New questions asked as fears rise of Al-Qaida attack before election
WASHINGTON – FBI agents have launched a series of interviews of Muslims and Arab Americans in the Washington area and across the country, hoping to glean information that could prevent a major terrorist attack during this election year.
A few dozen voluntary interviews of community leaders, students, business people and others have been conducted so far, according to attorneys and Muslim activists. Authorities said they do not know how many people will be contacted, but the effort is expected to expand significantly in the next week or so.
The new round of questioning is also far more targeted than an earlier program of voluntary interviews with men from Arab and Muslim countries, which followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was criticized for being ineffective and using profiling.
“This is not a general population. They are identified by intelligence or investigative information,” said an FBI official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with department policy.
He said the questioning did not signify that the people were under investigation themselves.
The questions being posed vary widely, according to attorneys, activists and interviewees. Several people in California and Arizona have been asked whether they knew anyone who had recently been in the Pakistani border region of Waziristan, regarded as a possible refuge for Al-Qaida figures. They were also asked about Abu Nour, which agents identified as a mosque and school in Syria that was popular with American converts to Islam, the attorneys and activists said.
“We were told by the FBI agents that they’re concerned there could be a coming threat from people who are recent converts to Islam,” said Stacy Tolchin, a San Francisco lawyer who accompanied a Turkish Kurdish immigrant to an interview this week.
Law enforcement officials decided to step up efforts to contact Muslims and Arab Americans because of intelligence reports that Al-Qaida is planning a large-scale attack in coming months in the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft said recently.
“While we currently lack precise knowledge about when, where and how they are planning to attack, we are actively working to gain that knowledge,” Ashcroft said in a news release July 9. “As part of that effort, we are again reaching out to partners in the Muslim and Arab American communities for any information they may have.”
Law enforcement officials appear to be using different approaches in the interviews. In some cases, they have asked prominent local Muslim figures to simply pass on any helpful information, activists said. Other interviews are highly specific. Some of the interview subjects were also asked broad questions, such as their opinion of the U.S. invasion of Iraq or of the Syrian government, activists said.
Those being sought for interviews appear to represent a broad spectrum