Snowden revelations
NSA spied on prominent US Muslims

After 9/11, every Muslim was a potential suspect. Under President George W. Bush, the FBI and NSA read the e-mails of Muslim lawyers and activists even though they had no convictions and there was no evidence that any of them had committed a crime, called for jihad or sympathised with al-Qaida. Even a Department of Homeland Security employee was under surveillance. By Matthias Kolb

As a boy, he dreamed of being a pilot and flying with the navy flight demonstration squadron Blue Angels. His poor eyesight ruled that out, but after studying law in Washington DC, he joined the navy's JAG Corps. Later, the Republican worked for an NGO, sent his children to Catholic schools and worked for George W. Bush's government from the end of 2001. He spent years at what later became the Department of Homeland Security and had access to confidential documents due to his top secret security clearance.

"I did everything a good citizen ought to," says Faisal Gill, who returned to working as a lawyer in 2005 and was also a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. He and his parents came to the USA from Pakistan when he was eight years of age, but that was never a barrier for his career. Now, however, Gill sees the world through different eyes. Documents from the US secret service NSA, which Edward Snowden copied and passed on to the journalist Glenn Greenwald, contain two e-mail accounts belonging to Faisal Gill, which the FBI and NSA monitored for three years.

In a long article for the online magazine "The Intercept", Greenwald has now analysed Snowden's Excel table, which reveals that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency spied on a total of 7,485 e-mail accounts between 2002 and 2008. Alongside Faisal Gill, four other prominent Muslim Americans are on the list, people very present in the public eye who often shared platforms with leading Democrat and Republican politicians. There was no evidence that any of them committed a crime and they did not call for jihad or sympathise with al-Qaida. Nevertheless, they still seemed suspect to security agents.

Insufficient control over secret services

These cases, on which the US Justice Department has not yet issued a statement, not only show once again that the US secret services have a broad latitude when it comes to getting surveillance warrants from the FISC court in its closed hearings. They also illustrate the mood in America after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: no agent or police officer wanted to make a mistake and expose themselves to the accusation of not being careful enough.

And because President Clinton had rejected monitoring Muslim Americans, there was a feeling in the security agencies post 9/11 that they had a lot of catching up to do. Some seemed obsessed with the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated US authorities.

A Muslim who – like Faisal Gill in 2006 – met up in Sudan with relatives of victims of the local al-Qaida violence, for instance, to offer legal support, made himself a suspect (other US legal firms also active in Sudan were not deemed suspicious, incidentally). And the NGO for which Gill worked before his time with the government was not a business association but the American Muslim Council.

The new revelations will no doubt strengthen the feeling among America's Muslims that they are seen as second-class citizens and are under permanent suspicion. Just this April, the New York police force closed down its "Demographics Unit", which had systematically spied on Muslims for years, keeping track of where they eat, work and pray. The fact that Muslims were described in an FBI training document as "Mohammed Raghead" is insensitive at best – or downright racist.

In a video interview with "The Intercept", Faisal Gill gives an impressive account of how upsetting the case is for him. Describing himself as a "very conservative, Reagan-loving Republican," he says, "If someone like me can be surveilled, then some other people out there I can only imagine." For Gill, the matter is clear: America must change its surveillance policy and tighten parliamentary control over the secret services.

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been issuing similar calls for some time. ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero has compared the recently revealed activities of the US authorities with the spying on black activists like Martin Luther King ordered by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. After his famous "I have a Dream" speech, "every movement" made by the civil rights activist was noted in tens of thousands of memos, as the historian David Garrow puts it.

The cases of the four other prominent US Muslims are also remarkable, although not quite as striking as that of Faisal Gill, whose e-mails were intercepted although he had worked for the US administration and had, therefore, been subjected to the strictest background checks.

  • Asim Ghafoor has worked as an attorney for two decades. He arrived in Washington in 1997 to work for a Texan congressman. In 2001, he opened his own office as a PR advisor, lobbyist and attorney and worked "behind the scenes" for the Muslim community after 9/11. He proudly shows off photos of himself with George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton. He appears to have been targeted by the secret services because he was a legal representative for a Saudi foundation that allegedly funded terrorist operations. In 2008, it emerged that the FBI had illegally taped telephone calls between Ghafoor and his clients. His love for America is unshaken, Ghafoor told "The Intercept": "There were former Bush-administration officials representing Saudi entities, and I doubt their e-mails were tapped." Because they're not Muslims, he surmised.
  • Nihad Awad is a Jordan-born Palestinian who has lived in the USA for more than two decades. He is the co-founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the USA's largest Muslim civil rights organisations. He was an advisor to Al Gore and met Presidents Bush and Clinton and a number of US foreign ministers. His e-mails were monitored from 2006 to 2008. "I'm outraged that, as an American citizen, my government, after decades of civil rights struggle, still the government spies on political activists, civil rights activists and leaders. It is outrageous that despite all the work we have been doing in our communities to serve the nation, to serve our communities, we are treated with suspicion." Awad suspects he was spied on because he made a positive statement on Hamas in 1994 – three years before the organisation became radicalised. He later distanced himself from Hamas, he says. CAIR too has always condemned the organisation's attacks.
  • Hooshang Amirahamadi is a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The founder of the American Iranian Council, he holds both an Iranian and a US passport. In 2005 and 2013 he applied to be a presidential candidate in Iran, but was not permitted to stand for election. Three of his e-mail accounts were monitored between August 2007 and May 2008. Neocon magazines accused him of being too close to the Iranian government under the then president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. His university, they claimed, had received money from foundations controlled by Teheran, even though similar donations also went to Harvard and Columbia University. According to "The Intercept", Amirahamadi believes he was not under surveillance because of his faith (he refers to himself an atheist), but because of his "diplomatic activities". He has, for instance, long been a critic of strict sanctions against Teheran, which he considers ineffective.
  • The Pakistani Agha Saeed immigrated to the USA in 1974. He studied at several elite universities, gaining a PhD, and has taught political science. He has also worked to encourage Muslim Americans to become involved in politics. Saeed had an appointment with President Bush on the afternoon of 11 September 2001, which was postponed by a week due to the attacks. He briefly made the headlines when Rick Lazio, Hillary Clinton's Republican challenger in 2000, referred to a campaign donation from the American Muslim Alliance brokered by Saeed as "blood money" and accused Saeed of harbouring sympathies for Palestinian insurgents, which Saeed denied. Yet such a statement would fall under freedom of speech and would not be a crime. Saaed believes that there was another, different reason for the secret services' interest in his e-mails: from 2006 on, he criticised the Bush administration for its spying activities.


The four prominent Muslims contained in Snowden's Excel table and the many nameless citizens also spied upon are likely to agree with Nihad Awad's warning: "If we do not speak up against the abuses of the NSA surveillance, if we do not stop the abuse of targeting people because of their religious identity and their First Amendment activities, if we do not stop this, if we don't speak against it, if we do not ask questions, it's just a matter of time to come to you as it has come to us."

Matthias Kolb

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/ 2014

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

Link tip: The article by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain on "the Intercept" website contains further video interviews with Asim Ghafoor and Nihad Awad.


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