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Ahmed Khan Rahami’s arrest renews debate about monitoring Muslim communities in NYC

ASTORIA, Queens — The outdoor tables and chairs are a familiar sight lining Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, at the cafes where Tunisian Americans mingle with Egyptian and Yemeni immigrants.

It's a place undercover officers used to frequently visit, when the NYPD Demographics Desk was in operation under former Police Commissioner, Raymond Kelly.

"We wanted to know who was living in New York, where they were from, and the different dialects," the former Commissioner told us in March this year. But lawsuits filed by Muslim American groups forced the unit to disband in the closing days of the Ray Kelly/Mayor Bloomberg Administration.

PIX11 paid a visit to Steinway Street and the Coney Island Avenue area of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, in the days after a naturalized U.S. citizen, Ahmad Khan Rahami, was accused of planting bombs in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood and in two cities in New Jersey.

A bomb on West 23rd Street exploded, injuring 29 people, and additional explosives went off in Seaside Park and Elizabeth. Rahami was shot and captured in Linden, New Jersey last Monday. PIX11 wanted to talk to Muslim Americans about the case and gauge whether they feared a return of undercover monitoring.

"The surveillance that was actually being carried out against our community was through other programs," said Fahd Ahmed, a Pakistani American who directs the Racial and Immigrant Justice program for a group called DRUM in Queens. "And those programs are still continuing," Ahmed said. "So it's really media hype."

"We still hear from our own members and community members, who say they got approached by somebody asking them weird questions," Ahmed told PIX11.

That being said, Ahmed added this note. "It's not as aggressive. We're not having as many people be pressured or harassed into being informants."

We found a range of opinions on Steinway Street, where a Tunisian-born cab driver named Faouzi Chebil suggested the bomb was planted in Chelsea to steer the course of the American presidential election.

"I think the government is behind everything," Chebil said.

Rahami remains intubated and in critical condition at a New Jersey hospital. He hasn't been strong enough to face a judge or understand the charges against him, which include attempted murder of police officers.

In Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, PIX11 spoke to Dr. Dhabah Almontaser, who noted that 10,000 people left the Coney Island Avenue area in the months after the September 11th terror attacks, because of police raids.

"Many of them fled to Canada or simply went back to Pakistan," Almontaser said.

Almontaser said she was unfairly targeted when she tried to create a dual-language Arab/English school in Brooklyn.

The New York Post said she was connected with a group selling Intifada NYC t-shirts at a fundraiser.

"You know, the 'terrorist' trying to indoctrinate kids," Almontaser observed of the way she was portrayed.

She is now Executive Director of the Muslim Community Network.

"The political cycle we're in right now is making it very difficult," she said of the current investigations coming during a heated presidential campaign. She also said any form of reinstatement of the Demographics Unit would be unconstitutional.

Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican who's a ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, has argued it's crucial to monitoring and intelligence gathering to prevent future attacks.

"We can't get into political correctness," King said. "We have to monitor to try to find out in advance as much as we can."