The New York Times
PORTLAND, Ore. — The arrest in a plot to bomb a popular Christmas tree-lighting ceremony here has renewed focus on the crucial but often fragile relationship that many Muslim communities have with federal law enforcement agencies.
Many Muslim leaders nationwide say they are committed to working with the authorities to fight terrorist threats and applauded the work in Portland. But some say cases like the one in Oregon, in which undercover agents said they helped a teenager plan the attack, risk undermining the trust of Muslim communities that federal agents say is essential to doing their jobs.
The failed Portland plot is one of several recent cases, from California to Washington, D.C., in which undercover agents helped suspects pursue terrorist plans. Some Muslims say the government appears to be enabling and even sensationalizing threats that can lead to backlashes against Muslim communities.
On Sunday, a mosque in Corvallis, Ore., was firebombed. It had been attended by the Portland suspect, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, a naturalized American citizen from Somalia.
“Unlike the so-called plot at Pioneer Square, that was a real terrorist attack, against a house of worship,” said a man who attends the Islamic Center of Portland and Masjed As-Saber, another mosque where Mr. Mohamud worshiped.
“What the F.B.I. did can be seen in Corvallis,” the man said, one of several people who spoke with a reporter but refused to give their names out of concern that they would bring negative attention to the mosque.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. defended the Oregon investigation and others this week as part of what he called a “forward-leaning way” that law enforcement is “trying to find people who are bound and determined to harm Americans and American interests around the world.”
Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said law enforcement was going too far.
“ ‘Forward-leaning’ seems to be basically if someone has not crossed the bridge, we will push them forward, we will tip them over the edge,” he said. “And that is not how a government should be treating its citizens.”
“My worry would be that the F.B.I. is pushing to a point where it becomes difficult to trust the F.B.I.,” said Mr. Ayloush, who added that he was a graduate of an F.B.I. Citizens’ Academy. “When people start doubting, then they might feel like, ‘Well, maybe it might make things worse if I call,’ and we don’t want this.”
Amid the tension, Muslim leaders say their communities are doing more than ever to help in investigations — a fact they say is overlooked by many Americans.
A November report by the Muslim Public Affairs Council said Muslim communities had helped law enforcement agencies foil almost 4 of every 10 Qaeda-related terrorism plots since the Sept. 11 attacks. The report is based on information the group draws from news media accounts, affidavits, academic studies and other sources.
“There is an enormous countertrend that has emerged within the last few years,” said Alejandro Beutel, the author of the report. “People are saying: ‘This is a serious issue, and we are dealing with this. We are not tolerating this.’ ”
Even as federal law enforcement officials have been criticized, they say their investigations have been strengthened by their outreach efforts and good relations with Muslims, including here in Oregon.
Leaders of mosques, including those attended by Mr. Mohamud, regularly attend meetings with law enforcement officials. And Mr. Mohamud’s father, Osman Barre, provided information before his son’s arrest about his increasing radicalization, officials have said.
Dwight C. Holton, the United States attorney for Oregon, said he would travel to Washington next week to meet with Mr. Holder to discuss Oregon’s participation in a new Justice Department program called Enhanced Muslim Community Outreach.
“The minute I heard about this program, I signed Oregon up,” Mr. Holton said, adding that the meeting was scheduled before Mr. Mohamud’s arrest. “It’s so important to do this outreach, and this program will allow us to do even more work, to do more face-to-face meetings with not just the community leaders but with members of the community.”
The events in Oregon have put many Muslims in unexpected and uncomfortable roles.
Shahriar Ahmed is a jovial 55-year-old engineer and a self-described member of a group of “nerdy folks” with postgraduate degrees living in suburban Portland. He is also the president of his local mosque, Bilal Masjid, with skills that he said leaned more toward fund-raising than faith-building.
“I’m not a theologian by trade,” said Mr. Ahmed, who knows only enough Arabic to get through his prayers. “I’m just good at begging for money.”
But with the arrest of Mr. Mohamud and then the fire in Corvallis, Mr. Ahmed has been fielding questions on topics ranging from Islam in general to how the aftermath could affect worshipers at his mosque. For him, the broader questions are not necessarily the most pressing.
“My 11-year-old son started crying in the back of the car,” Mr. Ahmed said, recalling a conversation about the fire. “I could not make him stop. He was saying: ‘Is our mosque going to get burned? Is our mosque going to get burned?’ ”
Colin Miner contributed reporting from Portland, Ore.; Isolde Raftery from Eugene, Ore.; and Malia Wollan from San Francisco.