Teasing out terror ties

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 27: Commuters get on and off a Metro train at the Gallery Pl - Chinatown Station October 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. Farooque Ahmed, a naturalized US citizen originally from Pakistan, of Ashburn, Virginia, was arrested by the FBI for attempting to assist others whom he believed to be members of al-Qaeda in planning multiple bombings at Metrorail stations in the Washington, DC, area. He was taken into custody earlier this morning. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

News broke this week that Farooque Ahmed had been arrested in connection with an alleged plot to bomb Metro stations here in Washington, D.C. The first draft of the story I read didn't mention anything about religion but the mentioned ties to al-Qaeda and Pakistan suggested it might become a part of the story. When the breaking news story was updated by the Washington Post, we got:

Muslim leaders in Northern Virginia said that, as of late Wednesday, no one had reported knowing or having interacted with Ahmed at local mosques. His arrest, however, touched off a conversation about whether Ahmed might have initiated a plot or whether law enforcement officials had floated the idea to him, as has been suggested in other FBI sting operations.

"It's a conversation that's definitely going on in the community," said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, spokesman for Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church. "At the same time, though, if you're dumb enough and sick enough to think you're working for al-Qaeda, then maybe your behind should be put in jail. If what the authorities accuse him of turns out to be true, I have very little sympathy for someone who plans something like that."

Now, I'm not sure that the spokesman for the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque is the best guy to go to. As I wrote a few months ago:

It's a very popular mosque in the area but it's also known for having once had an imam by the name of Anwar al-Awlaki. Yes, that Anwar al-Awlaki. Two of the 9/11 hijackers attended services there and a German planner of the 9/11 attacks had the number for the mosque in his apartment. Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan also attended there years ago. Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President George W. Bush and of providing support to Al Qaeda, worshiped and taught Islamic studies there. A former member of the mosque's executive committee was convicted of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify about Hamas. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that mosque leaders have been political (he quotes from one 1998 sermon: "Allah will give us the victory over our tyrannical enemies in our country. Allah, the infidel Americans and British are fighting against you. Allah, the curse of Allah will become true on the infidel Jews and on the tyrannical Americans."). And the Post has reported that the mosque is affiliated with the Muslim American Society, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Dar Al Hijrah hosted a fundraiser last month for Sabri Benkahla, who members believe was wrongly convicted of terrorism-related charges.

I mean, I've said before that I don't think you need to mention mosque ties to terrorists every time you write about mosques, but when the story is terrorism, it's kind of odd to not mention, you know, that Anwar al-Awlaki was an imam there. Right? It just seems like there's this forced narrative sometimes that makes journalists sort of lose their sense.

Anyway, this Associated Press story, which says something about Ahmed having been influenced by the former Dar al-Hijrah imam al-Awlaki. But what's really interesting is the nugget that the tip that led to the FBI's subway bombing sting might have come from a source in the Muslim community.

And there are other clues in the story that there were Muslims who helped out with the investigation. It's so basic and it's just reporting facts from sources, but this is an important aspect of reporting on Muslims accused of terrorism. In more than a few cases, the investigations have been aided, if not instigated, by fellow Muslims. It would be nice if showing the variety of Muslim attitudes and beliefs weren't limited to terrorism cases, but at the very least it's important to mention in terrorism cases.

This Washington Post ran a piece about confusion among Muslims about how to react to such high-profile arrests:

As details of the arrest trickled out, many in the Muslim community avoided saying anything to outsiders, but instead quietly voiced concerns to one another about the tactics used.

The ambivalence highlights the complicated and often fraught relationship between law enforcement and Muslim Americans - an alliance some say has suffered especially in the last year with the slew of sting-like operations within their communities.

Increasingly, Muslims believe that even as they work with the FBI to combat terrorism, they are being spied upon by authorities.

It's a great idea for a piece and it's something that provoked some concern for me, too, as I read the details of the sting. For instance, the feds put coded messages in a Koran. But the piece also suffers by not dealing more forcefully with some of these issues. Again, we get a quote from Dar al-Hijrah:

At Dar al-Hijrah, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik said his mosque works closely with law enforcement. But at the same time, he said, he believes there's been a chilling effect from the sting operations.

I mean, when President Obama has issued an assassination order on one of this mosque's former imams, that should be mentioned. But it would also make for a good question of the spokesman. As in, "So your mosque has had a ton of ties to terrorists. Anwar al-Awlaki, 9/11 hijackers, etc. Why should the feds trust you to provide all the information necessary for combating terror?" Or something. You know, ask the tough questions. There are probably some really good answers to be found, too. The quote that Abdul-Malik gave was really interesting, actually, and about how new visitors to the mosque are greeted with suspicion for fear that they're feds. But we're talking about some serious threats here, too. It would be nice to have answers that go into those external threats, too.

The story is focused on how Muslims feel about how well they're cooperating with the feds. The only perspective from law enforcement comes from an agency flack. That's completely understandable for a quick follow-up such as this. But it would be great to talk to former agency officials or others who might be able to offer perspective that goes beyond what you're going to get from a spokesman.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 27:  Metro trains arrive at the Gallery Pl - Chinatown Station October 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. Farooque Ahmed, a naturalized US citizen originally from Pakistan, of Ashburn, Virginia, was arrested by the FBI for attempting to assist others whom he believed to be members of al-Qaeda in planning multiple bombings at Metrorail stations in the Washington, DC, area. He was taken into custody earlier this morning. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I did think that the next-day story from Spencer Hsu was pretty good. It's really about the information from the affidavit filed in Ahmed's arrest. It naturally weaves religion throughout the piece. It doesn't reserve "religion" for a special section of the piece but incorporates it from start to finish. But it did end with a particular emphasis on religious issues:

But Ahmed also expressed concerns that he complete religious obligations before going overseas to fight, a key step that counterterrorism analysts say is observed by violent Islamic extremists. He also told the undercover operatives that he was interested in contributing money to the cause, offering $10,000 in donations, Dayoub wrote.

According to federal authorities, Ahmed told agents that he would be ready to fight after completing a pilgrimage to Mecca next month.

"On September 28, 2010, AHMED told both [operatives] that he was attending the Hajj this year and that they should all go in order to complete the five pillars of Islam before making the 'top mark' - by which I believe AHMED meant 'becoming a martyr,' " Dayoub said.

An interesting story. The Washington Post has the resources to cover this story well and it's nice to see them putting a bunch of reporters on it. I look forward to future coverage, too.

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