Revealed: the decades-long surveillance of Chicago's Arab and Muslim Americans

How police 'demonstrably criminalised Arabs and Muslims' across Illinois under the guise of public safety

Itedal Shalabi, Co-Founder and Executive Director at Arab American Family Services. Photo: @Itedalshalabi1
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It’s been more than 20 years since a pair of FBI agents showed up at Itedal Shalabi’s Chicago home late one evening a few weeks after 9/11, but she recalls it as if it were yesterday.

“They were two women. My kids were in the basement and [the agents] asked to meet them, so I had to call them up, one by one,” she says.

Ms Shalabi, who went on to co-found the non-profit Arab American Family Services, says the agents had received a tip from a member of the public that her son, who was 8 years old at the time, had made a controversial comment during a pro-Palestine protest that had been quoted by a local newspaper.

“I was in total shock,” she says. “I think the first thing I thought about was what would have happened to him had he been 16 or older?”

Ms Shalabi believes her son would have been jailed. At the time, Arab and Muslim Americans were facing a surge in hate crimes across the country and had also become targets for law enforcement.

It has been more than 20 years since the September 11 attacks, but for some, little has changed.

A recent report by the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network and others has highlighted how city police and other agencies have reportedly been involved in the racial profiling of Arab, Muslim and other minority residents in America’s third largest city.

The report, conducted in collaboration with the Policing in Chicago Research Group at the University of Illinois Chicago, claims that police agencies have “demonstrably criminalised Arabs and Muslims across Illinois under the guise of ‘public safety’, while vastly expanding local, state and federal systems of racialised surveillance”.

Arab-American New Yorker reflects on backlash after 9/11

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Published in May, the report highlights information gleaned through a lawsuit after prior freedom of information requests were denied. It shows that between 2016 and 2019, 235 so-called Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, were documented by FBI fusion centres, which enable information and intelligence sharing at the federal level.

The report states that residents of majority Muslim and Arab communities in the metropolitan Chicago area have been reported for activities such as holding or using cameras or binoculars, speaking in a language other than English, and photographing famous buildings.

Other reported incidents include a “suspicious male individual, possibly Middle Eastern” who, during a Major League Baseball game in September 2016, “appeared out of place while taking various photographs”.

Another involved a college, which reported how the father of one of its students had enquired about obtaining chemicals for his product-testing job.

Members of the public also made contact with Illinois’s Statewide Terrorism Intelligence Centre (Stic) about four men speaking Arabic while buying shoes and an African-American man who briefly visited a synagogue.

The authors of the report say that under the Department of Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign, “the entire population is deputised to surveil one another”.

It added that fusion centres “have become key nodes in the expansion of racialised surveillance” through the use of federally funded, high-tech surveillance equipment, intelligence sharing, the promotion of inter-agency co-ordination and helping build “the web of criminalised surveillance that criss-crosses the US”.

What we’re seeing is that the war on terror is not something that only happens abroad. It happens in our cities,” says Andy Clarno, who co-ordinates the Policing in Chicago Research Group.

“The way that Arabs and Muslims have been systematically targeted, especially since 9/11, really demonstrates the extent of the surveillance state that’s been expanded to target communities of colour in cities such as Chicago.”

The report says incident reports can be stored by federal intelligence agencies for decades.

“The fusion centres have become high-tech surveillance centres, not only for analysing suspicious activity reports and facilitating flows of information between local police and federal agencies, but they’ve also been integrated into the everyday operation of local police departments,” Mr Clarno says.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a leading rights organisation, has called for “cutting off funds to fusion centres that do not have a narrowly tailored law enforcement mission, strict guidelines to protect Americans’ privacy and independent oversight to prevent abuse”.

Emails from The National to the Department of Homeland Security seeking information on whether SARs had ever generated actionable information that has led to the arrest or prosecution of any individual on terrorism-related charges went unanswered.

“Stic adheres to federal and state laws regarding privacy and civil liberties. Stic accepts suspicious activity reports from law enforcement and vetted public safety partners only,” Illinois State Police told The Chicago Tribune in May.

That’s a stance that has been contested by many. Mr Clarno says that official documents show that the language of the war on terror — built up around Muslim and Arab communities over decades — is being used to expand surveillance technology in black and Latino neighbourhoods.

The monitoring of Muslims in Chicago far predates 9/11, however, with roots going as far back as the early 1990s.

As part of the FBI’s Operation Vulgar Betrayal, thought to be the largest pre-9/11 surveillance effort by the US government, Arabs and others from immigrant backgrounds were subjected to widespread surveillance in their homes, places of worship and neighbourhoods under the guise of investigating terrorism financing inside the country.

The operation was uncovered by Assia Boundaoui, an Algerian-born filmmaker who grew up in Chicago and experienced the surveillance campaign first-hand.

In 2019, Ms Boundaoui directed and co-starred in the award-winning The Feeling of Being Watched, a film examining how FBI agents monitored and intimidated Arab Americans living in the Bridgeview district of the city for decades.

Years previously, Ms Boundaoui had begun filing freedom of information and privacy requests with the Department of Justice seeking details on the alleged surveillance of Bridgeview residents.

When the FBI responded that it would take years to gather the more than 33,000 documents, Ms Boundaoui sued, prompting a federal judge in 2017 to order the agency to speed up the process by releasing 3,500 documents per month. Most of the documents she received, however, had been heavily redacted.

Operation Vulgar Betrayal ended in 2000 after thousands of pieces of information were collected on residents of the Bridgeview area and on local Arab-American community organisations. No terrorism-related arrests ever resulted from the operation.

For members of Chicago’s Arab-American community, such as Ms Shalabi, the consequences of living for decades in a climate of government surveillance can be devastating for entire families, leading to the erosion of Muslim and Arab-American identity.

“We are seeing people change their names from Mohammed to Moe, from Dawoud to David,” she says.

“[There was] the loss of trust, the loss of feeling proud of your identity, feeling proud of who you are.”

Others say a system that encourages members of the public to monitor and report each other to law enforcement could have long-lasting, damaging effects.

“We have to recognise that anti-Muslim racism is being encouraged and activated by programmes like suspicious reports,” Mr Clarno says.

“This is the government telling people: ‘Look out for things that are suspicious, look out for people who could be terrorists.’”

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Updated: June 08, 2023, 5:26 AM