Mall Counterterrorism Files ID Mostly Minorities Programs aimed at keeping a lookout for potential terrorists are not about profiling, government officials stress. But an analysis of suspicious activity reports of incidents at the Mall of America suggests that the mall may be questioning people based partly on their appearance.

Mall Counterterrorism Files ID Mostly Minorities

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We're closing in on the 10-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which means that for almost a decade now the nation's leaders have asked private businesses to look out for potential terrorists. As we reported yesterday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the Mall of America near Minneapolis has a private counterterrorism unit that does just that.

NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting examined what types of suspicious people the mall has reported to law enforcement.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has our story.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Nauman Tariq had just pulled out of the parking lot at the Mall of America. It was a Thursday night last summer. His father was beside him. Suddenly a police car pulls up; the lights are flashing. Two more cruisers move in.

Dr. NAUMAN TARIQ (Physician): I mean this kind of stuff we see in the movies, like cops coming up and pulling over and surrounding you. And we cannot even imagine that this is going to happen to us for no reason.

ZWERDLING: Tariq is a doctor from Pakistan. He's a brain specialist at three hospitals in Minneapolis. But now the police order Tariq out of the car. Put your hands on your head. They frisk him, they put him in the back seat of a patrol car, and Tariq peers at the police computer.

Dr. TARIQ: My name was there on the laptop with my address and there was this highlighted sentence saying that possible terrorist threat. So that was something which at that time I realized that there's something seriously wrong here.

ZWERDLING: NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting have obtained the police report on that incident. The Mall of America is one of the biggest in the country. It's a tourist attraction, and the report showed that the mall's private security unit flagged Tariq as a possible terrorist. A policeman told him why.

Dr. TARIQ: He said that the Mall of America contacted the police because I was doing some suspicious activity. And I asked him what did I do, and all he could tell me was I used the bathroom, it looked like I was walking fast with my father, and I was using my cell phone a lot.

ZWERDLING: Actually, a mall guard told police that Tariq was pacing around, not walking fast. The police finally let Tariq go, and now he says maybe there's another reason why the mall security unit suspected he was a terrorist.

Dr. TARIQ: I look like a Muslim from a mile away. I have a beard, I don't have a mustache, and my color, it's Middle Eastern, my skin color.

ZWERDLING: We've obtained more than a thousand pages of documents that suggest Tariq could have a point. They show that the Mall of America has alerted law enforcement mainly about people from places like the Middle East, Africa and Asia, or African-Americans and Hispanics.

(Soundbite of training video)

Unidentified Man: How do you identify terrorism behavior?

ZWERDLING: Federal officials use this video to train security officers. Since 9/11, they've wrestled with a dilemma. How do they catch terrorists and protect civil liberties? The video says you should report people based only how they act.

(Soundbite of training video)

Unidentified Man: Profiling of individuals based on their race, color, national origin or religion is not acceptable in reporting terrorism-related suspicious activity.

ZWERDLING: We asked 29 law enforcement agencies across the country to give us reports about suspicious activities in their areas at places from Epcot Center to Dodgers Stadium. The only officials who did were in Minnesota. They gave us more than 100 reports that the Mall of America sent to law enforcement.

Actually, a mall spokesman said they question more than 1,000 suspicious people every year, so we don't know if the reports we received are a representative sample of the people they confront, but here's what those documents do show. Almost two-thirds of the suspicious people whom the mall reported to police do not look white. Compare that to the U.S. population. It's more than 70 percent white.

The mall's executives wouldn't tell us if the breakdown of their visitors is different.

Ms. MAUREEN BAUSCH (Vice President, Mall of America): I think the program is one of the most effective programs in the security world. I really do.

ZWERDLING: Maureen Bausch is a vice president at the Mall of America. Mall executives wouldn't talk with us about our analysis, but a spokesman sent us a written statement that says: We conduct security interviews based solely on suspicious behavior. Any suggestion that the mall's security unit confronts people based on ethnic or racial traits is a faulty conclusion and absolutely not correct.

This is an important issue. Government hearings and press reports have spotlighted the Mall of America for fighting terrorism. Again, Maureen Bausch.

Ms. BAUSCH: When you're projected to draw 40 million visits a year, your number one priority has to be safety and security. The world has changed, so we've had to adapt and change with it to make sure our guests are safe and having a great time.

ZWERDLING: But Minnesota's Department of Human Rights has been concerned about the mall's security program. Four years ago the mall's guards reported a man to the police because he was, quote, "observing others while writing things down on a notepad as though he was conducting surveillance," unquote. It turns out he was a musician waiting for a friend, and he filed a complaint with the state. He charged that the mall targeted him because he's black.

The Human Rights Department investigated, and they concluded the evidence does suggest that the Mall of America, quote, "subjects racial minorities to heightened scrutiny," unquote, which the department said would be illegal.

The mall's executives wouldn't talk with this about this case, but a former federal official says she's troubled by the mall's reports.

Professor JULIETTE KAYYEM (Harvard University): I can't sort of say, oh, this is de facto profiling. I think I would be concerned about it.

ZWERDLING: Juliette Kayyem was an assistant secretary of Homeland Security. She left the department last year.

Government officials say there's reason to be vigilant in Minneapolis. Somali-Americans there have gone overseas for terrorist training. But Kayyem says she's struck by the fact that almost two-thirds of the suspicious persons in the mall reports we obtained didn't look white.

Ms. KAYYEM: The fact that they're doing it this way is something that they should clearly change. I mean, this is not, not helpful from anyone's perspective.

ZWERDLING: The documents show that when the mall reported suspicious people, those reports went to state and federal law enforcement in roughly half the cases.

Take the Khalil brothers from Southern California. They were visiting the mall two years ago. They took pictures. A mall security guard worried they might be conducting surveillance. The Khalils say the next thing they knew, an FBI agent confronted them at the airport as they were about to fly home.

Mr. EMIL KHALIL (Through translator): He asked me where I was born and where my wife worked and where my daughters worked and...

ZWERDLING: The Khalil brothers are both in their 70s. They were born in Egypt, but they've been American citizens for decades. Emil Khalil feels more comfortable speaking through a translator.

Mr. KHALIL (Through translator): For all the 30 years that I've lived in the United States, this was the first time I was treated as a suspect, and I didn't do anything wrong, so it bothers me.

Mr. SAMEER KHALIL: It didn't bother me at all.

ZWERDLING: Emil's brother, Sameer, says he appreciates that the Mall of America reported them.

Mr. S. KHALIL: That's their job. They should do that to make it safer for everybody.

ZWERDLING: A commander with the Bloomington Police says they'll keep the reports from the Mall of America in their database for at least 20 years.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can read some of the Mall of America's suspicious activity reports at Our story was co-reported by NPR's Margot Williams and by G.W. Schulz and Andrew Becker of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.