ANNAPOLIS – They came in pairs, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, with photographs, badges, and their questions for Sabir Rahman, imam of the Muslim Community Center of Silver Spring.
“One was FBI, one was immigration,” said Rahman. “All they wanted to know was if we have any information about anybody who was in the news.”
FBI officials came to the Silver Spring mosque and community center shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks searching for information related to the suspected terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, as they have at Muslim community centers around Maryland.
But agents failed to explain to Rahman their other duty: to provide support to the community against racial and religious harassment.
FBI officials say civil rights enforcement is a priority, but the bureau has been much slower to offer such information to Muslim leaders than to seek information from them about suspected terrorists.
Rahman’s FBI visitors showed him pictures of the suspected hijackers whose names and photographs have been broadcast on major news channels since their release Sept. 27.
“I picked out one picture…and said I have seen it on TV and not anywhere else. Other than that I have not seen any of these people,” Rahman said.
The men then asked Rahman if he could identify the nationalities of any of the suspects by their names and pictures. Rahman, who is Pakistani, said he could not. The agents returned to their car, where they stayed another hour.
When county police came to visit him, Rahman says, it was a different story. They came to his community center almost immediately after the attacks to offer protection from backlash.
“They (the FBI) did not come to us offering help,” Rahman said. “The police came constantly offering help.”
Maryland-based FBI officials said they are following “thousands of leads” regarding the attacks, but insist they’re also reaching out to Muslim community leaders primarily to reassure Muslims that they have a place to report incidents of backlash.
“People who have been victimized often don’t know who they can turn to when it happens,” said Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta, spokesman for the Baltimore FBI office.
“We want to let them know we’re not too busy to investigate (hate crimes). . . it’s something we and the Department of Justice are not going to tolerate,” Gulotta said.
Gulotta cited similar zero-tolerance statements issued Sept. 13 by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and Assistant Attorney General Ralph F. Boyd.
The imam of the Islamic Community Center of Laurel says FBI officials have contacted him three times since the attacks, but they have explicitly expressed concern for civil rights only recently.
The imam, who declined to give his name to protect his family, said two FBI agents, also casually-dressed, came to his apartment near the Laurel center a few days after Sept. 11 to show him photographs of suspected hijackers.
Five suspected hijackers were known to have stayed in Laurel’s Valencia Motel before the attacks. One suspect, Hani Hanjour, took flight lessons at an airport in nearby Bowie.
The Laurel center imam told agents he recognized none of them.
Two more agents came a few days later, this time wearing business suits. The imam told them he’d already had a visit from the FBI, and the agents left.
“The third time, they phoned and said, ‘We’re here to protect your civil rights,’ and if we have any problems, that I should give them a call,” the imam said. That was shortly before Oct. 1.
The FBI has also contacted officials at the University of Maryland, College Park, to get in touch with campus groups like the Muslim Student Association and the Muslim Women of Maryland.
Campus Director of Activities Marsha Guenzler-Stevens sent an e-mail to these groups after meeting for an hour with FBI agents Sept. 24. The e-mail provided the agents’ names and contact numbers and relayed the agents’ request that “harassment or hate incidents” be reported to them as well as to university police.
“These same individuals are also investigating leads on the Sept. 11 incidents,” the e-mail said. “Given that some of the alleged perpetrators of the crime were in our area prior to Sept. 11, they are anxious to talk with any students who may have observed suspicious acts of any kind.”
“Their very first issue was the civil rights issue,” said Guenzler-Stevens about her meeting with the agents. “I think the FBI has a strong concern for…backlash.”
Agents had met with campus groups, campus police and individual students well before they met with her, Guenzler-Stevens said. She did not have information on the nature of their meetings with students.