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When 'if you see something, say something' goes wrong: Unfounded reports of suspicious activity overwhelmingly target Arabs, Muslims doing routine activities, new report shows

Unfounded reports of suspicious activity overwhelmingly target Arabs, Muslims, new report shows
Unfounded reports of suspicious activity overwhelmingly target Arabs, Muslims, new report shows 06:32

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (CBS) -- Imagine this: a 16-year-old student in Orland Park walks into his guidance counselor's office. He has anxiety about the war in Syria, where his grandparents live.

Rather than address the teen's anxiety, the counselor and school resource officer report him to law enforcement, claiming his family members were political Islamists.

He's not the only one. A woman taking photos on the street. A man texting on his phone. Contract workers surveying a cell tower. These are seemingly everyday activities – snapshots of life across Chicagoland. And many people are being reported to police for doing them. 

That's the crux of a new report published Thursday by the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) and the Policing in Chicago Research Group at University of Illinois Chicago (UIC).

For the first time, they say their research shows strong evidence a federal government program that encourages reporting "suspicious" behavior is disproportionately targeting and racially profiling Arab and Muslim Americans for seemingly everyday activities like these.

AAAN's findings – exclusively obtained by CBS 2 Investigators – confirm what many have suspected for decades: being suspicious has less to do with what a person is doing, and more to do with what they look like.

"It's like hard proof," said Nadiah Alyafai, a member of the AAAN. "That we're not just making this up, that this is actually happening." 

Read the full report here at AAAN's website, or below

'A tool of racial profiling'

In the decades leading up to and after the 9/11 terror attacks, the group's organizers heard community stories of suspected police surveillance and racial profiling. In 2012, AAAN conducted a community survey that showed most respondents had negative experiences with local and federal law enforcement.

"It almost seems like second nature, where everyone has a story, or they know someone who has been visited by the FBI, or they had a problem with immigration, or they had a problem with border patrol entry at an airport," said Muhammad Sankari, lead organizer for AAAN. "And it's all of this anecdotal evidence of, my uncle, my cousin, my neighbor."

AAAN, a nonprofit which provides social services and organizes social justice efforts, thought the anecdotal information was a solid starting point to identify the scope of the problem, but they didn't have firm data.

Years later, Sankari said the group stumbled on something in their research they'd never heard about before: suspicious activity reports (SARs).

SARs are produced as part of a federal program called the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative. Administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI, the program was among many formed in the years after the 9/11 terror attacks. The suspicious activity reporting specifically was cited as necessary to thwart any future threats. An annual $2 million was earmarked to the program in 2007 when it was created, according to minutes from DHS committee hearings.

The government asks the public to report activity they deem to be "suspicious" or threatening to local police agencies, the website says.

Information on threats, including any SARs that are made, are received and analyzed by state-owned and operated facilities called fusion centers. These entities serve as focal points in states and major urban areas to gather, analyze and share this information. Illinois has two fusion centers: the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police (ISP).

Sankari's research about SARs led AAAN to file a Freedom of Information Act request with ISP in 2018, asking for copies of the reports. The ISP denied the request, citing a national security exemption, Sankari said.

"Especially in the heightened national security world, post 9/11, everything has been, no no no, it's a matter of national security, it's a matter of terrorism," Sankari said. "And so, stonewall after being stonewalled, repeatedly." 

Muhammad Sankari, lead organizer with AAAN CBS 2

The organization successfully sued ISP in 2019, and the agency was forced to turn over the reports. AAAN ultimately obtained a total of 235 SARs made between 2016 and 2019 – from both ISP and CPD.

With the help of AAAN members Alyafai, Majid Matariyeh, Reema Rustom – all students at the time – the team painstakingly sifted through the reports. That's when they discovered a disturbing pattern: more than half of those who were reported for being suspicious were described as "Arab"," "Middle Eastern," "Muslim," or "olive skinned" - even though Arabs make up just over 1 percent of the state's population.

 AAAN members Nadiah Alyafai, Reema Rustom, Majid Matariyeh (left to right) going through SARs. CBS 2

In addition, about 70 percent of all reports identified people of color as suspects. That's despite data from DHS and the FBI showing  domestic extremists "advocating for the superiority of the white race" present the greatest threats of violence in the country.

"Without even digging into what these reports are being filed about, look at the huge disparity there," Sankari said. "That in it of itself proves our point that this is a tool of racial profiling and surveillance."

Alyafai said that's a feeling she knows all too well as an Arab and Muslim American. Seeing the reports validated her experience.

"It's almost like it was normalized through our community to have been targeted and harassed on a daily basis," she said.

'Criminalization of everyday activities'

Sankari said he expected to see a disparity in the subjects of the reports based on the anecdotal research he previously gathered in the community. But what alarmed him the most was what people were being reported for.

While SARs are supposed to document threats, many of them reported Arabs and Muslims for doing everyday activities – a perpetual source of anxiety that the community is always being watched.

In one example, a man reported a "suspicious male individual, possibly Middle Eastern" at the L Station across from Wrigley Field in 2016. The suspect "appeared out of place while taking various photographs" and was "typing or texting, possibly in Arabic," the report said. A SAR was created on this incident.

In the 2019 incident at an Orland Park school, AAAN's report said a 16-year-old student was reported to law enforcement after coming to a guidance counselor about his anxiety about the war in Syria.

"A counselor is supposed to create this safe, confidential space for a student to share personal things that are happening in their life," Rustom said. "And the fact that these personal things were then reported to police was really sad and showed that we have to watch what we say constantly. Even to a doctor, a mental health professional, we have to watch what we say for fear of being reported to police for something so small, or for everyday activities."

SAR #1 by Adam Harrington on Scribd

In another report from 2019, someone reported a Black woman for "wearing clothing consistent with those worn by women of the Muslim faith/religion," who was taking video of the State Capitol in Springfield. AAAN said in at least 10 other cases, people of color were reported for taking photos.

Another SAR describes two "dark complected" men surveying a cell tower. Further investigation revealed they were contractors doing their jobs.

SAR #2 by Adam Harrington on Scribd

The federal government encourages the public to report activities like these. On the DHS website, CBS 2 found an online form describing suspicious activity indicators and behaviors –  including some that are vague. For example, one indicator includes individuals taking photos of people or buildings "in an unusual or surreptitious manner that would arouse suspicion of terrorism or other criminality in a reasonable person."

"It's the criminalization of everyday activities of people of color, especially if they're Arab or Muslim," said Andy Clarno, associate professor of Sociology and Black Studies with UIC. "I think [AAAN's] report provides very strong evidence that what we're seeing is a tool of racial profiling." 

Clarno and Ph.D. student Sangeetha Ravichandran helped AAAN produce the report. They said the first point of criminalization is when the reports are made, but the impact on the community continues long after.

"The piece that's sort of hidden from folks who experience this is what happens after," Ravichandran said. "They definitely see people staring at them and calling the cops…but sort of the behind the scenes is really important to get to people so that more folks who have the energy and space can fight against it."

The Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute at New York University School of Law, dug into the government's use of SARs in 2013. The nonprofit found fusion centers share the reports with the FBI, even when there is no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The reports could then be held in the FBI database for at least 35 years, even if the subjects of the reports are innocent and haven't been charged.


"These become permanent records on individuals – for taking a photo, something as simple as that," Clarno said.

"The fusion center and the way that this data flows between agencies creates a real web of surveillance and criminalization that really impacts Arabs and Muslim communities in particular, and communities of color more broadly."

Efficacy questioned

In its report, AAAN is calling for the end of SARs and the shutdown of fusion centers.

"Why does the FBI have the right to keep a mass amount of data on people who have never been charged with a crime?" Sankari said. "To me it's mind boggling. but unfortunately, it's reality."

Andy Clarno, associate professor of Sociology and Black Studies with UIC, and phD student Sangeetha Ravichandran. CBS 2

CBS 2 asked the Chicago FBI, the Chicago Police, and the ISP about AAAN's findings. None agreed to an interview.

The FBI provided the following statement:

"The FBI's mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. Federal law prohibits the FBI from investigating or initiating any matter based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment or the race, ethnicity, or religious affiliation of any individual or organization. As the primary federal agency responsible for investigating civil rights, the FBI is dedicated to working hand-in-hand with local, state, and federal law enforcement partners to investigate and prevent civil rights offenses."

The ISP said it "is not able to comment on reports and analysis it has not seen," but shared the following statement:

"The concept of fusion centers was created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and are designed to promote information and intelligence sharing, maximize resources, and streamline operations in an effort to improve the ability to identify threats and prevent terrorist attacks by any and all individuals and organizations.  STIC adheres to federal and state laws regarding privacy and civil liberties. The STIC accepts SARs from law enforcement and vetted public safety partners."

The agencies did not answer CBS 2's questions about how SARs are maintained and shared between agencies. They also did not provide information when asked to share examples of SARs being used to detect and foil credible security threats. 

There are very few public accounts of SARs preventing threats or leading to arrests. It's unclear how often it happened in the reports obtained by AAAN because most of them were redacted where law enforcement indicated if there was a "potential nexus to terrorism," the report said.

This isn't the first time the efficacy of SARs has been called into question. In 2008, a year after the federal program began, the ACLU released a report criticizing it for privacy and civil liberty concerns.

The report cited the Los Angeles Police Department's use of SARs reporting. In 2009, the LAPD admitted the program hadn't foiled any terrorist threats in its program's first year, the New York Times reported.

"And it isn't just that SAR policing is illegal," the ACLU wrote. "It's also ineffective and counterproductive."

In 2014, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of five people who had their information entered into law enforcement databases for normal activities like taking photos, buying computers or standing in a train station, a news release at the time said. 

"It doesn't keep anybody safe," Sankari said of the program. "In fact, what we're seeing is it's violating their civil rights."

Sankari believes most people likely don't know about SARs and if they've been the subject of a report. He said AAAN's goal of releasing its findings is two-fold: validate the experiences they've heard for decades and arm the community with critical information.

On Friday, AAAN plans to kick off its "Campaign to End Racial Profiling" by share the findings publicly at a news conference at Federal Plaza at noon.

"I think that we're made to believe that we need surveillance," Ravichandran said. "I think that certain people are made to look like they need to be surveilled in order for other people to be safe. It clearly hasn't happened and it's doing the opposite."

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