Distrust Hinders FBI In Outreach to Muslims
Thursday, February 8, 2007
LOS ANGELES -- The FBI's worst fears that hidden homegrown terrorist groups could take root in this country were fanned here in the summer of 2005, when four young Muslim men were charged with conspiring "to levy war against the United States" via deadly attacks on military installations and synagogues in Southern California.
The men belonged to what Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales called a "radical Islamic organization" named Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS), or Assembly of True Islam. They were discovered before they could carry out their alleged plans.
Although Gonzales claimed an intelligence victory, the FBI had only stumbled upon JIS. Numbers on a cellphone dropped during a gas-station holdup led local police to an apartment and a computer with documents that authorities said outlined a terrorism spree.
None of the four -- three U.S.-born citizens and one Pakistani immigrant -- fit a terrorist profile. They had no ties to foreign extremists or radical imams, and their public behavior had drawn no attention. JIS was also news to officials at the California state prison where a man accused of founding the group was serving a lengthy sentence for robbery and allegedly was directing JIS operations from his cell.
The discovery was an ominous surprise to federal law enforcement, whose senior officials now regularly refer to the case in speeches warning of the homegrown threat.
But the high-profile indictments, announced at news conferences in Los Angeles and Washington, were unsettling to Southern California's half-million-strong Muslim community for a different reason.
"They're not Muslims," declared Shakeel Syed, head of the 75-mosque Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and a government-approved chaplain who has visited the four men in jail, where they await trial this year. "They don't know anything about Islam."
Self-styled converts with the apple-pie surnames of Patterson, Washington and James, the Americans are "gangbangers, basically," Syed said dismissively, "petty criminals" incapable of responding even to his standard Islamic greetings. The Pakistani, described by Syed as a clueless 21-year-old, "I felt sorry for."
"If this is to be characterized as Islam, the faith of millions of people in this country," he said, "it is a great injustice and disservice." Labeling JIS "Islamic" just because it said it puts the religion unfairly in the spotlight again, Syed and other Muslim leaders argued.
The JIS affair is one of many incidents that have regularly challenged the fragile cooperation that law enforcement and Muslims nationwide are struggling to create after years of mutual suspicion. Without that cooperation, the FBI, sheriffs and police chiefs believe they will never penetrate the world of homegrown Islamic extremists and potential terrorists the officials are convinced is out there.
Muslim leaders say they are eager to help. Yet for both sides, the effort remains a steep uphill climb with frequent detours into resentment, suspicion and misunderstanding.
Virtually all 56 FBI field offices and many local police departments have invited Muslim leaders to join multicultural advisory boards and to teach classes in the basics of Islam to agents and police. At community meetings, the FBI listens to Muslim complaints and asks for assistance in finding potential terrorists in their own communities.