The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was a Muslim group leader. For 13 years, he allegedly spied for an anti-Muslim organization.

Romin Iqbal was fired this week after CAIR’s national office said an investigation revealed he had shared information with Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism

Romin Iqbal of the Council on American-Islamic Relations speaks during a news conference at CAIR-Columbus headquarters in Dublin, Ohio on July 26, 2018. (Brooke LaValley/AP)
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In the grinding, often thankless work of Muslim activism in Ohio, Romin Iqbal was a constant.

Activists came and went in the Columbus-based chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, the nation’s biggest Muslim civil rights group. But for more than a decade, associates recalled, Iqbal was Mr. Reliable, the one who could be counted on to show up to a soup kitchen, work a phone drive or write a donation check.

As the chapter’s most senior official, associates said, Iqbal was privy to the inner lives of local Muslims. He counseled them through employment discrimination claims and immigration problems. He was a liaison to local mosques. Muslim law students turned to Iqbal, an attorney, for mentorship.

Then, in a stunning announcement this week, CAIR declared Iqbal a traitor and fired him.

Iqbal is accused of passing confidential information on CAIR to an anti-Muslim organization for at least 13 years, CAIR’s national leadership said in a news conference Thursday. Citing the results of an investigation by a forensic expert and an outside law firm, CAIR officials said Iqbal secretly recorded conversations and collected “strategic plans and private emails” to share with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which is run by the vocal anti-Muslim extremist Steven Emerson.

Iqbal could not be reached for comment. His attorney, David Thomas, declined to comment Thursday.

Following his firing, purchases “from ammunition and gun retailers made in recent weeks using a CAIR-Ohio credit card that Iqbal administered,” were discovered, the Ohio office said in a statement. On Monday evening, a package containing replacements parts for an AR-15 rifle arrived at the CAIR-Ohio’s Columbus office, CAIR attorney Lena Masri said. These findings were shared with the FBI and local law enforcement, she said.

The FBI could not immediately be reached for comment.

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News of the breach sent tremors through national Muslim leadership circles, reviving fears about surveillance that began 20 years ago with the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Activists said what happened to CAIR was their nightmare scenario: a trusted insider tasked with Muslim civil rights work who allegedly was secretly working to undermine the community.

“It’s so pointed and strategic, you can’t vet something like this,” said Jana Al-Akhras, 28, a Columbus-born attorney who grew up in the chapter through her parents’ involvement in the early 2000s. “That’s where the disappointment is coming from. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking. In a million years, he would’ve never been someone I pointed to.”

Al-Akhras, who has known Iqbal since she was in middle school, found about the investigation Tuesday night from a group chat with other Muslims in Columbus. When someone posted the CAIR statement about Iqbal’s firing, Al-Akhras said, the freakout was immediate. She scrolled through her phone and read some of the replies aloud: “Oh my God.” “I’m shook.” “I can’t believe this.”

“It was just complete shock. And obviously people are starting to ask, ‘Did you know? Did you know?’ ” Al-Akhras said. “It was a frenzy. I got text messages from people I haven’t spoken to in years.”

In each case, Al-Akhras said, she responded with the same answer: “No. No one knew.”

Another Muslim activist, who is not part of CAIR and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities involved, said he discussed Kashmiri advocacy issues with Iqbal in late 2019 and early 2020. The activist said Iqbal seemed “very amped up” to get involved.

“But now we worry he was passing on information on Kashmiri stuff, specifically to Emerson,” the activist said, adding that he didn’t know yet whether his group had been monitored, too.

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CAIR’s investigation revealed that at least a dozen Muslim groups were spied on, and three Muslim organizations, including CAIR’s Columbus office, had moles, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy executive director for CAIR’s national office, said Thursday at the news conference.

Mitchell provided copies of emails sent from Iqbal to Emerson as evidence of their alleged collusion, at the news conference. When confronted with the evidence last week, Iqbal confessed to sharing information with Emerson, said Masri, who managed the investigation. Iqbal was suspended and then fired, she said.

“This is a violation of our privacy, civil rights and liberties as citizens of our country,” Nihad Awad, CAIR’s national executive director, said Thursday.

In a statement, the Investigative Project on Terrorism said it does not monitor “the wider American Muslim community,” but said it would “not hesitate to uncover and publicly expose radical Islamist activity on American soil by groups like CAIR.”

For years, U.S. Muslims have complained — often in court — about baseless surveillance of their communities, but those cases typically involve federal authorities. The Ohio fracas is a reminder of the risk of infiltration by anti-Muslim forces that go to great lengths to dig up dirt for smear campaigns that portray Islam as inherently violent and ordinary Muslims as potential threats.

CAIR previously faced such an operation in 2009, when Chris Gaubatz, the son of an anti-Muslim author, interned at the group’s Herndon, Va., office while posing as a Muslim convert and college student named Dave Marshall. He befriended top CAIR leaders and prayed next to Muslims while secretly gathering information on the group’s inner workings, activists recalled.

The result of the operation was a book, championed by at least four Republican members of the U.S. House at the time, called, “Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That’s Conspiring to Islamize America.” CAIR officials collectively rolled their eyes at the supposed “evidence”; spokesman Ibrahim Hooper was quoted at the time saying that the months of spying revealed only that “we’re doing ordinary lobbying work on Capitol Hill.”

Still, the episode was a hard lesson for Muslim and allied activists about the need for stringent vetting measures. Many organizations tightened their gatekeeping after that incident, which was painful for groups dedicated to open, transparent organizing, said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute.

“You hire a young person and you’re excited to have them come aboard and do this work with you, and then you have to think: Is this part of a larger conspiracy to do harm?” Berry said. “That’s an extraordinary thing.”

Even without much public information about what Iqbal was privy to or how much damage his alleged operation might’ve caused, the incident was unsettling for many Muslims who work in public life.

“Nothing compromising has been made public by them though they have been spying for years,” said Dalia Mogahed, research director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank focused on U.S. Muslim communities. “I think the betrayal was the real intent — to break us, demoralize us, and make us doubt each other.”

“Every Muslim is impacted by this,” said Fatema Ahmed, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, which is involved in organizing and in policy advocacy around policing and surveillance. It creates the fear that at “any moment, friends, loved ones, leaders, people in our community may be spying on us,” she said.

The Ohio incident also comes at a particularly turbulent time for CAIR, which is facing multiple lawsuits and public allegations from former employees who accuse national leaders of being slow or reluctant to investigate allegations of sexual and other misconduct in the workplace.

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Any drama involving CAIR is a magnet for right-wing activists who for years have tried to portray it as the American face of militant Islamist organizing. Politicians and donors who associate with CAIR are routinely smeared as secret Islamist extremists.

The extent of that kind of targeting was chronicled in a 2011 Center for American Progress report called, “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” The report found that seven charitable foundations spent more than $40 million between 2001 and 2009 to spread anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“The efforts of a small cadre of funders and misinformation experts were amplified by an echo chamber of the religious right, conservative media, grass roots organizations, and politicians who sought to introduce a fringe perspective on American Muslims into the public discourse,” the report found.

In that first report, as well as in an updated version released in 2015, Emerson was named as a “key individual” in the organized spread of Islamophobia. Researchers note Emerson’s long record of making hasty, unsubstantiated allegations involving Muslims, most famously when he blamed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on Islamist extremists because the attack showed a “Middle East trait” of trying to “inflict as many casualties as possible.” The bombing was planned by the White far-right terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

The Fear, Inc. report details how Emerson, a former CNN employee, left journalism and in 1995 founded Investigative Project on Terrorism, whose stated goal was to use reporting tactics to expose Islamist terrorist networks. In reality, the report said, the group’s “chief function is presenting Islam as an inherently radical, violent and antagonistic religion.”

Al-Akhras said it doesn’t matter that Emerson is known as a fringe figure, “a hack.” The damage, she said, is real.

“We’re hurt but we will heal,” she said. “And that’s because there’s still so many incredible people left here.”