The NYPD recommended increasing surveillance of thousands of Shiite Muslims and their mosques, based solely on their religion, as a way to sweep the Northeast for signs of Iranian terrorists, according to interviews and a newly obtained secret police document.
The document offers a rare glimpse into the thinking of NYPD intelligence officers and how, when looking for potential threats, they focused their spying efforts on mosques and Muslims. Police analysts listed a dozen mosques from central Connecticut to the Philadelphia suburbs. None has been linked to terrorism, either in the document or publicly by federal agencies.
The May 2006 NYPD intelligence report, entitled "US-Iran Conflict: The Threat to New York City," made a series of recommendations, including: "Expand and focus intelligence collections at Shi'a mosques."
The NYPD is prohibited under its own guidelines and city law from basing its investigations on religion. Under FBI guidelines, which the NYPD says it follows, many of the recommendations in the police document would be prohibited.
The report, drawn largely from information available in newspapers or sites like Wikipedia, was prepared for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. It was written at a time of great tension between the U.S. and Iran. That tension over Iran's nuclear ambition has increased again recently.
Police estimated the New York area Shiite population to be about 35,000, with Iranians making up about 8,500. The document also calls for canvassing the Palestinian community because there might be terrorists there.
"The Palestinian community, although not Shi'a, should also be assessed due to presence of Hamas members and sympathizers and the group's relationship with the Iranian government," analysts wrote.
The secret document stands in contrast to statements by Mayor Bloomberg, who said the NYPD never considers religion in its policing. Kelly has said police go only where investigative leads take them, but the document described no leads to justify expanded surveillance at Shiite mosques.
The document also renews debate over how the NYPD privately views Muslims. Kelly has faced calls for his resignation recently from some Muslim activists for participating in a video that says Muslims want to "infiltrate and dominate" the United States. The NYPD showed the video to nearly 1,500 officers during training.
Documents previously obtained by the AP show widespread NYPD infiltration of mosques. It's not clear, however, whether the May 2006 report prompted police to infiltrate the mosques on the list. One former police official who has seen the report said that, generally, the recommendations were followed but he could not say for sure whether these mosques were infiltrated.
A current law enforcement official, also familiar with the report, said that since it was issued the NYPD learned that Hezbollah was more political than religious and concluded that it's not effective to monitor Shiites.
Both insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program.
Neither David Cohen, the NYPD's top intelligence officer, nor department spokesman Paul Browne responded to emails or phone calls from The Associated Press this week.
Iran is an overwhelmingly Shiite country, but Shiites are a small percentage of the U.S. Muslim population. By contrast, al-Qaida is a Sunni organization and many U.S. leaders consider Shiite clerics as allies in the fight against homegrown extremism. Shiites are often oppressed overseas and many have sought asylum in the West.
The document is dated just weeks after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress that, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran."
Asad Sadiq, president of the Bait-ul-Qaim mosque in the Philadelphia suburb of Delran, N.J., said the NYPD was being unfairly broad.
"If you attack Cuba, are all the Catholics going to attack here? This is called guilt by association," Sadiq, a dentist, said after seeing his mosque in the NYPD document. "Just because we are the same religion doesn't mean we're going to stand up and harm the United States. It's really absurd."
At the Al-Mahdi Foundation mosque in Brooklyn, worshippers intoned their prayers Wednesday while touching their foreheads to disks of clay on the floor, a Shiite tradition.
"After 1,400 years, the Shias are being targeted in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, everywhere," imam Malik Sakhawat Hussain said after being told that his mosque was in the NYPD document. "If U.S. authorities become suspicious of the Shias, I would say we are a very oppressed community of the world."
At the Masjid Al-Rahman, a prayer hall in the basement of a Brooklyn apartment building, manager Abo Maher was surprised to see his mosque on the NYPD's list of Shiite locations.
"This isn't even Shia," he said. "Their information is wrong."
The police department's Demographics Unit, the secretive squad of plainclothes officers used to monitor restaurants, social clubs and other gathering spots, found similar issues in Iranian neighborhoods, one former NYPD official recalled.
Muslims make up only a fraction of New York's Iranian community so squad members returned from their rounds in Iranian neighborhoods and reported finding Jews and Christians, the former official said.
Sadiq, the New Jersey mosque president, said about 250 families — mostly Pakistanis and Indians and few Iraqis — attend his mosque. Every few years, he said, an FBI agent stops by, introduces himself and asks whether there's been any radical rhetoric in his mosque and whether he knows anyone with connections to Iran. The most recent meeting was just Wednesday, he said, and the NYPD would be welcome if it came openly.