Muslim civil rights group fires director for spying for anti-Muslim activists

The Council on American-Islamic Relations-Ohio said Tuesday (Dec. 14) that its longtime executive and legal director, Romin Iqbal, had admitted to working with the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

Romin Iqbal, the former executive and legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Ohio, speaks during a 2018 news conference. Video screen grab

(RNS) — The Ohio chapter of a prominent Muslim American civil rights organization fired its director after learning he was for years secretly passing confidential information on to a “known anti-Muslim hate group.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations-Ohio said Tuesday (Dec. 14) that its longtime executive and legal director, Romin Iqbal, had admitted to working with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, an organization founded by former journalist Steve Emerson that experts have described as a central player in the so-called Islamophobia network.

“It is clear anti-Muslim extremists will stop at nothing to try to harm us,” CAIR-Ohio’s board of directors wrote in a statement to community members. “Although we are all shocked and saddened by these developments, we know civil rights organizations and movements for justice have been spied upon from within for decades.”

CAIR’s national organization said Iqbal’s collaboration with the anti-Muslim Investigative Project on Terrorism was part of a broader effort to infiltrate and spy on American Muslim organizations — an effort that CAIR leaders allege implicates the Israeli government.

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After Iqbal was fired, CAIR-Ohio staff also reportedly found a suspicious package mailed to the Columbus office containing AR-15 rifle parts. The Columbus office also said it had discovered suspicious purchases from gun and ammunition retailers made over the past several weeks on Iqbal’s CAIR-Ohio credit card. Local police and FBI have been alerted to both discoveries, the office said.

The board said it terminated Iqbal after CAIR’s national headquarters informed the board that an independent forensic investigation had concluded he had spent years sharing “surreptitiously recorded conversations, strategic plans and private emails” with the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

Nihad Awad, CAIR’s national director, said in a statement that his office last year received “extensive and unprecedented information” about the Investigative Project on Terrorism’s work monitoring U.S. Muslim figures and producing anti-Muslim content.

The extensive evidence CAIR received showed the anti-Muslim group was “communicating with and providing assistance to Israeli intelligence” under then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Awad alleges.

“Although this was a major discovery, the evidence revealed something even more disturbing,” Awad said. “Emerson’s hate group had spent years trying to infiltrate and spy upon prominent mosques and Muslim American organizations using ‘moles’ among their staff and volunteers.”

CAIR then hired a third-party law firm and a forensic specialist to examine and vet the evidence CAIR had received, and alerted other U.S. Muslim groups who it believed may have been targeted.

“This episode will impact the trust within the community and in effect could impact how Muslims go about when it comes to advocacy on their behalf,” said Mobashra Tazamal, an Islamophobia researcher with The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University.

Iqbal had been working with CAIR-Ohio since 2006, having previously served as a staff attorney. This year alone, the chapter said 354 Muslims in Ohio contacted the organization for legal help. CAIR-Ohio also assisted at least seven nonprofits with their legal infrastructures.

The U.S. government’s record of infiltrating and surveilling mosques, volunteer organizations and student groups through paid informants and other means for counterterrorism purposes has left many American Muslims feeling wary and betrayed. But even before 9/11, Muslim civil rights figures from Malcolm X to H. Rap Brown have been surveilled and targeted by the U.S. government.

Already, experts say, many American Muslims hesitate to trust advocacy and civil rights organizations and even faith leaders.

“Surveillance and infiltration of American Muslim civil society space has a long history in the United States, and this latest episode will only add to the fear and mistrust amongst the community,” Tazamal said.

It’s a history Iqbal knows well. In 2010, during a CAIR-sponsored event on government surveillance, Iqbal “warned people to be on the lookout for agents provocateurs seeking to incite and entrap Muslims into criminal activity,” according to a local news article published at the time.

Emerson founded the nonprofit Investigative Project on Terrorism in 1995. The liberal Center for American Progress think tank described Emerson as a “misinformation expert” and fearmonger who pushed notions of Islamist terrorist networks in the U.S. The Bridge Initiative says Emerson has a long history of “promoting falsified information and conspiracy theories about Islam and Muslims.”

Emerson was involved in two controversial legal cases after 9/11 that targeted American Muslims who sent funds to the Palestinian territories. He advocated against both the charitable Holy Land Foundation and the political activist and computer engineering professor Sami al-Arian, “spreading misinformation and false claims that played a role in the legal cases that ensued,” Tazamal said.

Awad said CAIR is working to hold Iqbal, the Investigative Project on Terrorism and their collaborators, “whether foreign or domestic actors,” accountable, noting that their alleged actions may have violated state and federal laws.

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