Cover Story: The Visitors

Muslim Americans find the FBI at their jobs as the post-9/11 world sorts itself out

Dec 1, 2004 at 2:06 pm
The Big Chill

Dr. Mohammed Shamma is considered a patriarch within Greater Cincinnati's Muslim and Middle Eastern community. When he hears that the FBI and even the CIA have been making surprise visits in the area, he always tells fellow Muslims, "We have nothing to hide."

Like many other Ohio Muslims, Middle Easterners and Christian Arabs, Shamma believes a witch-hunt, a new McCarthyism, continues to assail his people. He's accepting of this — to an extent.

Other high-profile Ohio Muslims are in agreement that, if radical Islamics have infiltrated their community, it's necessary to target their ethnicity and religion.

But must the government's tactics, ask these same Muslim leaders, be so intrusive, so heavy-handed and so super secretive? Must the focus on Muslims be so intense? Must everyone in the community prove that he or she is not an Islamic radical?

"I understand that the FBI needs to check on people when there is good reason," says Shamma, a retired University of Cincinnati business professor. "But it is a waste of time and resources to check on people just because they are Muslims.

Some white Christian men, Timothy McVeigh for example, are terrorists. But it would be a waste of resources for the FBI to interview every white male Christian.

"Both Islam and Christianity are religions of peace. It is our country and our children's country, as it is the country of the other religious denominations."

'Everyone is afraid'
Since 9/11, the government has waged the so-called "War on Terror" on two fronts, home and abroad. Muslims say the Bush administration is overzealous in its aim to destroy the enemy — radical Islamics. Exasperating the situation, and the story, is an ignorant media. Thus it comes as no surprise that many call this a "culture war."

"It's a terrifying time," contends Amal Wahdan, who publishes The Arab Gazette in Cleveland and distributes it statewide. "(Arabs) are afraid to speak their minds even to me. They're afraid of a number of agencies in this area. They don't want to be profiled or harassed. Everyone is afraid to speak their minds. For some, it's as if they've returned to their homeland."

One of the entities most responsible for this new era of fear is the FBI, which recently announced a new homeland security partnership plan with the CIA. The FBI also announced it made some recent "visits" to Muslims — 10,000 of them nationwide just before Nov. 2. It was an effort to stave off any Election Day attacks.

The difference between this national sweep and others was that the FBI decided to let CNN know ahead of time, says one source. For the record, in October the FBI did forewarn groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee that it was set to conduct "voluntary interviews."

"The FBI and CIA representatives have visited probably most Muslim community leaders in America, sometimes more than once," Shamma says. "But as we always tell our community, we have nothing to hide."

In Dayton, for example, nearly a dozen Muslim community leaders, including a Wright State University professor, were visited on the same day roughly two months ago. Nearly all were visited at their places of employment.

The FBI at first declined to confirm for a reporter that the visits even took place. Agents, however, had left their business cards with the Muslims they visited.

"They come and flash a badge," says Tarif Hourani, a Dayton area computer programmer and board member for the region's Islamic Society. "Then they ask some quick questions. They'll show a picture and ask, 'Do you know this person?' Or 'What is your relationship with the Islamic Center? Do you know of this charitable organization?' Mostly along those lines."

Hourani says the FBI asked about an imam (akin to priest or rabbi) his Islamic Center had recently interviewed. The imam wasn't hired, and no investigation seemed to continue after the interviews, Hourani says.

'Thousands of people have been visited'
For nearly 20 years, Ohio has been a popular destination not only for Muslims but also Arabs — including Christians, Southeast Asians such as Pakistanis and other Middle Easterners and Africans such as Somalis. Ohio's Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian population together is estimated at more than 500,000, with 200,000 believed to be Arab-American.

A major misconception about Arabs is that nearly all are Muslim. Arab-American groups say nearly one-third to possibly half of all Arab Americans are Christian. The fact that Islam's Qur'an is written in Arabic, along with the fact that many Muslims pray in Arabic, fuels this misunderstanding.

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the country, with the national community believed to number between 6 million and 8 million. Greater Cincinnati is home to 9,000 Muslims, according to Shamma.

Cincinnati is also home to the office that appears to be leading the war on terror in Ohio. Several federal agents across the state said all terror-related decisions come from the FBI's Cincinnati office. Yet when asked about certain tactics, such as visiting non-suspects at their places of employment, agents from the Cincinnati office refused to speak.

Nevertheless, the recent admission of a nationwide pre-election sweep is confirmation of the challenges now facing American Muslims and Middle Easterners.

Before the coast-to-coast canvass, however, many terror-related "visits" weren't initiated by simply paging through a phone book, according to an FBI agent in Ohio who doesn't work in the Cincinnati office. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.

On a daily basis, says the agent, FBI offices in Ohio receive several reports of suspicious behavior on the part of Arab Americans. The reports come from the public and local police.

Not long after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, federal agents raided an apartment complex in Florence, arresting a number of Muslims during Friday prayers. No one was charged with terrorism, and the FBI admitted it was a case of mistaken identity.

How was the raid initiated? The Muslim men had ordered boxes of Qur'ans, and Arabic writing on the boxes prompted someone to alert the FBI.

"Thousands of people have been visited," the agent says. "Nearly every complaint turns out to be innocent behavior, but we need to follow up. If we don't, it may blow up in our face."

Indeed, several terror-related cases have materialized here in the heartland.

Somalia native Nuradin Abdi, 32, was arrested at his Columbus residence at dawn the day after Thanksgiving 2003. A federal indictment says he was involved in a plot to bomb a mall. During his first court appearance, the small-business owner reportedly muttered to himself and rested his head as if asleep.

Then there was the case of Imam Fawaz Damra, head of Cleveland's Islamic Center. Damra was convicted on immigration charges, which are easier to prosecute than terrorism charges. He wasn't in the business of brewing bombs, but overwhelming evidence, including videotaped speeches, revealed the imam had a history of seeking funds for Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas.

"The first principle is that terrorism, and terrorism alone, is the path to liberation," Damra said in a 1989 speech. "If what they mean by 'jihad' is terrorism, then we are terrorists."

Besides Damra, FBI agents in Ohio have broken up several other funding schemes in which monies were heading overseas to alleged terrorist groups.

'Unpatriotic acts'
While FBI agents declined interviews on the record, Specialist Tod Alan Hildebrand, who recently transferred to Washington, D.C., from the Cincinnati office, responded to questions by e-mail.

"The FBI does not suspect (as your questions implied) that the majority of Arabs or Muslims are terrorists or support terrorists," he wrote. "Instead, we believe that the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims who live and work in our communities are opposed to terrorism. Without the help and support of these Arabs and Muslims, we cannot hope to meet our responsibilities."

Hildebrand pointed out that the FBI has assisted the two communities when they've been persecuted.

"Since 9/11, the FBI has investigated and prosecuted numerous instances of hate crimes directed against both the Arab and Muslim communities," he wrote.

Hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, according to Karen Dabdoub, director of the Cincinnati office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. But Muslims and Middle Easterners are equally concerned about Big Brother, she says.

The Patriot Act has spread anxiety through the community since its rushed inception, Dabdoub says. Sneak-and-peek raids, roving wiretaps, easier access to library and Internet search-engine records — all of which now can be done without prior notification — have had a chilling effect on American Muslims, she says.

"Under the Patriot Act, if they're suspicious of you, they can search your home, review your financial records, your purchases," Dabdoub says. "That's all it takes. No probable cause. No evidence. All that's required is reasonable suspicion. There's no definition of 'reasonable suspicion.' It's vague. And there's a lot of room for them to interpret it any way they choose."

But Hildebrand says the public isn't aware of the intense scrutiny FBI agents undergo when seeking warrants for wiretaps or sneak-and-peeks.

"The FBI's internal administrative oversight of matters brought before (terrorism-related federal courts) is significantly more intense than that exercised over warrants brought to traditional federal courts," he wrote. "Approval is required from attorneys at both FBI headquarters and at the Department of Justice."

Hildebrand says FBI agents recognize that a surprise visit from the FBI will often unfairly stigmatize an innocent person.

"Often, a person whom FBI agents seek to interview is not suspected of any wrongdoing but instead may have information that will further an investigation," he wrote. "Unfortunately, agents are usually not at liberty to discuss what led them to a particular person for fear of unfairly stigmatizing another, presumed innocent, individual. In such situations, the agent is sometimes perceived as being abrupt or intimidating by asking direct questions.

"Whenever a person believes that he or she has been treated improperly by an FBI employee, that person is urged to make their concerns known to the FBI by contacting the nearest FBI office."

'Largely hidden world'
Here in Ohio, say several sources, the state has become the focus of how the nation perceives Arab Americans. Two high-profile federal investigations — one that allegedly thwarted a plot to blow up a mall, the other leading to the conviction of a Cleveland imam — have strengthened the pall of suspicion that shadows Arabs in Ohio.

The cases have helped strengthen a mental thread now commonly shared by even the most out-of-touch citizens. How extensive is the internal threat from our Islamic community in Ohio?

"Common sense tells you that a majority of Arab Muslims and Christians sympathize with terrorists such as Hezbollah and Hamas," says Stephen Schwartz, a Washington, D.C.-based expert on Islam who writes policy papers for federal agencies such as the Department of Justice.

Schwartz, who was born in Cleveland, is the author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud, from Tradition to Terror. He was raised Jewish but converted to Sufism, a "peace-oriented" form of Islam. He says it's safe to say an eye-opening number of Arab Muslims and Christians in Ohio have financially supported terrorist groups via American-based charities. Most of the groups, he believes, are targeting Israel.

"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," Schwartz says. "I don't agree with them, but I understand why they feel this way."

During the past year, Schwartz spent time monitoring the federal case against Imam Damra in Cleveland. He says the conviction was an open window to the "largely hidden world of Islam in America."

He contends that Damra espoused Wahhabist beliefs, a radical form of Islam embraced by many Saudi Arabians, including Osama bin Laden. Wahhabism, Schwartz says, is a fundamentalist branch of Islam that adheres to literal interpretation of the Qur'an. Strict Wahhabists believe those who don't practice Islam are heathens and enemies.

A number of Washington policy experts such as Schwartz promote the idea that Wahhabism is the fuel for the burning anti-West sentiment embraced by violent Islamists. That has important implications for the home front, he says.

"Wahhabism is the most dominant form of Islam in the United States," Schwartz says.

That's due in part, he says, to where many American mosques receive funding — Saudi Arabia. Cincinnati's CAIR office has confirmed that the boxes of Qur'ans sent to the Muslims in Florence in 2001 were donated by the Saudi Arabian Embassy.

"Wahhabism teaches separatism and exclusion and a disdain for other religions," Schwartz says. "It teaches that Islam is the best religion. It also says that Jews should not be trusted because they have deceived us before and that you don't have to honor your agreements with Christians."

Schwartz says the way Damra held himself during his trial last summer was a "classic example of Wahhabism attitude."

"Wahhabism teaches that you don't have to be straight up or a stand-up person when it comes to peace with Israel," Schwartz says. "It teaches you, in fact, to act this way so to camouflage your true intentions. And then he thought he could bluff and fool the stupid Christians."

Nearly all Muslims interviewed for this story, however, dispute most of Schwartz's claims.

"Wahhabism is a new political word spread by forces that oppose Islam and may have an agenda," Hourani says.

Others also called Wahhabism anti-Muslim propaganda.

"This idea of Wahhabism is a far-fetched idea," Shamma says. "There may be some conservative Muslim views on certain issues, but it's not a movement per se and it's not in existence outside of the Saudi Peninsula. And the idea that 80 percent of Islamic centers get money from Saudi Arabia is baloney. Just because someone has been talking about Muslims for years does not mean he's an objective expert.

"Yes, there are visitors and students from Saudi Arabia and other oil producing countries that come to visit and study and pay their 'alms' or contributions to their mosque, but that's just the general charity that is common everywhere." ©