Terrorism cop on a tightrope

Times Staff Writer

LIKE the other detectives in his anti-terrorism unit, Mustafa wears a mask during raids.

He calls it “the Spiderman thing.” The mask protects his identity and adds to the intimidating effect as he bursts through doors behind SWAT officers aiming laser-sighted weapons at suspects.

During interrogations, the mask comes off. The suspects stare at a young man much like themselves: a son of North African immigrants, an Arabic-speaker, a practicing Muslim. They react with surprise or hate -- never indifference.

“I am the worst enemy for them,” Mustafa says. “I speak their language. I know how they think. I have gotten a lot of threats. They say: ‘You are worse than the Americans. The Americans are Christians. They are fighting their crusade. But you are a Muslim traitor.’ ... One guy told me: ‘If I could get hold of one of your guns and it only had one bullet, it would be for you.’ ”


But occasionally, encounters with fellow officers leave Mustafa feeling caught in the middle.

“When I am on the street working plainclothes, police have stopped me,” he says. “I take out my badge. I tell them I am working anti-terrorism. But they lock the door of their car and call headquarters to check me out. They don’t have an image of someone like me as a policeman.”

Mustafa -- not his real name -- is one of a rare breed of police officers who represent the future of European law enforcement. Despite Europe’s large immigrant population, predominantly Muslim, police forces are struggling to integrate and to improve relations with minority communities.

“Diversity in the police is a factor of social justice,” says French police Capt. Mohamed Douhane, 42, an official of the Synergie Officers union, which represents mid-level police commanders. “It gives greater credibility to institutions. It reduces tensions. Vis-a-vis young people, we are ambassadors.”

Anti-terrorism agencies aggressively recruit investigators from Muslim backgrounds, eager to use their skills against an array of extremist networks. But the number of minorities in law enforcement, let alone elite units, remains small, especially compared with the presence of black and Latino officers in the United States. Though immigrants are central to the American identity, immigration began transforming Europe only in recent decades. Integration will take time.

And some Muslim investigators avoid the top-secret world of anti-terrorism, wary of risks and pressures that can make it a no man’s land.


“They have chosen to distance themselves from their community, where there are people who now despise them, yet we do not always accept them,” says Belgian federal police Supt. Alain Grignard, an anti-terrorism expert who speaks Arabic. “That doubles the pressure. I know officers who have had psychological problems because of this conflict.”

On condition that his identity and the country where he works be kept secret, Mustafa agreed to give an inside view of his unique world.

He comes across as cheerful and, in a relaxed way, proud of what he does. He is 30, alert but not intense, solid but not brawny. When he is off duty, he has a stylish look. You can imagine him hanging out at a disco on a Mediterranean coast or playing pick-up soccer in a park.


MUSTAFA grew up in a devout, blue-collar family. He drinks an occasional glass of beer or wine, but attends mosque services and observes Ramadan. His relatives have made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

“I was taught that being Muslim meant being nice, honest, kind -- nothing about killing or hating,” he says. “People are using Islam to hate other cultures. So I fight against that. That’s my jihad.”

As a boy, Mustafa was fascinated by “Miami Vice” and other television police dramas. Although his father wanted him to learn a trade, he applied to a national police academy, becoming one of the few Muslim cadets. Along with the allure of action, he felt a certain patriotic duty. It stirs whenever he goes on missions to North Africa and contemplates the sprawling misery of the shantytowns there.


“My father was so poor when he emigrated that the village chipped in to buy him a suit so he would look presentable,” Mustafa says. “He was very well-received here. Yes, there are racists. But my parents integrated well.”

Mustafa graduated near the top of his class. Religious discipline helped.

“Because I studied very hard,” he says. “No girls, no drinking, no discos.”

He started as a patrolman, but things moved quickly after an officer was killed by Moroccan gangsters. Detectives enlisted the rookie to analyze wiretaps in Arabic and gather intelligence.

After Al Qaeda struck the United States in September 2001, counter-terrorism forces across Europe went into overdrive. Mustafa’s talents catapulted him into the unit where he works today.

His story has repeated itself elsewhere. Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands have led the way, stepping up recruitment among second- and third-generation populations from former colonies in Africa and South Asia. Spain and Italy have found recruitment more difficult because their immigrant communities are newer.

France’s lead counter-terrorism agency, the DST, has had an influx of women of North African descent. Many want “to escape the pressure of the family culture,” a top intelligence official says. “They want to be free women.”


BUT anti-terrorism is not for everyone. Rookies spend hours of drudgery in headphones, translating wiretaps. France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe, but French society resists identity politics and American-style affirmative action. Some promising officers prefer assignments that don’t pigeonhole them on the basis of ethnicity or religion.


Douhane is one of them. He comes from a practicing Muslim family, but is not devout. He was 24 when his father, a bus driver, invited a longtime passenger, a police commander, to Sunday lunch. The commander told him war stories and became his mentor.

“He totally shattered the image I had of the police, which was that they were racist, alcoholic and violent,” Douhane says.

Without telling anyone in his rough housing project outside Grenoble, Douhane became one of two minority cadets in a class of 550. He recalls “not racism, but curiosity.”

“They looked at me like a Martian.”

At his graduation in 1992, the counter-terrorism service courted him unsuccessfully.

“They told me they would train me, teach me, take care of everything, but I don’t like to work in the shadows,” Douhane says. “I like things to be clear.... There are more minority patrol officers now, but the numbers in anti-terrorism are still weaker.”

Like Douhane, Mustafa says he has not experienced bias, other than a bit of jealousy about his rapid ascent. Being a minority helps your career, he says.

“Here in Europe there is everything for immigrants: unemployment [benefits], school, free hospitals,” he says. “You live very, very well here. But still some immigrants complain. And they hide behind that curtain of discrimination. Fundamentalists don’t work, [they] grow the beard, collect unemployment, but they criticize the society anyway.”


A recent case in Montpellier, in southern France, showed that vengeful militants see Muslim officers, especially women, as archenemies. The case began in 2005 when the DST arrested Achlougi Bach, a Moroccan mother of three, and her husband in a raid on a suspected network sending fighters to Iraq.

A female agent of Moroccan origin interrogated Bach, who was released without charges and promptly accused the agent of abuse. Bach, 35, claimed the agent insulted Islam and humiliated her. Her allegations surfaced on Islamist websites, complete with the name of the agent, who then received death threats. An internal investigation cleared the agent, but chiefs decided to transfer her because her identity had been exposed.

Mustafa shrugs off the dangers. He likes that he can get closer to the extremists than most other officers, soaking up nuances of accents and slang on intercepts, prowling hangouts, mosques, protest marches.

“It’s easier for me to operate on the street,” he says. “I am comfortable in a mosque. I am not worried about getting challenged. Even carrying my gun, I feel at ease about being in there and being able to operate.”

He has explored the labyrinths of fanaticism in long conversations with militants bound for Iraq, veterans of Al Qaeda camps, a would-be suicide bomber. Though capable of small talk and jokes, he says, they have been deadened inside, reduced to human missiles.

“The suicide bomber-types are so fixated on their objective,” he says. “They could cause an explosion that kills kids, they could care less. They live in a very closed world. And it has become even more closed. It’s harder to infiltrate. Now the radicals do what they do in Iraq: To enter the group, you must open up completely. Show them your home, your family, make yourself totally vulnerable.”



NOT all of the extremists Mustafa arrests can bring themselves to believe he is a bona fide detective. Some think he’s actually a North African spy working with European police; they cooperate because they are scared of being handed over to the tough security services in that region. But Mustafa also wins trust with small gestures, letting them take a break from all-day interrogations to pray or eat a halal meal.

“We have religious debates,” he says. “I ask them: ‘How did you reach this point? You grew up the same way as me, with the same Koran, the same [sayings of the prophet Muhammad], yet with a totally different mentality.’ They are radicalized, but some of these guys can’t even read. Or they haven’t read the Koran. They just believe what they have heard from others.”

There is such a thing as getting too close. Anti-terrorism officers from Muslim backgrounds undergo intense scrutiny for connections -- a friend in jail, a foreign relative -- that create vulnerability. In a recent case here, a young investigator recruited by an anti-terrorism squad for his fluent Arabic was admonished and transferred after a wiretap detected his friendly conversations with the wife of a suspected extremist.

Corruption can have banal roots. In immigrant communities, family and friends often expect police officers to grant favors and get them out of scrapes. At first, Mustafa tried to avoid entanglements by telling people he was a firefighter.

As he worked high-profile cases, however, people in his old neighborhood gradually learned the truth. Some admire him. Some, especially local fundamentalists, mutter that he is a traitor.

“They say: ‘Why are you working in anti-terror? How can you do that?’ ” he says. “They talk about their sympathy for the Palestinians, the Iraqis, sometimes ‘terrorism can be understandable,’ all that.


“But I tell them: The day you are taking a bus with your wife and kids and it goes boom, you’ll see. You won’t have the same view anymore.”