Last year’s foiled plot to blow up transatlantic flights between Great Britain and the United States renewed the public’s fear of terrorist attacks and, for some, frustration over increased airport security measures.
What received less attention was the encouraging story of how the plot came to light—not from a watch list, wiretap, or infiltration of a terrorist cell, but from a tip to authorities that came from within the Muslim community.
That was in the United Kingdom, where authorities have tried to reach out to local leaders in those communities. Likewise, federal authorities in the United States, especially the FBI, have been forging ties with U.S. Muslim organizations to counter the idea that the war against terrorism is a war against Islam or Muslims in general.
Muslim-American leaders welcome the initiative, but say more can be done, both by duplicating successful efforts in Washington and by ensuring continuity amid turnover in field offices.
“[W]hat we see at the Washington [FBI] office is a model to be followed and not something we have come across in any of the other regions of the country,” Ahmed Younis, national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said soon after last year’s arrests. Later, Younis qualified the comment somewhat, pointing to marked progress in other cities and regions with large Muslim populations, including Los Angeles, Boston, Buffalo, New York, and Detriot-Dearborn, Michigan.
Attempts to build long-term relationships have run into challenges, including the lack of continuity both in how outreach efforts are made over time and in who the point of contact is. For example, law enforcement may think to reach out to the local Muslim community only after an incident makes police want information. That’s the wrong way to go about it. “For the most part, the growth is needed in law enforcement at the local level, both at times of difficulty and when there is no difficulty,” Younis says.
Then there is the question of how to build trust if you aren’t dealing with the same people for very long. Ibrahim Nidal, executive director of the Arab-American Institute, says that turnover in FBI field offices forces many local Muslim leaders to start from scratch repeatedly.
“And the other issue,” according to Nidal, is that “there are not always clear understandings in some of the field offices with regard to directives that may emanate from the national headquarters, as far as a concerted and consistent effort to build ties within the Muslim-American communities.”
The FBI’s outreach goals are to make a positive first impression on community members—in particular youth—and to encourage people who spot suspicious activity to come forward.
“It’s about putting a face with a name, and knowing they can pick up the phone. You have to foster trust,” says Brett Hovington, a supervisory special agent and unit chief for community relations at FBI headquarters. But he acknowledges that to build trust, the FBI needs to be more open—not an easy task for a secretive law enforcement organization.
In western New York State, where in 2002 the FBI apprehended six graduates of an al Qaeda training camp, the field office has conducted successful outreach, including work with an English language Muslim-oriented cable channel. Last year, Supervisory Special Agent Paul Moskal, head of FBI outreach in the region, received an invitation to an interfaith feast at a Buffalo area mosque.
“It’s nice to be thought of not only in a neutral setting, but at a positive event, a celebration,” Moskal says.
Farhana Ali, an international policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, says that, nationally, cooperation is the rule. “In most communities, you have an imam who has become the de facto mayor of his community, cooperating with the government and police, and [he has] become their eyes and ears,” Ali says.
Ali and other experts say that Muslim-Americans’ economic success and assimilation make their communities far less fertile breeding grounds for terror than their European counterparts. And they have more to lose in the case of a home-grown plot. “And that’s the last thing anyone in this country wants,” Ali says.