A traveler shows his wallet to a TSA agent at Sea-Tac. Security at the airport was the focus of one FBI agent's request for a meeting with a Muslim woman. Credit: Matt Mills McKnight/All rights reserved
When agent Michael Adams first called Miya, he sounded almost parental. He introduced himself as with the FBI at Sea-Tac Airport, where Miya worked, and said he was “just calling to see if I could chat.” In a Jan. 5 voicemail he left on Miya’s phone he said he was interested in talking about security at the airport, promising “no one’s in trouble.”
Miya was born in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Seattle when she was 2 years old. Her family’s Somali and devoutly Muslim. When she walks into the Starbucks in Columbia City on a wet weekday, she’s wearing a fur shawl and a hijab and a woman at another table recognizes her and says hello.
Miya, who didn’t want her full name used for fear of being targeted, went to Cleveland High School before getting a full ride to the University of Washington where she majored in operations management. Straight out of college, she got a job with Delta Air Lines. She loved the work and the benefits of discounted plane tickets, which she used to fly to Egypt, India, Germany — all over. “Islam says the earth is vast,” she remarks.
She recently left for a job with Amazon in Minnesota, not because of dissatisfaction, but because she was ready for a new adventure.
She was surprised by the call from Adams. Not only does she have no criminal record, but she has never had any interaction with law enforcement at all. Still, she didn’t think much of the call right away — why be scared if she’s got nothing to hide, right?
But when she called back, Adams told her there would be two other people at their meeting. That was enough to open a gate of doubt, starting with whether Adams was in fact an FBI agent, ending with why she was being called in the first place.
The election of Donald Trump seemingly has forced a long simmering Islamophobia in the United States to a boil. As with racism or anti-Semitism, it’s hard to know what’s new, what’s coming out of the shadows and what was there the whole time but never got the same publicity. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, though, the number of anti-Muslim hate groups has tripled since the beginning of 2016. In casual conversations, people have routinely told Crosscut of their fears of sharia law and Muslims more broadly, citing evidence that is anecdotal at best.
The newfound fear that comes with these quantitative and qualitative reports have, to a certain extent, forced the Muslim community into the arms of the federal government. Jasmin Samy with the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) says they routinely partner with the FBI on hate crimes, be they threats from social media or, as was the case with the recent arson of a Bellevue mosque, to investigate physical violence. At Tuesday’s State of the City address, held in a North Seattle mosque, there were FBI agents present as added security.
But there’s also a deep seated discomfort with these same federal agencies, especially among people from parts of the world that are predominantly Muslim. The leftover paranoia of the feds that came with the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), set up in the aftermath of 9/11 to track non-citizens from certain parts of the world, has been rekindled as the commander in chief and his closest allies have spoken openly of a Muslim ban and, in the past, a Muslim registry.
These cold calls, which Samy says have been on the rise both locally and nationally, do not help on that point — coming as a reminder that the federal government seems to know exactly where to find them. “If I’m approached by FBI, I freak out,” she says. Last year, the local chapter of CAIR got about 40 calls from people saying they’d been contacted by federal agents, which Samy points out are just those who know about CAIR. “We put up a hotline that says if you call CAIR, if you’ve been contacted, we have a list of attorneys that are ready to schedule a time,” she says. “Our window is 24 hours.”
When Ahmed got a phone message from someone claiming to be a federal agent, they told him they’d already come by his house. He wasn’t home, so they left him a card.
Ahmed (which is not his real name) is Pakistani, but spent most of his youth in Europe, attending international English schools. He’s Muslim, but only occasionally goes to his mosque. His friend group is diverse, a mix of Muslim and non-Muslim. He returned to Pakistan for college and then came to the Puget Sound region in 2007, where he had an offer from a major software company. While he’s moved jobs a few times, he’s content to stay here — he’s married now and, while he and his wife don’t have children yet, they don’t rule it out in the future.
Like Miya, Ahmed doesn’t have any reason to lean one way or the other when it comes to law enforcement. When asked if he has a record, he sheepishly admits to two traffic tickets (over nine years).
But what he does have is the memory of getting a visa to come here and the headache of NSEERS, set up in the aftermath of 9/11 to track non-citizens from certain parts of the world. (He laughs at the notion that the U.S. borders are porous. “No one who’s ever applied for a U.S. visa would say that,” he says.)
Ahmed is not particularly political; he doesn’t read the news all that often. He just wants to work and make a life. “I had the naïve opinion I could just keep my head down,” he says. But at every turn, it seems, no matter how much he works to ignore stories of people from his home country being investigated, it always seems to find him, be it the months of bureaucracy to get his visa back in 2007, booking flights when NSEERS was active to allow for extra hours of security or coming home in November to find the business card from someone claiming to be an agent of the U.S. government. Ahmed doesn’t have the luxury to be apolitical.
Miya says she’s known five or six people who have been contacted by the FBI, all of whom are Somali-American and Muslim. None of them have ended up arrested or anything like that, but they also have no idea why their names came up in the first place. This uncertainty is a theme: One of Miya’s coworkers at Delta, also Somali, one day couldn’t get through security — his badge had been revoked. A month later he was still not working and no one knew why. To know so many Somali-American Muslims who’ve had similar experiences — and so few white Americans who have — creates an overtone of, We’re being profiled.
The more Miya started to consider her meeting with Adams, the less comfortable she got. She had worked with CAIR in the past, so called for advice. As promised, she was connected with a lawyer within 24 hours. At that point, she called Adams back to say she was willing to meet, but with an attorney. “His tone completely changed,” she says. Although he said OK, she says, she never heard from him again.
According to Samy, when someone returns to the agent with an attorney, they don’t hear back more than 50 percent of the time.
Brad Deardorff, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle office, says he doubts that agents are backing out of interviews because an attorney is invited along. “If we’ve got an interest in speaking to someone and gone to the effort of setting a meeting, it’s very unlikely we would pass up the chance to talk, with or without a lawyer present.”
On a broader level, when asked if the FBI targets Muslims, Deardorff says, “Absolutely not.” An interview with Deardorff at the local FBI headquarters — inside a drab building near the downtown library, with portraits of James Comey and statues of Lady Justice dotted throughout — is an exercise in generalities: He is unwilling or unable to speak to specific investigations, and this reporter doesn’t want to use Miya or Ahmed’s real names even with someone who could presumably figure out who they are.
But Deardorff says being a Muslim does not make one a target: It’s the more specific communities. “A person’s religion is not part of our calculus. We base investigations on observed or reported behaviors that might threaten our communities or our national security.”
“Just in the last three years, we’ve seen our communities across the U.S. fall victim to terrorist recruitments,” he says. “For the Somali community in Washington, this includes a conviction for material support of terrorism and others who may have traveled abroad to join ISIL and al Qaeda. When we lose our youth to terrorists, our whole community has been victimized.”
When asked why someone with no criminal record may be contacted, he suggests, “There are many reasons why the FBI contacts people. In addition to investigation subjects, members of the community might be witnesses or victims of criminal activity.”
It’s here that some of the most profound disconnect can likely be found. The FBI calls much of what it does — cold calling people like Miya and Ahmed — “outreach,” and when that’s rejected, Deardorff says it’s frustrating. He blames “organizations” that “obfuscate all our efforts and attempt to simplify our contacts. This confusion increases social anxiety and discourages interaction between victimized communities and those with the legal authority to help them. If you’re actively telling people not to talk to the FBI, you’re fueling distrust.”
The sense of his remarks seems to be that there’s an anti-establishment lens that Deardorff does not find legitimate.
Ahmed, though, is not anti-establishment. In fact, he works for one of the world’s largest establishments and we meet in an establishment coffee shop. His father was a government diplomat. But getting contacted by the federal government still caused both Ahmed and his wife enormous stress. He describes his processing of the event as if he were working through the steps of grieving. “This can’t possibly be happening,” was his first thought. “They can’t possibly be interested in me because I’m not interesting.” Then he rationalized it as a scam. Then he got angry and scared because he was “clearly singled out somehow.”
Ahmed ended up hiring his own attorney, not an insignificant financial burden. When they met with the two agents, the questions seemed odd. The first was incredibly specific: They asked about a specific individual, whom Ahmed had never heard of. The rest of the questions were broad, usually structured as, “Are you aware of anyone who …” with the blank filled in. He wasn’t sure how to answer because he was “aware” of a lot of things, none personally.
He answered the questions and he hasn’t heard from the agents again. The implication at the meeting’s conclusion was that that was the end. “The wording I got was it would go away,” he said. But, given all the time he’s spent caught up in bureaucracy because of where he’s from, “I’m not sure I believe them.”
FBI contacting Muslim communities is a national story. Before the election, reports of heightened questioning poured in from around the country. Locally, the CAIR officer got flooded with calls before Chinese President Xi Jinping came to town last year. It’s a window for organizations like CAIR into when the federal government has some intel they’re acting on.
But since the inauguration, it’s been non-stop. When we meet, CAIR’s Samy admits to her own exhaustion and the exhaustion of her staff. The lawyers they have on call have wondered if they’re alone on CAIR’s list because they’re called so often. Samy and others tell them no, it’s just that busy.
The disbelief that these reports from afar have come here is repeated over and over. “I thought the FBI was this faraway entity,” says Miya.
Ironically, the FBI also wants itself to be seen as less of a faraway thing — citing the work they do with community leaders and at community events. But as its agents talk about “outreach,” many of its recipients see something else.
Ahmed has reached his own conclusion. “They talk about ‘outreach.’ That’s code for ‘we want you to snitch.’ ”