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FBI Plans Interviews with Arab Americans

The AIM is to Uncover Pre-Election Plots, but Many Balk at The Tactic

Still upset about past scrutiny, Arab-Americans and Muslims in Central Florida are questioning the FBI's latest plan to interview community members as part of a broad initiative to uncover possible terrorist plots before the presidential elections.

For the past week, FBI and state agents have held meetings across Florida with community leaders to explain a mandate from Washington to seek fresh interviews about suspicious activity. Similar events are taking place across the country, part of a nationwide effort to glean information that might foil a possible plot by al-Qaeda to disrupt the Nov. 2 vote.

Although Arab-American community leaders said they understand the need for vigilance and support efforts to root out terrorists, they raised questions Wednesday about the FBI-led plan.

" Our community is already afraid and jittery, because there has already been several rounds of detainees and interviews since 9- 11," said Ahmed Bedier, a Tampa-based spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington civil-rights group.

Bedier said the questions, which according to FBI officials number about a dozen, also come at a sensitive time -- only days before Islam's holy month of Ramadan.

" I informed them that during the month of Ramadan, all Muslims look suspicious and their days are turned upside down," Bedier said of two recent meetings with the FBI in Tampa.

" They get up early in the morning. There's heavy traffic at the mosques. Someone not aware could misinterpret their actions."

Other local leaders echo Bedier's sentiments. But they also say they sense political overtones in the law-enforcement agencies' actions.

Among some of the questions agents intend to ask is whether they know anyone critical of the domestic war on terrorism or whether they have heard any anti-U.S. propaganda, according to people who attended a meeting with FBI and state agents.Orlando Criminal Defense Attorney Mark NeJame

" In this day and age, I hardly know anybody anywhere who doesn't have anti-government opinions, but that's the essence of democracy and the Constitution," said Mark NeJame, a criminal-defense attorney who has been asked to speak about relations with the Arab-American community at an Oct. 25 FBI conference in Texas.

Others who attended one of the recent meetings said they raised objections to the questions.

" Arab-Americans will do everything in their capacity to ensure the security of this country," said Taleb Salhab, president of the Arab-American Community Center of Central Florida.

" However, we will not tolerate the violation of our community's constitutional rights."

Salhab was one of eight Arab and Muslim Americans who met Monday with Carl Whitehead, head of the Tampa FBI division that oversees the Orlando office, and four other high-ranking FBI and state agents.

" The timing is questionable," said Salhab, who also serves as coordinator of the nonpartisan Florida's Arab American Leadership Council.

" However, we look forward to engaging the FBI and other agencies on how best to proceed to ensure that our community will not be profiled and that their civil rights will be protected."

Government officials have said the questioning is not in response to any specific threat and is not targeted at any ethnic group. But they have pointed to the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, Spain - - which came days before a general election -- as a possible scenario.

" We have done this before, and we're going to have to do this as many times before in order to prevent a terrorist attack," said Sara Oates, an FBI spokeswoman in Tampa.

Federal and state agents have said they developed solid leads after questioning Middle Easterners at least twice before -- shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and weeks before the United States invaded Iraq last year.

Oates said the FBI is not limiting interviews to Arabs and Muslims. For example, she said, agents plan to question owners who may store chemicals or explosive materials or operate rental businesses.

" The intent is not to influence the elections," Oates said.

" It's to keep the nation under the democratic process. Our interest is to make sure that we don't have an incident because of not getting some information and not being able to prevent an attack."

Information about Monday's meeting at the University of Central Florida's downtown campus quickly spread this week among Central Florida's Arab-Americans. It bothered some who think they are being singled out once again.

" Why just our community?," asked Sami Qubty, past president of the Arab-American Community Center.

" I mean, Timothy McVeigh, I don't think he was Arab. Or Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, they were not Arabs. It's just strictly profiling."

One of the government agents at the meeting said that previous questioning of Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, had created a backlash when a number were deported for immigration violations, according to one of the attendees.

" Thousands and thousands of people have been sent back," NeJame said.

" So, what kind of incentive is there for anybody to talk to the government, knowing that when they do, it could cause complete destruction of the family unit?"

Copyright © 2004, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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