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A cryptic email, then a confession: How a Muslim group uncovered moles

For many U.S. Muslims, the new scandal has been a reminder of the post-9/11 microscope under which they live

Romin Iqbal of the Council on American-Islamic Relations speaks at a news conference at CAIR-Columbus headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, in 2018. CAIR has fired Iqbal, alleging he had a years-long secret association with a group that has promoted anti-Muslim views. (Brooke LaValley/Columbus Dispatch/AP)

It started with a cryptic August 2019 email with no name and the subject line: “Info you may want.” It took more than a year for the emailer to reappear with something more specific: There is a mole inside your organization.

For many U.S. Muslim organizations, surveillance by government and other informants became a regular feature of life in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s biggest Muslim civil rights group, said the most invasive scrutiny had waned over the past decade.

“We thought it might just be a crackpot,” Edward Ahmed Mitchell, a CAIR spokesman, said of the emails.

Instead, the emails ultimately led CAIR executives to recordings and transcripts that documented what CAIR says is the most extensive known spying on a U.S. Muslim organization in recent memory. Two Muslim activists, CAIR says, had been handing over inside information for years to the D.C.-based Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), which extremism trackers consider an anti-Muslim hate group.

The trove of documents and recordings included a 2010 meeting of top U.S. Muslim leaders gaming out responses to hostility toward a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero; a 2015 conversation about stress caused by then-candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric as well as a deadly attack carried out that year by a Muslim couple in San Bernardino, Calif.; and a controversial recording of then-Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) talking about power dynamics in the Middle East.

CAIR last month named Romin Iqbal, a longtime Ohio CAIR leader, as one of the informants, and on Wednesday named a second man, Tariq Nelson, 48, who until about a decade ago was an active member of Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va.

Iqbal’s attorney, Dave Thomas, declined to comment Tuesday.

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

This is the first reporting of Nelson’s name, the details of the surveillance, and the perspectives of key people involved, including Nelson, the IPT tipster and the leadership at Dar Al-Hijrah, one of the D.C. region’s largest mosques.

Since the spying claims became public last month, perhaps the biggest question raised by Muslims: Why?

CAIR has not commented on Iqbal’s potential motivation. Nelson acknowledged receiving more than $100,000 over three years from IPT, but according to interviews with him and close associates, money was not the sole motivation.

In an interview, Nelson said that his early years as a Muslim were spent in some of the more strict interpretations of the faith and that he struggled later to fit in and find his place in more mainstream Islam. He said he rationalized his work for IPT by saying he was trying to convince groups hostile to Islam that his Muslim community was upstanding — while also pocketing the fee for providing what he saw as harmless information.

The arrangement came to light when an IPT whistleblower, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of backlash, told The Washington Post they came to see an initial post-Sept. 11 urge to protect the United States as going far overboard and becoming a project that was unfairly harming the Muslim community.

For many U.S. Muslims, the new scandal was a reminder of the post-9/11 microscope under which they live.

In the decade after Sept. 11, surveillance by the U.S. government was so pervasive that it drove many Muslims from mosques and created fear and distrust in many communities. In recent years, the fear subsided somewhat as terrorism cases involving Muslims plateaued. But the uneasiness never went away. “There has been a learning to live with it, like covid,” Mitchell said

“What’s surprising about [the IPT case] for Muslims is learning this was still going on in such a big way for so long,” he said.

At a news conference Wednesday, CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad said the group had reached out to the FBI about the longtime spying efforts because it was concerned that laws had been broken and because some of the leaked documents showed that Steven Emerson, the founder of IPT, was communicating with Israeli government officials. CAIR has not received any response, Awad said. He called that “very disappointing” and asked, “Is it because we’re Muslims?” The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mitchell said Islamophobic groups such as IPT are dangerous, portraying Muslims as inherently violent or as a demographic threat to Western nations. He cited mass shooters in Quebec City in 2017 and New Zealand in 2019 who had viewed such content online.

Jana Al-Akhras, a 28-year-old lawyer from Columbus who has known Iqbal since middle school through CAIR, said Muslims in the area are still reeling weeks after his surveillance was made public. Part of his job, she said, was working on very private issues, including immigration, employment discrimination and family disputes. The idea that years of sensitive conversations are in unfriendly hands is alarming, she said.

Iqbal was among the adults who would conduct programming for Muslim youths on knowing their rights. “ ‘If someone knocks, ask for a warrant.’ These are real conversations when I was 10,” Al-Akhras recalled.

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Dar Al-Hijrah, the Northern Virginia mosque where Nelson prayed and volunteered, was alerted by CAIR to the presence of a mole a few months ago, said Saif Rahman, the director of public and government affairs at Dar Al-Hijrah. After the separate Ohio claims came to light last month, Rahman said, Nelson approached a mosque board member to confess his own work with IPT.

As word spread in the Dar Al-Hijrah community, Rahman said, the reaction was shock and a sense of betrayal. He said Nelson had been highly regarded, “friendly and sociable.”

“It’s like when you know someone as your brother and then you find out your brother has been colluding with someone to disenfranchise you,” Rahman said.

In some cases, the impact goes beyond personal hurt.

Nelson confirmed that he recorded remarks Ellison made at a fundraiser in 2010 suggesting U.S. Middle East policy was “governed” by Israeli interests. Ellison has said the publicly released 36-second snippet was taken out of context. Six years later, in 2016, the clip was used by opponents of Ellison’s campaign at the time to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Ellison, who ultimately lost his bid to lead the DNC, declined to say whether the leak hurt his chances, but in a statement to The Post, he addressed the underlying issue of surveillance.

“The truth about the long campaign of disinformation — spying on Muslims engaged in legitimate First Amendment activity, paying people tens of thousands of dollars to conduct smear campaigns based on deception — continues to come out,” Ellison said. “If the last 10 years have shown us anything, it is that the so-called ‘Muslim scare’ was always deliberate disinformation pitting Americans against each other.”

Umar Lee, a St. Louis writer who first met Nelson on the fundamentalist convert scene in the 1990s, wrote a 20-page essay about his friend that he shared with The Post. It paints Nelson as stuck in multiple societal crosshairs: an African American facing racism from the non-Black U.S. Muslim majority, a middle-aged man coming out of strict fundamentalism trying to figure out what is true, a U.S. Muslim focused on personal piety at a mosque where many focus on foreign policy, a religious conservative in need of mental health support in a faith tradition not quick to pursue it.

“Tariq himself apologized and said he regretted his actions and I think we all instinctively know spying on people isn’t something praiseworthy and there’ll naturally be consequences,” Lee wrote. “The saga of Tariq Nelson is one of the soul being crushed after the intoxicating glow of fundamentalism has faded.”

Nelson never was in official leadership for any Muslim organization but was active as a volunteer starting in 2005 at Dar Al-Hijrah, he told The Post. He said he worked with youths, evangelizing and publicly promoting Islam in those ultrasensitive years.

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It was in his work speaking and blogging in the 2000s against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden that he intersected with the IPT’s Steven Emerson, one of the most relentlessly anti-Muslim pundits in the nation.

“He kind of presented it like: ‘We’re on the same side.’ He didn’t speak against Muslims in general. He wasn’t interested in hijab bans or going through the Koran or anything. With him it wasn’t theological,” Nelson said of Emerson and his organization. The focus, Nelson says, was on terrorism.

Emerson’s organization on Tuesday again shared statements it made last month when the Iqbal case went public.

“While the Investigative Project on Terrorism has never and will never monitor the wider American Muslim community, it will not hesitate to uncover and publicly expose radical Islamist activity on American soil.”

One day, Nelson says, Emerson asked him for his address and sent him money out of the blue. That began a connection that led to monthly $3,000 checks to Nelson from roughly mid-2008 to late 2011.

Nelson said that there is no excuse for what he did and that many people at Dar Al-Hijrah had been kind to him. But he looks back on his motivations as complex, maybe contradictory, maybe “asinine.” He remembers wanting to show Emerson, “Hey, you’re not getting anywhere. There’s nothing happening here. These people aren’t who you think we are.”

In a statement released Wednesday by CAIR, Nelson said he “was going through a personal crisis and experiencing extreme financial difficulty” and rationalized taking the money. “I am not asking anyone to trust me again. I just wanted to explain myself and at least ask for forgiveness from those willing to forgive.”

The former IPT staffer who sent the initial emails to CAIR told The Post they were initially enthusiastic during their years of work there to promote American security. But over time, they felt the death of American troops in conflicts in the Middle East were pointless. The person considers themselves respectful of religion and came to feel Emerson did not respect the Muslim faith.

“I felt I was working for a [pro-Israel] lobbying organization and not against terrorism,” the person said.

Dar Al-Hijrah, Rahman said, is focusing on Islamic teachings about repentance and forgiveness. He said community leaders are working with Nelson on a path of atonement.

“The house of God is open for the best of people and the worst of people,” Rahman said. “The idea that we would be trying to screen people or closing it off would be anathema to the notion of it being a sanctuary.”