FBI's pre-election sweep of Muslim Americans raises surveillance fears

On the Friday afternoon before the presidential election, Ahmed was at home with his family in Texas, when he heard a knock at the door. He answered in an undershirt and shorts, and found two men who were dressed casually. It was the FBI.

Ahmed, a doctor, who says he’s never even had a parking ticket, was at first surprised and then scared.

“I didn’t know my rights,” Ahmed, whose name has been changed for fear of reprisal, told the Guardian, “that I could tell them to reschedule it or I could refuse to talk to them.”

Ahmed was one of at least 109 people who contacted the Council of American Islamic Relations (Cair) to say they were visited by the FBI days before the election. Donald Trump’s subsequent victory has raised fears of increased surveillance against the Muslim community, and the possibility of a Muslim registry.

But it is also mobilizing some activists to ratchet up challenges to FBI policing rules already in place that allow for sweeps that may profile Muslims.

“We see people mobilizing like there’s no tomorrow,” said Alia Salem, executive director of the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of Cair. “We wouldn’t be having these conversations about how to improve things if Hillary Clinton got elected.”

At Ahmed’s house, the agents told him they had intelligence of a possible terrorist attack on election day following the death of al-Qaida leader Farouq al Qahtani al-Qatari, in a US airstrike in Afghanistan. They just wanted to ask him a few questions.

“At that time, I said, Let me put my shirt on and came back,” Ahmed recalled.

He let the agents into his home and they sat at his couch for 45 minutes. Ahmed, an American citizen, is originally from Pakistan and had travelled home a few times in the past decade. The FBI agents probed his history to learn more about his family, charitable donations, hobbies and more. The question of the al-Qaida leader faded away.

Salem put out a video on Twitter warning Muslims of their rights when approached by the FBI after their office received a phone call. The video was distributed widely and sparked dozens of calls of people recounting similar experiences to Ahmed.

The FBI did not respond to a request for a comment.

Hassan Shibly, Cair-Florida’s chief executivedirector, said he also received a flurry of calls from predominantly Pakistani or Afghan Muslims, many of whom were doctors.

“We basically discovered that it was a nationwide sweep,” Shibly said. “Simply based on their faith and ethnicity.” He also added that the proximity to the election may have suppressed voter turnout.

Shibly said the calls came from at least 12 different states where Muslims said they were visited by agents asking about the death of al-Qahtani and wanting to ask more questions. Alia said they fielded 220 calls, mostly South Asian or Afghan men ranging from 18 to their 60s, many of whom were professionals, and people that had recently changed their immigration status.

The day after the sweep was Trump’s shock election victory, which brought with it fears that he would fulfill his promises to implement draconian measures against Muslims. And soon a reported increase in alleged hate crimes. But Salem said fear about the prospect of a Trump presidency has sparked conversations around a lot of the measures Muslims have been submitted to under the Obama administration.

Mike German, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said reports of the FBI pre-election sweep raised civil rights alarm bells.

“The idea that the FBI would do that days before an election is a bit shocking,” German added. “Particularly when the information they’re providing is that there’s a potential threat to the election so that would suggest going to vote would be dangerous and that they’re specifically targeting groups by their religious beliefs, I think is quite inappropriate.”

He said the fact that the agents spread out across so many states indicates they did not have very specific information.

“When an FBI agent does an investigation, they’re looking for very specific pieces of the puzzle they think that the witness they’re interviewing possesses,” German explained. “But that doesn’t seem like what was going on here.”

German said this type of broad targeting of Muslims has happened in the past.

It’s a similar tactic used against political activists before conventions, or crime organizations that the FBI believes is likely to stage an attack, to put people on notice.

The FBI is allowed to conduct broad sweeps after interviewing guidelines were loosened during the George W Bush administration by then-attorney general, Michael Mukasey in 2008. Mukasey’s ruling modified the bureau’s operation guide to allow for an “assessment” period. During this period, agents can conduct investigations without factual information that a threat is posed.

German warned that these guidelines give the Trump administration extraordinary leeway to undertake even broader blanket operations.

“With some of the campaign rhetoric that pandered to racism against Mexican immigrants and the Muslim community, I would be concerned that the lax FBI guidelines would empower any agents who held those sentiments to conduct intrusive investigations,” he said. “It’s a great concern to any of us working on this issues.”

The guidelines also make it difficult for oversight boards to rein in any behaviour that’s deemed to be improper as the permissions are so broad.

Ahmed’s interview was expansive. While the tone was very cordial throughout, the agents pushed for a range of information that seemed unrelated to the election or the death of an al-Qaida leader. However, there was one moment of slight tension when an agent said, “Islamic values do not align with the local cultural values”, which Ahmed said he took issue with.

After they left, Ahmed said he felt at first confused and then scared. He wondered if somebody in his area or at work had reported him and his family and why they would do so.

“We are very friendly with our neighbors. Our kids play with each other. They leave you with a lot of questions,” he said. “It definitely terrified me and scared me.”

“It scares my family, and leaves you in speechless condition.”