As they sipped tea and nibbled on dates, more than 100 men and women listened to a litany of speakers sounding the same message: The FBI is not your friend.
“We’re here today to say our mosques are off limits,” Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for Greater Los Angeles, told the crowd last month at an Anaheim mosque.
“Our Koran is off limits,” Ayloush said. “Our youth, who they try to radicalize, are off limits. Now is the time to tell them, ‘We’re not going to let this happen anymore.’ ”
Such strong words from a man who once was a vocal advocate of ties with federal law enforcement was yet one more signal that the fragile relationship between Muslim American groups and the FBI is being tested.
In the months and years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, FBI officials met privately with Muslim leaders, assuring them that a spate of hate crimes would be vigorously investigated and at the same time asking for help in the campaign against terrorism. Local leaders promised to encourage cooperation.
But even as relations warmed, a series of revelations -- including allegations that the FBI sent an informant into a mosque in Orange County, surveilled community leaders and sent an agent to UC Irvine -- caused some to begin questioning the FBI’s real intentions.
Now, the leaders of several Muslim organizations say they feel betrayed. Because Orange County has been at the center of many of the revelations, local leaders have taken a lead in challenging the FBI, but the issues are resonating nationwide.
On Sunday, a coalition of the nation’s largest Muslim organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, issued a statement demanding that the Obama administration address FBI actions, including what they describe as the “infiltration of mosques,” the use of “agent provocateurs to trap unsuspecting Muslim youth” and the “deliberate vilification” of the council.
“It reached a level where we felt we had to do something,” said Agha Saeed, chairman of the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections. “The FBI is doing things which are not healthy. They are creating divisions and conflict, creating a totally negative, Islamophobic image of Muslims in America.”
Over the years, there’s been a gradual erosion of trust between the groups and the FBI. Months ago, the agency told local leaders it was suspending relations with the council, one of the largest Muslim civil rights groups in the country.
Since then, things have unraveled rapidly. Like other Muslim communities in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many in Orange County -- home to more than 100,000 Muslim Americans, dozens of mosques and several prominent Muslim community organizations -- worried about FBI investigations.
The FBI, in turn, believed terrorists were either trying to get to Southern California to carry out attacks or were already here. To gain intelligence and demystify the agency’s operations, the FBI met with local leaders and formed a committee that met monthly.
“In the post-9/11 world, the Arab American and Muslim community became one of those places where we said, ‘It’s worth making the extra effort,’ ” said FBI spokesman John Miller, who is also in charge of the agency’s national community outreach program.
Early on, Ayloush said the FBI was acting in good faith and working with the community as “partners rather than suspects.”
But the delicate relationship soon began to fray.
In 2004, the FBI and immigration officials arrested the popular head of an Anaheim mosque; he was held on immigration-related charges for two years until a judge ordered his release pending deportation. In 2006, an FBI agent was quoted as telling a business group in Newport Beach that the agency was monitoring Muslims at local universities. A year later, UC Irvine students said an FBI agent conducting an investigation at the school assaulted a Muslim student with his car near the site of a demonstration.
On a national level, there was the disclosure that FBI agents had been secretly monitoring radiation levels at mosques in search of radioactive bombs. More troubling were news reports that Muslims had been asked to become informants or face deportation.
The breaking point came in February with the revelation that the FBI had sent an informant to an Irvine mosque to collect evidence of jihadist rhetoric and other allegedly extremist acts by a Tustin man who attended prayers there.
To some, the incidents added up to this conclusion: The government was targeting all Muslims. Miller strongly disputes that contention, saying that the agency does not go on “fishing expeditions.”
“What we investigate is people,” he said. “If we develop information on a person, that investigation may take us different places -- to their home, their place of business . . . and yes, if . . . they go to a mosque, the investigation may take us to the mosque. That is part of what we do.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations was named in 2007, along with hundreds of other organizations and individuals, as an unindicted co-conspirator in a case against the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, which the government accused of funneling money to terrorists.
As a result, the FBI suspended relations with the council this year.
“That is not to suggest that anyone or everyone associated with CAIR has any kind of taint,” Miller said, adding that “there are some issues we would like to know more about from the leaders at CAIR’s headquarters.”
But at the recent meeting at the Anaheim mosque, the tone was one of frustration and anger.
Speakers suggested that ordinary Muslim Americans need to protect themselves from overzealous FBI agents.
“You don’t get brownie points for speaking to them,” said Ameena Qazi, a lawyer for the council. “They don’t go back to the office and check off your civic engagement or your patriotism. . . . We are a very open and hospitable community, but we shouldn’t be naive.”
Attendees applauded Qazi’s statement, but it was a mea culpa that most moved them.
“We goofed up, guys,” said Shakeel Syed, head of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. “We brought them here. We brought them to our mosques, to our meetings. . . . We have to hold ourselves responsible. That’s why it’s so important to dig our heels into the ground and say we’re not going to take this lying down, we’re going to fight.”
He got the loudest applause of the night.