A civil rights organization for American Muslims says the FBI questioned Muslims in at least eight states over the weekend seeking information about a possible threat from al-Qaida to carry out pre-election terrorist attacks.
The individuals were asked a series of eight questions, including several specific to al-Qaida, said Hassan Shibly, a lawyer and the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida.
He said his clients were asked if they knew the al-Qaida leaders killed in U.S. military airstrikes last month, who U.S. officials believe were connected to the alleged plot, and if they knew of anyone who wished to cause harm to Americans at home or abroad.
Among those questioned, according to Shibly were a youth group leader and several wealthy doctors.
Shibly said he was not aware of anything that connected the targeted individuals to each other or to the alleged threat, aside from their religion and ethnicity. It appeared only Muslims of Afghani and Pakistani descent were questioned, he said.
“The FBI actions . . . to conduct a sweep of American Muslim leaders the weekend before the election is completely outrageous and . . . borderline unconstitutional,” Shibly told The Post. “That’s the equivalent of the FBI visiting churchgoing Christians because someone overseas was threatening to blow up an abortion clinic. It’s that preposterous and outrageous.”
The nature of the threat was vague and officials said its credibility remained under investigation. Officials said law enforcement in New York, Texas and Virginia had been notified of the possible danger.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued statements that said they were “vigilant and well-postured” to defend against terrorist attacks in the U.S. and were working daily with law enforcement and intelligence partners “to identify and disrupt any potential threat to public safety.”
Muslim Americans in at least eight states told the Council on American-Islamic Relations that FBI agents came to their homes during the weekend seeking information about the terror threat.
Several of the states – including Florida and Pennsylvania – are viewed as crucial swing states heading into the presidential election Tuesday.
The Florida CAIR director, a civil rights attorney, fielded three calls from Floridians on Saturday and three others outside of Florida. The FBI agents gave business cards with contact information to the Muslim-Americans they questioned, which they later passed on to Shibly.
He contacted the agents individually, he told The Post, to inquire about what he called a “sweep.” Shibly said the agents told him the names and questions came directly from the FBI national headquarters. The people who were questioned, Shibly said, were not suspected of terrorist activity or under investigation by the FBI.
“When FBI agents show up at your door, people are terrified,” Shibly said. “It does more damage.”
The North Texas branch of CAIR told The Dallas Morning News that it had confirmed three interviews took place during the weekend. The office received five additional reports, the newspaper reported.
The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post. A representative in the FBI’s Dallas field office declined to comment to the Morning News.
States that received reports from American Muslims included California, Washington, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida, Shibly said.
“Muslims, along with fellow Americans, are committed to doing their job in helping to make our community safer,” North Texas CAIR director Alia Salem told the Morning News. “That includes reporting suspicious activity. But for the Muslim community to be targeted as if we are guilty is inappropriate. If [law enforcement] wants to communicate with specific individuals, there should be no hindrance in doing that with an attorney.”
CAIR offices across the country issued warnings via social media to the Muslim-American community, instructing anyone who comes in contact with law enforcement to politely decline to talk until a lawyer is present.
“For me, this is no different than the FBI discussing the Hillary investigation 8 or 9 days before the election,” Shibly said, referencing the FBI director’s decision to announce developments in the investigation regarding Clinton’s private email server that roused suspicion a week before the election but ultimately yielded no new information.
“There could arguably be a legitimate reason,” Shibly said, “but it could have an impact of intimidating an entire community.”
Shibly worries this “sweep,” just days before the election, could reinforce the anti-Muslim rhetoric that the Republican candidate for president has often used in his political stump speeches.
“Unfortunately we’re dealing with an environment that’s not very friendly to American Muslims,” he said. “The environment is very hostile to the American Muslim community.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler