Jihadist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris have Americans on edge. Yet part of the Obama White House's response to the attacks has been to invite Islamist groups that routinely demonize the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies to the White House to discuss a religious discrimination. "If we're to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away," President Obama said in his speech following the San Bernardino attack.
But partnering with such organizations sends the wrong message to the American people, said Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AFID).
"I think it says a lot when the president uses those organizations that have an ACLU-type mentality. They should have a seat at the table. That's fine," Jasser said. "But not to include groups, which have completely different focuses about counter-radicalization, counter-Islamism creates this monolithic megaphone for demonization of our government and demonization of America that ends up radicalizing our community."
A White House spokesperson acknowledged to the Investigative Project on Terrorism that the Dec. 14 meeting on countering anti-Muslim animus included Hassan Shibly, executive director of Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida chapter. The same forum – attended by Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes – also included Farhana Khera, president and executive director of Muslim Advocates; Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab-American Institute (AAI); Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS); and Hoda Hawa, director of policy and advocacy with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) among others.
The White House guests, or the organizations they represent, have long histories of criticizing counter-terror investigations. CAIR leads the pack. Its Philadelphia chapter is advertising a workshop, "The FBI and Entrapment in the Muslim Community," which features a spider with an FBI badge on its back, spinning a web of entrapment around an image of a mosque. The workshop "provides the tools needed to prevent entrapment of community members to become terrorists in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
Since 9/11, CAIR has repeatedly taken the side of defendants accused of financing or plotting attacks, calling their prosecutions a "witch hunt" against the Muslim community. For example, CAIR denounced the prosecution of Sami Al-Arian, who turned out to be the secretary of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's governing board, as "politically motivated" and a result of the "Israelization of American policy and procedures."
A year ago, CAIR similarly protested the incarceration of Aafia Siddiqui, aka "Lady Al Qaeda" – convicted in 2010 of trying to kill two FBI agents. The protest came after the Islamic State (ISIS) offered to spare the lives of executed American photojournalist James Foley and aid worker Kayla Mueller in exchange for Siddiqui's release.
CAIR also denounced the December 2001 shutdown of the Holy Land Foundation for Hamas support, saying, "...there has been a shift from a war on terrorism to an attack on Islam."
Demonizing law enforcement and spreading "the idea that America and Western societies [are] anti-Muslim – the whole Islamophobia mantra is part of the early steps of radicalization so that Muslims get separated out of society," Jasser said. "These groups certainly aren't on the violent end of the Islamist continuum, but if there's a conveyer belt that goes towards radicalization then it certainly starts with this siege and separatist mentality."
CAIR has used such inflammatory imagery and rhetoric for years, with its San Francisco chapter removing a poster urging Muslims to "Build a Wall of Resistance – Don't Talk to the FBI" in 2011 after the IPT reported on it.
Later that year, a CAIR-New York official told a Muslim audience that FBI agents would break the law to force them to talk. That includes threats and "blackmail, seriously blackmail; that's illegal," Lamis Deek told the audience. "But they'll do it."
Jasser blames CAIR and others which spread similar rhetoric for the increased fear of Islam and Muslims in America since 9/11 because they refuse to discuss Islamic extremism and the role Muslims have in fixing the problem.
"This creates a climate where people don't trust us to be part of the solution," Jasser said. "People say that if you aren't part of the solution then you are part of the problem, which creates more fear and distrust."
Neither Jasser nor the AIFD, which advocates for "liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state," were invited to the White House meeting. Also shut out were Jasser's colleagues in the new Muslim Reform Movement, whose members "reject interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice and politicized Islam" and stand "for secular governance, democracy and liberty. Every individual has the right to publicly express criticism of Islam. Ideas do not have rights. Human beings have rights."
The White House did not reply to a request for comment about Jasser's characterization of these groups; however, it previously said it engaged CAIR because of "their work on civil rights issues" despite the group's Hamas ties.
Former FBI Associate Deputy Director Buck Revell also finds the White House's choice of Muslim groups troubling.
"It's a very confusing time and circumstance when you have the White House dealing with people who have fronted for the Muslim Brotherhood and are the spokespeople for Hamas in the United States and you bring them in for a conference at the White House and say they are supposed to speak for the Muslim community in America," Revell said. "It's unhelpful to have the White House essentially fronting for groups that want to make it harder to reach the jihadists in our society and in effect flush them out."
Khera's group Muslim Advocates has a pending lawsuit against the New York Police Department regarding its surveillance of mosques and other Islamic institutions using undercover police officers and informants.
"One of our key priorities at Muslim Advocates is ending racial and religious profiling by law enforcement," Khera says in a YouTube video supporting the suit. "We've done work to combat profiling by the FBI, by Customs and Border Protection and now more recently we've had concerns about the way the New York Police Department – the nation's largest police department – has been conducting itself."
Like CAIR, Khera has called the FBI's sting operations and informants against potential jihadists "entrapment operations" that rope in individuals who might otherwise never engage in terrorist activity.
CAIR's Shibly also used the entrapment narrative in a June 2014 blog post in which he argued that the "FBI entrapment program targeting the Muslim community" was an example of tyranny. Many other CAIR representatives, such as Michigan director Dawud Walid, previously alleged the FBI has "recruited more so-called extremist Muslims than al-Qaida themselves."
AAI stops short of embracing the entrapment narrative but labels surveillance programs by the NYPD and other government agencies "unconstitutional, ineffective, and counterproductive." New York's Mayor Bill De Blasio disbanded the NYPD unit responsible for infiltrating the city's mosques and Muslim gathering places looking for potential terrorists in April 2014 under pressure from Muslim groups.
Another group, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA), which counts Magid as a member, published an article in 2008 written by Hatem al-Haj, a member of its fatwa committee, giving religious justification for not cooperating with authorities. Al-Haj wrote it was "impermissible" for Muslims to work with the FBI because of the "harm they inflict on Muslims."
However, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), which formerly accused the FBI of entrapment, conceded in 2013 that informants can be useful detecting terror cells and keeping them off balance.
"To be fair, informants at times can be effective in counterterrorism investigations even against cellular structures. Because terrorist groups are concerned about their operational security, fear of informants can create and increase tensions within a terrorist cell. As a result, it may generate enough paranoia that a cell may abandon a planned operation," MPAC said in its 2013 report "Building Bridges to Strengthen America."
Looking for jihadis before they strike is a bit like looking for a "needle in a haystack," so sting operations are useful in finding them before it's too late, according to Revell. He says such operations can be useful in preventing the next San Bernardino.
"If you don't find them when they are talking jihad and you have to wait until they take an action then it's too late to be able to prevent casualties and ensure that the public is safe," Revell said. "There certainly is knowledge among those looking to do any type of jihadi activity that there is a force out there that is countering them and that they need to try to cover their activities to the greatest extent possible."
In the past year, the Islamic State (ISIS) has published at least two documents instructing its jihadis how to evade being lured into stings by the FBI or other law-enforcement agencies. The ISIS manual "Safety and Security guidelines of the Lone Wolf Mujahideen" devotes a chapter to evading FBI stings by testing the weapons they receive prior to using them in an attack.
Khera's organization stood front and center in 2011 when Muslim groups called on the Obama administration to purge FBI training materials that they deemed offensive. She complained in a Sept. 15, 2011 letter that counterterrorism materials then being used to train FBI agents about Islam used "woefully misinformed statements about Islam and bigoted stereotypes about Muslims." Such allegedly misinformed statements included characterizing zakat – the almsgiving tax mandate on all Muslims – as a "funding mechanism for combat" and that "Accommodation and compromise between [Islam and the West] are impermissible and fighting [for Muslims] is obligatory."
Yet numerous Muslim commentators, including from the Herndon, Va.-based International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT), describe zakat as a funding mechanism for jihad. A footnote for Surah 9:60 found in "The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an" published with editorial assistance from IIIT, says that zakat can be used among other things to help "(4) those who are struggling and striving in Allah's Cause by teaching or fighting or in duties assigned to them by the righteous Imam, who are thus unable to earn their ordinary living."
The AMJA issued a fatwa in August 2011 stating that zakat could be used to "support legitimate Jihad activities."
Top Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi similarly states in his book, Fiqh of Jihad, that zakat may be spent to finance "the liberation of Muslim land from the domination of the unbelievers," particularly against Israel and India in Kashmir.
Numerous Islamic charities have been cited or closed down in connection with terrorist financing since the September 11 attacks. Qaradawi's actions back up his words. In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Union of Good, a network of charities headed by Qaradawi, for Hamas fundraising. That same year a federal court jury convicted the founders of the Richardson, Texas-based Holy Land Foundation (HLF) for illegally financing Hamas.
"The government's policy has inflicted considerable harm," MPAC's Salam al-Marayati wrote in 2001 after federal authorities closed the Benevolence International Fund (BIF). "By effectively shutting down these charities, it has given Americans the false impression that American Muslims are supporting terrorists. It has also given the Muslim world a similarly false impression that America is intolerant of a religious minority."
In the end, the White House's decision to empower these groups sends a mixed message to the American people that it isn't fully interested in rooting out the causes of jihadist terror and preventing future attacks.