Sting operations: Law enforcement should not undermine American values

Holding his ground

At a community meeting this past spring in Houston, FBI agents instructed local Muslim leaders to report signs of “suspicious behavior” to federal law enforcement. What were held out as examples of suspicious behavior? The agent told community leaders that if someone recently converted and listened to fiery religious or political speeches, this could be a sign of their “radicalization,” and should be reported to the FBI. Shockingly, these religious and political activities—not purchasing bomb-making materials or attending an al Qaeda training camp, but expressive acts protected by the Constitution—were cited as worthy of reporting to law enforcement. When the FBI uses unpopular speech or religious practice as a measure to deem individuals suspicious and worthy of investigation, it bears a social cost: an erosion of our country’s core values of freedom of speech and religion.

As the FBI expands its outreach to the Muslim-American community, it appears we can expect more aggressive reporting, surveillance, and fake plot tactics. It also means more headlines with FBI leadership trumpeting the success of its latest “sting” operation, an operation that may have been mostly of its making.

It goes without saying that if someone is aware of criminal activity, including an imminent threat of harm, that person has an important civic duty to report such activity to law enforcement. But that’s not what the FBI is seeking. It has broadened its mandate well beyond criminal activity to monitor Americans—especially American Muslims—based on their political views and religious practices. In community forums like the one in Houston and in home visits across the nation this year, FBI agents have been asking American Muslims to come forward and report on the political and religious opinions and practices of their fellow community members, including individuals who may hold “extreme” views, impress their views of Islam on others, or oppose US military activities.

In fact, some well-meaning Muslim community members, including imams and civic leaders, in their sincere efforts to respond to the FBI’s call to “report and inform,” may be effectively sending troubled young people to jail, rather than to the social or mental health services they urgently need.

For example, the FBI began last year to investigate Mohamed Osman Mohamud—the 19-year-old Somali-American college student arrested in Portland, Oregon over Thanksgiving weekend for allegedly plotting to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony—after his father reported him to federal authorities, concerned that his religious views were becoming increasingly extreme. However, reports suggest that Mohamud was emotionally troubled, trying to find his way as a young man and as the only son of parents who had recently divorced. Rather than receive counseling and support from social workers, health care professionals, his school, religious leaders or family, he became the target of a major FBI investigation.

Was Mohamud “bound and determined to harm Americans,” as the Attorney General declared after his arrest? Or, did the FBI—who had tabs on him for a year and knew that he posed no imminent threat to the community — encourage his disaffection and bravado to induce him into a criminal plot? We may never know. But we do know that our country and our community—and his family—lost an opportunity to rehabilitate a troubled young man.

Mosques and community leaders in many parts of the country have already taken important steps to stop violent extremism, such as educating youth about the true, peaceful understanding of Islam. But the Portland case reminds us that community leaders also need to exercise good judgment and their legal rights, so that our communities do not turn on themselves in fits of fear and ignorance.

The message of my organization and lawyers nationwide to community leaders is consistent: talk to a lawyer before speaking with the FBI Why? The FBI is a law enforcement agency. Since September 11, 2001, the FBI’s number one job has been to investigate and prosecute terrorism cases, not right-wing extremism, or eco-terrorism, but terrorist acts committed by Muslims.

Every community member to whom the FBI speaks is a source for more intelligence, effective or not. Every name they receive is another lead to follow. Agents have been known to use unsavory methods—such as strong-arming interviewees into cooperation by putting their immigration status or that of a family member in jeopardy—to force community members into becoming informants. Retaining a lawyer when interacting with the FBI provides some protection against such tactics.

Let’s be clear: American Muslims must support efforts to keep our nation safe. But law enforcement activities should be consistent with the principles of justice and fair play that are the foundation of our criminal justice system. In the meantime, imams, civic leaders and all community members have an important role to play: refrain from mistaking unpopular political views or religious practice—activities protected by the First Amendment—for evidence of acts of violence that should be reported to the FBI. Keep our country and our community safe while protecting the founding values and ideals of our nation.

Nura Maznavi is Counsel for Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy and educational organization, and leads its Program to End Racial and Religious Profiling. If you have been contacted by federal law enforcement and would like to speak to an attorney, please contact Muslim Advocates at (415) 692-1484. You may also watch Muslim Advocates’ educational video, “Got Rights?: Protect yourself and your family at home and the airport.”