Inside the FBI's terrorism fight: Making friends

September 26, 2010 (WASHINGTON)

The scene is striking, mainly because of all the noise that had ricocheted across the country that week with a fringe pastor threatening to burn the Quran and protests over plans to build an Islamic center and mosque near September 11th's Ground Zero in New York. While that fear-fueled debate dominated the airwaves, the FBI in Chicago invited a small group of mainly Muslim men and women into its inner sanctum with the goal of building relationships and trust.

"Some people said, 'You're a spy for the FBI,'" recalled Aamir Chalisa when he first considered an invitation to attend the FBI's Citizens' Academy four years ago. Chalisa works in the financial services industry and is now one of the Chicago FBI's leading cheerleaders. Others also admit they have been swayed by the law enforcement organization that is viewed by some in their communities as one that unfairly targets Muslims in its post September 11th quest to stop another terrorist attack.

During the week that marked nine years since al-Qaida operatives successfully launched the deadliest terrorist attack in American history, Chalisa and nearly two dozen others were invited to Washington, D.C., by the FBI. For two straight days, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office squired the group around town. From the J. Edgar Hoover building in downtown D.C. to the FBI's famous training facility at Quantico, Virginia, and the National Counter Terrorism Center, the group met and questioned FBI bosses on everything from ethnic profiling to the use of informants.

"It's changed my perception, my stereotype, of the FBI," Ubai Nooruddin said as he bumped along a DC highway in van driven by an FBI special agent. Nooruddin is Aamilsaheb, or minister, and president of Anjuman-e-Saifee, a religious community of 1,500 people based in southwest suburban Willowbrook. "This has made for a more personal relationship with the FBI agents. I can appreciate what they do and I take that back to my community."

Still, strange glances and concerned looks from security guards were not lost on Nooruddin and his son as they rolled out their prayer mats steps from the highly-secured entrance to the National Counter Terrorism Center. The FBI's liaison at NCTC quickly assured the security staff there was no cause for concern. "I do pick-up on stuff like that," Nooruddin said. "But hopefully this kind of [exposure] helps. When the next guy comes, maybe they will think differently."

For many years now agents in the FBI's Chicago office have been working to develop deep relationships with the Muslim community. They don't want their first or only contact to be when a Muslim man or woman is suspected of wrongdoing.

Sheik Kifah Mustapha, who runs the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, asked some of the most pointed questions during the six week FBI Citizens' Academy and trip to Washington. He pushed agents to fully explain everything from the bureau's use of deadly force policy to racial and ethnic profiling. "I saw a very interesting side of what the FBI does and I wanted to know more," Sheik Mustapha explained after returning from D.C. He hopes the FBI's outreach runs deeper than positive public relations.

Each participant in the FBI trip to Washington paid his or her own way. During and after the Citizens' Academy class, FBI Chicago Special Agent in Charge Rob Grant was inundated with so many dinner invitations to local mosques and community centers he may be in the market for looser fitting pants. Grant calls the Citizens' Academy the centerpiece of the FBI's effort to break down the 'us versus them' mentality. "This program has proven extremely successful," Grant said. "[It] gives community leaders an up close and personal look at how we work to keep them safe."

Nonetheless, the relationship between the FBI and Muslim community is still a work in progress. "I really believe we have a great open-minded and engaging team here in Chicago led by Mr. Grant," Sheik Mustapha said. "Much work is still needed and I hope more participation of community leaders can bridge such a gap."

Back at Quantico, while strolling through a building the size of an airplane hangar used to train the FBI's elite hostage rescue team, Aamir Chalisa's cell phone rang. It was his mother. Earlier that morning two FBI agents appeared at the Chalisa's suburban Chicago home to inquire about a trip the family had made last year to Yemen, Pakistan and Egypt.

Chalisa's mother said the agents were professional and respectful, but she was nonetheless worried about the presence of law enforcement on her front steps. She answered the agents' questions. Mr. Chalisa followed-up with a phone call to his recently acquired contacts back at the FBI in Chicago. He told them of religious and family traditions that bring him and others to Yemen. With that, the issue appeared to be put to rest.

The timing of the visit by the agents was apparently just a coincidence. Mr. Chalisa insists he wasn't bothered by it. "They're just doing their jobs. As citizens, we want them to keep us safe," he said before noting the advantage of his newly formed friendships: "If I didn't know anybody in the FBI, I would have had no one to call."

The writer of this article was a participant in the FBI's Citizens' Academy.

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