Agents meet with Muslim Community
Officials want Muslims to help be their eyes and ears as they seek to thwart terrorism leading up to the election.
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 6, 2004
TAMPA - Federal agents held a town hall meeting Tuesday with members of Tampa Bay's Arab and Muslim community, giving them warning about an expected increase in interviews and investigations in coming weeks to thwart any possible terrorist attack near the elections.
FBI officials have organized similar meetings throughout the country, trying to spread the word that they need help uncovering plots. "We cannot do this alone," said Carl Whitehead, special agent in charge of the Tampa division, which oversees 18 counties in Central Florida.
The initiative, called the Fall Threat Task Force, is an attempt to gather information from members of the community who might have witnessed or heard about suspicious activity, Whitehead said during the meeting.
The meeting was held Tuesday night at the Embassy Suites at the University of South Florida. About 20 community members from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Sarasota counties attended, as did about a dozen FBI agents.
Whitehead said he wanted to assure area residents that Muslims and Arabs were not being targeted, adding that agents will question storage business owners of any background, for example, if they think chemicals or bombs are being stashed at their site. Interviews will "not be based on religious or ethnic background," he said.
What will they be based on? community members asked.
Whitehead said agents will make that decision based on whether their sources lead them to believe that a resident has "useful" information to give them.
Community members asked for more specifics.
"What type of help are you seeking from our community?" asked Ahmed Bedier, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"We're just as committed to making sure our country and our state are safe," he said.
One way of helping would be to alleviate fears among community members that the FBI is not conducting an immigration roundup, Whitehead said. Also, ask people to step forward if they know something. And they should report hate crimes, which Whitehead said his office would vigorously investigate.
Community members asked about charities, to which many of them donate. How do they know they won't be under investigation if the charity later is found to be contributing to terrorism groups?
FBI officials said they should make sure that the charity is not listed on the State Department's list of terrorism organizations. They still could be questioned, however, if the charity is later found to be giving funds to terrorists, just so agents can be sure they didn't know where the money was going.
Other members said they wanted more answers about how they could learn to trust the government based on policies and comments by members of the Bush administration they found racist and offensive.
"There's a big mistrust in the Muslim community," said Haitham Barazanji, of St. Petersburg with the Islamic Society of Pinellas County.
"We're trying to help, that's why we're here today," Whitehead said.
After the meeting, Bedier said he thought the town hall gathering was a step in the right direction. But it's not enough.
"We want real dialogue," he said. "Not just damage control."
Muslims community leaders showed up. There are approximately 3,000,000 people in the four Tampa Bay counties named in the story.
Thanks for participating. Oh and sorry you have a lot of mistrust.
"The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth".
Omar M. Ahmad, Chairman of The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) -1998