WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Bush administration is neglecting American Muslims in the fight against terrorism, undermining a potentially priceless resource that could be used to root out militants at home, major Muslim groups say. Community leaders such as Salam al-Marayati, who heads the Muslim Public Affairs Council advocacy group, say that to isolate terrorists political leaders from President George W. Bush on down must embrace the U.S. Muslim mainstream, rather than exclude them from serious debates on security. “For some reason, it’s very difficult to get the high-level officials to come down to the community at this point. I think a decision has to be made: are we going to be partners or are we going to be suspects?” Marayati said. Muslim American groups say that only by visibly engaging the community can officials undermine militants’ charges that Muslims are left out of American society, and ensure Muslims do not feel alienated and become targets for recruiters. Concern about increased suspicions and alienation of the Muslim American community has grown since the July 7 attacks by home-grown Muslim militants in London in which suicide bombers killed 52 people on underground trains and buses. “It’s the position of just about every Muslim leader in the United States that the way you isolate extremists is to engage the mainstream. Unfortunately we haven’t seen much of that occurring in this administration,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations. Community leaders and some experts say the country’s estimated 3 million to 7 million Muslims are best placed to fight domestic extremists because only insiders can hope to challenge their radical ideologies or spot budding militants. “The jihadist threat in this country will come from within, not from outside,” said veteran terrorism expert Dennis Pluchinsky, who retired from the State Department this year and now works for security information firm TranSecur. The Muslim community is “the front line for detection,” he said. Outreach Underway Muslim groups would like to play a greater role in policy discussions for the war on terrorism declared by Bush, have more visible government endorsement of the community’s anti-terrorism efforts and see more senior officials attending Muslim American events, conferences and community meetings. The Islamic Society of North America has called on Bush to attend its Sept. 2-6 convention — the largest annual gathering of Muslim Americans. The administration’s public diplomacy chief, Karen Hughes, is attending the opening session instead. U.S. officials agree they must do more to involve Muslim Americans in the fight against terrorism. But they say the administration is already actively cooperating with Muslim groups and say they enjoy greater access to the government than ever before. This year alone, Muslim community leaders have met with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI chief Robert Mueller, said Dan Sutherland, who heads the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights and civil liberties office. “The momentum will accelerate. I think that over the upcoming year, or two or five, you will see the connections between the Arab American and Muslim American communities and the government really deepen,” he said. “We are at the beginning stages. We’re like in the third inning of the (nine-inning) game, but we’re in the game.” Many community leaders praised Bush’s initial outreach to America’s Muslims after Sept. 11, 2001, but said such high-profile efforts had waned in the years since the Islamic militant attacks. They say cooperation is good with local law enforcement and other community groups, but say visible engagement from top-level leaders is needed to counter the terrorist threat. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, said Muslim Americans had a unique infrastructure in place through their mosques, community programs and conferences to counter that threat. Within the community, “people who may have doubts, who may have some kind of tendencies towards extremism, get diluted, and they are confronted with the right arguments and teachings,” he said.
By Mary Beth Sheridan WASHINGTON — The federal government is waging part of the war against terrorism with a seemingly innocuous weapon: immigration law. In the past two years, officials have filed immigration charges against more than 500 suspects who have come under scrutiny in national security investigations, according to previously undisclosed government figures. Whereas terrorism charges can be difficult to prosecute, Department of Homeland Security officials say immigration laws can provide a quick, easy way to detain people who could be planning attacks. Authorities have used routine charges such as overstaying a visa to deport suspected supporters of terrorist groups. ”It’s an incredibly important piece of the terrorism response,” said Michael J. Garcia, who heads Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. And although immigration violations might seem humdrum, he said, ”They’re legitimate charges.” Muslim and civil liberties activists disagree. They argue that authorities are enforcing minor violations by Muslims and Arabs, while ignoring millions of other immigrants who flout the same laws. They note that many of those charged are not shown to be involved in terrorism. ”The approach is basically to target the Muslim and Arab community with a kind of zerotolerance immigration policy. No other community in the United States is treated to zero-tolerance enforcement,” said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and critic of the government’s antiterrorism policies. Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, immigration agents were minor players in the world of counterterrorism. That changed during the investigation of the hijackings, when 768 suspects were secretly processed on immigration charges. Most were deported after being cleared of connections to terrorism. Unlike that controversial roundup, most of the recent arrests have not involved secret proceedings. Still, they can be hard to track. A few cases have turned into high-profile criminal trials, but others have centered on little-known individuals processed in obscure immigration courts, with no mention of a terrorism investigation. In some cases, the government ultimately concludes a suspect, while guilty of an immigration violation, has no terrorism ties. Authorities are often reluctant to disclose why an immigrant’s name emerged in a national security investigation, because the information is classified or part of a continuing inquiry. Homeland Security officials turned down a request for the names of all those charged in the past two years, making it difficult to assess how effective their strategy has been at thwarting terrorism.