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Terror probe highlights police-Muslim tensions

The arrest of a Queens imam who investigators had considered a trusted partner was a blow in more ways than one for law enforcement.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The arrest of a Queens imam who investigators had considered a trusted partner was a blow in more ways than one for law enforcement.

No matter the outcome, the case is bound to complicate the already fraught relations between American Muslims and the police who rely on them for information.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, investigators have put an enormous effort into cultivating friendly Muslim sources such as the prayer leader, Ahmad Wais Afzali, who has been accused of tipping off a suspect in an alleged terror plot, then lying about it to investigators.

Officers visit mosques, attend national Muslim conventions and very publicly celebrate Muslim holidays. Earlier this month, New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly led the annual NYPD Ramadan program for clerics and others at One Police Plaza.

Yet, in many cases, aggressive outreach hasn't been enough to overcome deep Muslim mistrust of authorities — fears that have been exacerbated in cases in which law enforcement has placed informants inside mosques to build a case. Muslims widely fear that the innocent will be caught up in the net police have set for terrorists, and some struggle with just how forthcoming they should be.

"The communities from which we need the most help are those who trust us the least," said FBI director Robert Mueller in a speech this year to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Afzali's attorney insists the imam has done nothing wrong and has been a good citizen over the years by aiding police. However, according to a criminal complaint, the religious leader was secretly recorded on Sept. 11 telling the suspect, Najibullah Zazi, that investigators "came to ask me about your characters."

Institutionalized suspicions
It is the kind of case that fuels Muslim suspicion of law enforcement, even if Afzali is found guilty. Immigrants often hold onto beliefs from their native countries that all authorities are corrupt, or feel they have been mistreated by officials in their new home.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who researches policing and counterterrorism, said police officers in some cities have told her that they have had almost no success changing those attitudes.

"There are portions of the community that do not look at police as a sincere group who really want to further a good relationship between them and the rest of the society," said Haberfeld. "Sometimes it goes beyond the first generation of immigrants. Sometimes their children and grandchildren feel the same."

Fresh grievances keeps these views alive.

The latest tensions are over informants that investigators placed in mosques from California to New York. U.S. Muslim leaders and civil rights advocates have accused the government of entrapment. In some cases, they say, informants engineered the plots that have led to arrests.

One case they cite is the four down-on-their-luck ex-convicts charged this year with plotting to destroy two synagogues in New York and shoot down planes. Defense lawyers and some relatives of the suspects say the men were living on the margins of society and were lured into the conspiracy by an informant providing gifts including cash and food.

Relying on informants
Investigators have defended the practice of using informants, saying they have been key to preventing another attack.

There is also a persistent belief among some Muslims that no one of their faith could have carried out the Sept. 11 hijackings. Muslims who hold this view believe there is no threat of extremism in their community and therefore no need to work with law enforcement.

Several national Muslim groups have tried to counter this attitude. As just one example, the Muslim Public Affairs Council created a "National Grassroots Campaign to Fight Terrorism," several years ago aimed largely at mosque leaders. Still, in a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, 60 percent of Muslim Americans said they did not believe that Arabs were behind the attacks.

"The opinion is definitely out there," said Kamran Memon of Chicago, founder of Muslims for a Safe America, which challenges Muslims to examine their views on national security and law enforcement. In his talks at mosques and elsewhere, Memon said he often encounters fellow Muslims who say, "`Muslims didn't do this. We're not the ones who pose a threat to this country. We're not the ones who need to be watched.'"

Imam Shair Abdul-Mani of the New York-based American Muslim Law Enforcement Association, which lists members from more than 35 states, said relations between police and Muslim communities have become better in the last few years.

Abdul-Mani, a chaplain for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said he and another imam regularly speak to NYPD police cadets and that Muslim officers have an expanding role as peacemakers when tensions flare between law enforcement and local Muslims. Nationally, law enforcement officials and Muslim leaders stay in contact over concerns from Muslim leaders.

Still, Haberfeld and other analysts say police have an almost impossible task. Officers must seek to befriend the very community members who investigators are also intensively monitoring.

"There have been improvements," Abdul-Mani said, "but it is still going to be a cautious response to working with police."