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Sting underscores Muslims' complex relationship with FBI

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 6:57 PM

A sting operation over the course of months. Federal agents posing as al-Qaeda operatives. The text of the sacred Koran used to send coded messages.

When federal authorities arrested Farooque Ahmed, a 34-year-old Pakistani American, this week for an alleged plot to bomb Metrorail stations in Northern Virginia, Muslim groups in the area struggled with what to say publicly.

Should they condemn the man unequivocally and praise law enforcement? Orshould they wait?

As details of the arrest trickled out, many in the Muslim community avoided saying anything to outsiders, but instead quietly voiced concerns to one another about the tactics used.

The ambivalence highlights the complicated and often fraught relationship between law enforcement and Muslim Americans - an alliance some say has suffered especially in the last year with the slew of sting-like operations within their communities.

Increasingly, Muslims believe that even as they work with the FBI to combat terrorism, they are being spied upon by authorities.

The impact of those suspicions has been profound. Imams say longtime attendees at their mosque have suddenly grown reticent to welcome new strangers and new converts. Some Muslims say they catch themselves watching what they say and to whom, eyeing people in their own community as potential informants looking to lure them into arrest.

"The relationship with law enforcement right now is tense," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group the FBI stopped working with last year on outreach efforts. "There's a sense of being under siege in many Muslim communities. People just assume there are agents or informants in their mosque now. It's a fact of life."

The FBI, however, emphasized that it does not investigate communities or mosques but individuals. "We are going to go within constitutional parameters where we need to go and talk to people we need to talk to," said spokeswoman Katherine Schweit. "But we are not looking to infiltrate anything other than individuals looking to harm others."

Since last year, more than 60 U.S. citizens have been charged or convicted in terrorism cases, federal officials say.

At Dar al-Hijrah, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik said his mosque works closely with law enforcement. But at the same time, he said, he believes there's been a chilling effect from the sting operations.

"When someone new walks into our mosque now, people don't talk to them," he said. "White converts have it worst. People just look at them and think, hmm, a little too straitlaced, a little suspicious, probably an agent. They just tell them to go talk to me."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, local mosques have taken pains to show how willing they are to cooperate with authorities. They have invited the FBI to dinners, have given agents awards and now hold quarterly meetings with agents to communicate and build relationships. Those same FBI agents are also the ones they often call to report hate crimes, vandalism and other manifestations of Islamaphobia.

"We'd rather they come through the front door out in the open rather than the back door," Abdul-Malik said. "But it can sometimes be a one-way street. We tell them absolutely everything we know. But they don't tell us much of what they're doing in our own communities in return. Maybe it has to be like that when everything's under investigation, but there's an issue of building trust."

Local Muslims point to recent cases as examples of the thorny issues they face in dealing with the FBI. When the parents of five Washington-area Muslims realized their sons were missing last year, they reported it to federal authorities. In June, the men were convicted of terrorism charges in Pakistan.

One of the most significant rifts between authorities and Muslim communities involves a lawsuit filed against the FBI by a California man. The man says he worked as an informant for four years, roving through mosques in the Irvine area to look for extremists - assertions the FBI has not confirmed or denied.

Muslims have cited the case repeatedly as proof they are being spied upon by the same authorities they have tried for years to help. And shortly after the lawsuit was filed last year, a coalition of Muslim American groups threatened to cut off contact with the FBI for what it called "McCarthy-era" tactics.

"The suggestion that we send agents just roaming through mosques is simply not true," said Schweit. "And First Amendment rights here are absolutely being protected. If a conversation doesn't involve criminal activity, what chilling effect would there be?"

Some local Muslims, however, say the fallout of informants and sting operations has already trickled into their daily life.

Miriam Abdrahmaan, who runs a Muslim funeral service in Chantilly, said: "I wish I could just be myself. We have freedom of speech in this country, but we're not always free to say what we think. We have to watch who we talk to and what we say. It's not cool."

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