Visits from the Federal Bureau of Investigation have become a regular feature of life for many American Muslims. The FBI regularly contacts individuals in order to question and interrogate them about their religious views and to surveil the Muslim community to gather general intelligence, rather than to acquire specific information regarding a credible crime or threat. However, the agency also investigates hate crimes and other criminal activity targeting Muslims and their places of worship, positive work for which many members of the community are grateful. As a result, Muslim community relations with the FBI remain complex.
During the weekend of November 5 and 6, 2016, CAIR began to receive an unusual surge in calls from Muslims who had been visited by FBI agents.
Reported threats and acts of election-related violence were common in the media at the time. On October 27, the New York Times reported on supporters of Donald Trump spoke of removing Hillary Clinton from office “by any means necessary” if she won the presidency. On October 14, the FBI arrested three “Crusaders” who had been planning brutal attacks on Muslims. There was an “unconfirmed” threat from Al-Qaeda. On November 1, a black church was spray painted with the words “vote Trump” and set on fire.
At the time of writing this report, there is no indication that there was any widespread law enforcement outreach to Trump supporters, white supremacist or anti-Muslim groups.
However, information from several states indicates that FBI field offices received instructions from headquarters to conduct a general sweep of American Muslims, particularly those who had recently traveled to Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Multiple, independent sources related to CAIR staff that FBI agents asked the following questions:
Have you heard of anyone discuss or disapprove of Al-Qaeda’s leader Faruq Al-Qatani’s killing in Afghanistan?
Do you know who that is?
Do you know of anyone who would be loyal to Al-Qaeda or other extremist groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan?
Do you know of anyone in the U.S. who raises money or provides support to Al-Qaeda or other extremist groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
Are you aware of anyone in contact with anyone in Al-Qaeda or other extremist groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
Are you aware of anyone who has traveled between the United States and Pakistan and Afghanistan on behalf of Al-Qaeda or other extremist groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
Are you aware of anyone with family or other connections to Afghanistan or Pakistan?
Are you aware of anyone who has received military or explosives training from anyone in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
Are you aware of anyone who has communicated with extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
Are you aware of any plots by Al-Qaeda or other extremist groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan that are planned in the United States?
At issue here are not the actions of the FBI agents who carried out instructions with a desire to protect Americans, and also not at issue are reports that a few of those who were contacted mistakenly interpreted the FBI’s combing of the Muslim community as an act of voter intimidation. There is no evidence to support this allegation.
CAIR’s concern is that headquarters instructed agents not to follow legitimate leads regarding any particular individual. Instead, it systematized an ineffective general sweep generated by the mindset that Muslims are a monolith and, in general, a threat to the nation.
This mindset is in conflict with statements from two FBI Directors praising the Muslim community’s actions to report criminal activity. The questions themselves reflect an internal indecision on the part of FBI headquarters because they presume that Muslims would not come forward with information regarding criminal activity.
Don’t Be a Puppet
In February, the FBI launched the online game “Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism” as part of its Countering Violent Extremism program. The platform aims to recruit the assistance of educators and students in order to identify youth who are at risk of becoming violent extremists, and to report them to the FBI. In doing so, it falsely implies that there is an identifiable path to becoming a violent extremist, despite the fact that repeated studies have thoroughly disproven this notion. The site lists indicators that someone may be on the “slippery slope of violent extremism” which include such vague attributes as “talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious,” “using code words or unusual language,” and “studying or taking pictures of potential targets.” Individual bias could lead people to report constitutionally protected – and utterly normal – activity to the FBI.
The game thus perpetuates broad- based suspicion, negative stereotypes, and racial profiling, particularly of Muslims, South Asians, and Arabs, and encourages the policing of thoughts and beliefs. It deems the ability to speak a foreign language, or travel abroad, as indicators of an individual’s potential link to terrorism. Unsurprisingly, then, it has drawn criticism across a wide range of organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. In an open letter to FBI director James Comey, AFT stated, “Increasing ideological policing and surveillance efforts like the Don’t be a Puppet campaign will have a chilling effect on our schools and immigrant communities.” ADC wrote that the program “cannot be described as a legitimate or credible law enforcement tool.”
- Proactively and transparently make public information regarding broad outreach to a range of groups in the United States about potential election violence. The release of such information will clarify to the general public that outreach targeted a broad range of potential threats and did not single out any one community.
- End its reliance on broad-brush targeting of American Muslim community members. This practice has repeatedly been proven to generate no substantive leads in preventing criminal acts or terrorism, and has undermined community outreach efforts. Instead, the FBI should focus its resources on legitimate investigations involving specific, credible criminal and terrorist activities.
- Dismantle the “Don’t Be a Puppet” website and stop the dissemination of associated teaching modules. Moving forward, federal and state agencies should ensure that students are educated on their constitutional rights and liberties, and on the differences between protected and criminal activities.
Advocacy and Civil Liberties Organizations
- Continue to represent and protect the privacy and constitutional rights of Americans in their interactions with law enforcement, including the FBI.
- Continue to urge Americans to assert their right to remain silent and be represented by an attorney when appropriate.
[Note: For references, access the full report]