October 3rd, 2006 13:15 EST
FBI At the Table With Muslims
A U.S. Muslim leader who addressed 500 agents during a recent training seminar at the FBI Academy in Virginia said the relationship between his constituents and the FBI isn’t perfect, but it’s never been better.
“It’s a very healthy relationship,” said Nawar Shora of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the largest Arab-American civil rights group in the U.S. “We may not always agree, but both sides know that we need to be sitting at the table having that dialogue.”
The dialogue began in earnest in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The FBI’s Washington field office helped create an advisory council of Arab, Muslim, and Sikh leaders to improve relations with communities that might be helpful in the search for intelligence. Shora’s group, meanwhile, formed a Law Enforcement Outreach Program in early 2002 to ensure the lines of communication with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were wired for two-way conversations. The effect has been a slow build-up of trust through casual gatherings, periodic meetings, and training seminars for agents like the event at the FBI Academy earlier this month.
“This is an area where we need to develop better relationships,” said Joseph Persichini Jr., acting assistant director in charge of the Washington field office, the second largest of 56 field offices in the U.S. “We must maintain a robust intelligence gathering mechanism. If we don’t have an understanding of the communities that we serve, how can we do that?”
To that end, Persichini has Muslim leaders on his speed-dial and recently began requiring all new agents in his field office to meet with community leaders and visit area mosques. “What’s important here is we’re going to their community and meeting their community. It’s not them coming to us,” Persichini said.
Shora has been teaching what he jokingly refers to as “Arab Muslims 101” to new agents and intelligence analysts at the FBI Academy for four years and estimates he’s helped some 7,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. better understand and respect his culture and background. He says the FBI excels at what he calls “Step 2” and “Step 3” of a case: investigation and follow-through. “Step 1”—understanding Muslim and minority communities and how they behave—remains a work in progress, he says.
“Things have changed drastically since 9/11,” Shora said. “When we have community members finally comfortable enough to pick up the phone and call up the FBI—they feel comfortable enough to call the Bureau—we are getting there.”
A Muslim organization in Northern Virginia recently honored Persichini for his service to the community and his office’s outreach. Shora said the Washington field office has established a level of trust through communication and understanding. “I don’t think we’re on two different sides trying to bridge the gap,” Shora said. “I think we’re on the same side and need to discover each other and work together more.”