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The FBI’s worst fears that hidden homegrown terrorist groups could take root in this country were fanned here in the summer of 2005, when four young Muslim men were charged with conspiring “to levy war against the United States” via deadly attacks on military installations and synagogues in Southern California.
The men belonged to what Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales called a “radical Islamic organization” named Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS), or Assembly of True Islam. They were discovered before they could carry out their alleged plans.
None of the four — three U.S.-born citizens and one Pakistani immigrant — fit a terrorist profile. They had no ties to foreign extremists or radical imams, and their public behavior had drawn no attention. JIS was also news to officials at the California state prison where a man accused of founding the group was serving a lengthy sentence for robbery and allegedly was directing JIS operations from his cell.
The discovery was an ominous surprise to federal law enforcement, whose senior officials now regularly refer to the case in speeches warning of the homegrown threat.
“They’re not Muslims,” declared Shakeel Syed, head of the 75-mosque Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and a government-approved chaplain who has visited the four men in jail, where they await trial this year. “They don’t know anything about Islam.”
Self-styled converts with the apple-pie surnames of Patterson, Washington and James, the Americans are “gangbangers, basically,” Syed said dismissively, “petty criminals” incapable of responding even to his standard Islamic greetings. The Pakistani, described by Syed as a clueless 21-year-old, “I felt sorry for.”
The JIS affair is one of many incidents that have regularly challenged the fragile cooperation that law enforcement and Muslims nationwide are struggling to create after years of mutual suspicion. Without that cooperation, the FBI, sheriffs and police chiefs believe they will never penetrate the world of homegrown Islamic extremists and potential terrorists the officials are convinced is out there.
Muslim leaders say they are eager to help. Yet for both sides, the effort remains a steep uphill climb with frequent detours into resentment, suspicion and misunderstanding.
Virtually all 56 FBI field offices and many local police departments have invited Muslim leaders to join multicultural advisory boards and to teach classes in the basics of Islam to agents and police. At community meetings, the FBI listens to Muslim complaints and asks for assistance in finding potential terrorists in their own communities.
“We’re spending more money on outreach … so we can say: ‘Please help us. Please look for people who are turning away from institutions to extremism. Please be our eyes and ears,’ ” said Philip Mudd, deputy director of the bureau’s national security branch.
But many FBI officers have grown impatient with what they see as Muslim resistance. The Muslims are “in denial” over the threat in their midst, one senior officer said, adding: “All they say is ‘There is no problem. Stop picking on us.’”
Muslim leaders have frustrations of their own, ranging far beyond incidents such as the JIS case. Immigration sweeps following the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks and mandatory registrations long ago convinced them that the FBI sees Muslims as suspects rather than partners.
“How much cooperation can we give … at the same time we ourselves are part of the problem in [their] eyes?” asked Sadullah Khan, director of the Islamic Center of Irvine, a city between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Hundreds gathered at a meeting last summer to angrily confront FBI officials after an agent’s public comment, quickly contradicted by headquarters, that the bureau was “monitoring” Muslim student groups at the University of California at Irvine.
J. Stephen Tidwell, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, is the bureau’s point man for relations with a Muslim community spread across seven Southern California counties. He spends many Fridays attending services at mosques.
How is the outreach effort going? “As with any, and I’ll use the word ‘family,’ there are family disagreements,” Tidwell said. “There are times when we agree to disagree. I would say that overall, they feel comfortable enough with the relationship that if they’ve got a problem they’ll call me.”
Most days, his phone is ringing off the hook.
Homegrown or “self-starting” terrorism has become a reality in Europe. The 2004 bombing of commuter trains outside Madrid, attacks on British buses and subways in 2005, and last summer’s discovery of plans to blow up U.S.-bound commercial airliners were all tied to young men “inspired” by al-Qaeda but with no tangible connections to it or any other known terrorist groups. Most of the alleged perpetrators are young men of Middle Eastern, South Asian or North African parentage who had spent all or most of their lives in secular Europe.
“They were middle-class, educated and had people who loved them,” a U.S. intelligence official said of the transit bombers in England. “How do you get from being a moderate Muslim to being a suicide bomber? What is that road?”
The FBI’s definition of homegrown extremists as “U.S. persons who appear to have assimilated, but reject the cultural values, beliefs and environment of the United States” could apply to disaffected young people of any era, regardless of faith.
“Youth are vulnerable,” Mudd said, whether it is the Goths of the 1980s or the anti-establishment culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
When Muslims ask “What should we look for?” Mudd advises them to “think of every 15-to-26-year-old ostracized from the congregation,” saying, “I need you to tell me when you see this.”
But Hussam Ayloush, head of the Southern California branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, warned that Muslim youths already feel singled out in this country. “I don’t think the looks, how many times a person prays, how strong their political views are should indicate anything. The red line for me, when I start noticing, is when someone starts justifying terrorism … when they say the West is killing Muslims” and that’s the only way they could respond.
U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and what American Muslim youths perceive as challenges at home to their religion and patriotism have placed them, far more than their parents, in “a real identity crisis,” Ayloush said. Increased radicalization “is possible,” he added. “Now, it’s not real, but I see it on the horizon.”
After a recent Friday afternoon sermon at the Irvine Islamic Center on the flexible and peaceful nature of Islam, Khan jostled his way through hallway greetings and embraces. But as he retreated behind the closed door of his tiny office for a conversation about Muslim relations with the FBI, his demeanor changed from calm reflection to irritation. He and countless friends and colleagues, he told a visitor, had been treated badly for no reason other than being Muslim.
When two agents came to his office, one “refused to shake my hand and blocked the doorway. As if I were going to run away! They were recording everything, asking me about some guy I don’t even know.” He said it reminded him of officials’ visits in his native South Africa during apartheid.
Khan said indignantly that he is a prominent Southern Californian who teaches at universities across the region. “I have a congregation of 1,500 people. If you treat me with this kind of doubt and suspicion,” he asked, “do you think I’m going to be convincing telling people, ‘Don’t worry, the FBI is okay’?”
The Local Go-Between
In his 2 1/2 years as chief of the Anaheim Police Department in Orange County, John Welter has seen no evidence of homegrown terrorism. He is uncertain but hopeful, he said, that it is “not because we’re not uncovering it, but because it doesn’t exist” in Anaheim.
(Posted on February 9, 2007)