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The Case for Mosque Surveillance

I am about to do something highly uncharacteristic, namely to agree with Donald Trump on something. Recently, Trump made a statement [1], apparently shocking to many, that “I want surveillance of certain mosques.” If you know anything about terrorism and counter-terrorism, there is only one thing shocking about this remark, namely that anybody is disturbed by it. Only the shock shocks.

Put another way, look at another recent remark from British film-maker Frankie Boyle [2], who complains about the French and Russian bombing campaign in the Middle East. Wrong solution, he says. What we really need is “an urgent debate about how to make public spaces safer and marginalized groups less vulnerable to radicalization.” Those are excellent and critical suggestions. Lacking extensive surveillance and intelligence operations, though, such strategies are irrelevant and suicidally dangerous.

Here is the problem. In order to investigate terrorism, law enforcement agencies absolutely must use various clandestine methods, including surveillance, infiltration and double-agent tactics. Agencies wishing to suppress terrorism must, of necessity, operate in a complex and dirty clandestine world. In order to succeed, they must often do things that they cannot publicize frankly.

The best and perhaps only means to defeat subversive or terrorist groups is to keep them under detailed and constant surveillance, a strategy that must be coupled with infiltration and penetration. This needs to be stated because of the common official emphasis on enhancing security to protect airports and public buildings against terrorist attacks. At least, that is what agencies say publicly.


Americans are all too familiar with the searches they deal with before flying on commercial airlines. Some of these precautions are useful and necessary, but most have no impact whatever on the likelihood of a terrorist assault. If you fortify aircraft, terrorists attack airports; if you fortify airports, they can bring down aircraft with missiles fired from remote locations; if you defend aircraft, they attack ships; and so on. Does TSA operate perfect security at its checkpoints? Then gun down the long lines waiting to pass through the checkpoints.

It is a near miracle that nobody has yet blown up a ship packed with high explosives in a U.S. port, creating something close to the effects of a nuclear blast. To see what I am talking about, just Google “Halifax 1917”.

Overwhelmingly, security precautions and airport searches are solely designed to raise public consciousness, a feel-good strategy without any real effects or benefits. The fact that we have not to date had “another 9/11” has next to nothing to do with airport security operations. It is the result of intelligence, pure and simple.

No government can defend itself against terrorism solely by means of protection and security. This is all the more true when we consider the international dimension. Even if we assume the impossible, and the U.S. became wholly invulnerable from terrorist attack, this would still leave an almost infinite number of targets worldwide.

Think of Europe, an area somewhat smaller than the continental U.S., though divided into over 30 separate nations, with competing police jurisdictions. Most also operate within the Schengen system, so that there are effectively no internal border controls. This makes it easy for activists to escape detection, to operate freely across several countries, and to drive across several countries in a day. Meanwhile, Europe is host to hundreds of major U.S. targets, including embassies, military bases, business offices, airline offices, and tourist resorts. Add to that tourist sites where Americans gather in large numbers.

And that is just Europe: American targets are just as exposed in the Middle East, in the Asia-Pacific region, or in Latin America. There is simply no way that the U.S. can mobilize forces to defend every single potential target in the world against a global organization like ISIL/Daesh or al-Qaeda, or to place U.S. troops at every port and airport, every embassy and tourist destination. Of itself, talking about “making public spaces safer” is delusional.

Let me say this simply: in a terrorist war, any effort that is solely defensive is bound to fail. Just to protect is to lose.

The only way to defeat attacks is to prevent them being launched, and that means finding out what the extremists are going to do before they do it, and stopping them. This demands the use of surveillance and infiltrators, both what is known as electronic intelligence, and human intelligence.

But surveillance over what? In an ideal world, terrorists would wear T-shirts with the word TERRORIST printed in large letters, so they could be picked out easily by the security forces. Unfortunately, they do not do so, and strenuously resist attempts to isolate them from the people. They operate through above-ground organizations and institutions.

One critical concept here is insulation, which British counter-terrorism expert Frank Kitson defines as “a functional system of associations, clubs and other groupings designed to carry out specific tasks.” It is, in short, a means by which terrorists can hide among the larger population. Through legal and above-ground organizations, terrorists spread propaganda, and recruit. The groups can be used as testing grounds, to observe the efficiency and dedication of young militants who might eventually be drafted into the terrorist organization. In advanced stages of a campaign, they can be used to smuggle and store weaponry, and train militants in their use.

Depending on the context, those above-ground groups might take many forms—labor unions, political parties, social clubs, ethnic and religious pressure groups—but in the Islamist world, that chiefly (but not exclusively) means mosques. I could easily list a hundred European mosques that presently serve this crypto-terrorist function, and many do so quite flagrantly.

This point might be obvious, but let me say it clearly. The vast majority of U.S. mosques presently serves no such role, and their members would utterly reject radicalism, extremism, or violence. Even where there is an extremist presence, that would be absolutely contrary to the wishes of the mainstream in the congregation. The main thing the imams in those places want is to have the police help them kick out the extremists, and not to be too gentle doing so.

But any terrorist Islamist presence in the U.S., present or future, does and will use mosques in this way. If you do not maintain such mosques under surveillance—and particular “certain mosques” already leaning in radical Salafist directions—you might as well abandon any and all pretense of trying to limit or suppress terrorism on U.S. soil.

“Surveillance” in this instance emphatically means human intelligence within the mosque. That means recruiting informants within it, and trying to bring radicals over to your own side, to see what extremists are going to do before they do it. Just how and where is radicalization being undertaken? Who are the key militants? Are there weapons present? What are the overseas connections? And if that means recruiting and controlling imams and religious teachers, all the better.

These tactics are absolutely fundamental to European counter-terrorism approaches, and nobody has the slightest doubt of that fact. That fact is public knowledge, and effectively beyond political criticism. If U.S. agencies claim that they are not doing the same things right now, in American mosques, they are simply deluding the public. They will worry about the freedom of religion lawsuits later.

So, God help me on this, in this instance, Trump is right. The only thing he is doing wrong is talking about it publicly.

Again: In a terrorist war, any effort that is solely defensive is bound to fail. To protect is to lose. We must understand and accept all the necessary consequences of that fact.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [3]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "The Case for Mosque Surveillance"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2015 @ 1:00 am

Well, there’s no doubt that this will expand, as we’ve already seen, to recording and surveillance of everyone. Many believe that any political opposition is a kind of dangerous opposition that could incubate threats. For instance, the recent Planned Parenthood killings have been characterized by some as symptomatic of Christian terrorism.

So the argument is likely to be sustained that there can be no limits to surveillance, given the consequences of any possible attack.

What have the increased war and security policies done for us over the past 13 years? Deaths from terrorism on an annual basis have risen at least nine-fold, so whatever we have been doing has been counterproductive.

Our pre-emptive warring has inflamed and worsened our situation as well as that of the peoples in the Middle East, precipitating one of the worst refugee crises in history.

If we ended the financially lucrative warring and refused our elites’ lust for world empire, there would not be necessary the anti-liberty measures necessary to wage the endless wars that are the inevitable portion of all such projects, especially in today’s world where technological monopoly on the means of destruction and domination is increasingly impossible.

Our two hundred plus year project in self government and democracy has taken a disappointing turn, threatening all the hopes for liberty to be smashed on the shoals of empire, control by military force over the entire globe posited to be our only hope for security.

#2 Comment By Brendan On December 3, 2015 @ 3:12 am

Why the threat is constantly overstated is beyond me. There is no evidence – certainly none presented – that totalitarian spying on citizens produces any increase in security while it absolutely erodes freedom. Which is the goal of the terrorists.

Instead of doing exactly what the terrorists want (be terrified way beyond the actual scope of the threat) to keep funding the war machine that produces no success, only more terror, why not try something else?

I lived in London during an IRA bombing campaign, race riots and more. The idea of spying on the citizens was never raised and would have been rejected instantly as craven nonsense.

#3 Comment By tz On December 3, 2015 @ 5:20 am

The problem is real surveillance is hard. The FBI prefers to use paid informants to create plots using poor people who probably wouldn’t really do things except for cash and threats and then catch them and hold a news conference.
Earlier, the Branch Davidians / David Koresh thing worked out so well…
It sounds like a good idea, but Government usually screws such things up.

#4 Comment By kierkegaard71 On December 3, 2015 @ 5:43 am

Assuming there is no mosque surveillance, to describe the war against “terrorism” war as merely a defensive war is incorrect. It sustains the thesis that everything the West is doing with regard to “terrorism” is merely defensive. I don’t think that the militants who engage in violence against the West have the mindset that they are carrying out an unprovoked offensive war. My simplistic un-professional opinion is that violence begets violence. It is clear that the war on “terrorism” as currently fought will lead to further violence and further calls for surveillance. In other words, the complete loss of a free society.

#5 Comment By Neal On December 3, 2015 @ 5:55 am

Haven’t we tried this already with organized criminal gangs? What makes us think that we can break up religiously motivated terrorist gangs if we can’t even break up these street gangs or other organized criminals?

I suppose criminal gangs are less likely to target innocent people compared to terrorists, but the level of violence associated with street gangs seems far greater than these occasional terrorist attacks. And as we all know, in the USA these mass shootings are not generally politically motivated at all.

I simply do not trust the national security apparatus to act responsibly if we give them ever more power to monitor and harass people. They have a pretty checkered history already.

“The tiny town of Pagedale, MO, would make a good setting for an episode of The Twilight Zone. The 3,300 residents live under intense scrutiny, fearing city workers who hand out a dizzying array of fines and tickets for the slightest of infractions.


#6 Comment By Philip Giraldi On December 3, 2015 @ 6:29 am

This is complete nonsense. It does not consider how heavy handed surveillance directed against communities that have done nothing wrong tends to create problems that would not otherwise exist. It also opens the door for all of us to be surveilled at the whim of some bureaucrat. And then there is the question of whether it is even effective or not. The NYPD intelligence unit had a program just like what the author describes and I do not believe it foiled a single terrorist plot.

#7 Comment By The Professor On December 3, 2015 @ 7:11 am

Should we begin surveillance on churches because of Waco, Jim Jones and Robert Dear?

#8 Comment By WhiskeyBucks On December 3, 2015 @ 8:36 am

The absolute MINIMUM yield for any explosive rig packed into a boat to even start to draw comparison to a “nuclear” blast would be between 100-500 tons, which is still nowhere near even a crude nuclear weapon.

To source that many explosives and a large enough boat that would clear access to a major port would involve money and persons to the extent that staying off of the CIA’s radar would be nigh on impossible without sophisticated state assistance. What happened 100 years ago is completely irrelevant to today’s capacity for detection and prevention.

It wouldn’t matter one whit if it was originally planned in a mosque or apartment or cave: you go into the outside world to pull something like that off and you might as well wear a giant “DRONE STRIKE HERE” hat.

#9 Comment By Jonathan Marcus On December 3, 2015 @ 10:16 am

This smoothly assumes a connection between “Muslim” and “terrorist.”

Certainly there is an argument for monitoring some areas where bad people are. So why not say “I want surveillance of certain churches”?

I wonder what could have possibly led the author of “The Many Faces of Christ” to focus on radical Islam and ignore the radical Christians who continue to carry out terrorist acts in the US?

#10 Comment By ADCWonk On December 3, 2015 @ 10:40 am

Wow — I come to The American Conservative, and the banner article is on increasing government surveillance? Based solely on religion? (Let’s see, how many of the Bill of Rights can we violate at once here…)

Neal wrote: “Haven’t we tried this already with organized criminal gangs?”

Yep. And we tried it with those “damn anti-war agitators” in the Vietnam Era, too. All it did was violate rights and cost the taxpayers a gillion dollars or so from the subsequent lawsuits.

As for my other objections, Giraldi above at 6:29 said it perfectly. To add on: many believe that Muslim terrorist in Europe, particularly France, is stoked by Europe’s refusal to try to integrate them into society, thus making it very easy for terrorists to recruit citizens. Recall, every one of the terrorists in the Paris massacre was born in France or Belgium (if I remember correctly).

The Professor above at 7:11 also makes a good point. And to add on to what he wrote: my understanding is that of the last 350+ mass shootings in America, every single one, except for yesterday, was committed by a white male Christian. So, who should we be surveilling?

And, finally, to repeat Brendon above at 3:12: There is no evidence – certainly none presented – that totalitarian spying on citizens produces any increase in security while it absolutely erodes freedom. Which is the goal of the terrorists.

#11 Comment By John On December 3, 2015 @ 10:46 am

What about churches which preach that abortion is murder? Or are Planned Parenthood clinic shootings outside the ambit of terrorism because white people?

#12 Comment By Colorado Jack On December 3, 2015 @ 10:49 am

“The fact that we have not to date had “another 9/11” has next to nothing to do with airport security operations. It is the result of intelligence, pure and simple.”

Highly doubtful that intelligence has prevented 9/11 scale attacks. If an intelligence agency had prevented an attack comparable to 9/11, we would have heard about it, guaranteed. Obama or Bush would have trumpeted it loudly to the whole world, to obtain credit.

#13 Comment By collin On December 3, 2015 @ 10:53 am

The obvious intentional Mosque Surveilliance sounds great but I think it opening a terrible can of worms., Since laws usually state open ended “religious organizations” versus specific religions, then it could be used religious organization deemed dangerous.

#14 Comment By consequences On December 3, 2015 @ 10:56 am

I’m afraid that the time is long past when places of worship can expect to be free of government surveillance.

It’s too bad that foreign spies, organized crime, and terrorists use churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples. But they do, and everyone knows it.

Terrorism was the thin end of the wedge. It was used to justify the mass surveillance regime instituted by Bush and Obama. If you accept the premise, that government must have “total information awareness” to prevent terror attacks, then on what grounds does it stop at the door of a mosque or synagogue?

There are none.

It’s too bad. It didn’t have to happen. We should have listened to George Washington and stayed the hell out of the Middle East. The resulting entanglements have now cost us “essential liberties”, our birthright as Americans. Surveillance of mosques, synagogues, and churches is just a part of it.

#15 Comment By Rossbach On December 3, 2015 @ 11:11 am

The response by Western nations to terrorism – bomb them over there and indulge them over here – is clearly not working. We need to stop attacking nations in Southwest Asia and North Africa and stop allowing people from those areas to settle in our countries.

That will at least keep the problem from getting worse.

#16 Comment By David Smith On December 3, 2015 @ 11:43 am

Of course, if we really wanted to reduce the threat of Islamic terrorism, we could stop meddling in the Middle East, but nobody is suggesting that.

#17 Comment By David Smith On December 3, 2015 @ 11:46 am

“The tiny town of Pagedale, MO, would make a good setting for an episode of The Twilight Zone.” As I recall, there actually was an episode of Twilight Zone on this theme. I believe the title was something like “The Monsters are Coming on Maple Street.” You could probably find a copy somewhere.

#18 Comment By hooly On December 3, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

Yes, surveillance and of course registration, into Patriotic Mosque Associations like what the Chinese do to Christians in China. It’s kept down the number of attacks upon innocent Han Chinese by Christian thugs considerably, although unfortunately it didn’t prevent the Christian cult murder in Zhaoyuan, Shandong at a MacDonalds.

#19 Comment By Clint On December 3, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

Trump is ratcheting up his rhetoric to hog up more media coverage, while the media is mostly interested in getting Hillary elected and glad to oblige Trump’s hyper-bloviations,figuring the voters will even prefer Hillary’s baggage over Trump’s Gasbaggery,while Trump figures The voters will prefer his bloviations over Hillary’s baggage.

Trump is now also saying we have to take out ISIS families.

That should suck up more media coverage.

#20 Comment By Reflectionephemeral On December 3, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

All too often, conservatives like Jenkins, who warned a few years back that the Econ 101 response to the Great Recession courted “devastating inflation and the ruin of the dollar”, are keenly aware of the pitfalls and limitations on state action– right up until that action is directed against a perceived out group. Then, trusting the state is simple common sense.

The embedded assumptions in this column– that the government can do a bang-up job of mosque surveillance and that there will be no unintended consequences– are, as Philip Giraldi notes, rendered insupportable by recent experience.

#21 Comment By Franz Liebkind On December 3, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

The NYPD intelligence unit had a program just like what the author describes and I do not believe it foiled a single terrorist plot.

Mr Giraldi,

Is it not true that the Canadian police and RCMP have foiled more terrorist plots against the US than TSA and NYPD combined?

#22 Comment By kalendjay On December 3, 2015 @ 6:42 pm

I remember the joke back in the 70’s that the Communist Party was mostly FBI agents. I actually attended a leftie convention at Union Square NYC pretending to be a reporter, and they were so scared they emphasised they wanted to “work with the government”, with garish smiles. This is want became of the big threat to the USA.

But I take issue with author’s assertion that imams are eager to kick out radicals. Many imams are imported from abroad to preach their version of authentic gospel, and they are no less radical in spirit than The Nation of Islam in the 60’s. If their followers do not devour each other, as did Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed, they will get the idea of devouring America instead.

#23 Comment By cecelia On December 3, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

I do not see a case for such surveillance – it has been demonstrated by security experts that radicalisation is not occurring in Mosques but on the internet.

#24 Comment By Harry Huntington On December 3, 2015 @ 8:09 pm

America needs to be honest. If you read Justice Story’s Commentary on the Constitution you would know the Founders never thought the First Amendment applied to Islam. America today needs to take a step back and think about the First Amendment. Does it mean ALL religions can speak. Or does it mean only Christian religions can speak. Plainly the Founders meant only Christian religions were protected.

#25 Comment By Mourning in America On December 3, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

@Phil Giraldi: “It also opens the door for all of us to be surveilled at the whim of some bureaucrat. “

I’m afraid that door was opened by Mr. Bush. Mr. Obama has more or less removed the door. In any case, closing it will be very hard.

#26 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 4, 2015 @ 9:24 am

If they won’t give up pre-emptive war making, then we must give up liberty.

That choice has been made for us, but political expediency demands freedom not be dismantled openly or all at once, so as not to alarm, but gradually if relentlessly in the course of continuous war profit taking.

#27 Comment By Hmm On December 4, 2015 @ 10:48 am

Even if you don’t care about civil liberties or religious freedom, I am not convinced that this is a good plan from a pure counter-terrorism perspective. From what I’ve read, most Western jihadists feel disconnected from both Western society/culture and their local religious communities, thus they are easy prey for jihadist recruiters online. Spying on the Mosques which potential jihadists feel disconnected from will not help find terrorists.

#28 Comment By heartright On December 7, 2015 @ 9:34 am

David Smith says:
December 3, 2015 at 11:43 am

“Of course, if we really wanted to reduce the threat of Islamic terrorism, we could stop meddling in the Middle East, but nobody is suggesting that.”

A preposterous suggestion. Islamism is a REACTION to secular nationalism ( baathism, nasserism ) within Arab society. An internal conflict within Arab society.

It follows without saying that the ‘stop meddling’- suggestion only appeals to complete loons. What the US could and should do, is promote harsh secular authoritarian government within the region, rather than seeking to destabilise harsh secular authoritarians.

*cough* Assad *cough*