Three days before the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a Muslim cleric arrived at the airport in Portland, Oregon, with his four children, a brother, several thousand dollars in cash, and tickets to the United Arab Emirates. Inside the terminal, federal agents and local cops surrounded them and arrested the cleric, a Somali-born American citizen named Sheikh Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye. The following day, a customs inspector testified in court that two checked bags containing Kariye’s personal items tested positive for explosives. The judge ruled Kariye a flight risk and denied bail. The cleric would spend the next five weeks in custody.
Kariye leads Masjed As-Saber, a Portland mosque that had been infiltrated by an undercover informant months before his arrest. The operation was part of a case later known as the Portland Seven—one of the first major domestic terror prosecutions following 9/11. Kariye was never charged with a terrorism-related offense, but in the eyes of the federal government, he’s never been exonerated. Nearly 15 years after his initial arrest, both he and his Portland community continue to be the subject of intense interest from the government’s counterterrorism apparatus. In July, prosecutors moved to strip Kariye of his citizenship, claiming that he lied to immigration authorities about his alleged prior affiliations with terrorist groups.
Dig beneath the surface of the government’s portrait of Kariye, however, and it’s possible to see him not as a national-security threat but as an object of obsession—as well as a case study in the way that domestic counterterrorism operations since 9/11 have singled out Muslims for intrusive surveillance and selective prosecution, based on things they’ve said, people they’ve known, and things they could do in the future.
In the wake of the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, counterterrorism officials are recalibrating their strategy to better identify isolated threats. There have been calls for the increased surveillance of Muslim communities, based on an assumption that Islamic radicalism is more dangerous than other kinds. Kariye’s case presents something of a cautionary tale. It’s not clear that the relentless pursuit of the imam, as well as the seemingly lengthy surveillance of other worshippers at his mosque, has made Portland or the rest of the country any safer. Instead, it has alienated the Muslim community in Portland and discouraged it from cooperating with law enforcement.
“I don’t think there’s any room for debate that there’s been a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the Muslim community in Portland,” says Gadeir Abbas, an attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) who has represented several Oregon Muslims. “As far as I can tell, there’s nothing particularly distinctive about that Muslim community compared to the thousands of others across the US. The difference is the FBI’s approach.”
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Masjed As-Saber, a gray stone building trimmed in pink and encircled by a white picket fence, occupies a corner lot in a modest suburb a few miles southwest of Portland. I drove to the mosque early on a gray afternoon in August. It was raining, and the freeway was already clogged with traffic. The population of the metro area has grown by more than 5 percent since 2010, but in spite of the newcomers, it remains the whitest major city in America. High housing prices at its core have driven the majority of immigrants to the outskirts.