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FBI struggles to win trust of Muslim, Arab communities

RICHMOND, Va.—When a local FBI agent wanted to make contacts in this city's tight-knit Muslim community, he started knocking on doors.

The agent didn't look, much less act, like a typical investigator. He spoke Arabic and he wore street clothes, not the suit and tie favored by many in the bureau.

"He seemed really friendly," said Muhammad Sahli, a U.S. citizen approached at his home last month by the agent. "So I invited him in."

But the agent's questions about international terrorist organizations unnerved Sahli. The agent wanted to know if Sahli knew anyone with ties to extremist groups. Sahli, a Muslim married to a Christian woman, said he didn't.

"You ask yourself, `Why me?'" said Sahli, a 71-year-old retired chemist. "When you've never had a visit from the FBI before in your life, you feel a certain amount of anxiety, even though you've done nothing wrong."

For many Muslim and Arab-Americans these days, meeting a FBI agent can be an unsettling, even terrifying experience.

Beginning almost immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI began to root out suspected terrorists, and Arab and Muslim communities became the bureau's top targets. Agents rounded up hundreds of people for questioning. They raided Muslim charities, monitored mosques for radiation and held refugees for months because of security checks.

To regain the trust of Muslim and Arab-Americans, the FBI has embarked on an aggressive national outreach program. The bureau's efforts, which include mosque visits and one-on-one meetings, have become so pervasive in certain cities that some young Muslim-Americans refer to the agency as the "Friendly Brotherhood of Islam."

Yet across the country, many participants wonder what the interactions achieve when mistrust remains the biggest obstacle. Some community activists compare the tone of the current encounters to those during the Red Scare of the 1950s, when U.S. citizens were singled out as suspected communists and expected to prove their loyalty to the United States.

"You never hear the FBI say that part of the reason there has not been another terrorist attack in this country is because radical extremists have not found a home in American mosques," said Rebecca Abou-Chedid, the director of government relations for the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's as if they believe that we know about terrorist cells and we're not telling them."

In Detroit, the home of an estimated 200,000 Arab-Americans and immigrants, agents and activists sometimes argue for hours over terrorism-related investigations. Many Muslim leaders think the bureau has targeted the wrong people in its effort to root out extremists.

"It is very difficult," said Daniel Roberts, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit field office. "To be honest, I sometimes wonder why we do this when we so often are beaten up in a verbal sense."

Agents aren't apologizing for their tactics and respond that they have a duty to pursue any possible U.S. ties to terrorists. More than 260 defendants have been convicted of terrorism-related charges in the United States and trials are pending for 150 more, according to the Justice Department's latest estimates released in June.

But agents also recognize that the alienation that Muslims and Arabs feel could undermine the bureau's hunt for domestic terrorists. If the fear subsided, more citizens might come forward with tips, agents believe, at a time when the bureau is under mounting pressure to collect better intelligence.

Muslim and Arab-American leaders said they, too, are eager to improve their relations with the FBI. If that happened, many of them said, they would urge their children to join a federal law enforcement agency that's eager to recruit them. Now, most don't.

Muslims and Arabs also hold out a small but persistent hope that if FBI agents trusted them more, other Americans would, too.

But experts said the bureau's mission is made more difficult because of outreach techniques that often differ by region.

In Richmond, Muslim leaders have met with FBI agents several times over the years. So far, federal authorities haven't pursued any terrorism investigations against local Muslims.

When they heard an agent was knocking on doors during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, though, many community leaders couldn't help but feel alarmed.

FBI officials later confirmed that the agent wasn't investigating any of the men who were visited. Instead, he was assigned to make contacts with the Muslim community as part of the FBI's local outreach.

Community leaders said they wouldn't have objected to the interviews if they'd been warned about them.

"We need to be respected as law-abiding citizens," said Malik Khan, a board member of the Islamic Center of Virginia in Richmond.

Cliff Holly, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Richmond, said he didn't want to have to "ask permission" from community leaders to talk to people.

"I appreciate their perspective," he said. "But when you meet with large groups, it's difficult to develop any long-term relationships."

To improve relations with local Muslims, his office paid for the agent's Arabic classes and brought in an activist to talk to other agents about Muslim culture, Holly said.

"Nobody's picking on anybody," he said. "We're just going out and saying hello to people in the community."

FBI officials in other cities, however, said they inform local Muslim leaders first, to avoid alienating the entire community.

Michael Rolince, former head of the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Section, said the bureau remains divided over how to approach Muslims and Arabs when it's not in the context of a terrorism investigation.

Before he retired from the agency in 2005, Rolince asked FBI headquarters to fund a program that Northeastern University in Boston would host. The program required $1 million in start-up money to bring leaders, activists and agents together to talk.

But critics raised questions about some of the participating groups' alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a secretive international organization that some Arab, U.S. and Israeli officials blame for provoking violence in the Middle East. Rolince said he disagreed with the critics' assessments of the U.S.-based organizations.

"There's a right-wing contingent in town that believes we should not work with any of these groups," Rolince said.

To Rolince's dismay, FBI Director Robert Mueller decided not to authorize funding for the program, citing budget constraints.

As a result, the FBI's 56 field offices don't have a uniform way of handling outreach, Rolince said. Some FBI agents work with the groups that sparked the funding controversy. Other agents don't.

"It's not in the best interest of the community or the FBI to deal with each organization in 56 different ways," he said. "It sends a mixed message to the community and to the agents."

According to a study released earlier this year by the Vera Institute of Justice, seven out of 16 U.S. cities with significant Arab and Muslim populations didn't have active FBI outreach programs. The institute, a nonprofit organization in New York, wasn't permitted to identify the cities as part of its agreement with the FBI.

In Raleigh, N.C., for example, where about 20,000 Muslims live, Muslim leaders say the FBI doesn't meet routinely with them. Instead, agents talk to individual activists, often to press them about potential terrorist activity.

In Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York and Detroit, agents meet regularly with groups of Muslims and Arabs. The larger community gatherings help the leaders feel less singled out, agents said.

Joseph Persichini Jr., the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington, D.C., field office, compared the outreach effort to talking to Italian-Americans about organized crime in the mafia's heyday.

"How did we attack the problem? We got to know the community," he said. "Did that mean if you were Italian-American you were part of organized crime? Of course not."

But more contact isn't always better. Although the FBI met more often with community leaders than most local police departments did, Muslims and Arabs trusted them less, the Vera Institute of Justice concluded. Community leaders said local police officers were less likely than the FBI to assume they had links to terrorism.

Lacking a consistent program, FBI agents sometimes feud over what division within the bureau should take the lead in discussions, Muslim and Arab leaders say. In some cities, the FBI's counterterrorism units oversee the bureau's interaction with the community. In others, outreach officers oversee it.

"It's like dealing with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," said Randy Hamud, a San Diego attorney who has participated in one of the outreach meetings. "It's as if we have to remind the FBI: `We're a community, we're not a cell.'"

A. Brett Hovington, the FBI's supervisory special agent in charge of the community relations unit, said the bureau has tried to change the perception that outreach and counterterrorism efforts are connected. However, he said local agents need the freedom to decide how to approach Muslims and Arabs.

"Was the message kind of blurred? I would say it probably was," Hovington said. "But I think we're becoming better at being clear about our intentions."

FBI officials said agents have become savvier about approaching Muslims and Arabs after meeting with them more often. Agents now contact leaders to clear up misunderstandings or to coordinate law-enforcement efforts. Minneapolis agents, for example, called leaders when they needed to interview members of the city's large Somali population. The witnesses were less afraid and more cooperative because they'd been reassured that the case had nothing to do with terrorism.

"I would expect there to be friction," said John Miller, the FBI assistant director who oversees the national outreach program. "I'd also expect that we'd be able to talk about it."

But Muslim and Arab leaders also differ on how they should respond to the FBI's outreach. Should they meet monthly with an agency that could turn its sights on them, their family or their friends? What should they do when an FBI agent appears at their door? Should they invite the agent in or call a lawyer?

Consensus can be difficult to reach because Muslim and Arab communities in the United States are diverse, ranging from Iraqi Christians to African-Americans to third-generation Lebanese-Americans.

Immigrants can be especially terrified of the federal agents because they recall abusive secret police practices of repressive regimes back home.

"This business of outreach is an oxymoron for many people," said Ali Galaydh, a former prime minister of Somalia and professor of public policy at the University of Minnesota. "Law enforcement wanting to reach you means they want to get you."

Despite their misgivings about the FBI, Muslim and Arab leaders said they're more than willing to provide any information if they thought it could prevent a terrorist attack.

After London authorities in August uncovered a plot to blow up planes, Miami Muslim leaders called the FBI to ask for a briefing. Since then, agents have been assigned as contacts for imams at almost 40 mosques.

"In a way, we're in this together," said Abou-Chedid of the Arab American Institute. "We all know that if there is ever another attack, our community and the FBI will be the first to be blamed."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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