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EDITORIAL: Mosque surveillance a must

The First Amendment isn’t a suicide pact

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If the authorities want to locate Islamic extremists, they should keep looking at mosques. Just get the right person for the job.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council of American-Islamic Relations filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), alleging that the bureau engaged in religious discrimination by secretly infiltrating southern California mosques and spying on their members. In 2006-2007, the FBI's Los Angeles office employed a convicted felon named Craig Monteilh, aka Farouk al-Aziz, to infiltrate the Islamic Center of Irvine and other mosques to collect information on suspects linked to extremist groups. The operation folded when Monteilh turned out to be so incompetent at his job that members of the congregations he was watching reported him to the authorities for his violent rhetoric and strange behavior.

The suit charges that the bureau was targeting Muslims indiscriminately in violation of their First Amendment rights. Ali Malik, who was questioned by the FBI based on information developed by Monteilh, complained that "a lot of people now see the mosque as a place where the government can just come in and spy on you." For good or for ill, this is certainly not the case.

If anything, federal authorities have been too cautious in dealing with surveillance of mosques. The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of worship does not place mosques, churches, synagogues and other religious structures off-limits to law enforcement when they suspect illicit activity is taking place inside. And while all Muslims may not be violent extremists, those who hate America and dream of carnage do tend to network at centers of Islamic worship.

In the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the jihadist network was spreading and violence was increasing, the FBI was cautious in investigating domestic Muslim extremist groups. Overly sensitive authorities bowed to political correctness even when dangers were clear and present. The "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman, who was Osama bin Laden's main stateside contact, traveled widely in the United States in the early 1990s giving lectures in which he denounced Americans as "descendants of apes and pigs." He urged fellow jihadists in Western nations to "cut the transportation of their countries, tear it apart, destroy their economy, burn their companies, eliminate their interests, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, kill them on the sea, air or land."

Because of liberal political sensitivities, the blind sheikh was never questioned by authorities, his offices were not bugged, his phones were not tapped and his mosques were not watched. In late 1992, Israeli intelligence agents tried to warn the FBI of suspicious activity at one of Rahman's mosques in New Jersey, but the bureau waved off the warnings. Three months later, members of Rahman's network bombed the World Trade Center, killing seven and injuring over 1,000.

The lead-up to the Sept. 11 attacks saw a similar pattern of official caution. The 9/11 hijackers made extensive use of extremist networks established in mosques in the United States. Had authorities taken a more aggressive approach to the threat in the 1990s, shared information better and had less concern for political correctness, the United States may have avoided some of the more tragic events of recent years.

The FBI may have bungled in southern California by placing their trust in a man wholly unsuited for the task to which he was assigned. But it would be a grave mistake to return to the days when the default position was to stay away from mosques and allow the domestic terrorist networks that had used them to fully reconstitute. The First Amendment is not a suicide pact.

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