FBI courts relations with Arabs, Muslims

But community leaders, bureau officials agree post - 9/11
tensions remain

 

By Laura Sullivan
Baltimore Sun

 

WASHINGTON -- A month ago, officials at the FBI announced that they would be awarding the bureau's prestigious exceptional service award to a prominent Detroit man who helped forge a relationship between the bureau and Michigan's numerous Arab communities.
But two days before Imad Hamad, director of the state's American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was to be flown to Washington to accept a plaque, bureau officials yanked the award without explanation and said Hamad would no longer be receiving it.
Michigan's Arab and Muslim communities were incensed.
"Yeah," one FBI official said, "we probably could have handled that better."

Hamad is not suspected of any wrongdoing, said FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell, and he is not under investigation. But sources in the bureau said agents became concerned with what they believed were "problematic" associates of Hamad who support terrorism.
The incident with Hamad and the award highlights the FBI's sometimes-stumbling efforts to reach out to Arab and Muslim communities throughout the country. Relations, by most accounts, are improving, but Muslim leaders and bureau officials agree that tension remains.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the bureau has courted Arab and Muslim groups for investigative help and as sources of new recruits and translators. Arab groups, meanwhile, have their own reasons to cooperate. They want help dealing with hate crimes as well as making contacts and even having some influence when the bureau investigates some of their own.
But the road to a trusting relationship has been fraught with missteps on both sides. The FBI has had to tiptoe through an often disorganized and disparate set of organizations, a few of which have had troubling associations that have proved embarrassing to the bureau.
Arab and Muslim leaders worry that they will look like patsies if they work with the FBI, only to feel used or irrelevant when the bureau pulls an award from a prominent leader such as Hamad without explanation.
"I feel there is some strain now in the relationship," Yahya Basha, a prominent Muslim leader in Michigan, said about the FBI's actions. "People feel hurt."
Reached at his Michigan office, Hamad said he was not aware of any questionable relationships and said the bureau could have "handled things in a more courteous, professional manner." But he said he isn't angry.
"I don't have any bitter feelings," Hamad said. "I understand the anger from my community because to a large extent they saw the award as recognition for all of our efforts.
"But this is not something that should pull us apart," he said. "Neither we as a community nor the government can afford to lose this connection we have built. It is even more reason for us all to stay at the table."
Relations between the bureau and Arab and Muslim groups got off to a rocky start after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Justice Department ordered FBI agents to help local law enforcement authorities question more than 8,000 Middle Eastern men across the country in what the department called voluntary interviews.
Many in the community saw them as anything but voluntary and suspected that the interviews were fishing expeditions that could result in the arrest or deportation of a friend or relative. At least 20 of the men questioned were detained or deported for immigration violations not related to terrorism.
Few leads were generated from those interviews, a report later found, and Arab leaders still bristle at the idea of members of their communities being subjected to them.
Although the interview program was mandated by the Justice Department, the face on the initiative was that of the interviewers sitting across the table: in most cases, FBI agents.
Damage control
To try to mitigate the damage, the bureau launched an outreach campaign shortly after, sending top FBI officials to conventions and community groups to show a less threatening visage. The efforts have made a big impact on the communities' perception of the bureau and its agents, leaders say. Still, there is unease.
FBI Direct Robert S. Mueller III "is a very decent man, and he has a duty to protect the American people," said Basha, the Muslim leader in Michigan. "At the same time here in the community there is fear -- are they going overboard?"
Faiz Rehman, president of the Washington-based National Council of Pakistani Americans, said that despite the progress, it seems for every two steps forward the bureau takes, it takes one step back.
"There are issues," Rehman said. "Some things just aren't helpful. Why offer [Hamad] the award if they are just going to take it away? They must have done their homework. It reflects badly on them."
The award dispute is especially disruptive to relations because it comes on the heels of another sticky situation involving the Washington-based American Muslim Council.
Despite a heated debate within the bureau, Mueller accepted an invitation to speak at the council's annual convention last year.
Some field agents were upset that Mueller would cater to the organization when investigations at the time revealed that one of its founding members, who was the convention organizer, had troubling connections to extremist Islamic groups and had defended terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah in several publicized speeches.
Mueller went ahead with his appearance. Last month the man, Abdurahman Alamoudi, was arrested at Washington Dulles International Airport on charges of engaging in financial transactions with Libya, listed by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism, and attempting to smuggle $340,000 into Syria.
He was indicted Thursday in Northern Virginia on 18 counts of fraud and money laundering. A government affidavit unsealed earlier that day said Alamoudi provided financial support to al-Qaida and Hamas through a complicated web of Islamic charities -- including one founded by a nephew of Osama bin Laden. His lawyer has said the charges are unfounded, calling the affidavit "posturing, grandstanding ... not facts."
Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, told a congressional committee last week that Alamoudi appears also to have supported terrorist groups in Syria, a "jumping-off point for foreigners seeking to enter Iraq to fight jihad against our soldiers."
Bureau critics have relished the opportunity to point out what they see as an embarrassing miscue, even though the Pentagon also associated itself with Alamoudi, retaining him on an unpaid basis to nominate Muslim military chaplains.
"The bureau should never convey legitimacy to groups that are under investigation," said J. Michael Waller, Annenberg professor of international communications at the Institute of World Politics. "They keep jumping the gun to show a friendly face and embracing the wrong person."
FBI officials stand by Mueller's decision to address the group, which disbanded last month, saying that not everyone involved in the organization is accused of wrongdoing, and that at the least it helps the FBI establish a presence with individuals it needs to get to know for investigative purposes.
Reaching out
Although some Muslim community leaders say they have felt a chill since Alamoudi's arrest in their ability to get FBI leaders to speak to their groups, many field supervisors are doubling their efforts to reach out.
Baltimore Special Agent in Charge Gary M. Bald said he watched the relationship in the Baltimore-Washington region evolve from one of suspicion and mistrust to a sense of partnership over the past two years.
"As in any relationship where you have different frames of reference, you are going to have bumps in the road," he said. "What you really look for is a relationship that is such that you can survive and get past the bumps and keep yourself on track."
Bald also spoke at a conference held by the American Muslim Council this summer and said the event was worthwhile for the bureau.
"It's to everybody's mutual advantage for us to go down the road together on this, and we won't always see eye to eye," he said.
Bald said that when they have to pull back from a relationship or investigate an individual, it helps to have a standing relationship with the community so an arrest or indictment doesn't look arbitrary or capricious.
Two years ago, Bald said, Muslim groups were afraid he would take down names and start files on people if they were to meet with him. Now, he said, groups throughout the region meet regularly. "Unfortunately from a law enforcement standpoint, when charges are brought against people, we don't have the luxury of sitting down with [other] people that don't understand and telling them what the evidence is.
"You have to have a level of trust there," he said, "not just in the FBI but in the [legal] process, and I think they're gaining that."
The improving relationship, he said, has also helped the bureau's efforts to tackle a critical and continuing shortage of Arabic translators, providing officials access to groups of people they urgently want to recruit.
Many Arab and Muslim groups are also beginning to see the benefits of having high-level bureau contacts, not just when someone is attacked for their ethnicity and they want an investigation, but also when notable members of their community are arrested -- or embarrassed.
Within days of Hamad's rescinded award, the head of the FBI's Detroit office and the local U.S. attorney bowed to community pressure and came forward to praise Hamad's work.
"We're not there yet, not 100 percent, but certainly things are much better than when we started," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "We want a relationship where [Arabs and Muslims] see the FBI as their bureau -- to protect them and work with them. Because then if they know something [about a terrorist plot, for example], they will tell it."

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun

 

 
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