Law enforcement efforts to root out home-grown terrorists are jeopardized by deteriorating relations between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Muslim and Arab-American communities.
The situation began last fall when the FBI quietly withdrew formal relations with all local chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the largest Muslim American civil rights organizations. The FBI cited "a number of distinct narrow issues" that it has refused to make public.
The situation worsened in February, when it became public that the FBI had planted an informant at a California mosque who, a coalition of more than a dozen Muslim American groups charges, actively tried to recruit terrorists.
Last week, the coalition accused the FBI of engaging in "McCarthy-era tactics" and announced it was considering suspending all ties with the FBI unless it made public its concerns with CAIR and "reassessed its use of agent provocateurs in Muslim communities."
The FBI would not comment, except to issue a statement saying: "Limiting honest dialogue, especially when complex issues are on the table, is generally not an effective advocacy strategy."
That has not satisfied many in the Muslim and Arab-American communities, including some who have not joined the coalition threatening to terminate FBI ties.
"We believe that we have to keep our place at the table in this discourse. We believe it's too important for our community's interest and America's interest to leave the table," says Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "But the damage was done [when the FBI planted the agent].... The way the FBI handled the case stigmatized the whole mosque community, and the disengagement from CAIR field offices was a mistake because people don't understand it – there's no explanation."
In the aftermath of 9/11, the FBI made an aggressive effort to reach out to Muslim and Arab-American organizations throughout the country. In general, the effort was viewed as a success by all parties.
Relations had been good
On its website, CAIR lists dozens of laudatory quotes from FBI officials they cooperated with since the attacks. FBI officials regularly attended their banquets, mosques and community outreach efforts.
CAIR officials said the FBI's decision to sever formal ties with its 30 field offices in 19 states came as a shock.
"Historically, we've had very good relations with the FBI at the local, state, and federal levels," says CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.
The FBI declined to say what "distinct narrow issues" had prompted it to suddenly sever ties with CAIR. But in a statement, FBI spokesman John Miller said, "We have made CAIR's national leadership aware of these issues."
CAIR's Mr. Hooper says that is not the case.
"They have not communicated specific issues to us, and when we ask, they say, 'Well, let's have some future conversation about it'," says Hooper. "And we say, 'No, we'd like to know now.'"
CAIR believes the decision goes back to May 2007, when it was named along with 300 other Muslim American groups and individuals as an "unindicted coconspirator" in the controversial terrorist funding trial of the Holy Land Foundation, which was once the largest Muslim charity in the United States.
After a mistrial in 2007, the charity and some of its officials were found guilty in 2008 for ties to Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization.
In a letter to the FBI, CAIR argues that the "unindicted coconspirator" designation should never have been made or made public.
"Making this unjust designation public violates the Justice Department's own guidelines and wrongly implies that those listed are somehow involved in criminal activity," the CAIR letter states.
A source within the FBI confirmed that the alleged ties to the Holy Land Foundation were the basis for the FBI's actions. He also said, that as a result of the final conviction in the Holy Land case, "there was a public policy problem with us going forward" in formal relations with CAIR.
Muslim and Arab American groups are also upset with the FBI's decision to allegedly place an ex-convict as an informant in the Muslim American Community in Orange County, California.
The informant posed as a new convert to Islam and reportedly espoused terrorist ideology to several members of the Islamic Center of Irvine. That prompted two members of the mosque, including a man named Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, to report the informant's inflammatory statements to the FBI and ask for a restraining order against him.
FBI officials then began investigating Mr. Niazi and asked him to become an informant, according to the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, which has formally filed a complaint with the FBI. When Niazi refused, an agent told him he'd make his life "a living hell." Niazi has since been arrested and charged with making false statements to gain his citizenship and failing to disclose that his sister is married to an Al Qaeda operative, according to court documents.
At his bail hearing, an FBI Agent also said Niazi had allegedly been recorded discussing terrorist ideology, jihad and plans to blow up abandoned buildings. Niazi pleaded innocent."
An 'agent provocateur?'
Members of the Muslim American community say they're incensed by the FBI's use of what they call an "agent provocateur" within its community.
"What this has done is undermine what was a 10-year relationship of trust, or what we thought was trust," says Mr. Shora.
The FBI insists it is not targeting mosques or the community, but individuals.
"We do not target places, we don't investigate mosques. We identify individuals who merit investigation under a set of laws and guidelines," says the FBI's Mr. Miller.
"In the course of those investigations sometimes those people will take us to the places they go," Miller said.
But the FBI informant, a man named Craig Monteilh, told reporters last week that he was sent to several mosques and that he had alerted the FBI about Niazi's alleged terrorist sympathies.