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.
Bombaywala also gives occasional sermons in mosques on the responsibilities Muslims have in post-9/11 America. “I tell people that after 9/11, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion—take an empty shoe box, put all of them in it and put them in the closet. America is no longer the same as before 9/11. Just be a responsible citizen.” He says that Muslims should avoid “loose talk,” which he defines as “anti-American sentiment or anything to do with 9/11, or anything to do with Iraq or Afghanistan. Why make these kinds of statements when you really don’t need to?”
Every Thursday, the thirty or so mosques in Bombaywala’s network get an e-mail outlining the main bullet points that should be mentioned in that week’s sermon. “Whatever the message we want to give to the common man, through the imams, every Friday there are 500 to 1,000 people in front of these guys, and in their sermon they can talk about all this stuff.”
In one case, says Bombaywala, his community network played a role in providing actionable intelligence to an FBI counterterrorist investigation. One of those convicted, Pakistani student Adnan Mirza, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, in part for conspiring to provide material support to the Taliban in the form of a $350 donation. Two men who had befriended him turned out to be undercover FBI agents. Mirza, who had expressed his opposition to US wars, maintains his innocence and says he was sending the money to a hospital in Pakistan.
Steve Gentry, executive manager of the FBI’s counterterrorism program in Houston, estimates that a quarter of its investigations are initiated as a result of information from Muslim community partners. Agents in his office say that in addition to providing intelligence, community relationships are crucial as a way to convey a “counter-radicalization narrative” to the Muslim community. One, for example, occurred earlier this year, when NATO forces began bombing targets in Libya, and the FBI drew up lists of Libyan residents in the United States to be interviewed. In the past, such broad-based interviewing provoked allegations of ethnic profiling. Nowadays, the FBI pre-empts potential opposition by informing its community partners in advance of what it is doing and helping them to mediate any ensuing anger.
The Libya example illustrates the extent to which the FBI’s counterterrorism activities are intimately linked to military interventions abroad. In the command and control center at the FBI’s new office building in Houston, along with clocks for each of the time zones across the United States, there is also one for Iraq and one for Afghanistan. According to one estimate, around a third of the office’s agents working on counterterrorism had military experience in the Middle East before joining the bureau. One such is Brad Deardorff, a supervisor of one of the city’s five counterterrorism squads, who, like FBI director Robert Mueller, is a former marine. In Somalia, Deardorff first learned the counterinsurgency principles that he would go on to apply in Texas: understand the culture of the community from which the threat emanates, identify the “centers of influence” in the community and then build relationships with them.
“The citizen of Pakistani descent, his first call is not going to be to the police or to the FBI. His first call is going to be to his patriarch,” says Deardorff. In order to pick up this information, the FBI tries to expand its network of community contacts “to meet in the middle.”
“We’re looking at the social networks around people who are centers of influence. With more refinement, we’ve got youth groups who are either associated with subjects [of investigation] that we have, or we understand there’s a vulnerability to recruitment there, or there’s mobilization that we need to understand, political activism that we need to understand.” This kind of detailed knowledge of social networks in the community, says Deardorff, allows agents to contextualize intelligence that is coming in from other sources.
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The way the FBI has engaged Muslim partners in Houston is not unique. In many parts of the United States, with government agencies desperate for intelligence, well-meaning Muslim businessmen began acting as representatives of communities from which their wealth had distanced them. While the House Committee on Homeland Security, chaired by New York Republican Peter King, has this year been holding hearings on whether Muslims are cooperating with law enforcement, the truth is that cooperation is intense, though mostly hidden. Bombaywala, for his part, feels he cannot be transparent with the community about his work with the FBI. “There is a lot of stuff the common man does not understand,” he says. “You cannot talk openly about these kinds of things.”
The real issue is not whether cooperation is occurring but whether it is effective—and the fear and self-censorship it imposes on the community. Liberals generally find community-oriented policing attractive, basing their views, in large part, on the government’s turn to community policing to tackle gangs in the 1990s. Then, the African-American leaders with whom law enforcement wanted to work said, in effect, “If you want us to be partners, begin by respecting our civil rights.” Moreover, everyone knew the impact that gang violence was having in the community.
But hardly any American Muslims have come across terrorist recruitment, while the word “radicalization” worries many, with its suggestion that radical ideas may be a target of government intervention. And the government’s Muslim partners are rarely experienced civil rights advocates; more often they are essentially advocates for the government, conveying its political message to community members rather than the other way around.
The lesson from European countries that have experimented with counter-radicalization policies is that unless intelligence-gathering and community engagement are clearly separated, community partners can end up being no more than government proxies, discouraging legitimate dissent on issues such as Western foreign policy and driving radical views dangerously underground.
After the July 2005 attacks on London’s transport system, Britain’s Labour government introduced a “counter-radicalization” strategy known as Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE), which encouraged community partnerships between the counterterrorism units of local police forces, municipal authorities and Muslim organizations. The strategy was aimed at recruiting Muslim leaders willing to challenge extremist narratives while also profiling people suspected of drifting toward radicalization.
Although the PVE policy was meant to win the trust of Muslims, it created an atmosphere in which Muslim criticism of the “war on terror” went unspoken for fear it would be seen as extremist. As Birmingham City Council member Salma Yaqoob noted, PVE undermined precisely the sort of radical democratic dissent that might have been helpful in winning people away from political violence: “By promoting and recognizing only those Muslims who toe the line, government policy is serving to strengthen the hands of the genuine extremists, those who say that our engagement in the democratic process is pointless or wrong…. Where are young people to go? Where will their views and concerns get an airing? The answer is obvious. They will be expressed in private and secret, with the genuine extremists keen to provide listening ears and simplistic solutions.” Comparable policies in the Netherlands and Denmark have attracted similar criticisms.
While liberal-oriented governments on both sides of the Atlantic have embraced the language of community engagement, in practice they have reduced the role that communities can play in preventing terrorism to intelligence-gathering and the self-policing of radical views. In this, they are influenced by a flawed model of radicalization that assumes dangerous ideas produce evil actions. Muslim organizations that take a civil rights stand are then rejected as partners and vilified as conveyors of the “extremist” ideas that supposedly make people into terrorists. In both Britain and the United States, governments have followed this pattern of partnering with “good Muslims” and demonizing “bad Muslims.”
Many conservatives, on the other hand, reject community partnerships outright because they see Islam itself as the problem and view engagement with Muslim organizations as pandering to the West’s enemies. In its place, they want every Muslim treated with suspicion. Such prejudice needs to be forcefully rejected, but we should also be mindful of the way community partnerships are used to produce an astroturf Muslim leadership. Muslim communities do not come ready-made with leaders. The community influence of “centers of influence” is created, in part, by government agencies when they choose certain partners rather than others. And any minority community that reduces its identity to what is acceptable to others should fear for its rights. The civil rights movement would have been much less successful if its only leader was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and there were no “extremists” on the horizon. So, too, today’s American Muslims need their Malcolm X’s as much as their “moderates.”