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January 16, 2020 9:39 am

Surveillance Thwarts Terrorism

avatar by Stephen M. Flatow / JNS.org

Opinion

A New York Police Department (NYPD) officer stands in the subway corridor, at the New York Port Authority subway station, near the site of an attempted detonation the day before, in New York City, Dec. 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Brendan McDermid.

JNS.orgWhen the police uncover a plot to carry out terrorism, the arrest usually makes a big splash in the news for a day or two, but then quickly fades from the headlines. The legal process drags on, and most people forget about the case. That’s a shame, because the trial and its outcome sometimes provide important lessons.

Consider the case of Asia Siddiqui. Does anybody even remember her name?

Back in 2015, Ms. Siddiqui, a Muslim woman from Queens, was arrested along with her roommate, Noelle Velentzas. Inspired by ISIS, they did extensive research on how to make bombs and even purchased many of the components for them, which they planned to use to murder police officers.

Siddiqui was a poet too. Two of her poems had been published in a magazine called Jihad Recollections.

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Last week, Siddiqui pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The brief news items describing her sentencing mentioned, in passing, one particularly noteworthy fact.

To quote The Associated Press: “Siddiqui and Velentzas discussed several prior terrorist attacks with a counterterrorism officer posing as a convert to Islam.”

And how, exactly, did that officer manage to meet the would-be terrorists?

“The undercover agent had been assigned to mingle with young Muslims around the city and made recordings of the women discussing their plans,” the AP reported.

We now know that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the New York City Police Department began sending undercover agents to pray at local mosques and participate in other Muslim communal events.

In 2012, news of this police effort leaked to the press. Muslim-American extremists reacted with outrage. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), for example, accused the NYPD of being “unwilling or unable to respect the constitutional and religious rights” of the city’s Muslims. Linda Sarsour, then director of the Arab American Association of New York, charged that the NYPD was waging “psychological warfare” against Muslims.

I never understood what all the fuss was about. If Jewish terrorists had slaughtered thousands of American citizens in Manhattan and the NYPD decided to send undercover agents into local synagogues, who exactly would that harm?

Almost every week in shul, you see a few people who don’t quite belong. Usually, they are the non-Jewish professional colleagues of the family that is celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah. With “guest yarmulkes” awkwardly perched on their heads, they smile good-naturedly and patiently wait for the bewildering service to conclude.

Who would care if it turned out that a few of them were undercover cops on the hunt for would-be terrorists? Far from resenting their presence, I would be very glad to know they were on the job. In fact, I would volunteer to give them a few tips so they could blend in more convincingly.

If CAIR, Sarsour, and the rest were genuinely opposed to terrorism, they should have been thanking the NYPD and assisting it. Instead, Muslim advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the NYPD, demanding that the undercover surveillance be halted.

The plaintiffs were groups like the Muslim Students Association and the New Jersey Council of Imams. Amicus briefs supporting the suit were filed by groups such as the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Muslim Public Affairs Council — in other words, the usual suspects.

But there were a few unusual additions to the list of those filing briefs against the NYPD’s anti-terror effort: the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and the National Council of Jewish Women. I understand the desire of liberal-minded American Jews to build bridges to the US Muslim community. I share that desire. But building bridges to moderate Muslims is one thing; undermining the anti-terrorism efforts of our law-enforcement authorities is quite another.

In 2018, the NYPD settled the lawsuit by agreeing to, among other things, shut down the surveillance program.

If the lawsuit had succeeded just a bit earlier, Asia Siddiqui and Noelle Velentzas might never have been captured. Instead, an untold number of police officers could have been murdered by the bomb-makers from Queens. How would the leaders of groups opposed to the NYPD program have slept at night with that on their consciences?

It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where there was no need for undercover agents or surveillance programs, and where lollipops grew on trees. But that’s not the world we live in.

Stephen M. Flatow, an attorney in New Jersey, is the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He is the author of A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terrorism, now available on Kindle.

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