Monday, July 18, 2011
In the first of two stories on counterterrorism training, NPR reports on one training session that turned a state employee into a suspect.
The man at the center of this story is 59-year-old Jordanian-American Omar al-Omari. He looks very much like the college professor that he is — tweed jacket, button-down shirt, thick round glasses, drinking coffee. We met at a coffee shop near downtown Columbus, Ohio, where he laid out a series of events that ended with him being accused of having links to terrorism.
"Actually, I was out of town, out of state, attending a conference and on my way back to Columbus," Omari said, "and I received a call from one of the attendees of this conference in which I was told my name was used repeatedly during the training. Apparently I was labeled as a suspect. They personalized the attacks. There was a promise to dig into my background, and basically, as an Arab-Muslim American, they thought I'm a suspect."
Omari was singled out at a three-day seminar for local police and law enforcement in the Columbus area last April. The class was part of a larger nationwide initiative to help local law enforcement not just understand terrorism, but perhaps find ways to stop it. The Obama administration has set aside millions of dollars to fund these training programs, and, not surprisingly, that money has helped create an industry in which self-styled terrorism experts contract themselves out to local police departments as terrorism tutors.
There is no certification process to vet the experts. They simply present their resumes and, often through word of mouth, they get hired. The trainers tend to be former government officials. Sometimes they have had key roles in the federal government fighting terrorism. Just as often, they have not. There's growing evidence that many of these training sessions are providing officers at the grass roots with a biased view of Muslims in America. That is what appears to have happened to Omari.
The training at the Columbus Division of Police took place over three days in mid-April 2010. The course was titled "Understanding the True Nature of the Threat to America." Broad outlines of the curriculum are posted on the trainers' website. The course includes a discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States; Islamic law as it relates to jihad; and the trainers say they will provide "specific examples of Muslim Brotherhood/Islamic Movement activity in the locale in which the presentation is given." It was in that context that Omari became a target.
One of the trainers in Ohio that day was a man named John Guandolo. He's a former FBI agent and former Marine. According to people in the training class that day and Guandolo himself, a photograph of Omari with members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a local Muslim advocacy group, was put up on the screen. According to the people who were there, Guandolo and the other visiting trainers didn't say outright that Omari was a terrorist, but they suggested that he had links to bad people — people who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and even al-Qaida.
"I stand by what I said that day about Omari," Guandolo told me, though he declined to say so on tape. "The facts are on my side."
Now, to understand why the accusations against Omari were so surprising, it is important to know that at the time he ran a key Muslim outreach program for the state of Ohio. What he was doing for the state's Department of Public Safety was considered so effective, counterterrorism officials in Washington sent him overseas to talk about it.
Omari is from Jordan. He has been living in the U.S. for 30 years, and he's an American citizen. Even so, for people in the counterterrorism class in Columbus that day, it seemed entirely possible that he could be a terrorist. And that reaction in the room surprised a lot of people — most notably Deputy Chief Jeffrey Blackwell of the Columbus Division of Police. Blackwell is now in charge of the division's homeland security unit.
"I was shocked," he said. "I was shocked that a person at Omar's level in the state of Ohio in the Department of Public Safety would have his picture displayed by an anti-terrorism group. His reputation was impugned incredibly by the speakers."
Blackwell and other officials suspended the class to make sense of what happened. "We had a meeting and we discussed what we were witnessing right before our very eyes, what was transpiring in the lecture hall," Blackwell said. What was so strange about Omari being singled out was that nearly everyone in the room knew him, or at least had heard of him. He was one of Ohio's most high-visibility Muslims. Many of the visiting officers and Columbus officers had actually worked with Omari on outreach in the Muslim community.
"I knew him really well," Blackwell said. "And I thought he was a great professional, so that was part of the reason why I was so surprised when his picture popped up in the presentation."
But for some reason, maybe because former government officials said Omari couldn't be trusted, Blackwell watched as some people in the room were ready to believe the worst.
"There were a large amount of people there that felt the class was in fact appropriate — that the finger-pointing and the name-calling and the nexuses that were developed and discussed were appropriate to discuss," he said. "And then you had a huge percentage that were equally and diametrically opposed to that way of teaching and the substance of the anti-terrorism class."
And the lesson Blackwell took from their reaction?
"That as Americans we are all over the board on our feelings about the terrorism issue," he said. "And as a law enforcement professional, even law enforcement is divided in how they view people."
The next day, some people came to Omari's defense. The head of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force and one of the FBI's top agents in Ohio both arrived at the academy and assured the class that Omari wasn't a terrorism suspect. Everyone says that at that point the room erupted in shouts. Half the officers sided with Omari. The other half trusted the trainer, Guandolo. Blackwell said they assumed he must be privy to intelligence on Omari that he wasn't revealing.
Guandolo suggested when I interviewed him on the phone that there were things he knew about Omari that the FBI didn't. "We know we have our facts right, because we have to," Guandolo said. (Nearly a dozen sources contacted by NPR in the intelligence community, the FBI and at the Department of Homeland Security said Omari has no links to terrorists or terrorism. They said the accusations against him are unfounded.)
Bill Braniff, who is in charge of the training program at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, sees what happened in Ohio as part of a larger problem.
"I think this is something that happens across the nation fairly consistently," he said. "No one is tracking this with numbers, but anecdotally we are hearing about it all the time. The Muslim-American community is being preyed upon from two different directions. One, the jihadist recruitment and radicalization that is actively preying on their sons and daughters; and two, the elevated levels of Islamophobia — Islamophobia at worst and distrust and alienation at best."
That distrust had real consequences in Columbus. Omari lost his job with the state of Ohio, though not because of claims that he had ties to terrorism. After that training session, officials began digging into Omari's past, and they eventually found something: They discovered that his employment application was incomplete. He hadn't listed all of the schools where he had worked before taking the job with the state of Ohio. Omari says he just listed places where he had taught relevant courses — courses that touched on Middle Eastern studies. But he was fired anyway — some six months after the training session.
Federal officials familiar with the case say Omari was singled out because he distinguished between extremist Muslims and mainstream Muslims in his outreach and training programs. Guandolo, the trainer, had a different view. When he talked to me about Muslim groups in the U.S., he spoke in terms of whether or not Muslims were patriotic.
Omari, for his part, still can't believe he got fired. "I lost a lot of things over this," he said. "I lost respect, dignity, reputation — everything really was connected with that, and definitely, you know, how could you defend yourself?"
Chief Blackwell says even more than a year after the episode, he's still upset. "That was not a good day, in my opinion, for the Columbus Division of Police or law enforcement in general," he said.
Omari filed suit last week against the Ohio Department of Public Safety and several individuals for wrongful dismissal. He said he'd love to get his job back. And the trainers who came to the Columbus police department? One of them is scheduled to hold another training session in August at the CIA.