Counterterrorism or Witch Hunt?

Startling news came last week out of the FBI: the leadership had directed all of the bureau’s 56 field offices to count mosques in their regions as part of waging the war on terror.

(Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, most recently Militant Islam Reaches America. You may visit his website by clicking here and purchase his books by clicking here.)

Newsweek, which broke this story, explained that the information on mosques would specifically help “set numerical goals for counter terrorism investigations and secret national-security wiretaps in each region.” The New York Times acquired a closed-door statement by a senior bureau official confirming the mosque data would be used “to help establish a yardstick for the number of terrorism investigations and intelligence warrants” expected from field offices.

Reactions on the Left and among Islamists were predictably outraged. The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the mosque-counting as “tailor-made for a witch hunt.” The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism expressed “deep concern” about fundamental Constitutional protections being abridged.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council deemed it going “beyond the pale of legitimate law enforcement.” But the most colorful response came from the American Muslim Council, a Washington-based militant Islamic group. AMC characterized mosque-counting as an act of “political repression” by the United States government and wrote a letter to the United Nations pleading for relief from this and other “shameful and undemocratic practices.”

Barraged with criticisms, the FBI dissimulated, pretending that the purpose of mosque-counting has nothing to do with preventing possible mosque-based terrorist actions but is intended to learn the “vulnerabilities” of those structures, the better to protect them from possible assault.

To which I ask: Why does the leading law-enforcement institution in the United States hide its counterterrorism efforts? It's known that some mosques throughout the West have been used as a base for terror, filling a variety of roles:

• Inciting violence: Brooklyn's Al-Farooq Mosque was where the blind sheikh inspired the World Trade Center bombing of 1993;

• Planning operations: Milan's Islamic cultural center served as Al-Qaeda's main European base; and

&#8226 Storing weapons: London's Finsbury Park Mosque, in a raid last month, yielded a stun gun, a blank-firing replica firearm, and a gas canister.

Nor is the FBI alone in hiding its methods. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service last month began requiring “certain temporary foreign visitors” from twenty-five countries to register in its offices. The INS pretends it is unaware that (with the exception of nearly non-existent North Korean visitors) all the affected persons hail from Muslim-majority countries.

The INS does so via the time-honored bureaucratic practice of hiding behind ungrammatical obfuscation: “Under this program,” it states, “temporary foreign visitors (non-immigrant aliens) coming from certain countries or who meet a combination of intelligence-based criteria are identified as presenting elevated national security concerns.” Say that again?

Actually, there is a good reason for the FBI and INS to lie or mumble about devoting special attention to Muslims; this practice contradicts declared policy. When President George W. Bush states that “Islam is peace” and refers to “the peaceful teachings of Islam,” how can his law enforcement or immigration staff possibly acknowledge that Islam has any bearing on their work?

A vast disconnect, in other words, exists between the high-flying words of politicians and the sometimes sordid realities of counterterrorism. This discrepancy has real costs:

• Government employees on the front lines face a dilemma: to do an effective job, they run the risk of being accused of running afoul of studiously impartial government regulations, or even of breaking the law.

• The general population is confused: policy statements piously reject any link between Islam and terrorism but then the actions of fighting terror implicitly make just such a connection.

• Militant Islamic groups exploit this duality to argue that U.S. government declarations are mere puffery meant to disguise what really is a war against Islam.

• Ordinary Muslims are confused—Do they believe their ears or their eyes? Do they listen to hypocritical politicians or straight-talking Islamists?

The gap between theory and practice can only be addressed by honest and open debate. Does the body politic want law enforcement to pay extra attention to Muslims? Does it favor Muslim visitors having to fill out extra paperwork? These practices do exist at present, but in a limbo, without sanction or legitimacy. They need either to be ended or made official.

Daniel Pipes


Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, including Militant Islam Reaches America and In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (Transaction Publishers), from which this column derives.

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