to call it racism but you’re right, it’s inaccurate.

  12. It reminds me of how the Soviets worked– the “friendly” customer is really a spy sizing you up for anything indicating counter-revolutionary attitudes, and when one apparent traitor was arrested they would grab friends and relatives for questioning too.

  13. Investigating is not the same as illegal wiretaps. Investigating is good.

    Americans have the right to practice any religion, if that’s what they’re into. But that doesn’t mean they should have special immunity to being investigated. On the contrary, I think people predisposed to religious thinking are at slightly higher risk for being led into more religious extremist behavior.

    Most of the anti-American terrorist activity seems to be from religious extremists. Let’s face it, if you were part of a DUI task-force, you’d be targeting the bars.

    1. Let’s face it, if you were part of a DUI task-force, you’d be targeting the bars.

      Yeah, would you investigate and surveil every patron of those bars, even when they’re not at them?

      1. “Every patron” just isn’t true. We are not talking about internment camps in Nevada here, we’re talking about intelligence gathering.

        1. I’m afraid you need to be more particular, because you’re apparently a non-standard definition. The way the FBI defines terrorist, most of them aren’t Muslim: see http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/01/not-all-terrorists-are-muslims/.

          As for havoc, the September 11 attacks were definitely the most significant in the last decade, but are isolated in terms of scale. As far as subsequent attacks where only a few people were killed, there are lots of others as the chart shows. These do include some “home-grown terror issues”; for instance the 2010 Austin suicide attack comes to mind.

          1. 1980 to 2005. Stack the data inputs, stack the outcome. I was specific about “last ten years” for this very reason. There is a point at which being “right” obscures being relevant. Hippies burning construction sites is not equivalent in any meaningful sense to blowing up a subway car. Besides, nobody said that violent racists, environmental extremists and others are NOT monitored, only that some Muslims were.

            Loonwatch indeed.

          2. So you’re filtering your data to help you defend the police filtering their data. What could possibly go wrong?

          3. Good point. No reason to adjust the time frame to account for political developments. After all, terrorism by Puerto Rican nationalists remains as relevant today as ever.

          4. So your contention is that although Muslims were involved in a small percentage of attacks until 2005, they are now the majority. I take it that means there was an incredible upswing, but only four years after September 11? I’d like to see your chart.

            As far as equivalence goes, you can’t reasonably say the order-of-magnitude difference is just hippie vandals. The article I linked showed mostly bombing, and I already mentioned someone flying a plane into a building. Again, if that’s not what we’re calling significant havoc, I need to hear your definition.

            Interestingly, that article links to another which discusses the years from 2002 to 2009: http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/05/rand-report-threat-of-jihadist-terrorism-exaggerated/. According to them, the RAND corporation found only 3.6% of US attacks from that period were jihadists. So much for stacking inputs.

  14. “the terrorists who have caused the MOST havoc over the last decade have claimed to be Muslims.”

    That might be true, but only for 4 more days.

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