FBI walks tightrope in outreach to Muslims, fighting terrorism
Sunday, December 20, 2009
At a retirement party last week for the head of the FBI's Washington field office, Muslim and Arab leaders presented the guest of honor with a crystal plaque.
It thanked Joseph Persichini Jr. for reaching out to the local Muslim and Arab communities. Yet even as the tribute on Capitol Hill went on, his agents had a different mission. They were flying to Pakistan to interrogate five Washington area Muslim men arrested in a terrorism probe. The outcome of that investigation threatens to undermine the very relationships their boss tried to foster.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FBI agents from the same office have met with Muslim leaders, fielded questions at mosques and participated in Ramadan feasts. The outreach might well have resulted in the families of the five men coming forward to the FBI to report them missing.
But that action now has agents and prosecutors facing a dilemma as the case has morphed from a missing persons investigation into a counter-terrorism probe. As U.S. officials consider whether to file criminal charges against the men and how aggressively to prosecute any potential case, some Muslim leaders are calling for leniency, saying the tough approach often used by the Bush administration would alienate a community whose relationship with law enforcement is uneasy.
"Charging them and throwing them in jail is not the solution," said Nihad Awad, national head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which approached the FBI on behalf of the families. "The government has to show some appreciation for the actions of the parents and the community. That will encourage other families to come forward."
Return could take months
The men, ages 18 to 24, traveled overseas just after Thanksgiving without telling their families and were arrested near Lahore on Dec. 8. A Pakistani court this week ordered them held for up to 10 more days of interrogation, but officials say their likely return to the United States could take months. Pakistani officials say the men were in touch with a Taliban recruiter and were aiming to join up with al-Qaeda and battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
No one has been charged, and the men's friends and spiritual advisers say they never saw any sign of radical beliefs or activities.
Federal prosecutors in Alexandria, where any criminal case would probably be brought, declined to comment. But law enforcement sources say prosecutors are likely to consider charges that include providing material support to terrorist organizations. Prosecutors face complexities that include whether the men's reported admissions to Pakistani authorities are admissible in a U.S. court and whether any statements were coerced.
Senior Justice Department officials are expected to balance broader issues in any charging decisions, such as concern over a growing threat from domestic extremism.
"Home-based terrorism is here," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a recent speech in which she cited the arrests of U.S. citizens suspected of plotting attacks with al-Qaeda and other Muslim groups. The five Virginia men are U.S. citizens.
Possible clash in goals
But the law enforcement imperative could clash with President Obama's desire to improve relations with Muslims abroad and in the United States. When asked about the arrests in Pakistan, Obama praised "the extraordinary contributions of the Muslim-American community."
U.S. law enforcement also views relations with Muslims as critical for its mandate to prevent terror attacks. The Northern Virginia families "alerted their community and the authorities immediately when they knew there was something wrong with their sons," said one federal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is unfolding. "That's a very positive step."
Current and former law enforcement officials said the families' actions will not affect the FBI's intensifying investigation. "When you come upon information that the law may have been violated, the way you receive that information does not change your obligation to respond to it accordingly," said Michael A. Mason, who preceded Persichini as head of the FBI's D.C. field office.
Other officials said cooperation could affect any decision on whether to file charges and what penalties to seek, although that might depend on whether the five men cooperate. The key factor, officials said, is always the evidence.
"Cooperation typically does not override public safety," said Paul J. McNulty, who as U.S. attorney in Alexandria oversaw many terrorism cases, "but it does play a role."
The case is unfolding against a backdrop of increased tension nationally between the FBI and the Muslim community. A coalition of two dozen Muslim groups in March suspended most contacts with the FBI over what it called inappropriate infiltration of mosques.
Relations between the FBI and Muslim groups are generally less strained in the Washington area, where the field office -- the bureau's second largest, with about 800 agents -- is continuing its intensive outreach to the region's estimated 250,000 Muslims.
"They've made a very sincere effort," said Rizwan Jaka, a board member at the Sterling-based ADAMS Center, the area's largest mosque. The center has held FBI town hall meetings and hosted agents during the breaking of the daily Ramadan fast.
Supervisory Special Agent Katherine Schweit, spokeswoman for the field office, said the FBI "recognizes there are issues and concerns that have been raised from the Muslim community and will continue to be raised. We always try to address them by maintaining a regular dialogue.
"We have to have the trust and understanding of the public to do our job," she added.
Yet tensions remain, and local Muslims still decry the prosecution of terrorism cases in Northern Virginia after Sept. 11, especially the conviction of 11 men in what prosecutors called a "Virginia jihad network."
Nawar Shora, legal director for the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee -- who, with a representative from a Muslim group presented the award to Persichini -- said the Arab and Muslim communities will accept any charges against the men arrested in Pakistan as long as they are treated fairly.
Yet he indicated that tensions could flare, depending how the government approaches a case. "If the FBI and the prosecutors say these were five Muslims and they were trying to commit jihad, and they throw out all of these incendiary religious terms, that's different," Shora said.