FBI walks tightrope in outreach to Muslims, fighting terrorism
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009; A05
At a retirement party last week for the head of the FBI’s Washington field office, Muslim and Arab leaders presented the guest of honor with a crystal plaque.
It thanked Joseph Persichini Jr. for reaching out to the local Muslim and Arab communities. Yet even as the tribute on Capitol Hill went on, his agents had a different mission. They were flying to Pakistan to interrogate five Washington area Muslim men arrested in a terrorism probe. The outcome of that investigation threatens to undermine the very relationships their boss tried to foster.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FBI agents from the same office have met with Muslim leaders, fielded questions at mosques and participated in Ramadan feasts. The outreach might well have resulted in the families of the five men coming forward to the FBI to report them missing.
But that action now has agents and prosecutors facing a dilemma as the case has morphed from a missing persons investigation into a counter-terrorism probe. As U.S. officials consider whether to file criminal charges against the men and how aggressively to prosecute any potential case, some Muslim leaders are calling for leniency, saying the tough approach often used by the Bush administration would alienate a community whose relationship with law enforcement is uneasy.
“Charging them and throwing them in jail is not the solution,” said Nihad Awad, national head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which approached the FBI on behalf of the families. “The government has to show some appreciation for the actions of the parents and the community. That will encourage other families to come forward.”
Return could take months
The men, ages 18 to 24, traveled overseas just after Thanksgiving without telling their families and were arrested near Lahore on Dec. 8. A Pakistani court this week ordered them held for up to 10 more days of interrogation, but officials say their likely return to the United States could take months. Pakistani officials say the men were in touch with a Taliban recruiter and were aiming to join up with al-Qaeda and battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
No one has been charged, and the men’s friends and spiritual advisers say they never saw any sign of radical beliefs or activities.
Federal prosecutors in Alexandria, where any criminal case would probably be brought, declined to comment. But law enforcement sources say prosecutors are likely to consider charges that include providing material support to terrorist organizations. Prosecutors face complexities that include whether the men’s reported admissions to Pakistani authorities are admissible in a U.S. court and whether any statements were coerced.
Senior Justice Department officials are expected to balance broader issues in any charging decisions, such as concern over a growing threat from domestic extremism.
“Home-based terrorism is here,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a recent speech in which she cited the arrests of U.S. citizens suspected of plotting attacks with al-Qaeda and other Muslim groups. The five Virginia men are U.S. citizens.
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