US Muslim group CAIR catches years-long anti-Muslim infiltrator in its ranks
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) had long been prepared for a day when someone would try to infiltrate their organisation.
Having observed the history of other civil rights groups, they knew it was always a strong possibility. With this in mind, they had developed a sophisticated IT network to ensure that information about their clients and community was not easily accessed and shared.
But last year it was brought to their attention that their Ohio director, Romin Iqbal, was spying on behalf of an anti-Muslim hate group. They hired an outside law firm and a forensics investigator, working for months to determine the facts behind the allegations. Last week, once they had sufficient information, CAIR’s national leadership removed Iqbal from his position.
It was a careful investigation that was done even without the knowledge of many of the organisation’s high-level employees. But once it was completed, it confirmed for CAIR’s leadership their mission of civil rights and the importance of vigilance.
“It’s a badge of honour that hate groups put so much emphasis on us,” Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, told The New Arab. “We’re one of the most effective groups giving people a voice. We stand on the side of justice.”
For several years, Iqbal, who began employment with CAIR in 2006, was working with the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), a group described by the Islamophobia Network as "presenting Islam as an inherently radical, violent and antagonistic religion." The group’s founder, Steven Emerson, is referred to by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim activist.
According to findings by CAIR’s investigator, Emerson’s hate group had been obsessively monitoring Muslim public figures, organisations and mosques.
The investigation also found that IPT had been providing assistance to Israeli intelligence under then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It also revealed that other Muslim leaders and groups had been targeted.
Once the report was complete, Iqbal, when presented with the authenticated evidence of his collaboration, admitted to his transgressions. These included secretly sharing emails, recording conversations, and sharing strategic information about CAIR.
CAIR employees were left feeling a mixture of relief that Iqbal had been caught and vulnerability that he had spent years spying while being a trusted member of the community.
Whitney Siddiqi, community affairs director at CAIR-Ohio, who learned about the infiltration when she and her office were summoned last week to a meeting at the Columbus office, told The New Arab that she’s still processing the news.
“It will take some time for me and for most of our team to personally process it,” she said. “It certainly causes you to look back at your time working with him in a new context. I think that’s what a lot of us are doing right now – looking at things in a new context, just noticing things we didn’t before.”
She added, “He built deep relationships. It’s hard to grapple with when you know the evidence is conclusive.”
Awad, CAIR’s national director, remembers Iqbal being less social and less engaging than their typical CAIR directors. Similarly, Edward Mitchell, CAIR’s national deputy director, tells The New Arab that he recalls Iqbal keeping his distance from other CAIR leaders, while also frequently getting into disagreements when he did engage with them.
Looking back on Iqbal’s behaviour, Siddiqi now sees his distance and hostility as intentional.
“In my mind, he kept our team strategically isolated from other CAIR chapters and the national office,” she said. “As a team, we were not connected as we should have been.”
Now, she believes, “This has brought us closer together.”
She stressed, “As a team, our work was never impacted. We’re continuing this work. Our work transcends any one person. This just proves how important our work is.”
Now that Iqbal has been removed, questions remain about his background, his other targets, and his legal status.
Siddiqi says CAIR-Ohio is considering legal action against him.
Ohio is one of 38 states with a one-party consent law for recording conversations, meaning that recording is legal as long as one party consents. On the other hand, if one is not party to a conversation, recording is a felony, according to state law. It is not yet clear which laws would apply to Iqbal.
The local Columbus-Cincinnati board has appointed Amina Barhumi as acting executive director and Lina Abbaoui as acting legal director for the region. CAIR-Ohio says it is working to ensure their clients and the Muslim community that depends on them are supported through this transition.