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US Muslims Say Aggressive FBI Tactics Spark Resentment

Sheikh Tarek Saleh, a Brooklyn cleric

Sheikh Tarek Saleh, a Brooklyn cleric

The Rand Corporation reports that of nearly 30 homegrown terror plots uncovered in the United States since the September 11 attacks, ten surfaced in 2009, making it a record year for homegrown terror plots. But many Muslims say law enforcement is pushing too hard in the quest to uncover terrorists among Muslim communities in the United States.

When five young Muslim Americans went missing last November, their parents met with Muslim elders and then went to the FBI.

"This could have been much worse than what it appears to be today had it not been that the families, the mosque and the Muslim community responded in both a lawful and responsive manner," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation.

The men were later arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks.

In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day, his father also contacted authorities before the alleged attack to report his son's growing extremism.

Muslim community members in New York City say they too want to help law enforcement ferret out terrorists in their midst.

But some say the FBI is pushing too hard, infiltrating their mosques and threatening them if they don't cooperate.

"If I see somebody will make attack here I will go to stop it in every way. Even I will lose my life," said Sheikh Tarek Saleh, a Brooklyn cleric. But he says there's a limit to what he can and will do to help police.

He claims the FBI scuttled his green card application because he refused to to travel to Afghanistan for the agency and gain the trust of a distant relative in al-Qaida who he says he is not in contact with. "To use me as a bait to trap people, I cannot do this job," he said.

"If you send him to Afghanistan he is finished. If you live in the United States you are already infidel," said Fares al Basir, president of Sheikh Tarek's mosque. He says the FBI even sent an informant to gather information on the Sheikh. It was intimidating, he says. "He asked that since I am president of the mosque if I have any influence on the sheikh so I can convince him to work with the FBI, but we as people, me the sheikh and everybody sitting here it's not our job. This is not our job to do," he said.

Asked to comment about Sheikh Tarek's green card and the claim that the FBI asked him to travel to Afghanistan to smoke-out al Qaida members, a spokesman for the bureau did not directly address the issues. Instead, he said the bureau has formed solid relationships with many Muslim communities and the outreach is ongoing.

But complaints of perceived FBI strong-arm tactics come from many Muslims.

"We are not here to create mischief. We are here living, choosing to live here, because we have better opportunities here," said Wael Mousfar, President of the Arab Muslim American Federation.

"If you are instilling fear into people and you are not allowing people to live a comfortable life where everywhere they go into the mosque and they look at the person next to them and they say 'is this an informant, is that an informant?' The fact that they have to have these thoughts in their mind is really not fair to this community," said Linda Sarsour, who directs the Arab American Association of New York.

But terrorism experts defend the use of informants, as well as incentives and disincentives.

"It is not unique to the Muslim community. Informants are a major source of intelligence to law enforcement. They operate on the basis of the fact that the community which they are infiltrating has been uncooperative with law enforcement and is not providing the intelligence they need," said Steven Emerson, who runs the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a non-profit group that taped American Islamic leaders even before the September 11 attacks on the U.S.

He says Muslim leaders themselves are instilling fear in their congregants - fear of the FBI. "We know that many Islamic groups tell their followers don't talk to the FBI and, number two, the United States is involved in a conspiracy against you. Those are incendiary allegations," he said,.

"The truth is that our laws and our institutional capacities are probably less aggressive than many of the Europeans," said Gary Schmitt, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He says it's legal for the FBI to send agents into mosques and that no one's freedom is being violated.

"Both the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment really put real restrictions on what the government can do in terms of speech, in terms of looking at the practice of religion, in terms of your ability to violate someone's privacy," he said.

Muslim leaders and law enforcement officials agree that trust is essential for the relationship to bear fruit.

Meantime, Sheikh Tarek's deportation hearing is set for March.