As we all know, the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving. We all have Muslim friends or co-workers who are admirable people. And a handful of terrorist plots have been rolled up by the FBI based on tips from Muslims.
But what the FBI finds disturbing is that Muslim leaders by and large are reluctant to cooperate with the FBI to let the bureau know of radicals within their midst. The FBI is not about to publicize this. But for my book “The Secrets of the FBI,” Arthur M. “Art” Cummings II, who was the FBI’s executive assistant director in charge of counterterrorism and national security investigations, opened up about the problem.
The FBI has outreach programs to try to develop sources in the Muslim community and solicit tips, but Mr. Cummings found little receptivity. He found that while Muslims have brought some cases to the FBI, Muslim leaders in particular are often in denial about the fact that the terrorists who threaten the United States are Muslims.
“I had this discussion with the director of a very prominent Muslim organization here in D.C.,” Mr. Cummings told me. “And he said, ‘Why are you guys always looking at the Muslim community?’ “
Mr. Cummings began laughing.
“OK, you know what I’ll do?” Mr. Cummings said. “I’ll start an Irish squad, or how about a Japanese squad? You want me to waste my time and your taxpayer’s dollars going to look at the Irish? They’re not killing Americans. Right now, I’m going to put my money and my people in a place where the threat is.”
Then Mr. Cummings told him to take a look at the cells the FBI had rolled up in the United States
“I can name the homegrown cells, all of whom are Muslim, all of whom were seeking to murder Americans,” Mr. Cummings said. “It’s not the Irish, it’s not the French, it’s not the Catholics, it’s not the Protestants, it’s the Muslims.”
In response to such points, Muslim groups have told him he is rough around the edges.
“I’m not rough around the edges,” Mr. Cummings has told them. “You’re just not used to straight talk.”
Mr. Cummings found they respond by getting angry at him.
While Muslims will occasionally condemn al Qaeda, “rarely do we have them coming to us and saying, ‘There are three guys in the community that we’re very concerned about,’” Mr. Cummings said. “They want to fix it inside the community. They’re a closed group, a very, very closed group. It’s part of their culture that they want to settle the problem within their own communities. They’ve actually said that to us, which I then go crazy over.”
On one hand, “They don’t want anyone to know they have extremists in their community,” Mr. Cummings observed. “Well, beautiful. Except do you read the newspapers? Everyone already knows it. That horse has left the barn. So there’s a lot of talk about engagement, but realistically, we’ve got a long, long way to go.”
At one meeting, a Muslim group suggested having a photo taken of their members with then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to show their community isn’t a bunch of terrorists and that they are partners in the war on terror.
Mr. Cummings responded, “Let me make a suggestion: When you bring to my attention real extremists who are here to plan and do something, who are here supporting terrorism, and I work that based on your information, then I promise you, I will have the director stand up on the stage with you.”
To Mr. Cummings’ amazement, the answer was: “That could never happen. We would lose our constituency. We could never admit to bringing someone to the FBI.”
“Well, we’ve just defined the problem, haven’t we?” Mr. Cummings told them.
After September 11, according to Mr. Cummings, imams in as many as 10 percent of the 2,000 mosques in the U.S. preached jihad and hatred of America. In a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 7 percent of American Muslims said suicide bombings against civilian targets are sometimes justified to defend Islam. But in more recent years, “Preaching jihad and hatred of the U.S. overtly has become more unusual and happens more in private,” Mr. Cummings said. Instead, “Radicalization on the Internet has risen to fill the void.”
“If you look at the websites of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, or the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, you see a passive, almost obligatory approach to condemning terrorism,” Mr. Cummings said. “The most prominent crisis for the Arab and Muslim communities is this perception that they’re terrorists, when only a small fraction of them are. Why wouldn’t you have a very loud, active program that says murder of anyone is immoral, illegal and not consistent with Islam, and anyone who supports terrorism or harbors a terrorist is a problem?”
FBI cases in such places as Atlanta, Lackawanna, N.Y., and Lodi, Calif., began with tips provided by individual Muslims. “But I don’t see the community doing that,” Mr. Cummings said.
While many Muslim leaders may be afraid to take on radical Islam publicly, providing tips confidentially to the FBI is another matter. And that is what the FBI needs to develop leads and roll up plots such as the massacre in San Bernardino and possible weapons of mass destruction attacks that could kill millions of Americans.
“I talked to a very prominent imam in the U.S.,” Mr. Cummings said. “We would have our sweets and our sweet tea. We would talk a lot about Islam. I would say we understand Islam and where they’re coming from. We’d tell him what our mission is, trying to keep people from murdering Americans or anybody else, for that matter.”
Months later, the FBI found out that the man’s mosque had two extremists who were so radical that they kicked them out. Clearly, those two extremists would have been of interest to the FBI. If they only engaged in anti-American rhetoric, the FBI would have left them alone. More likely they were planning action to go with their rhetoric.
Mr. Cummings asked the imam, “What happened?”
“What do you mean?” the imam asked.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” the agent said.
“Why would I tell you about this?” the imam said. “They’re not terrorists,” he said of the radicals. “They just hate the U.S. government.”
• Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of “The Secrets of the FBI” (Crown Forum, 2012).