Inside The FBI’s Secret Muslim Network
While candidates stoke fears of Islam, a little-known counterterror program has been going exactly the other way.
By Michael Hirsh
Dearborn, Michigan, may be the closest thing America has to a Mollenbeek, the seething, Islamicized neighborhood of Brussels believed to have harbored the terrorists involved in both the metro and airport attacks this week and last fall’s slaughter in Paris. An ordinary Detroit suburb sometimes called the “Arab Capital of North America,” Dearborn has the nation’s largest mosque; it’s home to the Arab Museum, Middle Eastern cafes, and halal beef burgers at McDonald’s. It’s also the target of right-wing fearmongering and snarky Islamophobic commentaries, such as when the satirical Fox News “correspondent” Jesse Watters, on Bill O’Reilly’s show, went to Dearborn last fall to ask residents, “Do you miss the desert?”
Ron Haddad is Dearborn’s chief of police, and he says he gets one question a lot when he travels around the country. “Someone will come up to me and put their finger in my face, and they’re already angry,” he says. “They say, ‘Will the people in your community report acts of terror to you?’“
What they mean is: Will Muslims turn in other Muslims?
Haddad has a ready answer. “Not only would they, they do,” he says. “They’ve done it.”
Dearborn and Mollenbeek, in fact, could not be more different, which says a lot about the very different ways that the United States and countries like Belgium and France have approached the problem of radicalization. In a city where nearly a third of the approximately 95,000 residents are Arab-American or of Arab descent, Haddad’s department has a deep network of contacts in the community and makes regular visits to Dearborn’s 38 schools and its many mosques. He sponsors a program called “Stepping Up,” which includes an annual awards ceremony (the next is April 12) for residents reporting crime. At least twice in the past several years, fearing influence from ISIL or online propaganda on their children, Haddad says, Muslim fathers have turned in their own sons. In another case, it was students at a largely Muslim high school calling about a troubled peer.
That’s partly because they have a place to call, and because they’re connected to the larger Dearborn, Michigan, and American community, says Haddad. The outreach-and-informant program he runs is considered a model by U.S. law enforcement and counterterrorism authorities. And it’s just one piece of a little-known but widespread effort nationwide to build networks within Muslim communities. The effort spans state and Washington agencies, and is about to get a boost with a new federal clearinghouse. Few Americans are aware it’s even happening. Certainly, Bill O’Reilly doesn’t appear to be.
In the wake of the Brussels suicide attacks, which killed 31 people and wounded another 270, Muslim communities have been a huge topic of concern—in Europe, reporters have streamed into Brussels, Paris and other cities to gingerly probe the anger in un-integrated Muslim banlieues. In the American presidential race, anti-Muslim sentiment is once again a convenient talking point, and it’s not just Donald Trump this time. The GOP front-runner is out there trumpeting, “I told you,” about his proposed ban on Muslims; Trump’s closest rival, Ted Cruz, has weighed in as well, saying, “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
All this has distressed U.S. law enforcement officials actually involved in the counterterror effort: In fact, they say, U.S. Muslim communities already are highly wired by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence. And contrary to being “radicalized,” they have proven astonishingly cooperative on the whole. Numerous sources in U.S. law enforcement and national security interviewed for this story drew a picture of a largely sub-rosa but widespread effort in American counterterrorism: The deep embedding of federal counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering efforts in Muslim communities like Dearborn (“The FBI has been great,” says Haddad), using an approach less driven by “patrolling” and surveillance than by using sophisticated if sometimes intrusive outreach and informant programs. The result, U.S. officials say, is that Muslim neighborhoods here are cooperating against Islamist terrorists to a degree that can’t be found among their counterparts in Europe.
Next week, the biggest of these federal programs is scheduled to come fully on line: An interagency task force run out of the Department of Homeland Security that for the first time will funnel into one place money and authority that has been allocated to different agencies like the FBI and DHS. As part of that program the FBI is setting up what it calls by the somewhat Orwellian name of “Shared Responsibility Committees,” which attempt to institutionalize the entrenchment of federal law enforcement in U.S. cities, melding together officials from law enforcement (FBI and local), mental health and other city and school programs, social workers and imams and other religious leaders to meet and come up with intervention strategies — as well as to bring suspicious behavior to the FBI’s attention. “We’re Beta-ing it,” says a senior law enforcement official. “Once you have outreach in communities and a certain level of trust is built up, this is the next step…. The whole premise is to professionalize a process that has been ad hoc for a long time.”
Authorities say the point isn’t to set suspects up. Instead, it’s to get closer to the source of alienation, and “off-ramp” young people drawn by ISIS’ or other radical propaganda, bringing them back to society with therapy and counseling before it’s too late. Social workers and therapists will be cleared to gain access to classified information, and the Shared Responsibility Committees will discuss, among other subjects, whether there is clear criminal intent or whether “alternative mitigation” that doesn’t involve a long jail term might be more appropriate.
But, of course, the effect of the program will also be to cement in place the FBI’s informant network.
Plenty of these programs have been controversial — and FBI officials won’t even say which cities have been chosen for the “Beta” committees. In New York, Bill de Blasio canceled a controversial New York Police Department profiling program that the ACLU contended put just about every Muslim male under suspicion (provoking a sharp exchange between Cruz and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio this week). Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, fired off a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch last fall questioning some of these intrusive programs, including an FBI website called Don’t Be a Puppet, intended for schools, and he asked for more information on the Shared Responsibility Committees (which the DoJ says is still a “pilot” program).
And one of the FBI’s chief tools of heading off potential terrorists — aggressive sting operations — look to many people like old-fashioned entrapment. A 2014 study by Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute found that “in some cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigation may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations that facilitated or invented the target’s willingness to act. … In the case of the “Newburgh Four” [four Muslim men from upstate New York, were lured into a plot and arrested by the FBI in 2014], a judge said the government ‘came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,’ and had, in the process, made a terrorist of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.”
Law enforcement officials defend these as effective, despite the rare success of “lone-wolf” style attacks like San Bernardino and the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. (And experts say in both cases more aggressive community outreach might have detected Syed Rizwan Farook, the San Bernardino shooter who had a pile of weapons in his apartment; and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who a full three years before the Boston attacks began acting out his radical rage in full view of his local mosque.) DHS and the Justice Department have also been consulting for years with Muslim community organizers such as Hedieh Mirahmadi, a lawyer and activist based in Montgomery County, Maryland, who generally supports the government’s outreach efforts and believes they could go even farther in frankly confronting the Islamist source of radicalization.
Whatever its overreach, the U.S. approach to its Muslim communities is overall more nuanced than what is going on in France, where police are surveilling thousands of Muslims who may have nothing to do with terror plots. And many observers believe the nuance goes a long way to answering one big question looming over the issue of homegrown Islamic terrorism: Given that the United States has long been a main target of jihadi ire, why isn’t there a homegrown terror problem in the U.S. like there is in Europe?
There are a few obvious reasons. Europe is attached by land to Syria and other terrorist havens, while the U.S. isn’t. For the most part, since the early days of Al Qaeda, terrorists have sought to strike U.S. military or Embassy targets abroad, rather than hit America at home. But most experts agree that part of the explanation lies in American Muslim communities themselves. Compared with the alienated Muslim underclass in France or Belgium—often composed of disaffected Algerian or Moroccan youth—American Muslims are far more assimilated and patriotic. And U.S. authorities say that to a degree that the GOP presidential candidates don’t seem eager to acknowledge, U.S. Muslims themselves have been enormously helpful in the interdiction of plots.
“I can say unequivocally that in 10-plus years of my work in the federal government, Arab Muslim and South Asian communities across this country have become one of the greatest resources of protecting homeland security and promoting American values at the same time,” says George Selim, the DHS official who is taking charge of the new task force.
Jessica Stern of Harvard, another expert who has spent years studying radicalization, says one problem for ISIS recruiters in America—where fewer than one-tenth as many Muslims as in many Western European countries have sought to join ISIS abroad—is that “American Muslims are just too happy. Polling shows that American Muslims are patriotic. They are significantly happier with the direction of the country than non-Muslims. When kids get seduced by the idea of joining jihadi groups, their parents are often desperate to stop them. Fortunately, in some cities in the U.S., law enforcement personnel have built up relationships of trust. This is why.”
Stern adds that the relative prosperity and assimilation of American Muslims stands in stark contrast to that of Muslims living in Europe. European Muslim youth tend to see themselves as victims of prejudice in the workplace and in society. Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than “native” Europeans.
A number of cases in the past several years illustrate situations in the United States that could have grown into Brussels-style subway bombing attacks but did not. Law enforcement sources say that in 2010, Farooque Ahmed, a naturalized Pakistani from Loudoun County, Northern Virginia, who was accused of conspiring to blow up Metrorail stations, was turned in by another member of his mosque at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society. In 2014, the FBI was alerted by a local informant of plans by three Muslim teens to join ISIS in Syria.
Former FBI Director William Webster told Politico Magazine that the bureau’s prowess at outreach dates from its hostage-rescue training over decades—the idea that honey works better than vinegar in the end. “It’s much more effective to make friends with people than to torture them,” he says.
But as ever, the threat is evolving. John D. Cohen, who was in charge of DHS’ countering violent extremism program and now teaches at Rutgers University, says that the ISIS threat has become so diffuse and Web-based that there’s no longer a point to focusing on Muslim communities in particular—at least in the United States. “What we are finding now is that would-be terrorists don’t simply reside in Muslim communities, and they don’t always come from a Muslim background,” says Cohen. “We’re finding it’s troubled people drawn to the life meaning that comes from being associated with a cause. Their understanding of Islam is scarce.”
It’s also a question of effective intelligence-sharing, which is part of the DHS-led effort and is considerably less far along in Europe. “The difference in Western Europe is a couple-fold,” says Cohen. “One, they have pockets of immigrant communities that are very disenfranchised. There is much less trust with law enforcement and people. But another reason we’ve been able to spot and prevent so many attacks in this country is the intelligence flow has improved incredibly since Sept. 11 between local and national law enforcement. … I would suspect that when Turkey conveyed information to Belgian authorities about the suspects it went to intelligence, but maybe not police officials. They may not have known.”
- Is America Next?
- By Daniel Benjamin
U.S. officials now worry that the anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail could set back their carefully laid programs, including the new task force starting up next week. When American voters look anxiously abroad, they see explosions, jihadis claiming credit, and echoes of 9/11. It can be hard to process the more complex message that this recent wave of attacks stems from problems our cities don’t have, abetted by intelligence gaps that—whatever the flaws of our system—the United States has largely corrected. And in a nation that’s still less than 1 percent Muslim, it can be harder still to realize that Muslim communities themselves are not just as horrified and worried as any other Americans, but actually a bigger part of the intelligence effort than most.
For Haddad of Dearborn and other U.S. law enforcement officials, the fear is that this new wave of openly Islamophobic politics could resurrect the radicalization they have worked to neutralize. So far, the efforts seem to be working: Charles Kurzman, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, says that even the relatively small number of Muslims in the United States who have been attracted to the Islamic State’s ideology had been declining recently. “The number seeking to travel overseas [presumably to join Islamic State] ticked up between mid-2014 and mid-2015, and then dropped dramatically afterward in the second half of 2015,” he says. One possible reason is that “the appeal of the Islamic State waned in the face of the images of violence and brutality.”
The political rhetoric, Haddad said, “is more frustrating for the community than for me. “I feel bad for the community. Those kinds of things are hard to ignore when they’re all over the 24-hour cable networks. People are very misinformed.”
Michael Hirsh is national editor for Politico Magazine.