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Social costs of antiterror moves

Story of a Phila. mosque shows how "prevention paradigm" leads to targeting of the innocent.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

An American Story of Love and Fear
in the Homeland

By Stephan Salisbury

Nation Books. 312 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by David Cole

Much of the debate surrounding the effectiveness of the Bush administration's response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, focuses on zeros.

Defenders of the administration point out that there have been no successful terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland since 9/11. Critics note that the Bush administration cannot point to a single imminent attack averted through its preventive initiatives, and that of the more than 5,000 foreign nationals it detained in the U.S. in the first two years after 9/11, none stands convicted of any terrorist crime.

But as Donald Rumsfeld once said, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. When it comes to prevention, one is inevitably operating in the realm of conjecture.

Stephan Salisbury's Mohamed's Ghosts: A Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, takes us out of the realm of speculation, and instead focuses on the real-world effects that the "paradigm of prevention," as then-Attorney General John Ashcroft dubbed it, has had on Arab and Muslim communities in the United States.

Salisbury's sympathetic, eloquent account illustrates what happens when law enforcement officials, having little or no evidence of terrorism, are driven, by fear of letting a potentially guilty person go free, to target the innocent.

Salisbury, an Inquirer reporter, centers his story one small mosque, run out of a barely refurbished auto body shop in the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Frankford Valley.

Mohamed Ghorab, a charismatic preacher and religious conservative, established the mosque on a shoestring in 2002. It grew by word of mouth, and was, for a time, a vibrant, family-friendly space in the community, overflowing with children playing games while their parents prayed.

At some point, it became the focus of attention of Philadelphia's Joint Terrorism Task Force. Federal informants provided false information about the mosque - including unfounded rumors that it contained AK-47s and a terrorist training center. In 2004, more than 100 agents raided it, seizing records and evidence.

By 2005, Ghorab, the mosque's imam, had been deported, as had the man who stepped in to take his place after he was arrested. Several other members of the mosque also were arrested and deported. Others were pressured to become informants. Eventually, the mosque had to shut down, its congregation having dwindled to a hardy few, its adherents unable to come up with the rent.

Neither Ghorab nor any of the mosque's congregants was ever charged with engaging in or supporting any terrorist activity. Instead, federal officials used immigration charges to detain them, pressure them to inform on their fellow worshippers, and ultimately deport them when they declined to become informants. Ghorab was deported for an allegedly fraudulent marriage - even though his wife denied that the marriage was anything but genuine. Another congregant was accused of allowing his brother to live with him after his brother's right to remain in the United States had expired - harboring an illegal immigrant in the City of Brotherly Love.

Cases like these, Salisbury argues, are an inevitable byproduct of the "paradigm of prevention." The mandate to prevent drives federal agents to target "likely suspects," often based on little more than ethnicity, religion, and political opinion, and to enforce the law especially aggressively against them. Mohamed's Ghosts compellingly portrays the collateral damage associated with such tactics.

Salisbury tells the story with particular empathy because, in a way, he has lived it himself. As a student at Columbia University in the late 1960s, he felt firsthand the destructive effects that informants can have on a community. Some of his college friends in the antiwar movement and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were driven into the Weather Underground, where they took up violence. One of Salisbury's friends was killed when a bomb exploded in the Greenwich Village townhouse of some Weather Underground members.

Of course, investigation of potential terrorists is a legitimate, indeed crucial, enterprise. The use of informants is an appropriate investigative tool. And deporting people for immigration violations is routine law enforcement. Federal officials use all of these tactics against drug rings and organized crime gangs.

But as Salisbury explains, the difference "is that federal agents were not investigating organized crime mobsters or gangs suspected of specific criminal activities but members of a community and a religious group attending regular services - ordinary people who were suspects because they were Muslims and Middle Easterners living in America and practicing their religion."

One cannot ultimately know whether the "preventive paradigm" has worked. It is striking, however, that all three near-misses since 9/11 - the Times Square car bomb, the Christmas Day bomber, and Richard Reid's attempt to light a bomb in his shoe while flying to Boston - were averted not by any preventive law enforcement initiative, but by alert civilians who saw something amiss and intervened.

Meanwhile, most prosecutions labeled "terrorism-related" since 9/11 have actually been for only minor nonviolent offenses, and the small handful that involve allegations of terrorist plots are almost all attributable to federal informants who proposed, provoked, or facilitated the plots themselves. None of the tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim foreign nationals singled out for FBI interviews and immigration registration in the wake of 9/11 has been convicted of a terrorist offense.

Federal authorities, Salisbury writes, "are charged with the enormous and virtually impossible task of prevention; avoiding social and political fragmentation is not part of their portfolio." Mohamed's Ghosts reveals the pain and the cost of social and political fragmentation - in disrupted lives, divided families, decimated religious congregations, and broken communities.

Those costs, moreover, may ultimately undermine our security. They make it less likely that community members will feel comfortable approaching law enforcement with information about potential threats. Tactics like those illustrated in Mohamed's Ghosts may well corrode our most important source of security - community itself.