Special from the Nation Magazine
How One Man Refused to Spy on Fellow Muslims for the FBI—and Then Lost Everything
The case of Ayyub Abdul-Alim fits a decades-long pattern of government criminalization of African-American Muslims.
Arun Kundnani, Emily Keppler and Muki Najaer
The Nation online magazine October 14, 2014
On the night of December 9, 2011, Siham Stewart called her husband, Ayyub Abdul-Alim, as he closed down his corner store, Nature’s Garden, in Springfield, Massachusetts. She asked him to bring home a gallon of milk. A few minutes later, she watched from the window of their second-floor apartment as he was seized in the street and handcuffed by two police officers.
Forty-eight hours after Abdul-Alim’s arrest, FBI agent James Hisgen and Springfield police officer Ronald Sheehan offered him the chance to walk away free of charges if he agreed to become an informant on the Muslim community. He refused the deal and is now held at the Cedar Junction maximum-security prison in Massachusetts, facing up to sixteen years behind bars.
While awaiting trial, Abdul-Alim discovered that his wife received cash payments from the FBI totaling at least $11,949. The receipts were signed by Sheehan and Hisgen. Stewart testified against Abdul-Alim in court and admitted to working as an informant. This past April, Abdul-Alim was found guilty of illegal possession of a firearm that he alleges the officers planted on him as part of their attempt to pressure him to work for the FBI.
Abdul-Alim, 36, grew up in New York City in a family of African-American and Puerto Rican heritage. Prior to his arrest, he founded and ran the Quran and Sunnah Community Center in Springfield, which offered free meals and prayer services, and Connections Transportation, which transported people to visit their loved ones in prison. He was also a small business owner, an apartment complex manager, a husband, and a father figure to Stewart’s son.
His life began to change in 2010 after he returned from a three-week religious trip to Mecca. Abdul-Alim reports that he began to receive calls from James Hisgen, an agent at the FBI’s Springfield field office, who asked him questions such as, “Do you love America?” and told him to call back if he was interested in working as an informant.
In early 2011, Hisgen showed up at Abdul-Alim’s mosque, Masjid Al Tawheed, with two other agents. According to the Imam, Dr. Ishmael Ali, Hisgen claimed he was from the Springfield Building Department and demanded to search the mosque. Dr. Ali turned him away because he did not have a warrant. Dr. Ali recalled that in the two years leading up to his arrest, Abdul-Alim continually sought advice on how to get the FBI agents to leave him alone.
Since 9/11, a key element in the FBI’s counter-terrorism tactics has been the aggressive recruitment and deployment of large numbers of informants among Muslim communities in the United States. Part of the purpose is to gather information on political or community activism, which the FBI frames as a precursor to extremist violence. But the tactics also fit a familiar pattern—one that harkens back to the FBI’s history of targeting the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, when it was likewise asserted that extremist ideologues were fueling violence.
At that time, FBI agents were each expected to hire at least one informant to report on the goings-on of black people. African-Americans were watched by FBI informants everywhere they congregated: churches, bookstores, bars, restaurants, college classrooms and other gathering spots. In addition to providing information on activist leaders, the informants served as “listening posts” for blanket information on black communities.
The FBI believed that the civil rights movement was a front for Communist subversion and that the urban rebellions of black youth were instigated by Communist agitators. Systematic spying, it was thought, would help prevent riots but ultimately the purpose was to disable the growing radicalism of black America. Black Muslims—branded the “extremists” of the day—were seen as especially politicized, and prominent community figures such as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were placed on NSA and FBI watch lists. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad had been on the FBI’s radar since World War II; in 1942, agents had arrested him on charges of draft evasion.
The best-known FBI initiative directed at the black liberation movement was COINTELPRO—short for Counterintelligence Program. It was launched in 1956 to infiltrate the Communist Party but shortly afterwards was expanded to include the ongoing surveillance of black activists. Disinformation campaigns, arrests on trumped-up charges, faked evidence, and assassinations were used to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” black movements, according to the FBI’s own documents. But COINTELPRO was just one initiative within the FBI’s wider surveillance and criminalization of black organizations.
Abdul-Alim’s parents were themselves caught up in these longer histories of FBI surveillance. His father was active with the Black Panther Party in New York and his mother was a member of the Young Lords, the radical Puerto Rican youth group that was, like the Panthers, targeted by the FBI. Both parents were involved in the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood, a Harlem-based Muslim congregation founded by an associate of Malcolm X and whose attendees have faced decades of surveillance.
Today, black Muslims stand at the intersection of the War on Drugs’ institutional racism and the War on Terror’s institutional Islamophobia: their race frames them as prone to gang violence, their religion as a terrorist threat. Abdul-Alim’s case shows the extreme measures the FBI is willing to use to pressure Muslims to work as informants on the terror war’s domestic front.
On the night of his arrest, Sheehan instructed two Springfield Police officers to stop Abdul-Alim as he approached a store. According to a police radio transcript, the officers pat-frisked Abdul-Alim and told Sheehan that he was clear of any weapons. Sheehan ordered them to conduct a second search and, according to one transcript, they again responded that Abdul-Alim did not have any weapons.
Sheehan asked over the police radio, “Is the subject in earshot?” and then asked one of the officers, Angel Berrios, to step away. This is where the record ends. Abdul-Alim alleges that Berrios then pushed him against the police car, pulled down his pants and boxers, probed his testicles, spread his buttocks and yelled out, “Gun!”
The officers handcuffed Abdul-Alim and placed him in a police cruiser. Abdul-Alim alleges that Sheehan then approached the vehicle and asked, “Are you ready to make the deal of a lifetime?” When Abdul-Alim protested, he was told to “think it over” on his way to the police station.
Sheehan, who is also a member of the Springfield Joint Terrorism Task Force, immediately called his FBI supervisor to notify him of the arrest.
Forty-eight hours after the arrest, it became apparent what the “deal of a lifetime” would involve. As Abdul-Alim awaited arraignment at the Springfield police station, Sheehan and Hisgen questioned him for about an hour. Abdul-Alim recalls Hisgen saying, “You may remember I called you about a year ago requesting a meeting to discuss possible information you may have that could be helpful, but you refused to meet with me. Maybe you’ll be more willing to cooperate now.” At this point, Abdul-Alim recognized Hisgen as the same man who had called him for months and attempted to search his mosque. He recounted these events to The Nation from behind a plexiglass barrier in Hampton County Jail.
Abdul-Alim, who had been convicted of dealing cocaine in 2003, assumed the interrogation regarded drugs or gangs. Hisgen allegedly said, “I’m not interested in that nickel and dime shit. I want the real shit. Like terrorism shit.”
“They said that I was facing ten years, but I could walk away right now if I agreed to be an informant,” recalls Abdul-Alim. “They said that they would give me the names of specific people who they wanted me to target, and I would use anti-government propaganda to incite them to violent action. They implied that they would provide me with guns and bombs to give people.” Hisgen and Sheehan did not record the interrogation.
Abdul-Alim refused the deal and was held at the Hampden County Correctional Center for two and a half years awaiting trial. In December 2013, the prosecution introduced a new set of charges. Police officers claimed that, shortly after Abdul-Alim’s arrest, they had conducted a search of the apartment complex he managed and discovered a bag of guns in an empty suite. “They supposedly sat on this information for two years, which is definitely very unusual,” said Abdul-Alim’s public defense attorney, Thomas Robinson.
In April 2014, a four-day trial began on the original gun charges but it was riddled with inconsistencies. The officers could not agree on simple details, including how many times they searched Abdul-Alim, or the location and time that they allegedly found the gun. The gun was originally described by police and a ballistic expert as a .22 revolver but later identified in court as a .25 semi-automatic pistol manufactured in 1908.
A police forensics analysis conducted three days after the arrest found that there were no fingerprints on the gun. In contradiction to police procedure, the arresting officers failed to retrieve surveillance videos of the arrest scene, wear gloves while handling the weapon, or write a complete police report.
In Court, Siham Stewart testified as an informant saying she had been paid by the police and the FBI but denied that the payments were related to Abdul-Alim. She said that, whenever she was short on rent money, she would call “Ron,” referring to Officer Sheehan, and he would pay her in cash. Abdul-Alim says that Stewart convinced him to sign his bank accounts and store over to her while he was in jail. She sold the store, took his money, and left.
“When I saw her in court after I found out that she was an informant,” said Abdul-Alim, “she just smiled at me like this was all some kind of game. I realized I had lost my store, my savings, and my wife. Everything.” Before she met Abdul-Alim, Stewart and other members of her family were in the process of applying for US citizenship, which may have given the government an opportunity to pressure her into working for the FBI.
The prosecution presented the case against Abdul-Alim as a straightforward gun charge. The presiding judge, Constance Sweeney, blocked the defense from introducing evidence on the involvement of the FBI. Sweeney barred three defense witnesses, including Dr. Ali, from testifying about the FBI’s long-term harassment of Abdul-Alim. Also prevented from giving evidence was Benjamin Swan, a state senator whom Abdul-Alim had contacted prior to his arrest to discuss his FBI harassment.
Of the fourteen jurors, twelve were white and one was black. The jury returned a hung verdict twice, warranting a retrial. Sweeney did not accept the verdict until the jurors reached a “consensus”: guilty. Abdul-Alim was sentenced to four to six years and still faces another ten years in relation to the second set of charges.
The Springfield Police Department and the FBI declined to comment on the case. Siham Stewart changed her address and was unreachable via cellphone.
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Officially, COINTELPRO operations ended in 1971 but the use of informants to infiltrate political and community organizations continued. What changed during the 1990s, and especially following 9/11, were the rationales used to justify such tactics: it was no longer the threat of black nationalist “subversion” but the threat of Muslim “radicalization” that was invoked. Moreover, with new provisions in the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the FBI could launch investigations of a suspected individual or organization simply for providing “material support” to terrorism—a vague term that could include ideological activity unrelated to any actual plot to carry out violence. While COINTELPRO became notorious for flagrantly violating federal laws, these measures effectively legitimized the same kinds of investigation and criminalization of political dissent.
Consider, for example, the case of Jamil al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, a black Muslim activist whose targeting and subsequent incarceration encapsulates the historical continuities between FBI tactics of the 1960s and the post-9/11 period. In 1967, H. Rap Brown became the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), famous for its role in the civil rights movement but increasingly isolated after it opted to oppose the Vietnam War. Brown was twenty-three years old and already known for his powerful speeches in support of the Black Power movement. Placed at the top of the FBI’s target list of black revolutionaries, over the next three years he faced a succession of indictments, arrests, and attempted shootings and bombings.
Eventually, in 1971, the government convicted Brown for involvement in an alleged robbery that, according to a contemporary report in The New York Times, may have been part of an attempt by radicals to prevent drug dealing in the black community. While in prison in New York, he converted to Islam and renamed himself Jamil al-Amin. After he was released in 1976, he settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where he opened a community grocery store and helped rid the neighborhood of drugs. But he continued to face regular law enforcement harassment and arbitrary arrests. During the 1990s, in a bid to connect him to criminal activity, FBI informants were placed in the Atlanta Muslim community where he had become an imam. Despite accumulating a 44,000-page file on him, there seemed no viable means to return him to prison.
Then, in 2000, al-Amin was arrested on murder charges and accused of being involved in a shoot-out with two Fulton County Sheriff’s deputies, one of whom was killed. The surviving officer admitted to wounding the assailant in the exchange of gunfire. But despite the fact that al-Amin had no injuries, the same officer still identified him as the shooter. Moreover, another person admitted to the crime in a sworn affidavit and gave a more plausible account of events than the prosecution’s version. Undeterred by this confession and the lack of evidence linking al-Amin to the shoot-out, the jury convicted him to a lifetime prison sentence.
At the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, al-Amin continued his activism: he used the prison’s formal procedures to register a number of grievances relating to the inability of Muslim prisoners to practice their religion. As news of this spread among other prisoners, Muslims requested that he represent them in negotiations with the prison authorities. But an intelligence unit within the prison saw such developments as a threat and, in 2006, the FBI prepared a report entitled, “The Attempt to Radicalize the Georgia Department of Corrections’ Inmate Muslim Population.” The report alleged that al-Amin was at the center of an organized attempt to create a Muslim “solidarity movement” in the Georgia prison system, which the FBI interpreted as raising “security and radicalization concerns.”
The following year, al-Amin was abruptly transferred to the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where the US government incarcerates those it accuses of being among the most dangerous al-Qaeda terrorists. At the age of seventy, he was placed in an underground cage 1,400 miles away from home. Despite being convicted only of state charges, he was held in a federal facility. For the last seven years, he has been in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day—a tactic that is widely considered to be a form of psychological torture.
Over the last year, al-Amin’s health has deteriorated dramatically and he received a preliminary diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a life-threatening blood cancer. His supporters flooded the Supermax prison and the Bureau of Prisons with calls, leading the authorities to transfer him to a federal medical center where he could be properly diagnosed and treated. In September, he was diagnosed with cancer but prison authorities are currently refusing to treat him and plan to transfer him back to solitary confinement in a Supermax prison.
Followers of Jamil al-Amin have also been treated as terrorists over the last decade. Luqman Abdullah, an African-American imam at a mosque on Detroit’s impoverished West Side, was killed in an FBI raid in 2009, the culmination of a two-year “counter-terrorist” operation that involved entrapping congregants into transporting stolen goods. Abdullah’s son, Omar Regan, views the killing as “unfinished business” from the days of COINTELPRO.
In 2008, the FBI had a roster of 15.000 paid informants , a tenfold increase since 1975 when the number was 1,500. Some informants receive as much as $100,000 per case. Over the last decade, the FBI has on multiple occasions used these informants to manipulate Muslims into participating in staged terrorist plots that play well on the evening news and justify federal counter-terrorism budgets.
The Newburg Four case is one of the most obvious examples. In 2009, an FBI informant, Shahed Hussain, used financial incentives to convince four impoverished black Muslim men from upstate New York to agree to play a role in his staged terrorist plot. In considering the case, Judge Colleen McMahon criticized the FBI’s approach, stating: “I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition.” Nevertheless, the Newburgh Four each received twenty-five-year prison sentences. Hussain had earlier ensnared two other men—Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain of Albany, New York—in a sting operation that resulted in fifteen-year sentences. Since 9/11, there has not been a successful entrapment defense in a terrorism-related prosecution.
Hussain’s role in the Newburgh and Albany cases is eerily similar to what FBI agent Hisgen hoped Abdul-Alim would do among Springfield’s Muslims in his “deal of a lifetime.” The way the FBI pressured Ayyub Abdul-Alim to work for them is typical of the countless attempts made in the post-9/11 era to recruit Muslim informants. What makes his case different is that he took the unusual step of refusing. He sought justice through the legal system and, as with every other post-9/11 case in which a Muslim in the United States has mounted an entrapment defense, was unsuccessful.
Thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, surveillance is again a topic of public discussion. But the mainstream debate ignores what government surveillance and criminalization actually mean for targeted communities. The black Muslim experience of being targeted by informants ought to make for an important case study but is hidden from view. While there are overlaps with the experiences of other Muslims and other black people in the United States, the black Muslim experience has its own distinctive history, marked by decades of government spying and criminalization. In the Cold War, black Muslims were seen as constituting a radical threat of subversion; in the War on Terror, the combination of their race and religion makes them easy prey for sting operations, which, on closer inspection, look more like entrapments. While there is now awareness and outrage at the J. Edgar Hoover-era suppression of legitimate dissent, this historical lesson is rarely applied to our own time.
With much of the evidence that supported Abdul-Alim’s case ruled inadmissible, the trial came down to a matter of whose testimony to trust—law enforcement officers or a black man with previous convictions. In his closing statement, the prosecutor urged jury members to ask themselves if it was more likely that Abdul-Alim was caught with a gun or that the police and FBI “conspired” to entrap him. Apparently, this was sufficient to keep Abdul-Alim in prison.