The bureau has reached out to Muslim organizations in the wake of embarrassing revelations about its counterterrorism training materials. Critics say thatâ€™s not enough.
By Adam Serwer
After reports emerged last week that the Federal Bureau of Investigationâ€™s counterterrorism training included materials that depicted Muslims as inherently radical and violent, the bureau moved quickly to reach out to a number American Muslim groups in an effort to smooth over relations. FBI officials promised to take the problem seriously and vowed to conduct an internal review of the materials, which included assertions that mainstream American Muslims were sympathetic to terrorism and that the more devout a Muslim is, the more likely he is to be violent.
â€œThere was acknowledgement that what happened is wrong and what happens needs to be addressed immediately,â€ says Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). â€œIt was a good first step in rectifying this.â€
But Ayoub and other Arab and Muslim leaders add that more still needs to be done to repair the damage caused by the FBIâ€™s offensive training materials.
The problem, Muslim and Arab groups argue, is that this isnâ€™t the first time theyâ€™ve complained about the FBIâ€™s counterterrorism training. In August 2010, several organizations sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller after Islamophobic writer Robert Spencer, who believes â€œthat there is no distinction in the American Muslim community between peaceful Muslims and jihadists,â€ was invited to give two seminars to Virginiaâ€™s Tidewater Joint Terrorism Task Force in July. Spencer was also invited to give a presentation to the US Attorneyâ€™s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council, which is cohosted by the FBI in Norfolk.
The FBI didnâ€™t take the outside groupsâ€™ complaints particularly seriously. In its response to the letter, the bureau defended Spencerâ€™s appearance on the grounds that he was a â€œbest-selling author.â€ A little over a year later, the FBI would try a similar tactic, dismissing the controversial elective training offered by FBI official William Gawthrop as an innocuous one-off. But Wiredâ€™s Spencer Ackerman soon revealed that recent FBI training materials depicted Muslimsâ€”not terrorists or extremists, but Muslims generallyâ€”as collectively bent on world domination.
The FBIâ€™s previous efforts to dismiss the issue of anti-Muslim training materials, says Farhana Khera of Muslim Advocates, are one reason the FBIâ€™s promised â€œinternal reviewâ€ wonâ€™t be enough. â€œWeâ€™re pleased that this very serious issue is finally receiving the attention of the FBI leadership, but we still believe that an internal FBI review is insufficient at this stage,â€ Khera says.
On a conference call with several Muslim and Arab organizations, the FBI took pains to note that several agents had registered complaints about Gawthropâ€™s training materials, and others had walked out of a session in disgust. But the FBIâ€™s excuses left many on the conference call with more questions: If FBI officials had raised concerns about Gawthropâ€™s work, why was the issue not addressed immediately? A report from an independent inspector general â€œis the only way to ensure that the FBI is [addressing the issue],â€ Khera adds.
The FBI missed opportunities by not taking the potential for cooperation with Muslim groups more seriously, other critics say. If FBI officials had asked for the Muslim American communityâ€™s input, they could have stopped the scandal before it happened. â€œWhy did they not ask for the communityâ€™s advice on the [training material]? Why didnâ€™t they use the resources at their disposal?â€ asks the ADCâ€™s Ayoub. â€œThere was no outreach done. Thatâ€™s disappointing.â€
The revelations about the training materials also damaged existing relationships, argues Mohamed Elibiary of the Freedom and Justice Foundation. â€œYou really need very substantive community relationships and partnerships if you want to get to the point where you have community-based interventions and lessening of violent extremism and radicalization,â€ Elibiary says. â€œThey need to be able to feel like they can call the FBI when thereâ€™s a problem with their kids.â€
In the future, Elibiary warns, FBI headquarters has to follow the example of its best field offices and do more to reach out to Muslim communities beyond the DC area. â€œThereâ€™s a difference between engaging with the leadership in DC and the leadership across the country,â€ he says. â€œYou need to engage with both. For what you say in DC to have an impact in Des Moines, you need to be talking to someone there.â€
Adam Serwer is a reporter at the Washington, DC bureau of Mother Jones.