An Obama administration strategy for building contacts in Muslim communities is taking heat from the left and the right, amid increasing concerns about homegrown Islamic terrorism.
Under the program, which extends one begun under President George W. Bush, U.S. law-enforcement officials meet frequently with Muslim groups to discuss their concerns about discrimination. The hope is that such outreach prevents extremist recruitment of young men by showing good will alongside efforts to investigate plots.
"Striking the right tone in countering violent extremism is something we have to be very careful about," said B. Todd Jones, the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, who undertakes activities such as attending Ramadan fast-breaking dinners and helping Muslim Americans navigate the immigration bureaucracy.
Many conservatives blast the efforts as ineffective and even dangerous. "There's a whole political correctness that has suppressed discussion" of Islamic radicalization, said Steven Emerson, whose Investigative Project on Terrorism has published articles on radicalization among U.S. Muslims.
Some Muslims, meanwhile, think the outreach is cover for recruiting spiesand doesn't fit with harder-edged tactics such as sting operations. "The FBI's activities are sending a troubling mixed message to the community," said Farhana Khera, president of a San Francisco legal group called Muslim Advocates, which warns Muslim Americans against speaking to law enforcement without a lawyer present.
The program is likely to come up at a House hearing Thursday on Muslim radicalization. Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), who is overseeing the hearing, said he largely supported the outreach efforts and that the "overwhelming number of Muslims are good Americans." But he said he was concerned by what he described as a general lack of cooperation with federal law enforcement in Muslim communities.
The administration argues that even as it investigates alleged plots it must show an effort to address Muslim grievances—in part to undercut propaganda from radical groups overseas that say the U.S. is conducting a war on Islam. Mr. Jones, who helps coordinate efforts with agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, speaks of a balancing act between pursuing potential terrorists and showing goodwill toward a suspicious community.
In Minneapolis, the Somali community became a focus of concern after 20 young Somali-American men allegedly traveled to Somalia to join the al Shabaab Islamist group. Young Somalis in particular are "a little more cynical," Mr. Jones said. "They see an opportunity for the government to develop them as massive snitch networks." He said one way to avoid spying concerns is to "wall off" his investigative attorneys from the outreach efforts.
In Michigan, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said meeting with local Muslim groups had helped federal officials send the message that they're here "to protect your rights." Last year, she met with Yemeni-American community leaders to explain how to pack airplane luggage, after two Michigan men of Yemeni descent taped bottles of Pepto-Bismol to cellphones in their checked bags—apparently for tidiness—, inadvertently triggering fears of a bombing plot.
Ms. McQuade brought Muslim American speakers to a meeting with federal immigration agents to educate the agents about potential cultural misunderstandings. One lesson, she said, was that "if someone is averting eye contact, it's not [necessarily] that they are trying to avoid questions or are guilty of something. It's that in their culture, making eye contact is not polite."
Robert Spencer, who runs Jihad Watch, which focuses on Islamic extremism, critiques the outreach effort as "completely fruitless," saying it hasn't resulted "in any significant Islamic efforts to rein in radicals in their community." The program also gets a measure of criticism from some counter-radicalization experts who support outreach but say it shouldn't be led by law-enforcement agencies. Maajid Nawaz, a former jihadist sympathizer in the U.K. who now campaigns against radicalization, says Western countries should reduce their reliance on security agencies to break through to suspicious Muslim communities. "Securitizing a counter-radicalization strategy is unhelpful," Mr. Nawad said at a January speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Officials admit the balancing act can be tricky. At a December dinner in Portland, Ore., Attorney General Eric Holder combined warm words for Ms. Khera of Muslim Advocates and a pledge to defend Muslims against hate crimes with a defense of a sting operation that had led to the arrest of a Somali-American accused of plotting to bomb a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony held in the city. "Those who characterize the FBI's activities in this case as 'entrapment' simply do not have their facts straight," he said at the dinner.
The Justice Department says there have been 49 U.S. citizens, mostly Muslims, charged in international terrorism probes since the beginning of 2009. U.S. officials are especially worried about recruitment by international terror groups of citizens whose U.S. passports allow them easy access to other countries and re-entry to the U.S.
Under pressure from conservative lawmakers, the FBI cut off most contacts with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest U.S. Muslim advocacy group. Federal investigators had found ties between the group's officials and several men convicted in 2008 of providing funds to the Palestinian group Hamas, which the U.S. calls a terrorist group. The council disputes the allegations of terrorism ties and says it is a mainstream body.
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