By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"We're spending more money on outreach . . . so we can say: 'Please help us. Please look for people who are turning away from institutions to extremism. Please be our eyes and ears,' " said Philip Mudd, deputy director of the bureau's national security branch.
But many FBI officers have grown impatient with what they see as Muslim resistance. The Muslims are "in denial" over the threat in their midst, one senior officer said, adding: "All they say is 'There is no problem. Stop picking on us.' "
Muslim leaders have frustrations of their own, ranging far beyond incidents such as the JIS case. Immigration sweeps following the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks and mandatory registrations long ago convinced them that the FBI sees Muslims as suspects rather than partners.
"How much cooperation can we give . . . at the same time we ourselves are part of the problem in [their] eyes?" asked Sadullah Khan, director of the Islamic Center of Irvine, a city between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Hundreds gathered at a meeting last summer to angrily confront FBI officials after an agent's public comment, quickly contradicted by headquarters, that the bureau was "monitoring" Muslim student groups at the University of California at Irvine.
J. Stephen Tidwell, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office, is the bureau's point man for relations with a Muslim community spread across seven Southern California counties. He spends many Fridays attending services at mosques.
How is the outreach effort going? "As with any, and I'll use the word 'family,' there are family disagreements," Tidwell said. "There are times when we agree to disagree. I would say that overall, they feel comfortable enough with the relationship that if they've got a problem they'll call me."
Most days, his phone is ringing off the hook.Constant Vigilance
After Sept. 11, federal officials warned of terrorist "sleeper cells" -- groups of al-Qaeda operatives who, like the hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, had blended into cities and towns and were awaiting orders to launch new attacks.
Beyond sleepers, the FBI was on the lookout in this country for foreign Islamic "radicals" trying to recruit domestic Muslims to terrorist causes.
The White House has focused on combating the danger from without -- sealing borders, tapping overseas telephone calls and fighting terrorists "over there" so they do not have to be fought "here." But federal counterterrorism and law enforcement officials have issued increasingly dire warnings of a threat from within.
Homegrown or "self-starting" terrorism has become a reality in Europe. The 2004 bombing of commuter trains outside Madrid, attacks on British buses and subways in 2005, and last summer's discovery of plans to blow up U.S.-bound commercial airliners were all tied to young men "inspired" by al-Qaeda but with no tangible connections to it or any other known terrorist groups. Most of the alleged perpetrators are young men of Middle Eastern, South Asian or North African parentage who had spent all or most of their lives in secular Europe.
"They were middle-class, educated and had people who loved them," a U.S. intelligence official said of the transit bombers in England. "How do you get from being a moderate Muslim to being a suicide bomber? What is that road?"
Compared with Europe, there has been little evidence of such activity in this country. The FBI acknowledges that the JIS indictments are the only case so far of genuine "self-starters" -- individuals who moved from radical thought to terrorist plans with no overseas involvement and without the aid of radical imams, undercover officers or paid informants.
Mudd, a career CIA official before he joined the FBI last year, said that although the growth of homegrown cells is "slower than in Europe," it is "inevitable."
Counterterrorism officials say they are less worried about traditional recruitment "gateways" such as prisons and mosques than about young Muslims, influenced by one another and what they see on the Internet, who find reasons to turn to extremism. Uncovering them, the intelligence official said, raises a number of troublesome issues, including "privacy, respect for religion, and not wanting to be seen as targeting."
The FBI's definition of homegrown extremists as "U.S. persons who appear to have assimilated, but reject the cultural values, beliefs and environment of the United States" could apply to disaffected young people of any era, regardless of faith.
"Youth are vulnerable," Mudd said, whether it is the Goths of the 1980s or the anti-establishment culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Understanding and reversing individual transitions to extremism stretches both the bureau's skills and its legal mandate. Most FBI agents acknowledge that they have little understanding of the subterranean lives of youths, the Internet world or Islam. Differentiating between those who pose a threat and those who are pious or angry or both, who exercise their rights to protest against their government and visit their preferred Internet sites, is a dicey business for law enforcement.
When Muslims ask "What should we look for?" Mudd advises them to "think of every 15-to-26-year-old ostracized from the congregation," saying, "I need you to tell me when you see this."
But Hussam Ayloush, head of the Southern California branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, warned that Muslim youths already feel singled out in this country. "I don't think the looks, how many times a person prays, how strong their political views are should indicate anything. The red line for me, when I start noticing, is when someone starts justifying terrorism . . . when they say the West is killing Muslims" and that's the only way they could respond.
U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and what American Muslim youths perceive as challenges at home to their religion and patriotism have placed them, far more than their parents, in "a real identity crisis," Ayloush said. Increased radicalization "is possible," he added. "Now, it's not real, but I see it on the horizon."Two Constituencies
After a recent Friday afternoon sermon at the Irvine Islamic Center on the flexible and peaceful nature of Islam, Khan jostled his way through hallway greetings and embraces. But as he retreated behind the closed door of his tiny office for a conversation about Muslim relations with the FBI, his demeanor changed from calm reflection to irritation. He and countless friends and colleagues, he told a visitor, had been treated badly for no reason other than being Muslim.
He has hosted two meetings with bureau agents, Khan said, including the public one with Tidwell on the student "monitoring" question. "Basically, they gave us 'FBI 101.' How they don't harm people, they don't spy on anybody." An earlier session, he said, was far more memorable in terms of what he saw as typical disrespect and unnecessary brusqueness.
When two agents came to his office, one "refused to shake my hand and blocked the doorway. As if I were going to run away! They were recording everything, asking me about some guy I don't even know." He said it reminded him of officials' visits in his native South Africa during apartheid.
Khan said indignantly that he is a prominent Southern Californian who teaches at universities across the region. "I have a congregation of 1,500 people. If you treat me with this kind of doubt and suspicion," he asked, "do you think I'm going to be convincing telling people, 'Don't worry, the FBI is okay'?"
For immigrants, even the most innocuous official visit can be a source of deep anxiety. "We have many people who come from Arab backgrounds. Their historical experience is that the FBI is satan with a small 's' -- the mukhabarat," said the Shura Council's Syed, using the Arabic word for intelligence services. "When I introduce Tidwell in my community, if I say he is my friend, they're going to beat me up after he leaves. And if I don't say he is my friend, the FBI is going to beat me up after they leave."The Local Go-Between
In his 2 1/2 years as chief of the Anaheim Police Department in Orange County, John Welter has seen no evidence of homegrown terrorism. He is uncertain but hopeful, he said, that it is "not because we're not uncovering it, but because it doesn't exist" in Anaheim.
As the FBI and Muslims wrestle toward accommodation, local law enforcement officials have come to occupy a safe middle ground for both. The FBI readily acknowledges that it will never know what goes on in a community as well as the local cops do; Muslims say they feel more comfortable among faces they see every day. Welter is widely viewed as a chief who is equally attuned to the demands of counterterrorism and the needs of Anaheim's diverse population.
But achieving that status has been hard work. Welter was greeted on arrival here in 2004 with a formal complaint of police harassment by Muslim owners of restaurants and bookstores clustered along a portion of Brookhurst Street known locally as "Little Arabia."
Anaheim officers, they charged, were barging in -- often through the back door -- to demand information about possible terrorists. When the indignant businessmen replied that they did not know any terrorists and had not seen anything suspicious, police cruisers parked outside their stores and restaurants. Officers took down license-plate numbers and advised arriving customers that the proprietors were not cooperating with terrorism investigations.
"My guys were doing what they felt was expected of them, by the FBI and the chief," Welter recalled. "No police officer wants to be responsible for not knowing what's happening in their community. No one wants to be responsible for the next 9/11."
But, he said, "the methods that some of our intelligence officers were using were offending people rather than gathering support and important information."
After an internal department investigation and an assessment by the state attorney general's office, Welter reassigned part of his 12-officer intelligence division and "we changed the whole way we did a lot of our work." To the irritation of many, the entire force of 700 was made to attend cultural training sessions taught by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"Most people are very ignorant of what the Muslim faith is about, including me," Welter said. "I've got a book on Muslims for dummies; I can't be an expert on all the religions and cults and cultures in the world. But what I can do is be an expert in behavior that terrorists engage in prior to an attack."