The evening was sliding toward midnight, but the students were still hanging out. It was February 9, 2013, and the five members of Florida International University's Muslim Student Association had finished their evening prayers in the room they used daily at the Graham Center, the student union on the school's Modesto Maidique Campus.
They were lounging like any group of college kids, prayer mats spread out on the room's ugly blue-green-brown industrial shag, when one noticed a bump in the weave. It was just smaller than the volume button on an iPhone, with three holes in the top. As the group gathered around, the student pulled it up. A wire was attached to the bump. It looked like a listening device, they decided.
"We were just shocked," one of the students, who like the others in the room asked to remain anonymous, tells New Times. "I knew that the same thing happened in New York, but we were just surprised it was here."
Surveillance operations on Muslim students at American college campuses have been an unfortunate byproduct of the War on Terror. A 2012 investigation by the Associated Press revealed the NYPD had monitored campus Muslim groups across the Northeast.
But now, FIU students were possibly holding evidence that they too were being watched.
"We've learned about many, many stories of students being picked up at colleges and spied on," says Aman Muqeet, a former FIU graduate student who is familiar with the situation. "We really don't know how many other Muslim students are being tracked. This could be related."
The students quickly contacted Nezar Hamze, the regional operations director for the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Hamze says he contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Department of Justice, and FIU's campus police. He also says he took the device to a spy store, where a clerk confirmed the gadget was the kind of expensive surveillance device used by the government.
When Hamze met with school officials, he laid out his concern. "If someone put in this equipment, someone had to know about it," he says. "They promised they had no idea what was going on." The device was turned over to the FIU Police Department, according to Hamze.
Now, a year later, the students still have no answers or explanation for why the device was in their prayer space. Muqeet speculates the surveillance might be linked to the Flagler Mosque, the closest mosque to the FIU campus. In 2011, federal authorities arrested the center's imam, Hafiz Khan, and two of his sons for funneling money to the Pakistani Taliban.
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Charges were dropped against the latter two, but in August 2013 the elder Khan was convicted and sentenced to 25 years. A handful of FIU Muslims worshiped at the mosque. "After the arrests, there were FBI agents on campus trying to talk to FIU students," CAIR's Hamze says.
Neither FIU President Mark Rosenberg nor the FIU police department returned calls to comment on the case.
That radio silence on the issue -- now going on more than a year -- is what troubles the students. "I guess spying on Muslims is acceptable today," Hamze says.