FBI's release of ferry passenger photos resented
For Arabs and Muslims across the Puget Sound area, a rise in the nation's threat level or a bombing halfway around the world often can mark...
Seattle Times staff reporters
For Arabs and Muslims across the Puget Sound area, a rise in the nation's threat level or a bombing halfway around the world often can mark a period of unease.
In the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, leaders in that community say incidents of profiling and harassment have ebbed and flowed — increasing when Muslims are linked to news of the day.
Now the FBI's release of photographs of two men of unknown origin, who the agency says were observed acting suspiciously aboard as many as six different Washington ferry routes in recent weeks, is creating new worries in the community.
Muslim- and Arab-American leaders are upset that the FBI didn't consult them — as it has done in other instances — before releasing the photos on the Internet and to news organizations. They worry that the action may fracture the relationship the agency and the community have carefully built.
The FBI has stressed that the release of the photos is a rare move, taken only after it had exhausted other efforts to identify the men. The agency also has said the men's actions could be innocuous, but it needs to question them.
The photos were snapped by a ferry captain last month after crew members alerted him to suspicious activity. The men seemed inordinately interested in the operation of the vessel, took photographs of the interiors of the boats and went into areas tourists and commuters don't normally go, the FBI has said. The agency has received many tips but has not yet found the men.
Dozens of Muslims and Arabs have complained to community leaders about the photographs. The fallout has led to a meeting planned today between Muslim- and Arab-American community leaders and law-enforcement officials.
"We need to get some type of apology from them and figure out how to get back to where we were," said Rita Zawaideh, head of the Arab-American Community Coalition.
Community leaders also expect to raise questions about another recent incident. On Aug. 12, leaders say half a dozen men of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent were stopped and questioned for up to six hours as they left a ferry in Seattle following a trip to the Olympic Peninsula. Those men contacted Zawaideh to report the incident as profiling.
David Gomez, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Seattle office, said he was aware of an incident in which five or six ferry passengers were questioned, but wasn't clear whether it was the same one.
Zawaideh said she met with FBI officials about the August incident three days before the agency released the photos of the two men. But the FBI didn't bring up that subject.
"Why not ask us then and we would have had a way to ask people in the community," she said.
Gomez said the agency needs to address certain sensitive issues, but "people in those communities have to get over this sensitivity toward feeling victimized."
Many passengers have been stopped and questioned recently, as the ferry system has stepped up security once the FBI concluded the men might be watching the system. The stops are based on activities, not skin color, Gomez said.
Two days ago, a Seattle Times photographer, who is white, was stopped and questioned after taking photographs near the Mukilteo ferry terminal.
The FBI didn't take the photos of the two men to the Arab- and Muslim-American community because the agency doesn't know if the men are Middle Eastern, Gomez added.
"That seems potentially prejudicial to me, and in some ways worse than simply putting [the photos] out the way we did," Gomez said. "It is not us saying these guys look Middle Eastern."
Zawaideh countered: "They're not saying these men are Arabs, but insinuating they are."
This all comes at a time when some local Muslim and Arab-American leaders say they've seen a new spike in discrimination complaints.
The concerns over profiling following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had begun to ease about three years ago, they say. But with each new incident tied to Muslims or Arabs — bombings in the London subway or a raising of the terror alert — has come a rash of new complaints.
Both Zawaideh and S. Arsalan Bukhari, president of the Seattle chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), say their organizations have been receiving more reports lately involving allegations of discrimination.
Bukhari said he's heard of delays at the border, as well as cases of people being asked questions at the airport and searched so thoroughly they missed their flights.
Aziz Junejo, who hosts a cable TV show on Islam and who writes a column from the Islamic perspective for The Seattle Times, said a group of Muslim kids who were planning a trip to the Olympic Mountains this weekend phoned to ask if he thought they should take the trip.
"I said: 'I would stay off the ferry if I were you.' "
Information in this article originally published on August 23, 2007 was corrected on August 23, 2007. A story about ferry security in Thursday's Seattle Times used the wrong first name of the assistant special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the FBI. His name is David Gomez.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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