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FBI Works to Cut Tension with Arab community

posted on: Oct 8, 2009

After the FBI’s Andrew Arena gave a recent talk in Dearborn, three teenagers approached him and asked if it was illegal for them to listen to songs that tout Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization.

“I said, ‘No, it’s the United States, you can listen to whatever you want,'” Arena, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Detroit, recalled telling them.

“Can we go on pro-Hezbollah Web sites?” one of the teenagers asked.

“Yes, this is America,” Arena answered.

However, “the minute you push the button to send money to Hezbollah … you’ve crossed the line.”

Arena is exchanging views and information with Detroit area residents of Middle East descent in a variety of settings more than three times a month. Both sides say they benefit from the interaction, but it’s not without its tensions and disagreements.

“I don’t apologize; I’m not there to apologize for our actions,” Arena said. “I’m there to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Arena said he is also not there to debate issues such as whether members of a group such as Hamas are in reality terrorists or freedom fighters.

“I tell them I’m not a policy maker, I’m an FBI agent. They’re a designated terrorist organization, and we’re going to go after them.”

Dearborn attorney Ihsan Ali Alkhatib, a founding member of a group that promotes interaction between the FBI and members of the Arab and Muslim communities, describes the state of relations as “conflicted.”

“On the one hand, you see the agent in charge being sincere in out- reach and engagement, but community members report being approached and asked improper questions and intimidated,” Alkahtib said in an e-mail interview. “There is a strong sense in the community that we are a subject and not a partner with the government.”

“I think engagement is a must, but I am not as sure as I used to be about its usefulness.”

Charity-terror conflict

The giving of money to Arab and Muslim organizations and charities remains a major source of tension between community members and federal law enforcement agents such as the FBI.

Both Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite group, and Hamas, a Palestinian political party and paramilitary organization, are included on the list of 45 U.S.-designated terrorist organizations on the Web site of the U.S. State Department. It’s clear that donations to those groups violate federal laws that make it felonies to provide material support to terrorists.

Another list that includes banned charities appears on the Web site of the U.S. Treasury Department.

But leaders of the Arab and Muslim communities complain it’s not always clear what types of giving could get someone in trouble and cite a 2006 FBI raid on the Southfield offices of Life for Relief and Development, a highly regarded Muslim charity, as an example of incidents they say can put a chill on all charitable giving.

“It’s like the donor needs to do the homework of the government before they donate,” said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Dearborn.

Three years after the Life for Relief raid, the charity is not charged and does not appear on the Treasury Department list. But its former lobbyist, Muthanna Al-Hanooti, was indicted in 2008, accused of secretly acting as a foreign agent for the government of Iraq. His case is pending.

Tension surfaces

Tensions also surfaced public ly in April, when area Muslims joined other groups around the country in asking Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate complaints the FBI was attempting to spy on mosques by approaching Muslims and asking them to inform on Islamic congregations.

There was a talk of a Muslim boycott of BRIDGES (Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Security), a group whose quarterly meetings are attended by both Arena and Alkhatib, though that never materialized.

Arena, already well-known to area leaders through his outreach, “was very responsive in explaining the FBI position and stating it in a very professional, constructive way,” Hamad said.

Arena said he confirmed that the FBI uses informants but said the bureau does not target buildings or specific religions.

Hamad said he understands the FBI needs informants, but concerns remain about how they are supervised and how the information they supply is verified.

FBI’s outreach tradition

Arena, 47, who took on the top Detroit FBI post early in 2007, is continuing a tradition of outreach that began before the 9-11 attacks with former Detroit FBI director John Bell and continued under his successors Willie Hulon, Dan Roberts and now Arena.

All four “really invested a lot to genuinely engage in open, frank, constructive discussions,” Hamad said. Still, “there are occasions where we simply don’t see eye to eye on many sticky issues.”

Arena and Hamad share at least one thing in common. Both face hostility and ridicule from certain quarters if they are seen as getting too cozy with the other.

“It’s our common responsibility to protect the safety and security of our nation,” Hamad said. “The FBI, I give them credit for managing to overcome a great deal of misconceptions and misrepresentation about them.”

Arena’s local ties

Arena, who was born in Dearborn and is married with three daughters, counted a similar outreach role among his responsibilities when he held top posts with the FBI in New York City from 2004 through 2006.

Earlier, he was chief of international terrorism operations at FBI headquarters starting in April 2002. In addition to an earlier stint in Detroit, Arena has served with the FBI in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, Los Angeles and Albany, N.Y. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University and a law degree from University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

Arena said it’s a tiny minority of the Arab and Muslim communities who intend harm to the United States and the FBI wants to build trust with the broader community “so they trust us and understand that we really are there to protect them as American citizens.”

Trying to build trust

Trust is building not just through interaction at meetings such as BRIDGES and the Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee, but through minority participation in mainstream FBI outreach efforts such as the FBI Citizen’s Academy, which several ADC members have graduated from, and the Youth Academy, which Hamad’s two teenage daughters have attended.

Sarah Hamad, 15, has had her picture taken with Arena and said she enjoyed the youth academy so much she went back a second time. “He’s awesome,” the 10th-grade student at Fordson High said of Arena. “He’s nice and he’s funny.”

Sarah’s sister Nadeen, 14, said she learned about potential Internet dangers through the youth academy and not to add a stranger as a friend on your Facebook page “just because your friend says they’re cute.”

On both sides, building trust remains a work in progress.

“I see the progress, I see the advances,” Hamad said. “I think they are trying hard. Definitely they need to try harder. Giving people trust is not a matter of what you say. It’s a matter of what you do, and more than that, how you do it.”

Paul Egan
Detroit News