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St. Louis-area Somalis feel intimidated by FBI [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
[February 03, 2011]

St. Louis-area Somalis feel intimidated by FBI [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]


(St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 03--ST. LOUIS -- On the same November day that federal authorities arrested an airport cabdriver and accused him of supporting a Somali terrorist organization, the FBI cast a wider net.



Agents descended on Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where over two days 25 to 50 other cabdrivers, all refugees from Somalia, were summoned to the airport police office. One by one, they entered small rooms where FBI agents waited. A series of questions followed: Do you ever send money overseas? Who do you send money to? What trips have you taken? What rumors are you hearing? Anyone we should be worried about? Agents sought to copy the drivers' cell phone memory cards and examine their personal computers.

"They sounded like when they are talking to you that you are guilty," said one cabdriver, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. Several drivers offered similar accounts but did not want to be quoted.


The actions have some accusing the FBI of once again overstepping bounds in investigating whether St. Louis' Somali population of about 2,000 is a potential haven for terrorists.

The critics say that such 'strong-arm" tactics hinder efforts by law enforcement agencies to make inroads among Somalis and Muslims.

"We are disappointed they acted so rashly and harshly in this situation," said John Chasnoff of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. "These are people who are haven't been linked to any terrorist activity." A spokeswoman for the St. Louis FBI office acknowledged that outreach to Somalis "is not at the level we would like it to be." "Certain communities, including people from Somalia, may have a distrust of law enforcement because of their negative experiences in their homeland," spokeswoman Rebecca Wu said. "That's why outreach to those communities takes sensitivity and time to build relationships. The goal of our community outreach is to help people understand what we do, so they have trust and confidence in the FBI. In order for the FBI to be effective, we need the public's support in our common interest to fight crime and terrorism." U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan declined to comment on investigative tactics but said "terrorism is a serious matter, and it's going to be taken as seriously as anything the FBI or our office does." On Nov. 1, authorities arrested Mohamud Abdi Yusuf, who they allege collected and wired about $6,000 to al-Shabaab, an Islamist group that is trying to overthrow the shaky government of his impoverished east African country. The U.S. government declared al-Shabaab a terrorist organization in 2008.

Callahan said he understood that Somalis here might feel pressured but stressed that the Yusuf case was an isolated matter and "did not represent a larger problem with the Muslim population." "I think it's natural for any minority to be concerned about whether they're going to be focused on unfairly by law enforcement," Callahan said.

That's why he said the outreach being done by his office and the FBI is so important.

"It's about communication and having trust on both sides," he said.

But Jim Hacking III, a legal consultant to the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, believes that trust is fading. Hacking once worked closely with the FBI in its outreach efforts to Muslims. When the FBI put out a bulletin that warned al-Shabaab might try an attack in the U.S. timed to the presidential inauguration, Hacking helped the FBI with a request to locate several local Somalis.

As word of the airport interviews spread that day, some drivers called Hacking, an immigration attorney who had represented them in their citizenship cases or had sat in with them during previous voluntary FBI interviews.

Hacking tried to contact an FBI agent at the scene. Despite what he thought was a good relationship, his messages went unanswered.

At a minimum, the drivers should have had a chance to contact a lawyer, he said.

"They knew if a lawyer was there, no one would be handing over (telephone memory) cards and personal computers," Hacking said.

He believes the drivers' civil rights were violated.

"These people come from a country where you don't have the choice to deal with law enforcement," Hacking said. "You do it or you get thrown in jail. I don't know how sophisticated these people were and how free they felt in responding to pretty strong-arm tactics." The incident left Hacking less inclined to urge cooperation.

"I take the position now, you're a fool to talk to the FBI without an attorney," he said. "I recognize they have a difficult job to do. I just think the way they are doing it is backwards. You can't build bridges at the same time you're scaring ... people." The cabdrivers said many Somalis felt harassed by repeated interviews and perceived threats from the FBI. Many of the drivers the FBI interviewed were only recently granted or are still awaiting U.S. citizenship and felt intimidated.

The airport interview was probably one of a half dozen the cabdriver who spoke to the Post-Dispatch said he has had with the FBI in the last seven years.

"I feel threatened, scared," he said. It's just become part of my life. You try to tell them you are not the person they are looking for." He worried that the attention focused on the Somali cabdrivers made them outcasts among their peers and might cost them their jobs.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has made outreach to Muslims a priority but also has defended aggressive FBI tactics, including the use of sting operations orchestrated by government informers. Since 2007, 37 defendants have been charged in federal court with terrorism violations related to al-Shabaab or other extremist groups in Somalia. Some Somalis believe informers are at work in St. Louis spreading false allegations to settle long-standing tribal grudges.

The Yusuf trial marks the first prosecution of a terrorism case in the Eastern District since the creation of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force following the al-Qaida terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The task force includes representatives from 40 agencies, including four attorneys from Callahan's office who focus solely on counterterrorism. Their priority is not to prosecute but to detect, prevent and disrupt such activity.

"It's just something where the successes are not made public," Callahan said. "I understand that sounds a little bit like, 'trust me,' but that's just the nature of this kind of work." At Yusuf's Nov. 4 bail hearing, authorities disclosed they had been recording Yusuf's telephone calls for four years.

Prosecutors have alleged Yusuf, 30, used code words in conversations and other tricks to try to avoid detection. The indictment alleges Yusuf raised money from unindicted co-conspirators around the country and chipped in some of his own cash in hopes of buying al-Shabaab a vehicle big enough to transport 25 fighters. He is being held without bail in the St. Charles County Jail. A federal public defender represented Yusuf until last week, when he hired an attorney. The attorney could not be reached for comment.

Friends say his case is a result of a misunderstanding. They say Yusuf, who came to the United States in 2001, frequently wired money to his wife and others relatives in a refugee camp.

They described him as friendly, funny and a good family man.

"When we see what happened to him we don't believe it," the cabdriver said. "One of us could be next." To see more of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.stltoday.com.

Copyright (c) 2011, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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