Edited by Sam Thielman
THE COUNCIL ON AMERICAN-ISLAMIC RELATIONS said on Thursday morning that a senior official in its Ohio chapter had, for over a decade, provided internal information to an anti-Muslim organization. CAIR showed reporters emails indicating that officials with the Israeli government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued research requests to the organization, Steven Emerson's Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT).
“A foreign government using an American organization to spy on an American Muslim organization’s communications should be a sign of concern to the American government, the American public and any civil rights organization that performs its work in a legal manner,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, the largest U.S. Muslim civil rights group.
On Wednesday, CAIR announced that Romin Iqbal, the longtime executive director of CAIR’s Ohio chapter, had been a mole for the IPT, a fringe group without credibility and one of several that has for decades fruitlessly accused CAIR of acting as a front for terrorism.
“They never found anything damaging,” said CAIR national deputy director Edward Ahmed Mitchell. “All they found was civil-rights advocacy.”
In a briefing on Thursday, CAIR provided reporters with more details of the results of an investigation determining that Iqbal had, since at least 2008, provided IPT with extensive materials detailing CAIR strategy documents, policy discussions, communications with congressional staffers, and audio recordings of internal meetings. “Romin is covering for us,” a 2019 email purportedly from Emerson said of a Muslim advocacy event on Capitol Hill.
“This is someone who’s been with CAIR-Ohio a really long time,” said Lena Masri, CAIR’s national general counsel. The organization said donor, client and other information had not been compromised.
Masri said Iqbal joined CAIR-Ohio in 2006. She said CAIR had evidence of Iqbal working with IPT since at least 2008 but suspected his infiltration began “more likely earlier.”
It is unclear whether Iqbal had joined CAIR as a mole or became an inside source later. CAIR officials said they could only speculate on Iqbal’s motivations. Masri said that, through attorney communications, Iqbal offered to explain himself, provided CAIR did not raise the issue publicly, an offer CAIR declined.
Mitchell and Masri said that they had been able to identify “three” moles, but named only Iqbal. Another IPT mole, outside and unrelated to CAIR, spied on “at least a dozen” American organizations and mosques, they said.
Mitchell said that “perhaps the most concerning thing we discovered” were IPT’s connections to Israel.
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CAIR SHOWED REPORTERS what appeared to be emails between IPT and Israeli officials with signature lines indicating they worked for the prime minister's office when Netanyahu occupied it. One email asked IPT if it could validate information tying a pro-Palestinian American student organization to Hamas. (Another request asked if IPT had information connecting Hamas to Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram.) A subject line forwarding one of the emails, apparently written by Emerson, read, “Fwd: Urgent research request from Netanyahu’s office.”
The Israeli embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to questions FOREVER WARS sent. I’ll update if we receive germane replies. IPT issued a statement, printed by the Columbus Dispatch on Wednesday, that said it “will not hesitate to uncover and publicly expose radical Islamist activity on American soil by groups like CAIR, which threaten our national security.”
After initial publication, Emerson sent a statement, apparently the same one quoted by the Dispatch, that claimed IPT provided to its Israeli interlocutor only "information that was readily available in the public domain" about the American pro-Palestinian student group.
NSA materials leaked by Snowden have documented the U.S. security apparatus’ longstanding concern about Israeli counterintelligence activities within the United States. But those documented activities were “directed against U.S. government, military, science & technology and [the] Intelligence Community,” rather than American civil-society organizations.
Masri said CAIR has been in touch with the FBI as well as local police in Ohio. Awad wants the Justice Department “to take action to protect the American Muslim community” from infiltration by “hate groups and foreign government interference.”
Taking such action, however, would run counter to the broader pattern of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence activity since 9/11, which spied upon entire communities. Awad, Edward Snowden’s documents revealed, had himself been personally placed under FBI surveillance without appropriate investigative pretext. He was never charged with a crime.
CAIR hired a forensic investigator, whom it identified as Kristi Horton of Horton Innovations, to conduct an investigation and determine the extent of its compromised data. But CAIR, which presented what it purported were internal IPT emails, also implied that an “abusive” internal culture inside IPT—an email seemingly from Emerson was addressed “to all those fucking idiots who work for me”—contributed to CAIR learning about the operation.
CAIR officials described themselves as reeling from the stunning news of the breach. “A lot of us are still processing the extent of the betrayal by Romin Iqbal,” Masri said.
“It’s shocking to us, but not surprising,” Mitchell said, considering the extensive history of civil rights organizations, from SNCC to the NAACP, being infiltrated—though usually by law enforcement, rather than private groups.
CAIR had no additional light to shed on one of the most disturbing aspects of Iqbal’s activities: the recent purchase, with a CAIR credit card he controlled, of AR-15 parts. CAIR officials said its Ohio staff was working remotely.