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FBI, police strive to engender trust from US Muslims

Fine line amid investigations

TERRORISM DRAGNET A New York police source tipped off Najibullah Zazi, a Denver shuttle bus driver, that he was a suspect in an investigation. TERRORISM DRAGNET
A New York police source tipped off Najibullah Zazi, a Denver shuttle bus driver, that he was a suspect in an investigation.
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post / October 11, 2009

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NEW YORK - Investigators seeking to uncover terrorist plots for years have walked a fine line between keeping tabs on the Muslim community and alienating the same people who could serve as an early warning signal.

That tenuous balance has been tested again in what law enforcement authorities say is one of the most worrisome terror investigations in decades, the unfolding case against Denver shuttle bus driver Najibullah Zazi, who has been charged with conspiracy to unleash weapons of mass destruction in the form of hydrogen peroxide bombs.

A Queens man who had been a power broker in his Muslim community - and a source for the New York City Police Department - allegedly tipped off Zazi of the police interest early last month. That complicated the ongoing investigation of what investigators say were Al Qaeda operatives on American soil, and led to the indictment of the Queens man on criminal charges.

Tension among the FBI, local police, and members of the Islamic community has flared several times in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. Earlier this year some Muslim charities and advocacy groups threatened to cut ties with the FBI amid concern that investigators were infiltrating mosques in California and elsewhere.

FBI leaders say they have tried to strengthen ties to Muslims through advisory councils, community group meetings, and other contacts. Building such relationships is important because investigators, who often lack language skills and deep understanding of immigrant enclaves, must rely on insiders to help guide them through the maze of cultural issues.

“Your job is to know everything that’s going on in that mosque - everything,’’ said Jack Cloonan, a retired special agent for the FBI who worked in the Afghan community in Queens from the late 1980s until 2002. “What is going on in this community? Do I know what’s going on within the mosque? Do I know who’s coming in? Do I know what’s going on in terms of criminal activity? Who will know this?’’

By all accounts, that type of thinking inspired police last month to approach Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37, a Flushing community leader who had helped agents in the past, and ask him to “find out everything you can’’ about the 24-year-old Zazi - “who he is, where he is, where he’s going,’’ said Afzali’s lawyer, Ronald Kuby. They did not tell Afzali why they were looking for the younger man, Kuby said.

Afzali, who had prayed alongside Zazi in various mosques for years, used his network of contacts to track down Zazi’s phone number and eventually called and explained he was in touch because the police had asked about Zazi, said Kuby.

Afzali, who has denied wrongdoing, sometimes preached at mosques and also ran the Islamic Burial Funeral Service, a funeral parlor in Queens. His business card was on the bulletin boards of Afghan mosques, and he had entree to the homes and intimate moments of a broad swath of Afghan immigrants.

“If somebody dies in the family, he’s the only person we trust,’’ said a 31-year-old restaurant cook who gave his name only as Nabi, and whose father was buried by Afzali last year.

“People are scared,’’ said a 36-year-old Flushing man who declined to give his name. “They’re scared that if they work with the police they’ll get hurt, and if they don’t work with the police they’ll get hurt.’’

The civil liberties concerns resounded again after the FBI released its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide on Sept. 25 as part of a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Muslim Advocates. The guidelines amount to a road map for agents who are conducting investigations, but some of the most sensitive material, about agents’ undisclosed participation as informants stationed in mosques and churches, was blacked out in the report.

Nadhira al-Khalili, national legal counsel at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement that the guidelines could “inevitably lead to violations of the Constitution and the right of all Americans to practice their faith without fear of government intrusion or intimidation.’’

CAIR and the American Civil Liberties Union called upon the Justice Department and Congress to overhaul the guidelines to ensure that FBI agents are acting in line with the law. But supporters of the guidelines say they were developed in consultation with religious and civil liberties groups, and were the subject of three congressional hearings.

Attorney General Eric Holder made a point to visit a mosque during a trip to the Los Angeles area in July, where he emphasized the administration’s desire to work with the Muslim community and to protect civil liberties.