Somali Muslims call FBI outreach 'coercion'
BY Phillip O'Connor | ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH | April 21, 2009
ST. LOUIS — Concerns about racial profiling and other questionable tactics used to investigate the possible terrorist recruitment of Somalis living in the United States are prompting some Muslim leaders in St. Louis and elsewhere to limit their cooperation with the FBI.
Across the country, federal agents are intensifying efforts to make connections within the Somali community amid growing concern that some are being radicalized by al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists.
Over the past two years, about two dozen teenagers and young men have disappeared, most from the Minneapolis area, and returned to the Horn of Africa to possibly train with terrorist groups, according to the FBI. In October, one of the men became what is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide attack when he blew himself up near Mogadishu killing 30 people.
"We've talked to a lot of people, we've asked them to come forward and we're going to continue to do that," said E.K. Wilson, spokesman for the FBI office in Minneapolis, home to the largest concentration of Somalis in the U.S.
But some critics say that what the FBI calls community outreach at times involves the use of coercion, threats and intimidation.
"The Somali Muslim community in particular feels they are under siege by law enforcement," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Islamic civil rights and advocacy group.
Hooper cited recent instances of Muslims in Minnesota being interrogated by agents on college campuses, worshippers in Michigan being asked to spy in their mosques and the FBI's use of a paid informer to infiltrate mosques in California.
Elsewhere, he said, imams have had their immigration status threatened if they failed to cooperate with investigators.
In St. Louis, a CAIR official said he was contacted in September by a Somali business owner in Missouri who said he had been threatened by FBI agents.
"It was a carrot and stick where they were promising him rewards for spying on people in the community," said Jim Hacking III, a legal consultant for CAIR in St. Louis. "When he rebuffed those requests, they turned around and used the stick and threatened to keep him from seeing his children and 'burying' him."
On the night before President Barack Obama took office, Hacking said he was contacted by FBI agents who told him they needed to immediately find three Somalis who lived in the St. Louis area.
"One of the agents mentioned the inauguration and said it was very important that they verify the physical location of these people," Hacking said. "As we always would on a matter of national security, we helped them and put them in contact with the people they were looking for."
Despite such cooperation, CAIR itself has come under FBI scrutiny. The council once provided diversity training to the FBI, but the FBI ended the relationship after CAIR was named as one of about 300 unindicted co-conspirators in a terrorist-funding case in Texas.
CAIR officials deny any connection to terrorist organizations and say the allegation is part of a government effort to marginalize mainstream Muslim organizations.
Hooper, Hacking and others say such actions are driving a growing wedge between law-abiding Muslims and law enforcement.
"Our preference would be to have very positive relations with law enforcement agencies at all levels of the government," Hooper said. "We hope to return to that in the near future. But it's a two-way street. We need to feel there is some trust, some mutual respect and these kind of inappropriate activities are not going to continue."
FBI officials defend their practices saying the agency is trying to break through misconceptions and mistrust some in the American Somali community have about the FBI and the federal government.
"Every conversation we've had is voluntary," said Wilson of the FBI. "Nobody's been forced to talk to us. They're not compelled to talk to us. We hope they will because it's a common concern that has us asking them to come forward."
Earlier this month, FBI agents served search warrants on three money transfer businesses in Minneapolis seeking information about cash sent to a handful of African countries. The warrants were filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri.
It's unclear whether the warrants are related to the missing Minnesota men, or another investigation based in Missouri. An FBI spokesman in St. Louis declined to comment, saying the warrants were part of an ongoing investigation.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, FBI agents have met frequently with Muslim groups, including in St. Louis where agents often spoke at local mosques.
Most recently, two agents met with about 20 Muslim leaders on Christmas Eve to share information about the Minnesota disappearances and seek cooperation. St. Louis is home to an estimated 2,500 Somalis, some of whom move between homes here and in Kentucky or Tennessee.
"They want some constant contact who will tell them news frequently, what's going on in the community, who's doing what, if there are any guests coming doing fundraising," said an official with Masjid Bilal, a mosque on West Pine Boulevard. The official, who asked that his name not be used out of fear it could harm his business, said he declined an FBI request earlier this month for another meeting.
"Why is there a need to be seeing these people again and again to talk to them? There's no good in it," he said.
The official said he was concerned that such contact sowed suspicion within the Muslim community. "People are looking at you with dubious eyes. If you're the one coordinating this for the FBI, they're going to be doubtful about you," he said.
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri plan to visit St. Louis-area mosques in coming months to discuss racial profiling, civil rights and how to deal with government interrogations.
"This has been a concern for quite some time," said John Chasnoff of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. "It hasn't gone away."