- Mohamed Elibiary is a Dallas-based Texas Muslim community leader and an Advisor to the Homeland Security Enterprise.
- While the recent report by Ackerman on FBI's “Islam training” is troubling, Elibiary provides some contextual insight
- How is the key FBI trainer, Gawthrop, viewed in FBI circles? Who is Coughlin and his relevance?
- Allaying Muslim community concerns & learning from the “Texas model”
- Elibiary's own personal experiences in dealing with the FBI
Insights about the Exposé
Earlier this week, a news story broke and achieved what rarely happens, broad-based scrutiny and indignation towards the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). In Wired Magazine, Spenser Ackerman' s article exposed FBI Counter-Terrorism training at Quantico as unprofessional and inaccurate. The training manuals were filled with information based on anti-Muslim bigotry or Islamophobia. As a liaison between the FBI and the Muslim community, I can attest that there is nothing new in Ackerman's reporting and could add volumes more to it of FBI wrongdoings; nonetheless, it has been disquieting and demoralizing for someone in my position to watch the ripple effects upon our community's psyche.
In response to this FBI anti-Muslim bigotry training story breaking, a dear friend wrote to me lamenting that “this report goes against almost everything we are working as a community to do to reach out to authorities. It's like we moderate orthodox Muslims are left out to dry, and all of our arguments that there is little to no racism and bigotry within the circles of security agencies in America against Muslims are all bogus!”
The sentiments of this influential national community leader were echoed by another community leader who summed up her community's concerns as “OMG, look at what they are doing to us?”; she continued by relating an example of how many millions were possibly spent in her hometown over the years promoting such ideas. I realize that our communities are scared and outraged but I would like to emphasize the following points as we read reports like Mr. Ackerman's:
Who is Gawthrop? - William Gawthrop, the analyst who authored most of the training in the article, is well-known and detested in many FBI circles. The reason we're seeing his work being made public is because there are agents inside the FBI trying to marginalize him and push him out. If one reads between the lines, even the article's author hints at FBI insiders assisting. These forces are trying to make Gawthrop's tactics public, as it's not easy to fire a federal employee because of all the rules involved.
The Coughlin Factor - I would encourage concerned citizens to study the case of Rtd. Major Stephen Coughlin, who gave his inaccurate understanding of Hanafi, Malaki and Shafi Fiqh as true foundations of terrorism to the Joint Military Chiefs of Staff themselves before having his contract retired and pushed out of the Pentagon.
- For full disclosure, I did not play any role at DOD concerning Coughlin, but did fly up to the Freedom and Justice Foundation office years ago with well-known scholars like Dr. Waleed Basyouni to deeply analyze the arguments in Coughlin's Master's thesis on this topic. I shared that research with some FBI and Homeland Security Intelligence Enterprise allies back then.
- What Coughlin and Gawthrop type analysts are essentially arguing to National Security officials is that violent extremism is a product of religious (theological, not identity) “radicalization” and not sociological, psychological or political. People like Robert Spencer on the outside try to perform the role of echo chamber in order to mainstream such analysis and provide it with a base inside the political system.
- I believe as Coughlin's career was ended, so will Gawthrop's and other less infamous full-time analysts inside the National Security enterprise, due to many factors about our country's resilient value system and scientific inquiry appetite that these individuals hardly understand.
What is the solution? - As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the solution on a national level is not top down but requires that we work city by city and state by state to reorient the system. Even with the portions of my bio I elected to share below, someone in my position very infrequently travels to the White House or engages with the National Security Council Staff on these issues. The real work that needs to be done is at the local city and state levels. Federalism is a powerful concept, and American Muslim advocacy strategies have yet to be leveraged effectively.
The Tipping Point - When a community working with its local law enforcement partners gets relations at a regional FBI field office to the tipping point, then you'll see local FBI officials push back to HQ and the intelligence community on the ideas that Gawthrop and co. promote. You will also see the top FBI official in a city put out clear messaging to local police executives of what is the true relationship with the local Muslim community, contrary to what politicians like Peter King might message on a FOX opinion show. Accurate and beneficial counter-terrorism law enforcement training will replace bigoted, for-profit, alarmist nonsense that undermines local security by disenfranchising American Muslims allied in countering violent extremism.
Look for good FBI agents - Just like there are bridge burners like Gawthrop, I also know of FBI agents who, out of their own pockets, buy proper Islamic books for office libraries, read Bukhāri and Muslim, and confer with community-based allies about training materials HQ instructors have taught them at Quantico.
The bottom line is that we live in a democracy, and, just as we have in this country civilian oversight of the military, we also have civilian oversight of Intelligence, Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security systems. The challenge for the Muslim community has always been simply: how do we “step up our game” and become civic leaders of society around these topics? Or as Mahdi Bray used to say in community fundraisers I attended growing up, raising our children to become “headlights” and not just “taillights”.
Muslim Community Concerns
Sitting one day in a government meeting at DHS-HQ last year, I recall in a briefing we were receiving from a national polling agency on the public's attitude towards various law enforcement agencies that American Muslims generally had a 60% confidence level in the FBI. The numbers broke down a little less for African-American Muslims than other segments of the community but that certainly is expected given the well documented historical experiences there. It has been a long time since I've witnessed a media report resonate across so many segments of Muslim communities as this Ackerman report, so we'll have to wait to see if it produces a long-lasting impact upon the Muslim community's confidence in the bureau.
Those of us who, while informed by the past, are constantly looking forward might then wonder, so what next? How does one size the scale of this problem of inaccurate counter terrorism training at the FBI and across the wider law enforcement community? How does this problem get fixed? How much impact on national security policy development do Islamophobia's promoters really have and which forces can one strengthen to counter and marginalize them?
The reality is that a dissertation can be written about each of these questions, but considering the points mentioned above can help distinguish reality from perception. As Muslims, we know, more than any other segment of society, that the public does not get an accurate understanding of Islam and Muslim issues simply through the media and that personal contact is the more accurate conveyor of reality. Similarly, what's good for the goose is good for the gander in this case, and so replacing FBI for Muslim in the preceding sentence is similarly accurate.
One must engage with the FBI across its various enterprise elements (ex. local Agent, support staff, Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), supervisors, Special Agents in Charge (SAC), national security branch Asst. SACs Head Quarters Intelligence Analysts, HQ Section Chiefs, Office of Public Affairs (OPA), CT Division, Directorate of Intelligence, Asst. Directors, Exec. Asst. Directors, the Director, previous Directors, retired FBI personnel, FBI whistle blowers, Overseas FBI Legal Attaché Officers, other elements across the National Security Enterprise that engage with various parts of the FBI, etc.) to get an accurate temperature of the organization's policies, attitudes and “culture”.
Learning from the Texas Model
Several hundred Texas Muslim community leaders from each city across the Lone Star State were present at a conference our foundation organized on Homeland Security inside the Texas State Capitol on September 10, 2004. I told them it simply boils down to “Your Rights as Americans, Your Duties as American Muslims.” Yes, surveys show we're patriotic and the majority of us are supportive of law enforcement, but who amongst us wants to have our kids waiting for the FBI to figure out all the Muslim world's complexities all on its own?
In Texas (Dallas & Houston), our community charted a third way over the past decade, not with the National Security hawks who scrutinize every benign social development amongst Muslims globally and not with the big government types who would forsake civil liberties in pursuit of domestic security. We didn't have to throw national community groups or other law-abiding American Muslim leaders under the bus to solve these problems as sell-out Muslims do, but we also didn't elect to sit behind our keyboards and complain that we have no power to act because that's not our deen either.
In Dallas and Houston, where 90% of the Texas Muslim community lives, there are many strong relationships between local Muslim community leaders across dozens of masājid, Islamic schools and local community groups and multiple FBI Special Agents, Joint Terrorism Task Force Supervisors, and Special Agents in Charge & Asst. SACs
National Muslim groups, like CAIR and Muslim Advocates, have issued their press releases and called upon elements within the Department of Justice and FBI to conduct their investigations, so these groups are already taking care of the top-down solution method our community has been employing since the early 90s. We can, in our various cities, enhance these efforts by expanding the grassroots work happening at the city and state levels that the Texas Muslim community has begun to become recognized for at the national level as the “Third Way” model of building a Centrist Environment. For these are the problems that no President can truly solve on his own.
There are 56 FBI field offices, 16 of which in major American cities have 60-70% of the FBI's counter terrorism personnel, about 400 small town resident agency (RA) offices and a handful of agents in LegAt offices in US Embassies oversees. There are way more of us then there are of them, so let's love them with the self-confidence that our religion teaches us that God doesn't put a burden upon a people who can't carry it. I'm not saying to 'move on, nothing to see here' in Mr. Ackerman's work, but instead let's get to work because there's nothing “new” here to anyone already working extensively on these challenges.
My Personal Experience
On Thursday, September 8th FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III personally handed me the Louis E. Peters Memorial Service Award for 2011 in front of an audience of over five hundred retired Directors (ie. Judge William Webster who was Director of not just the FBI but also the CIA), a couple of dozen national security and law enforcement VIPs and several hundred retired FBI officials.
The Peters Award is the highest honor awarded annually to a civilian by the FBI whose assistance was invaluable in a major investigation. This year signified the first time it was given to someone working in the Homegrown Violent Extremism sphere that the American Muslim community has been struggling with post 9/11.
It was a closed-door ceremony in a banquet hall without media, a bit like the scene in the movie Charlie Wilson's War where the CIA gives him their highest civilian award for all he did to help remove the Soviets from Afghanistan. Two of the cases, in which I played the unique role of having one hand stretched out to the FBI and the other hand stretched out to local Muslim community leadership across multiple cities, were shared.
In both of these cases, like others, involved my being the trusted diplomat in two worlds who from my vantage point are married at the hip for the foreseeable future. Both the FBI and the American Muslim community are riding in the same boat, and should God forbid another disaster like 9/11 befall our country, neither party will be able to save its skin from the wrath of the American people by throwing the other party under the bus.
In the introduction explaining why I was receiving the award, Lester Davis as the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI stated that “For the past eight years he has been working closely with the FBI and the Muslim community to create a relationship built on trust and respect. Never once has Mr. Elibiary requested any compensation or recognition for his efforts. The work he has undertaken to spot, identify and address radicalization in the United States cannot be understated.”
The FBI continued on their website press release by further stating that “Mr. Elibiary, of Dallas, Texas, was selected as a result of his extraordinary contributions to specific cases in support of the FBI's counterterrorism mission. He has also been a consensus builder between the national Islamic community and the numerous agencies dedicated to the prevention of terrorism.”
One thing I stated in my speech to that audience is that while “the last decades have witnessed a transformation of our FBI into the global intelligence led crown jewel in our nation's security architecture, with such awesome power comes awesome responsibility also of the bureau as the guardian of our civil, democratic fabric.”
In private, I further relayed to the Director that our community is willing and able to help FBI-HQ address homegrown violent extremism challenges more effectively but that in the meantime, we will continue to work at the grassroots level to help build up relationships with field offices. The message was clear and constructive, so as long as we act like empowered citizens and continue then more positive changes are inevitable, God willing.
In every advocacy strategy employed there are foundational assumptions. Though not an activist pre-9/11, nor belonging to a national community organization, I convened a few dozen community leaders at a Dallas hotel about a year after 9/11 to lay out my own foundational assumptions on how “the system” was working and the beginning of a road map for us as Texas Muslims on how we'd address governmental challenges. Over the years, traveling coast-to-coast visiting with all kinds of Muslim community leaders I've learned to appreciate the wisdom behind federalism even more.
As the FBI's own press release highlights, I elected after 9/11 to perform a consensus building role, whether across government security agencies or the national Islamic community. Just like there are good Muslims and bad Muslims, there are good FBI and bad FBI. What the average American Muslim needs to understand is that, while our post 9/11 relationship might have been securitized with our fellow countrymen due to factors beyond our control, if we step up our game and learn how to identify the good FBI, ally with them and stay the course, then it's a simple “we win and they [anti-Muslim Bigots] lose”.
As a father, I asked myself years ago: do I want to pass on these challenges to my kid's generation or do I want them to get a better position in America's bright future? Each one of us has to answer that question for ourselves, get busy working in our cities to engage deeper with the FBI and win this marathon of reorienting America's National Security Enterprise, or we can sit on our hands, complain and hope by some miracle the politicians will fix it for us.
Mohamed Elibiary is a Dallas-based Texas Muslim community leader and an Advisor to the Homeland Security Enterprise. He has served for multiple years on the Training Advisory Board of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), and was appointed by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) in October 2010 after his earlier service on the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Working Group helping craft the department and broader law enforcement community's framework to addressing Homegrown Violent Extremism (HVE). Mohamed has testified on Homeland Security matters before both the Texas State Legislature and the US Congress (“Working with Communities to Disrupt Terror Plots” – March 2010). He works as a private consultant at Lone Star Intelligence, LLC and speaks often on Homeland Security, Counter Terrorism and Community Partnership matters at law enforcement conferences. Mohamed has assisted multiple offices at the Dept. of Justice to advance Community Oriented Policing methodologies and the Building Communities of Trust (BCOT) Initiative. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) in a report to Congress highlighted how in the previous administration Mohamed assisted the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE) to crafter landmark civil liberties protecting guidelines for the Nationwide Suspicious Activities Reporting Initiative (NSI). These landmark federal guidelines for Fusion Centers were expanded upon by a broad-based coalition of faith-based civic groups and DPS and passed by the Texas State Legislature in 2011 as Law enacted through the Texas Fusion Center Policy Council (TFCPC).