The Moroccan initiative

This is one hell of a story from the AP, uncovering CIA collaboration with the NYPD to do obsessive spying on Muslim communities in New York — and in particular shops owned by Moroccan immigrants. A few excerpts:

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Police Department put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The documents describe in extraordinary detail a secret program intended to catalog life inside Muslim neighborhoods as people immigrated, got jobs, became citizens and started businesses. The documents undercut the NYPD's claim that its officers only follow leads when investigating terrorism.

It started with one group, Moroccans, but the documents show police intended to build intelligence files on other ethnicities.

Undercover officers snapped photographs of restaurants frequented by Moroccans, including one that was noted for serving "religious Muslims." Police documented where Moroccans bought groceries, which hotels they visited and where they prayed. While visiting an apartment used by new Moroccan immigrants, an officer noted in his reports that he saw two Qurans and a calendar from a nearby mosque.

It was called the Moroccan Initiative.

The information was recorded in NYPD computers, officials said, so that if police ever received a specific tip about a Moroccan terrorist, officers looking for him would have details about the entire community at their fingertips.

The documents show how New York's rich heritage as a place where immigrants traditionally have blended in and built their lives now clashes with today's New York, where police see blending in as one of the first priorities for would-be terrorists.

To prevent attacks, police monitored the path that generations of immigrants followed: getting an apartment, learning English, finding work, assimilating into the culture. Activities such as haircuts and gym workouts were transformed from mundane daily routines into police data points.

A U.S. citizen in Queens, for example, starts work each day at what police labeled "a known Moroccan barbershop."

The AP previously revealed the secret operations of the NYPD intelligence division as it mapped the Muslim community in and around New York, monitored life in ethnic neighborhoods and scrutinized mosques. The Moroccan Initiative was one of the division's projects.

I have a confession to make: this website is a "known Moroccan-run publication." It is run a "known Moroccan" who lives part of the time in a "known Moroccan city" and has been known to occasionally cook a mean "known Moroccan chicken and olive tagine." 

This part just made me sad:

Business owners in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, where many of the pictures were taken, at first expressed amusement at seeing themselves alongside their friends and neighbors in documents compiled by officers hunting for terrorists.

"Police come here for what? We cut hair all day," said Amine Darhbach, a U.S. citizen barber who charges $12 for a haircut and sends a portion of his earnings to his family in Morocco each month.

As they flipped through the documents, they said they grudgingly accepted the police attention. It is hardly news to them that, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Muslims are under greater scrutiny by the public and law enforcement.

"We've been harassed for so long, it doesn't make any sense to complain," said Leo Santini, a cafe owner and U.S. citizen who changed his name from Mohamed Hussein because he thought he would be treated better without such an Arab name. His three American kids, he said, "don't look Arab, so they won't have any problems."

And the end reminds us of the security collaboration with the "known Moroccan regime" and its methods:

At the barber shop in Queens, Darhbach said he agrees police should keep the city safe but said that as an American citizen, his business shouldn't be listed in police files just for serving Moroccan customers. But like many of his neighbors, who grew up under the oppressive police forces of the Middle East and North Africa, Darhbach said things could be worse.

"In Morocco," he said, "police just come and take you away." 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.