Imam Arrests Show Shift In Muslim Outreach Effort

Jul 19, 2011
Originally published on July 19, 2011 8:22 pm

In the second part of a series on counterterrorism training, NPR looks at a test case in Miami.

To understand the events that unfolded two months ago in Miami, you need to know that one of the most volatile things that can happen in a Muslim-American community is the arrest of a religious leader, the imam. Back in May, the FBI's Miami field office ended up arresting two of them: Imam Hafiz Khan and his son, Izhar Khan. They were charged along with several other members of the Khan family with financing terrorism in Pakistan.

Hafiz Khan is the leader of the Miami Mosque in west Miami — the oldest mosque in South Florida. His son runs the Masjid Jamaat al-Mumineen Mosque in Margate, Fla., just outside Miami. What makes these particular arrests unusual is the way the local Muslim community reacted to them: The arrests didn't spark outrage or demonstrations. Instead, the way they were handled is being lauded as a model for the way law enforcement and communities should work together.

"Obviously there is a lot of operational planning that goes on before an arrest takes place," says John Gillies, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami field office. "We wanted to be sensitive to the fact that the imams would be conducting religious services a number of times each day. There was going to be no good day to conduct these arrests, but there would be days to be worse to do it, like Friday."

Friday prayers are generally the most heavily attended of the weekly prayers. So the FBI decided the best day to move in would be a Saturday — in the morning.

"At 6 o'clock in the morning, we have the first prayer of the morning, and it was a little before 6 o'clock, like five minutes before," says Sayeed Shamin Akhtar, standing outside the Miami Mosque. He was there the morning the elder Khan was arrested. "After the prayer started, then someone banged on the door like 'boom, boom, boom.' FBI-style of course, you can understand."

Akhtar was on his knees in the very first row of the prayer hall. "We were all sitting down and standing up and thinking of God and God was looking at us and we were just praying," he said.

While the people inside were praying, more than a dozen agents in their FBI windbreakers had surrounded the mosque. Local police had pitched in. They cordoned off a two-block area in the neighborhood. The Miami Mosque is an ordinary-looking, one-story stucco house in the middle of a quiet, residential neighborhood. Without knowing it was a mosque, one would drive right by it. That Saturday, once the prayers had finished, an agent and a translator approached the imam.

"[The agent] came into the masjid with his shoes off. And he went straight to the imam. He grabbed his hand, and he said, 'You're coming with me,' in Pashto," Akhtar said. (Khan's native language is Pashto.)

The people in the mosque that morning were stunned. "Like a bolt of lightning had happened," Akhtar said.

Gillies, the FBI agent in charge, had been standing outside, and he watched as officers put Khan into a squad car and drove away. Then he picked up his cellphone and started dialing up leaders in the community. One of the people he phoned was Mohammad Shakir, who works for the Office of Community Advocacy in Miami-Dade County.

"The FBI was decent enough that they called us before they called the press," Shakir said. "On the phone, he said, 'Look, this has taken place. I personally was there. I supervised it. I made sure that everything goes by the book. No violation. No rudeness. No discrimination. Not to violate the mosque sanctity.' So we immediately called a meeting and got together and developed a strategy how to respond."

This may all sound like common sense, but these kinds of arrests rarely happen this way. The Muslim community is usually left to sort through rumor and innuendo. It is caught flat-footed when the media call for comment. The worst-case scenarios are often embraced as fact, and it often takes weeks to sort fact from fiction.

In the Miami case, there was a lot of attention to detail. The FBI waited for the morning prayers to end. The agent took off his shoes before entering the mosque. The FBI didn't arrest or handcuff the imam inside the mosque. The leaders in the Muslim community were kept informed. In fact, they saw a copy of the indictment before the media did, and Gillies called them just minutes after the arrest.

As it turns out, many of the officers who were there at the Miami mosque that day had just finished — literally just a week before — a training course that focused on cultural sensitivity involving Arab, Muslim and Sikh American communities. One of the films they were shown was called "In the First Three to Five Seconds." It's a bit of a primer on Islamic culture. Among the things it mentions: "Shoes are removed before stepping on the prayer rug; avoid stepping on the prayer rug with your shoes ... "

The FBI's Gillies said he would have known to take off his shoes before the training. He has Muslim agents who have helped educate him and others in the Miami field office about cultural sensitivities. "I would like to think that we would have been respectful six months ago, 12 months ago," he said. "Five years ago, we might have gone into the mosque without taking our shoes off. I am speaking personally here."

Today, the Miami arrests are being held up as a model of how to handle these sensitive cases. Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, says the way the arrests unfolded was no accident. He is one of two dozen U.S. attorneys across the country who have been asked to take part in a pilot program that has them reach out directly to local Muslim leaders. The relationship, in some respects, is a natural one. Muslim communities that have been victims of hate crimes would go to the U.S. Attorney's Office or the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division for relief.

"The reason I think they got the U.S. attorneys involved is because we can convene the agencies, the community members, in a fashion that we can bring everybody together to the table," Ferrer said.

The point isn't lost on Ferrer or the FBI's Gillies that by having done this outreach, when it came time to arrest the imams, they weren't in a position of having to open a phone book and figure out whom to contact in the community. They already had a relationship with leaders in the Muslim community. They had already attended prayers in some of their mosques. They'd had dinners to meet mosque members and U.S. Attorney's Office employees.

"The time to set up those kinds of relationships is before something bad happens," Gillies said. This kind of thing is starting to happen across the country, the Justice Department says. The Miami arrests have just been the most striking example.

That said, it has taken almost a decade to get to this point. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslim leaders have criticized law enforcement tactics as heavy-handed. They've complained about the FBI planting undercover agents and confidential informants inside mosques. The FBI won't apologize for those tactics but does acknowledge that it can do a better job of reaching out to the Muslim community. And it isn't lost on the bureau that being culturally sensitive can pay off in other ways.

"We have found that Muslim and Arab community members have been really helpful in informing us and disrupting plots against the United States," Ferrer said. "So it is really a win-win for both sides."

Two months after the arrests, the gestures made by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI appear to have paid off. Even after a judge denied the two imams bail, there has been barely a ripple in the local Muslim community.

"No one knows all the facts yet — even the lawyers don't know all the facts yet," Shakir said. "If he is innocent, fine, we have gone through another American process. We're still hoping when all is said and done, he will come out innocent."

Hafiz Khan and his son have entered their pleas: not guilty to all of the charges.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Two months ago, the FBI descended on a mosque in Florida. They arrested a Muslim religious leader there. In time, two prominent clerics were picked up. The clerics were accused of funneling money to the Pakistani Taliban.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

The story was important news, but almost as newsworthy was what happened afterward - nothing. Though it was considered an extremely sensitive case, the arrests did not spark protests in the South Florida Muslim community.

INSKEEP: The way the cases were handled is being lauded as a model for the way law enforcement and communities should work together. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston continues her reports on counterterrorism training.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: To understand the events that took place in Miami two months ago, you need to know that in the Muslim-American community, just about the most volatile thing law enforcement can do is arrest an imam, a Muslim religious leader.

Back in May, the FBI in Miami ended up arresting two: Imam Hafiz Khan, who ran the oldest mosque in South Florida, and his son, an imam in charge of a mosque in a suburb of Miami. After the arrests, there was no backlash - and there was a reason for that.

Mr. JOHN GILLIES (FBI): Obviously, there's a lot of operational planning that goes on before the arrests take place.

TEMPLE-RASTON: John Gillies is the special agent in charge of the Miami FBI office.

Mr. GILLIES: We wanted to be sensitive to the fact that these imams would be conducting religious services a number of times each day. So there was going to be no good day to actually conduct these arrests, but there would actually be days that would be worse days to do it, like Friday.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So the FBI decided that the best day to do it would be a Saturday, in the morning.

Mr. SAYEED SHAMIN AKHTAR: At 6 o'clock in the morning, we have first prayer of the morning. It was a little before 6 o'clock - like, five minutes before.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Sayeed Shamin Akhtar. He was at the mosque when the FBI came to arrest the imam. And when I spoke to Akhtar, I asked him to take me around the mosque and describe what happened that morning.

Mr. AKHTAR: After the prayer started, somebody bang on our door - like boom, boom, boom. FBI-style, of course, you can understand. And there were...

TEMPLE-RASTON: FBI agents. And where were you? Were you just inside here?

Mr. AKHTAR: We were - we were inside on the very row, the first green line there. You see that? We were there. We were all - sit down solemnly, stand up, and thinking of God. God is looking at us, and we were just praying.

TEMPLE-RASTON: While the people inside were praying, more than a dozen agents in their FBI windbreakers surrounded the mosque. Local police had cordoned off a two-block area. The mosque is an ordinary, one-story stucco house in the middle of a residential neighborhood. If you didn't know it was a mosque, you'd drive right by it. That Saturday, once the prayers had finished, an agent and a translator approached the imam. The arrest was carried out respectfully.

Mr. AKHTAR: He came down to inside the masjid with his shoes off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Who? The agent?

Mr. AKHTAR: The agent, yes. And he went all the way to - straight to him. He grabbed his hand and said, you're coming with me - in Pashto.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In Pashto. The imam was addressed in his own language.

The people in the mosque were stunned. John Gillies, the FBI agent in charge, had been standing outside. And as he watched officers put Khan in the squad car and drive away, he then picked up his cell phone and started dialing up leaders in the community. One of the people he called was this man, Mohammad Shakir.

Mr. MOHAMMAD SHAKIR (Office of Community Advocacy, Miami-Dade County): FBI was decent enough that they called us before they called the press.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Shakir works for the Office of Community Advocacy in Miami-Dade County.

Mr. SHAKIR: That look, this has taken place. I personally was there. I supervised it. And I made sure that everything goes by the book. No violation, no rudeness, no discrimination. Not to violate the mosque sanctity. So we immediately called a meeting, and we got together, and we developed a strategy how to respond.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This may all sound like common sense, but arrests rarely happen this way. In the Miami case, there was a lot of attention to detail. The FBI waited for the morning prayers to end. The agent took off his shoes before entering the mosque. The FBI didn't arrest or handcuff the imam inside the mosque. The leaders of the Muslim community were kept informed.

As it turns out, the officers there that day had literally finished - just a week before - a training course on cultural sensitivity involving Arab, Muslim and Sikh American communities. This is a clip from a film that was shown in their training.

(Soundbite of training film)

Unidentified Man: If you visit a mosque, be aware that there are separate entrances to the prayer sections for males and females.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The film is called "In the First Three to Five Seconds," and it is a bit of a primer on Islamic culture.

(Soundbite of training film)

Unidentified Man: Shoes are removed before entering the area dedicated to prayer. Avoid stepping on the prayer rug with your shoes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What would the arrest have looked like before your training? What would it have looked like six months ago? Would you have known to take off your shoes, be that careful?

Mr. GILLIES: Yes, yes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, FBI Special Agent in Charge John Gillies.

Mr. GILLIES: I would like to think that we would have been respectful, you know, six months ago, 12 months ago. Five years ago, you know, we might have gone into the mosque without taking our shoes off and stuff. And I'm speaking personally here.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Today, the Miami arrests are being held up as a model of how to handle these sensitive cases.

Mr. WIFREDO FERRER (U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Florida): I'm Wifredo Ferrer. I'm the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ferrer is one of two dozen U.S. attorneys across the country who have been asked to take part in a pilot program that has them reach out directly to local Muslim leaders.

Mr. FERRER: The reason I think that they got the U.S. attorneys involved is because we can convene the agencies, the community members, in a fashion that, you know, we can bring everybody together to the table.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's taken almost a decade to get to this point. Since the 9/11 attacks, Muslim leaders have criticized law-enforcement tactics as heavy-handed. They've complained about the FBI planting undercover agents or confidential informants inside mosques. The FBI won't apologize for those tactics, but they do acknowledge they can do a better job reaching out to the Muslim community. And being culturally sensitive can pay off in other ways.

Mr. FERRER: We have found that Muslim and Arab community members have been extremely helpful in disrupting, informing us of any plots against the United States. And so it's really a win-win for both sides.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The gestures the U.S. Attorney's office and the FBI made in the run-up to and after the Miami arrests have paid off. Two months later, there's been barely a ripple in the local Muslim community, even after a judge denied the two imams bail.

Mr. SHAKIR: Nobody knows all the facts yet. Even the lawyers don't know the facts yet.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Muslim community activist Mohammad Shakir.

Mr. SHAKIR: And if he's innocent, fine. We went through the American process. And we're still hoping that when all is said and done, he will come out innocent.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that American process continues. Hafiz Khan and his son have entered their pleas: not guilty to all charges.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.