Since 9/11, American Muslims have been subjected to an unprecedented level of law enforcement attention. Local authorities have worked in concert with intelligence agencies to establish widespread networks of informants, to place mosques under surveillance and to launch “pre-emptive” prosecutions, frequently involving schemes that, critics charge, have been more successful in entrapping disaffected individuals than in netting actual terrorists. So at first blush, it might seem encouraging that the FBI has recently begun to embrace community partnerships as a way to counter radicalization, as recommended in a White House strategy paper published in August.
But while these partnerships provide the FBI with another layer of intelligence, they also raise questions about who, exactly, should represent “the Muslim community” in dealings with the government—and how those dealings affect the freedom of speech and assembly of other Muslim-Americans, including those who may object to US foreign policy and Islamist violence alike.
In May of last year, FBI agents in Houston hurriedly organized a lunch meeting with about thirty leaders of the city’s Muslim community. Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-born US citizen from Connecticut, had just attempted to car-bomb Times Square. The agents informed the leaders who had gathered at an Indian restaurant that, in the wake of the attempted attack in New York, the FBI would be visiting Muslims in the Houston area to gain more information on the potential radicalization of young people in the community. The meeting had been coordinated by Ghulam Bombaywala, a local Pakistani-American businessman and close associate of the FBI. Those present were shown FBI slides purporting to explain the process of radicalization and the warning signs to look out for.
The meeting was typical of attempts by FBI field offices across the country to cultivate relationships with people they describe as “centers of influence” in Muslim communities. In its position paper the Obama administration heralds community partnerships as the government’s chief means of countering radicalization among American Muslims.
Bombaywala is a strong supporter of a partnership approach, and over the past few years he has built up close friendships with local FBI agents working on counterterrorism. Having run a successful chain of restaurants in the 1990s, he got involved in community activism after 9/11, believing that Muslim leaders and the FBI had a shared interest in preventing the radicalization of the young. As a key source of private funding for mosques in the Muslim community, he encourages imams to look out for unfamiliar young people who suddenly turn up and join the congregation, for those who stop attending and appear to drop out of their social network, and for those who change their appearance. “The FBI is really helping us to know what to look for,” he says. “If you see someone changing overnight, growing a big beard and starting to wear different clothes, we need to find out what is happening. Maybe that kid needs some help.” Bombaywala adds, “You never know if somebody is giving him bad advice.”
The idea that a change in appearance is a sign that someone is drifting into terrorism has been absorbed from the FBI’s model of how radicalization works, summarized in a New York Police Department paper of 2007. That model has four stages: pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination and jihadization. Growing a beard, starting to wear “traditional Islamic clothing” and becoming alienated from one’s former life are all listed as indicators of stage two, self-identification; withdrawing from a mosque is a sign of stage three, indoctrination, one level away from becoming an active terrorist.