Top Secret NYPD Counter-Terrorism Documents Inadvertently Highlight Best of City’s Moroccan Culture

| September 23, 2011 5:25 PM

Tutankhamun Cafe in Astoria, Queens was listed in leaked NYPD documents. Sometime around 2003, the NYPD began a secret probe into the city's Moroccan community. Photo courtesy of astorianyc.blogspot.com.

On Sept. 22, the Associated Press reported that sometime between 2003 and 2004, a secret NYPD intelligence team known as the Demographics Unit spied extensively on New York City’s Moroccan community, in an operation called the “Moroccan Initiative.”

The unit’s surveillance activities were based on the subjects’ ethnicity alone, prompted without any known criminal activity, according to the AP.

A 26 page NYPD document leaked yesterday shows the NYPD took photos of Moroccan businesses, took extensive notes on where Moroccans met, ate, prayed and got haircuts, and extensively documented innocuous observations, like the presence of Qur’an or Dunkin Donuts franchises that employed Moroccans.

According to the leaked NYPD documents, parts of which were redacted, the purpose of the Moroccan Initiative was to examine how an immigrant from “____” moving to New York City would remain ”under the radar” if they were trying to “blend into general society.” The appearance of the “_____” in the document seems to suggest that this operation was, or was planned to be, expanded into other immigrant groups besides Moroccans.

Another uncomfortably worded sentence in the mission statement reads, “Each product will tell a coherent story about how, on average, an individual from a specific county would take concrete actions to become ‘Americanized.’”

The observations about each business contained within the NYPD documents are strikingly banal (see bullet points next to the below images), but in almost every instance the ethnicity of the owner is noted. The majority of the businesses are restaurants. The NYPD seems to have inadvertently created an excellent guide to New York City’s Moroccan cuisine.

Tarboosh Cafe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn was listed in the NYPD documents. It remains to be seen if Tarboosh will experience an increase in Yelp reviews. Flickr/Brooklyn Council for the Arts.

Tarboosh Cafe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, was included in the NYPD Moroccan Initiative documents. The bullet points below are direct quotes from the documents.

  • “A medium sized Arab restaurant that serves Hookah and Middle Eastern sweets.”
  • “The store is located within walking distance of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge.”

The new Morrocan Iniative report and leaked documents arrive on the heels of another startling AP story from Aug. 25, which detailed how the NYPD, in collaboration with a CIA operative, infiltrated Mosques and spied on Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey.

The idea that people in a group are suspect because of being members of a group is profiling, plain and simple.
—Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.

Both stories paint a portrait of how the NYPD transformed from a traditional police organization, designed to fight crime like murder and burglary, into a powerful, secretive counter-intelligence unit that often broadly interpreted its legal boundaries in order to fight terrorism in the years after Sept. 11, 2001, reported the AP.

Andalous Express Travel in Astoria, Queens was included in the NYPD documents. Looking for a cheap flight to Morocco? Photo courtesy of Queens Metro.

Andalous Express Travel agency in Astoria, Queens, is another business included in the documents. Again, directly from the documents…

  • “Owned and operated by a man of Moroccan descent.”

The so-called “mosque crawlers,” a group of NYPD officers and a CIA agent who monitored mosques in Muslim communities in the Tri-State area, may have violated civil liberties, and the CIA is currently looking into whether the agency violated a federal law by teaming up with the NYPD, according to the Huffington Post.

But the Moroccan Initiative seems to clearly violate a New York City law prohibiting police from using race, religion or ethnicity as “the determinative factor” for any law enforcement action.

However, civil liberties groups say the law is worded in ambiguous language that makes it difficult to press charges against violations. Still, the report has drawn outrage from multiple directions.

“In America, you don’t put people under suspicion without good reason,” Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. told the AP. “The idea that people in a group are suspect because of being members of a group is profiling, plain and simple.”

The Moroccan Initiative was likely sparked by a suicide bombing in Casablanca in 2003 and a train bombing by Moroccan terrorists in 2004, the AP said. It was reportedly unclear whether the NYPD investigated other ethnic groups, or if similar initiatives are still ongoing within the department.

The Marrakech Hotel in Manhattan is noted in the NYPD documents for its fine accommodations. Flick/crshotels.

The Marrakech Hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was also named in the report. The bullet point demonstrates that the NYPD Demographics Unit admires good taste when it sees it.

  • “Location owned by Moroccan male and American male.”
  • “Location very well decorated and finished.”

No other police department in the United States is known to have an intelligence-gathering operation like the NYPD’s, according to the AP report.

Paul Browne, spokesman for the NYPD, did not return a message to the AP about the Moroccan Initiative, and before the “Mosque Crawlers” report in August, the NYPD had denied a Demographics Unit existed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said only, “You’re just factually wrong,” on Thursday, when AP reporters requested a comment.

“These revelations send the message to American Muslims that they are being viewed as a suspect community and that their constitutional rights may be violated with impunity,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which asked for the investigation, told the AP. “The Justice Department must initiate an immediate investigation of the civil rights implications of this spy program and the legality of its links to the CIA.”

Has the NYPD stepped well beyond its bounds in an effort to combat terrorism? Many civil liberties organizations, Arab community members and concerned New Yorkers seem to believe so, explained journalist Abdus-Sattar Ghazali in a recent op-ed.

NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly hasn’t apologized for the department’s enhanced surveillance at this time, though the AP reported that due to the large volume of documents going through his office, he may not have known about the Moroccan Initiative. Since the report came out, Kelly has kept quiet.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how business fares for the Moroccan establishments listed in the documents.

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