The Islamophobic Informant Industrial Complex in the US

How the recent CAIR spy scandal unveils an Islamophobic Informant Industrial Complex in US surveillance
6 min read
24 Dec, 2021
The recent discovery of two informants within the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reveals one of the most nefarious dimensions of Islamophobic surveillance in the US: the informant industrial complex, writes Khaled A. Beydoun.
Dressed in his undercover Islamic clothing, Craig Monteilh was recruited by the FBI to spy on Muslims. [Getty])

This past September marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. It also marked two decades of state-sponsored surveillance that pierced deep into the most intimate spaces of Muslim American life. Students and civic organizations, homes and the very electronic devices lodged within them – and more recently – those we carry in our very palms.

If anything, the past twenty years revealed that surveillance – the enterprise of monitoring people on account of their ethnic or spiritual identity – is the touchstone of structural Islamophobia. The system whereby the state conflates Muslim identity with "terror suspects" and justifies strident measures of policing that violate foundational constitutional safeguards.

Recent events reveal the most nefarious dimension of Islamophobic surveillance: the informant industrial complex. This is both state strategy, but more ominously, an industry whereby members of the Muslim American population trade on their access and identity for incentives offered by the state.

Capitalizing on the established cottage industry of native informants, the informant industrial complex finds institutionalization and order through the development of post-9/11 counter-terror law and policy that feeds off of infiltration. And namely, infiltration by way of co-opting elements of the community that can do the state's bidding from within. 

"Recent events reveal the most nefarious dimension of Islamophobic surveillance: the informant industrial complex. This is both state strategy, but more ominously, an industry whereby members of the Muslim American population trade on their access and identity for incentives offered by the state"

Enter Romin Iqbal of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Iqbal served as Executive and Legal Director of the organization's Ohio chapter since 2006, during the thick of the War on Terror decade, the rise of Tea Party populism, and the age of Trump. While he served as lead of a chapter that served the interests of nearly 250,000 Muslims in Ohio, including a sizable Somali population in Columbus, Iqbal used his platform to spy for a notable anti-Muslim organization.

CAIR's national headquarters revealed that Iqbal fed confidential information to the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT). The Stephen Emerson-led organization, designated an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), received private recordings of chapter meetings, strategic plans, private emails, and benefitted from purchases Iqbal made with CAIR funds. While CAIR paid Iqbal's hefty salary, the informant functioned as a de facto IPT employee – doing the devil's work behind the mask of his Muslim identity and platform.   

While the leaked story sounds more like a twisted Hollywood film plot, IPT flipped Iqbal into a full-fledged informant. Mobilizing him, and the executive chair he presided over, to carry forward Islamophobia instead of fighting against it – the very raison d’etre of CAIR and its constellation of national chapters.  

Ohio State University law professor Amna Akbar, an expert on domestic surveillance, commented, "One of CAIR's core functions, like any Muslim American civil rights group in the last 20 [years], is to protect Muslims against state surveillance. That the legal director was working as an informant for an anti-Muslim hate group with ties to Israeli intelligence scrambles everything."

CAIR National, undeniably shamed by Iqbal, echoed, "Mr Iqbal was a small tool in a large Islamophobia network." An apt observation, despite the qualification that neither the consequences of Iqbal's actions nor the greater informant industry he represents is neither "small." But in fact, severe in scale because they facilitate Islamophobia from within the very geographies where Muslims strategise to challenge surveillance, Islamophobia and the Pandora's Box of perils that emanate from the two.

Even more, Iqbal's thirteen-year stint as an anti-Muslim informant fueled the Islamophobic agenda of an organization that championed anti-Sharia legislation, unfounded conspiracy theories about Muslims, and the "terror ties" of CAIR – the very organization that employed Iqbal. 

Voices

Furthermore, organizations like IPT have emboldened the private vigilantism that unleashes violence against Muslim institutions and authorises hatemongers to attack visible Muslims. However, the danger of Iqbal's collaboration with a cornerstone block of the Islamophobia industry supersedes hate violence but serves to legitimise damaging surveillance policies like Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

This nefarious structural Islamophobic program, established on a federal level by President Obama – had its most detrimental impact on Somali Muslim communities in cities including Minneapolis, Boston, and Columbus – where Iqbal operated.  

But instead of unearthing informants and calling that destructive phenomenon into question, Iqbal manipulated his perch as a civil rights leader into an anti-Muslim watchtower.

"Race was a currency, which imperial states purchased from informants to infiltrate intimate quarters, sow division, and entrench conquest. This identity capitalism is robust today and preys on religious identity as zealously as it does race"

Iqbal is no unique case. Unfortunately, a motley crew of Muslims with influence and leadership positions have sold their status for state incentive – in ways that facilitated surveillance on the domestic front and aggression against Muslim populations abroad. While 20 years of the War on Terror has, soberingly, curated an expectation for native informants to serve the interests of government – it is especially alarming that the informant industrial complex would stretch its tentacles into CAIR, the leading Muslim American civil rights organization.

Perhaps, the only War on Terror surprise is that there are no surprises. Several days later, on December 21st, CAIR National announced that a "second spy" in the Ohio office was identified, revealing that the presence of Muslim informants within the civil rights organization is not aberrant, but systemic.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon surveyed colonial Africa and the supply of colonised peoples ready to surrender their identity as tools to be used by their colonial masters.  He wrote, "What matters is not so much the colour of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray." Race was a currency, which imperial states purchased from informants to infiltrate intimate quarters, sow division, and entrench conquest. 

This identity capitalism is robust today and preys on religious identity as zealously as it does race. Particularly Islam, the identity of fixation for an enduring War on Terror machine that profiles Muslims as its central targets, and most coveted cogs. 

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the Wayne State School of Law, and a Scholar in Residence at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society's Initiative for a Representative First Amendment. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.