Teasing out terror ties

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 27: Commuters get on and off a Metro train at the Gallery Pl - Chinatown Station October 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. Farooque Ahmed, a naturalized US citizen originally from Pakistan, of Ashburn, Virginia, was arrested by the FBI for attempting to assist others whom he believed to be members of al-Qaeda in planning multiple bombings at Metrorail stations in the Washington, DC, area. He was taken into custody earlier this morning. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

News broke this week that Farooque Ahmed had been arrested in connection with an alleged plot to bomb Metro stations here in Washington, D.C. The first draft of the story I read didn’t mention anything about religion but the mentioned ties to al-Qaeda and Pakistan suggested it might become a part of the story. When the breaking news story was updated by the Washington Post, we got:

Muslim leaders in Northern Virginia said that, as of late Wednesday, no one had reported knowing or having interacted with Ahmed at local mosques. His arrest, however, touched off a conversation about whether Ahmed might have initiated a plot or whether law enforcement officials had floated the idea to him, as has been suggested in other FBI sting operations.

“It’s a conversation that’s definitely going on in the community,” said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, spokesman for Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church. “At the same time, though, if you’re dumb enough and sick enough to think you’re working for al-Qaeda, then maybe your behind should be put in jail. If what the authorities accuse him of turns out to be true, I have very little sympathy for someone who plans something like that.”

Now, I’m not sure that the spokesman for the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque is the best guy to go to. As I wrote a few months ago:

It’s a very popular mosque in the area but it’s also known for having once had an imam by the name of Anwar al-Awlaki. Yes, that Anwar al-Awlaki. Two of the 9/11 hijackers attended services there and a German planner of the 9/11 attacks had the number for the mosque in his apartment. Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan also attended there years ago. Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President George W. Bush and of providing support to Al Qaeda, worshiped and taught Islamic studies there. A former member of the mosque’s executive committee was convicted of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify about Hamas. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that mosque leaders have been political (he quotes from one 1998 sermon: “Allah will give us the victory over our tyrannical enemies in our country. Allah, the infidel Americans and British are fighting against you. Allah, the curse of Allah will become true on the infidel Jews and on the tyrannical Americans.”). And the Post has reported that the mosque is affiliated with the Muslim American Society, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Dar Al Hijrah hosted a fundraiser last month for Sabri Benkahla, who members believe was wrongly convicted of terrorism-related charges.

I mean, I’ve said before that I don’t think you need to mention mosque ties to terrorists every time you write about mosques, but when the story is terrorism, it’s kind of odd to not mention, you know, that Anwar al-Awlaki was an imam there. Right? It just seems like there’s this forced narrative sometimes that makes journalists sort of lose their sense.

Anyway, this Associated Press story, which says something about Ahmed having been influenced by the former Dar al-Hijrah imam al-Awlaki. But what’s really interesting is the nugget that the tip that led to the FBI’s subway bombing sting might have come from a source in the Muslim community.

And there are other clues in the story that there were Muslims who helped out with the investigation. It’s so basic and it’s just reporting facts from sources, but this is an important aspect of reporting on Muslims accused of terrorism. In more than a few cases, the investigations have been aided, if not instigated, by fellow Muslims. It would be nice if showing the variety of Muslim attitudes and beliefs weren’t limited to terrorism cases, but at the very least it’s important to mention in terrorism cases.

This Washington Post ran a piece about confusion among Muslims about how to react to such high-profile arrests:

As details of the arrest trickled out, many in the Muslim community avoided saying anything to outsiders, but instead quietly voiced concerns to one another about the tactics used.

The ambivalence highlights the complicated and often fraught relationship between law enforcement and Muslim Americans – an alliance some say has suffered especially in the last year with the slew of sting-like operations within their communities.

Increasingly, Muslims believe that even as they work with the FBI to combat terrorism, they are being spied upon by authorities.

It’s a great idea for a piece and it’s something that provoked some concern for me, too, as I read the details of the sting. For instance, the feds put coded messages in a Koran. But the piece also suffers by not dealing more forcefully with some of these issues. Again, we get a quote from Dar al-Hijrah:

At Dar al-Hijrah, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik said his mosque works closely with law enforcement. But at the same time, he said, he believes there’s been a chilling effect from the sting operations.

I mean, when President Obama has issued an assassination order on one of this mosque’s former imams, that should be mentioned. But it would also make for a good question of the spokesman. As in, “So your mosque has had a ton of ties to terrorists. Anwar al-Awlaki, 9/11 hijackers, etc. Why should the feds trust you to provide all the information necessary for combating terror?” Or something. You know, ask the tough questions. There are probably some really good answers to be found, too. The quote that Abdul-Malik gave was really interesting, actually, and about how new visitors to the mosque are greeted with suspicion for fear that they’re feds. But we’re talking about some serious threats here, too. It would be nice to have answers that go into those external threats, too.

The story is focused on how Muslims feel about how well they’re cooperating with the feds. The only perspective from law enforcement comes from an agency flack. That’s completely understandable for a quick follow-up such as this. But it would be great to talk to former agency officials or others who might be able to offer perspective that goes beyond what you’re going to get from a spokesman.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 27:  Metro trains arrive at the Gallery Pl - Chinatown Station October 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. Farooque Ahmed, a naturalized US citizen originally from Pakistan, of Ashburn, Virginia, was arrested by the FBI for attempting to assist others whom he believed to be members of al-Qaeda in planning multiple bombings at Metrorail stations in the Washington, DC, area. He was taken into custody earlier this morning. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I did think that the next-day story from Spencer Hsu was pretty good. It’s really about the information from the affidavit filed in Ahmed’s arrest. It naturally weaves religion throughout the piece. It doesn’t reserve “religion” for a special section of the piece but incorporates it from start to finish. But it did end with a particular emphasis on religious issues:

But Ahmed also expressed concerns that he complete religious obligations before going overseas to fight, a key step that counterterrorism analysts say is observed by violent Islamic extremists. He also told the undercover operatives that he was interested in contributing money to the cause, offering $10,000 in donations, Dayoub wrote.

According to federal authorities, Ahmed told agents that he would be ready to fight after completing a pilgrimage to Mecca next month.

“On September 28, 2010, AHMED told both [operatives] that he was attending the Hajj this year and that they should all go in order to complete the five pillars of Islam before making the ‘top mark’ – by which I believe AHMED meant ‘becoming a martyr,’ ” Dayoub said.

An interesting story. The Washington Post has the resources to cover this story well and it’s nice to see them putting a bunch of reporters on it. I look forward to future coverage, too.

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  • Jeffrey

    I’m not sure that the spokesman for the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque is the best guy to go to.

    So if not the imam at the largest mosque in the region, who would you suggest journalists contact? CAIR is apparently not credible either since they will get smeared too for alleged relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood.

    So who should journalists call that will satisfy Islamo-skeptics but also have a connection to the local Muslim community?

  • Ryan

    Jeff you are not interacting with the reasoning put forth by Mollie, just being ideological. She gave good journalistic justifications for why the Imam might not be the best voice to hear on the matter. Stick the story and the argument she presented, rather than getting ideological about “Islamo-skeptics” and what not.

  • Jerry

    In more than a few cases, the investigations have been aided, if not instigated, by fellow Muslims.

    Community cooperation with police is a very large issue, not limited to Muslims or immigrants. But given what the police are like in other countries, immigrant attitudes can be very much influenced by where people used to live. My mother called the cops “Cossacks” which was as close to a swear word as she ever uttered in my hearing.

    There have been books written on reversing the overall decline in trust of the police such as http://www.amazon.com/Trust-Law-Encouraging-Cooperation-Foundation/dp/0871548895 so this is a serious issue.

    And it would be important, of course, to place cooperation with law enforcement by immigrant Muslims in the perspective of cooperation by other groups. And it’s important to also report on the perspective of groups subject to apparently growing hatred as Muslims now face.

    So this cooperation is critically important and noting it in the news story was very apropos.

  • Jeffrey

    Ryan, I’m asking a fairly straight forward journalism question. Who should journalists quote if they can’t quote the imam at the largest mosque in the region. I don’t disagree with Mollie’s point that the WaPo should have mentioned the mosque’s past ties to allaged terrorists (although it isn’t tons and it was a single imam that has been gone for years) but I’m not convinced he isn’t still a good source on the mood of the local Muslim community.

    But if CAIR is suspect and anyone from Dar Al Hijrah is suspect, who should reporters turn to?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    There are tons of Muslims you can talk to who are not affiliated with any of the advocacy groups or are spokesmen at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque. We have two big mosques here that have had some serious terror problems. But there are many more mosques around here than just those two. We have a fairly sizable Muslim pop. in Northern Virginia.

    I mean, you can talk to those folks, too. But if the WP readers are in any way aware of Dar al-Hijrah’s affiliation with Anwar al-Awlaki — and around here, many readers would be — it can kind of have the counter-effect of making the whole article seem discountable. I don’t think that’s what the reporters are going for.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Just another random thought. After the 9/11 attacks, reporters went to Dar al-Hijrah to get quotes from imams talking about how peaceful and moderate Islam is. The guy they went to? Anwar al-Awlaki. He was doing chats at the Wash Post on the matter and was cited by the NYT as the new face of moderate Islam. I’m not saying that they should have known what his real story was.

    But I think that sometimes reporters just have an idea of how a story should go and just plop predictable quotes from predictable sources in. You can always get those quotes from advocacy groups (on all issues, not just religious issues) and certain other media-friendly types.

    I think that Dar al-Hijrah would be a great source for stories on mosque ties to terrorism and how those things are handled. But not from the reflexive “these suspicions are outrageous” standpoint. That’s just bizarre. We’re literally talking about this mosque’s ties to some of the worst terrorists in recent history. I mean, I don’t support assassination of any U.S. citizen, no matter what he’s accused of, but the fact remains that President Obama has put a target on a very high profile figure with about as strong of ties to this mosque as are possible.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The fact that this mosque has connections with the Fort Hood killer and Anwar Al-Malaki should have been mentioned. With that knowledge the claim that the FBI is “framing” these Muslim terrorists has its credibility severly undermined.

    Since two of the 9/11 hijackers were from this mosque, maybe the media should ask this spokesman who he think was responssible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. Learning the answer to that question will help us better understand his thought process, understanding of guilt, what types of sources he looks to, and thus help us see if other views he has are relevant.

    This probably would not be neccessary with most mosques, but when it is one that 3 of the less than 20 people who have killed Americans in the name of Islam on US soil in the last year have been connected to, to avoid these questions is a major and unacceptable oversight.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The answer is the Islamic Council of America and Zuhdi Jasser should be people who reporters turn to.

    CAIR was created by the Holy Land Foundation, a front for Hamas, to expand their power to get support. Here is a link to a short article on the CAIR to HLF money flow http://www.investigativeproject.org/622/funding-ties-with-hlf-and-foreign-donors-show-cairs-agenda from it you can link to longer articles.

    If the most prominent mosque in Northern Virginia is turning out multiple terrorists and killers, maybe it is time to for the media to talk to a mosque which has not produced a mass murderer, if for no other reason than to see if they agree theologically with the ones who do.

    If the Liberal media really wants people to believe that not all mosques are breeding grounds for terrorists than maybe they should move beyond talking just with the one mosque in Virginia that has produced terrorists.

  • Jeffrey

    Well Zuhdi Jasser is one possibility although I’m not sure how objective he is or how much he understands the U.S. “Muslim street,” as journalists often say. He’s a darling of the neocons, which raises some red flags. But he is clearly one possibility.

    But I’m still intrigued by the statute of limits on an imam who hasn’t served a mosque for almost nine years is. What exactly does Dar Al-Hijrah need to do–that is hasn’t already done–to demonstrate that it shouldn’t be forever tarnished by a single Imam who was there for less than two years? When does it regain some credibility.