FBI agents have launched a series of interviews of Muslims and Arab Americans in the Washington area and across the country, hoping to glean information that could prevent a major terrorist attack during this election year.
A few dozen voluntary interviews of community leaders, students, businesspeople and others have been conducted so far, according to attorneys and Muslim activists. Authorities said they do not know how many people will be contacted, but the effort is expected to expand significantly in the next week or so.
The new round of questioning is also far more targeted than an earlier program of voluntary interviews with men from Arab and Muslim countries, which followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was criticized for being ineffective and using profiling.
"This is not a general population. They are identified by intelligence or investigative information," said an FBI official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with department policy. He added that the questioning did not signify that the people were under investigation themselves.
The questions being posed vary widely, according to attorneys, activists and interviewees. Several people in California and Arizona have been asked whether they knew anyone who had recently been in the Pakistani border region of Waziristan, regarded as a possible refuge for al Qaeda figures. They were also asked about Abu Nour, which agents identified as a mosque and school in Syria that was popular with American converts to Islam, the attorneys and activists said.
"We were told by the FBI agents that they're concerned there could be a coming threat from people who are recent converts to Islam," said Stacy Tolchin, a San Francisco lawyer who accompanied a Turkish Kurdish immigrant to an interview this week.
Law enforcement officials decided to step up efforts to contact Muslims and Arab Americans because of intelligence reports that al Qaeda is planning a large-scale attack in coming months in the United States, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said recently.
"While we currently lack precise knowledge about when, where and how they are planning to attack, we are actively working to gain that knowledge," Ashcroft said in a news release July 9. "As part of that effort, we are again reaching out to partners in the Muslim and Arab American communities for any information they may have."
Law enforcement officials appear to be using different approaches in the interviews. In some cases, they have asked prominent local Muslim figures to simply pass on any helpful information, activists said. Asim Ghafoor, a Muslim attorney in Washington who was visited by two FBI agents about a week ago, said they noted that he had represented various Muslim organizations and charities and asked, "Is there anything we need to know?" He said he assured them that there was not.
Other interviews are highly specific. James Hacking, a Muslim activist in St. Louis, accompanied a U.S. graduate student of Iranian descent to an interview with the FBI this week. The student was asked about Iranian groups based in the Middle East and in the United States and whether he knew people who had been in contact with the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, Hacking said.
The young man did not have such information, Hacking said.
"I recognize the FBI are in a tough spot. They're just trying to do their job. They have information they want to investigate," Hacking said. But he added that he was uneasy that a U.S.-born person was singled out. The young man declined to offer information about people he knew.
Some of the interview subjects were also asked broad questions, such as their opinion of the U.S. invasion of Iraq or of the Syrian government, activists said.
Those being sought for interviews appear to represent a broad spectrum. Attorneys and activists said they had heard from students, high-tech professionals, Muslim leaders and others who had been contacted. Most were immigrants, but at least one African American Muslim and some U.S.-born residents were also included.
"Within two days, I received 10 calls from people freaking out because the FBI was contacting them," said Deedra Abboud, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
She said that the FBI agents went out of their way to be low-key but that Muslims were fearful when they got the calls, worrying that they were under investigation themselves.
Leaders of Muslim and Arab American organizations have been trying to build bridges with federal officials since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many say that the earlier interviews cast too wide a net and reflected the wrong approach.
"It creates fear in the community and accomplishes absolutely nothing," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. The Justice Department has defended earlier interviews with Middle Eastern men and Iraqi immigrants, saying they provided useful information and were a way to build contacts.
Some activists said that Muslims and Arabs were nervous about responding to the FBI, in part because thousands of immigrants wound up being deported after being contacted in earlier phases of the government's anti-terrorism campaign. Several people in the Washington area have told FBI officers that they will meet with them only if their attorney is present.
Ghafoor said he was happy to talk to the FBI. But he was concerned that they were going to people's workplaces.
"I said, 'Hey, some people lose their jobs when the FBI shows up at their offices,' " he said.
The FBI is carrying out the interviews in collaboration with the regional Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which include law enforcement officers from other agencies. Those officers have sometimes done the interviews on behalf of the FBI.
Yaser Alamoodi, a student at Arizona State University, was surprised to get a visit at home recently from a campus police officer with the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. The 27-year-old student, who is a Yemeni citizen applying for U.S. residency, said that he agreed to the interview and that the officer was friendly and polite.
Alamoodi said the questions included whether he knew anyone who had recently returned from Pakistan, anyone who had shown interest in a government building or agency or anyone who had shown extreme hostility toward Americans.
"The questions were just ridiculous," he said. "I said, 'You guys really think you're going to get anywhere with these kind of questions?' "
Alamoodi said he was puzzled about why he was selected for an interview.
"I don't go to the mosque that often," he said, "unless they have free food."
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.