Washington, DC – A prominent Muslim civil rights organisation in the United States has called on the US government to investigate a group it has accused of spying on members of the Muslim community.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), on Wednesday urged the FBI and other agencies to probe the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), a group the Southern Poverty Law Center says was founded by an “anti-Muslim activist”.
Awad accused IPT of surveilling Muslim American mosques and organisations, in coordination with Israeli government officials.
“I would like to take this opportunity to call on the Justice Department, on the FBI, on the US Treasury to investigate and hold [IPT Director] Steven Emerson and his Investigative Project on Terrorism accountable,” Awad said during a virtual news conference.
“Why [is he] allowed to spy … in service of the state of Israel? Spying on American Muslims, on legal organisations, should not be allowed.”
In a statement to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, IPT denied that the organisation ever “accepted any money from the United States government or any foreign source”.
“We are fully independent,” it said.
The Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Awad’s comments came nearly a month after CAIR’s Ohio chapter announced it had sacked Romin Iqbal, its executive and legal director in the Columbus-Cincinnati area, accusing him of passing confidential information to IPT for years. In an email to Al Jazeera last month, Iqbal’s lawyer declined to comment on the allegations.
On Wednesday, CAIR identified a “spy” it said worked with IPT and Emerson to surveil a large mosque in northern Virginia, near Washington, DC.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR’s deputy director, also reshared emails that the group said showed exchanges between Emerson and Israeli government officials.
CAIR has said one screenshot showed an email exchange between Emerson and Israeli government officials who ask him for possible links between Students for Justice in Palestine, a student-led advocacy group active in American universities, and the Palestinian faction Hamas. The screenshot displayed an Israeli government email address.
Al Jazeera was not able to verify the authenticity of the screenshots.
CAIR said on Wednesday that the emails were obtained through a former IPT employee who grew disillusioned with the group’s conduct.
“Does this violate federal law – that a foreign government is asking an American nonprofit organisation to give information about American college students? I don’t know; that’s for law enforcement to determine,” Mitchell said. “It’s certainly concerning.”
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a 1938 US law, requires individuals working on behalf of a foreign government to register as such with the Justice Department and periodically disclose their political activities and contacts with officials.
IPT rejects being characterised as anti-Muslim. It says it is focused on exposing what it calls “radical Islamist activity on American soil”.
But the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights organisation that tracks hate groups in the US, has called Emerson an “anti-Muslim activist”.
A 2011 report (PDF) by The Center for American Progress, a liberal US think-tank, accused Emerson and his group of pushing to portray Islam as violent.
“Such wildly over-the-top portraits of Islam as inherently radical require some creativity on Emerson’s part,” the report reads. “Proving he’s up to the challenge, Emerson boasts a history of fabricating evidence that perpetuates conspiracies of radical Islam infiltrating America through Muslim civil rights and advocacy organizations.”
Late last year, shortly after CAIR’s Ohio chapter announced it had sacked Iqbal, the organisation said another individual had come forward and admitted to receiving money from IPT to spy on a US mosque where he volunteered.
CAIR said the volunteer was Tariq Nelson, a man associated with Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia.
In a statement (PDF) published by CAIR on Wednesday, Nelson said he thought passing information to IPT would earn him “easy money”, while not hurting the community.
Saif Rahman, director of public affairs at Dar Al-Hijrah, told Al Jazeera that “to know that there are people who have possibly been co-opted or tracked or incentivised to spy on the community, it’s a sense of betrayal and insecurity”.
But Rahman said the mosque would “remain an open place”.
“And we insist that the purpose of the house of Allah will continue to be a place that is welcoming to all.”
Keith Ellison controversy
Nelson told The Washington Post, which first identified him on Wednesday, that he leaked a controversial audio recording of Keith Ellison – the first Muslim elected to the US Congress – during a private fundraiser in 2010.
Ellison, who now serves as Minnesota’s attorney general, was vying to become the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair in 2016 when IPT published a 36-second audio snippet of Ellison’s remarks at the event.
“The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people,” Ellison says in the recording, referring to Israel. “A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? Is that logic? Right?
“When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish American advocacy group that is pro-Israel, branded the comments as “deeply disturbing and disqualifying”.
At the time, Ellison dismissed the remarks as being taken out of context. He ended up losing his bid to lead the DNC to former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez in a close vote.
The whistleblower who CAIR said leaked the IPT emails penned an anonymous statement that the advocacy group published on Wednesday.
“I came to realize that IPT’s main concern was not protecting our nation from legitimate threats, but protecting a foreign government—Israel—from legitimate criticism. We were essentially being used as an Israel lobbying organization,” the whistleblower wrote.
“Demonizing people who simply have opinions we may not agree with has become sport, yet I was doing it as part of my job.”