Government agents make a surprise visit to a young journalist’s home with questions about articles he’s written about an emerging protest movement.
It may sound like a scene from a distant and frightening land, but it happened last week to 22-year-old Jama Abdirahman, a college student and recent graduate of the Seattle Globalist’s youth-reporter apprenticeship program.
Abdirahman wasn’t home when the two FBI agents came calling, but his 16-year-old brother was, and handed over his cell phone number.
During the apprenticeship program, where other Globalist reporters and I mentor young people hoping to become journalists, Abdirahman wrote about stereotypes of his South End neighborhood and even did the photography for a few of my Seattle Times columns, one about issues facing the Somali-American community.
But it was a story he wrote about Black Lives Matter protests — specifically about women in the movement — that particularly interested the agents.
One agent said “I want to ask you about your article,” says Abdirahman, who was editing photos for his “street photography” blog when he received the phone call, “It seemed like he wanted to hear my views on the Black Lives Matter movement.”
The agent asked Abdirahman if he’d be willing to meet up and talk more. Abdirahman agreed but says he started to worry that he was in trouble — or might be asked to get someone else in trouble — so he called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and got a pro-bono lawyer.
Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of CAIR Washington, says that these sort of FBI visits to members of the Muslim community aren’t uncommon.
“Sometimes it can be a surprise visit at someone’s home by an FBI agent, or at the workplace, or a phone call,” Bukhari says.
Bukhari says such visits show a pattern of profiling, and Abdirahman says that he feels he was approached in part because of his race, religion and ethnicity.
“I thought about that afterwards and it could be that they just want me to go into the community and report back,” says Abdirahman whose family came to Seattle as refugees from Somalia in the 1990s, though he was born here. “I’ve heard of these things happening. There would be FBI agents at mosques just trying to find out, ‘What these Muslims are up to.’”
Initial calls to the FBI’s Seattle office by Globalist staff yielded suggestions that the visit might have been a hoax. But Frank Harrill, an agent who works out of Spokane, confirmed agents from the Seattle office did indeed contact Abdirahman, though he wouldn’t release their names.
Harrill further confirmed that unannounced house visits are within the agency’s protocol, and says they’re motivated by a desire to help. He says the agency is interested in being a resource and offering protection — against hate crimes for example — in potentially vulnerable communities.
“Minority communities’ trust is an essential component of how we do our job and how we serve our community,” says Harrill. He says this type of outreach is an attempt at building relationships, not a power play meant to intimidate or coerce people.
But Bukhari disagrees.
“FBI heads wonder out loud why American Muslims don’t trust them,” says Bukhari, who cites the example of the FBI’s ability to place people on the “no fly list” as leverage they can use in Muslim communities. “There are piles of evidence as to why an American Muslim, young or old, would be uncomfortable to have a FBI agent show up at their door.”
Bukhari adds that these visits sometimes include questions about specific individuals in a community and religious and political beliefs, which can contribute to a climate of suspicion and mistrust.
And whatever the intentions of last week’s visit and phone call, suspicion and mistrust are all they seem to have accomplished, especially given the agents’ emphasis on the journalism Abdirahman did about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Our intent is not to cause fear, and to the extent that that is done, we’ll look at different ways to do the work that we do,” says Harrill, who was not ready to discuss those alternative approaches to community outreach but acknowledged that there was room for “process improvement.”
In the meantime, I asked Abdirahman, who will be starting at UW Bothell in a few weeks to study media and communication, if he’s reconsidering journalism after this experience.
“No,” he responded quickly, “I was actually thinking about writing an article about what happened.”
And I have no doubt he will.