Spy planes overhead still watching Minneapolis. Why?

Almost a year ago, the FBI admitted it was behind a “mystery plane” circling over several locations in the Twin Cities for a few days, ending a social media firestorm in which people demanded to know who owned the plane and what it was doing.

Curiously, once the FBI said “it’s us,” the questioning pretty much ended. Apparently, we don’t mind the government spying on us as much as we dislike someone we don’t know spying on us.

Now, BuzzFeed has put together a clearer picture of how extensive this spying operation is. It’s extensive in the Minneapolis area…

Why Minneapolis? Good question, because a look at the national picture shows only a few cities in the country are getting the spy-in-the-sky treatment.

BuzzFeed said after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., two spy planes showed up 90 minutes later, circling the home of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik for hours. Later, three planes circled the mosque the couple attended.

BuzzFeed says it sees a common trait of the cities selected for surveillance.

In the months before the San Bernardino attack, some of the government’s surveillance planes circled over other neighborhoods with large Muslim populations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, there was a clear circle above Little Kabul in Fremont, home to the largest concentration of ethnic Afghans in the nation.

The main concentrations of surveillance in Minneapolis, meanwhile, were above an area known as Little Mogadishu for its large Somali population.

But these neighborhoods did not come under heightened aerial scrutiny after the terrorist mayhem in Paris on Nov. 13, nor after San Bernardino. And on Thanksgiving Day, less than two weeks after the Paris attacks, with the nation under a State Department–issued global terrorism alert, federal surveillance planes almost entirely stopped flying, only to resume once the holiday was over.

But the article makes a big leap on the question of why weekends are generally spy-plane free. An ex-FBI agent suggests the pattern of flights leads him to suspect the FBI is enticing people to join fake terrorist organizations in the cities being watched. Interesting, but unsupported by any additional explanation.

While raising the question of whether Muslims are being targeted by the flights, it concludes there’s no clear pattern.

“When people think of surveillance, they think of the NSA, or of specific people being tracked, or mosques being infiltrated,” Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, told BuzzFeed News. “They aren’t necessarily thinking about planes circling overhead of American cities and doing god knows what. It’s important for people to be aware.”

After last summer’s attention, Twin Citians are aware. But the fact that the attention paid to the flights dissipated quickly, suggests that most people don’t much care.

(h/t: Will Lager, Matthew Schneider)

  • Gary F

    Because Minnesota likes big government? Because scaring all those folks in Glenco straightened them out? Because Minneapolis sends terrorist wanna be’s to the Middle East and Somalia?

    • Reflection

      Perhaps the military has fuel to burn.

  • wjc

    2 related questions:

    1) What is the altitude of these flights?

    2) Assuming perfect data gathering capabilities, what could someone learn with these flights? For example, could specific vehicles be tracked? Could phones be tracked more accurately that what you can get from cell tower triangulation?

    I’m just curious concerning what can be gathered with such flight, that can’t be gathered any other way.

    • See links to NewsCut posts last summer. All the info is there.

  • PaulJ

    Maybe because we have a fed bank here. Maybe they just park the plane around here and practice fly if they are not watching the border.

  • Gary F

    Bob, maybe you could approach them and get a chance to drive the plane?

    • Meh. Once you fly an RV-7A, you don’t go back to Cessna 172s.

      • Gary F

        I bet they let you wear the FBI jacket.

      • Khatti

        Too “Inside Baseball”.

        • That’s 10 seconds of typing you can never get back in your life.

  • Noah

    I live fairly close to the MSP airport, are there restrictions for small planes flying close to the airport? Could the people they’re tracking move to south minneapolis/richfield and avoid this plane?

    • Paul

      Class B airspace is all. MSP allows non-essential flights into this airspace on their discretion. FBI calls them up, they will be allowed in – though, I have to guess these flights are arranged with control prior to taking off so they know they are coming and will route traffic accordingly if it is high profile.

  • MrE85

    It may have nothing to do with the east African communities in Minneapolis, but rather the Jamar Clark case. Similar planes were reported in Baltimore after the Freddy Grey death sparked unrest there. We know that the U.S. Department of Justice sent a seven-member Community Relations Service (CRS) team here when the decision in the Jamar Clark shooting case was made public.
    The Justice Department had boots on the ground. Is it so surprising then to learn they also had eyes in the sky?

    • The bulk of the Minneapolis data in Buzzfeed’s graphic was pre-Clark.

      • MrE85

        Never let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory. 😉 Perhaps at a certain time, the entire city should “moon” the circling spy planes. Let Operation Moon Shot begin!

        • ChrisF

          So the dude who was mooning cars on the 35w overpass was actually a freedom fighter?

          • MrE85


        • pastor2000

          Let me know when and where the next FBI Mooning Rave is going to be . . .

  • Dan

    Looks like pretty much every major city.

  • Al

    Okay, really, if you’re trying to see anything worth seeing, can you actually see it from the air? How is that even helpful information? (Seriously, I’m lost.)

    • Dan

      Google “Stingray” or “Dirtbox”. Combine with high quality aerial imagery.

    • They’re not necessary seeing. They might be acquiring data. An airplane makes a swell receiver.

      • Al

        AHA. That makes more sense.

  • Rob

    The FBI engaging in entrapment activities? I am shocked, I tell you – shocked!

  • Tyler

    Apparently the FBI also has an attraction to the Arbor Lakes area of Maple Grove. Not many Muslims up there, I don’t think, but there is a Costco…

    • Toga

      I suspect that it was tracking a suspect residing in one of the town-home or apartment complexes inside the perimeter of the flight pattern. Also, It’s a bit disconcerting that the volume of the Maple Grove flights appear to have intensified in the days leading to September 11, 2015.

  • igacek

    How does 36 major metropolitan areas quantify “only a few cities”? Holy crap this is such a terrible article.

    • Because there are 388 major metropolitan statistical areas in the United States.

      And because math.

  • Postal Customer

    “Apparently, we don’t mind the government spying on us as much as we dislike someone we don’t know spying on us.”

    What would the FBI tell us if we asked?

    Maybe it’s not apathy but cynicism.