by Anthony W. Accurso
Samuel Landes, a federal public defender representing Muhammed Momtaz Alazhari, filed a motion in federal court on August 30, 2021, alleging that the FBI used its small fleet of Cessna airplanes outfitted with spy equipment to continuously surveil Alazhari for 429 hours between April 18 and May 12 of 2020, and that it did so without ever obtaining a warrant.
“Getting a warrant, when you have such an intense surveillance of one individual, is a very minimal burden before going ‘Enemy of the State’ on this guy,” said Brett Max Kaufman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Center for Democracy.
Law enforcement are allowed to follow someone in a vehicle without a warrant, but the U.S. Supreme Court has said that “any surveillance involving technology that allows police to monitor the entirety of a suspect’s movements requires a search warrant,” according to The Intercept. Yet actions like this show the FBI’s willingness to pursue the idea that anything a person does in public is fair game for surveillance.
The existence of the spy plane program has been well documented since 2016. Following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department (“BPD”) in 2015, BPD requested the FBI dispatch the aircraft to monitor protesters from April 29 to May 3, 2015, and the FBI later revealed footage obtained from that surveillance.
The Associated Press and Buzzfeed subsequently researched the spy plane program and found that the FBI has a fleet of around 100 small planes outfitted with a series of cameras but often also include cell-site simulators for tracking nearby cellphones. The cameras are of a high-enough resolution to identify individuals on the ground, and they can switch modes to allow for heat signature tracking or to follow suspects obscured behind trees or other objects.
FAA records showed the planes are registered to what are likely shell companies with names like “KQM Aviation” and “PSL Surveys.”
Buzzfeed used data from the flight tracking website Flightradar24.com to reveal that the FBI deployed the spy planes shortly after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting perpetrated by Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik. More disturbing was the finding that the planes were deployed the following week to surveil the mosque attended by Farook.
Alazhari was a Florida man who had come under FBI scrutiny in May 2019, when it learned the 23-year-old Home Depot employee was watching ISIS propaganda and speaking favorably about the terrorist group, according to court records.
In April 2020, Alazhari tried to purchase a gun on eBay. The FBI took over the seller’s account, and an undercover agent had conversations with him about his love for guns in which he discussed modifying an AK-47 for fully automatic firing.
From that day in April until 24 days later, the FBI used its spy planes to nearly continuously monitor his movements, including periods where the FBI claims he was “scouting targets for a potential mass shooting attack,” according to court records.
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