The information, released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ national office, came out after CAIR-Ohio, which covers Columbus and Cincinnati, announced on Dec. 14 that it had terminated its executive director, Romin Iqbal, for spying for the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT). He had reportedly been helping the anti-Muslim organization for years.
Iqbal, 45, had been working in the Hilliard office since 2006 and was executive director since 2018.
It is still unclear what his motive may have been, and Iqbal's attorney said on Wednesday afternoon that he still had no comment.
CAIR, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization with offices across the country, got information last year about informants in different Muslim organizations working with IPT. But it took months to verify the information and make sure no one was being framed, officials said.
In December, the CAIR national office, based in Washington, D.C., reported that Iqbal shared emails, meeting recordings and strategic plans with IPT. It also showed emails between the group's leader, Steve Emerson, and his staff as well as emails from Iqbal to Emerson and between Emerson and Tel Aviv government officials.
CAIR said further investigation showed that IPT spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to surveil and spy on Muslim organizations and leaders.
"The aim of Steven Emerson and the Islamophobes is to prevent the Muslim community and in particular CAIR from gaining prominence and influence in the society," CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said.
The original tip that there was an IPT mole within CAIR, which turned out to be Iqbal, came from an anonymous former IPT staff member, CAIR officials said on Wednesday. That individual released a statement through CAIR.
It said, in part: "My original motivation in working for IPT was the terrorism perpetrated against the United States on September 11, but much of the work we did was not related to terrorism nor to the United States. I came to realize that IPT's main concern was not protecting our national from legitimate threats, but protecting a foreign government — Israel — from legitimate criticism. We were essentially being used as an Israel lobbying organization. Demonizing people who simply have opinions we may not agree with has become sport, yet I was doing it as part of my job."
One of the people who actively spied on the American Muslim community for IPT was Tariq Nelson, 48, a Muslim who had been involved in volunteer leadership at a Washington, D.C.-area mosque. After Iqbal was ousted, Nelson came forward to confess and apologize, CAIR said on Wednesday.
The organization released a statement by Nelson that explained, in part, his motive.
"If Emerson had presented this idea to me at any other time in my life, I hope that I would have been outraged, rejected it outright and exposed his attempt to spy on the community. But around this time, I was going through a personal crisis in my life and experiencing extreme financial difficulty amid the economic recession. It was a very dark time for me and my family, and I was too embarrassed to ask anyone for help."
CAIR had announced in December, without naming him, that Nelson voluntarily came forward to admit to working for IPT as a paid spy from 2008 to 2012. Tax forms shown by CAIR reveal that he was paid $30,000 for one year of spying.
IPT paid Nelson $3,000 per month to record prominent Muslim leaders, according to a December tweet from CAIR. During the four years he worked for Emerson, the man was paid more than $100,000 by IPT, according to CAIR.
"One of Emerson's goals, we're told, was protecting the Israeli govt (sic) by undermining Muslims engaged in political & human rights activism," the tweets read.
A phone call for comment to IPT on Wednesday afternoon was not immediately returned.
When contacted in December via email about Iqbal, IPT released a statement that said, in part: "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 extremist activity on American soil by groups like CAIR, which threaten our national security."
IPT is based in Washington, D.C. and calls itself a nonprofit research group with a mission to "expose the activities of terrorist networks and supporters in the U.S. and abroad and to educate the public about this threat."
"We are working diligently to uncover, disrupt and expose every attempt that this anti-Muslim hate group and its allies have made to spy on American Muslims in service to the Israeli government," Awad said in a statement. "We commend the whistleblowers who are coming forward to apologize, take responsibility and provide information. In the coming weeks, we plan to continue releasing additional information as we uncover and validate it."
Awad again called on the federal government to look into and stop IPT.
CAIR also said it found that IPT was spying on former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), now the state's attorney general. Other organizations that were allegedly spied on include: the Muslim Alliance of North America, the Islamic Society of North America, Muslim American Society, the Muslim Legal Fund of America, Muslim Advocates, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Islamic Networks Group, and Zaytuna College, according to CAIR.
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to U.S. Congress, served in the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2019.
CAIR National Deputy Director Edward Ahmed Mitchell said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon that IPT had an "obsession with targeting politically active Muslims."
"Keith Ellison was IPT's main target for many years," Mitchell said. "They complied a massive dossier on him. ... They were trying to find anything they could to undermine this aspiring, inspiring Black politician. There's nothing bad to find but their goal was to try to undermine him."
Mitchell said they eventually did cause Ellison harm, sharing comments he made at a private fundraiser which Mitchell said were taken out of context and lost him a bid for the head of the Democratic National Committee.
Whistleblowers from within IPT have also said that the organization was working with Republican members of Congress and the Middle East Forum, according to CAIR.
Mitchell encouraged others to come forward and cooperate and help make sure other Muslim organizations are not spied on. He said there is another mole CAIR is working to learn more about.
CAIR officials said the organization plans to continue investigating the topic and release more information. Mitchell said it is exploring all legal options and is eager for the government to find out if IPT's activities were legal. He said CAIR has reached out to the FBI and is in conversations with them now.
Todd Lindgren, Public Affairs Specialist for the FBI, said that, per its policy, the FBI cannot confirm or deny the existence of any potential investigations.
"They have not been responsive as I expect them to be," Awad said, of the federal government.
To Ohioans, Mitchell said during the press conference Wednesday afternoon that the community has shown "incredible resilience over the past few months."
"There is absolutely no evidence that your community was targeted at all," he said. "Romin Iqbal didn't really target the local community. His goal was to target the national group."
He also expressed dismay that the Hilliard Police declined to investigate the fact that someone purchased parts of an AR-15 rifle and sent them to the CAIR-Ohio office in Hilliard. They had been purchased using a CAIR credit card that only Iqbal had had access to and that he administered, a CAIR-Ohio official said, though it could not be confirmed who purchased the weapon parts.
"There's a pattern we're seeing where when Muslims are victims of crime too often there is indifference," Mitchell said.