On Thursday, November 21, 2013, a law enforcement training on terrorism was offered in Minnesota. This training was organized by former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher of the controversial new Center for Somali History Studies. Yes, terrorism is a real threat to our nation and law enforcement needs to be educated about that threat.
As an educator and a concerned citizen wishing for the safety and well-being of every civilian, I support educational trainings. Yet, I am concerned about this training. Is the training meant to strengthen our law enforcement or is it meant to selectively create a circle within our nation that hardens our deep-seated prejudices and biases to keep the Muslim community marginalized and outside this circle?
American Muslim leaders and leading organizations have been very vocal and firm in unequivocally condemning terrorism and terrorist organizations, including Al Shabab. Last month, Minnesota imams were the first to collectively condemn the horrific attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya. The Council on American Islamic Relations, a leading civil rights organization, has repeatedly stated that “any action that harms innocent civilians is reprehensible and deserves condemnation.” Muslim organizations and scholars are quite vocal condemning terrorism whenever it happens, wherever it happens, and whoever commits it.
So why am I concerned about this training?
As an educator, I focus on two important points: First, evaluate or question the source. Second, evaluate or question the methodology - the research, processes, critical thinking, omissions and numbers. I also immediately separate and remove any emotionally appealing statements.
Let us question the source.
Are the trainers experts on terrorism?
Are their credentials and backgrounds sound or are they individuals who have no qualifications or have deep-seated prejudice against Muslims?
Do any of these experts have the necessary qualifications or level of understanding to speak on terrorism or on the Muslim community?
Do any of these experts have a reputation for accuracy?
Do any of the experts have a motive for being inaccurate or overly biased?
Are there valid reasons for questioning the honesty or integrity of these presenters?
Let us begin with the organizer. Former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher was referred to as “Ramsey County's most controversial cop.” His own police department alleged that he "exaggerated or falsified" his investigation of domestic and international terrorism threats in the east metro.
SEE: Fletcher Defends Terror Probe (Star Tribune)
In an interview with the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office stated that Fletcher's claims that Ramsey County residents were threatened by 22 domestic and 11 international terrorist groups "came from an active imagination" and that the Terrorism Information Briefs "never existed."
City Pages stated that "Fletcher's office apparently dreamed up the whole idea that his jurisdiction was under threat from dozens of domestic and international terrorism groups" and that "the research was done by staffers cruising the internet and watching CNN." It further states: "It's hardly the first time Fletcher and his office have been at the center of controversy. Some of his department's handiwork was employed in the run-up to the 2008 Republican National Convention, when he directed preemptive raids against Twin Cities activists who later became known as the RNC 8. Two years after they were arrested in the guns-drawn raid, the cases against them fizzled."
Along with Fletcher, the co-presenters for the training include: Omar Jamal, Abdirizak Bihi, Mohammed Farah, Michael Rozin, Jeff Weyers, and Gary Olding.
Michael Rozin, "formally of the Israeli Defense Forces, trained at the Israeli Security Academy," was featured in an NPR story on racial and religious profiling at the Mall of America.
SEE: Shoppers Entangled In War On Terrorism (NPR)
Omar Jamal, a convicted felon, has made unsubstantiated, hate-inspired statements, such as referring to Minneapolis as a "slaughterhouse for immigrants."
SEE: When Somalis are in the news so is Omar Jamal (MPR)
Similarly, the Pioneer Press reported that Bihi has had run-ins with the law, including a restraining order for "threatening and stalking" a woman and DWIs. In March 2011, there was an "active warrant for his arrest for violating the terms of his probation."
SEE: Domestic terrorism hearing witness from Minneapolis has had a troubled past (Pioneer Press)
Is this how legitimate community leaders behave? Are these individuals best suited to train law enforcement?
Fletcher has organized controversial trainings for law enforcement in the past. Concerned community members felt the trainings did not distinguish between terrorists and mainstream Muslims and Somalis. The training flyer referred to the terrorist organization Al Shabaab as an "Islamic" organization. It included pictures of Somali men with AK-47s on it with the headline, "Understanding the People of Somalia."
In November 2011, more than 30 Twin Cities Somali and Muslim organizations challenged the credibility of the seminar in Minneapolis. Several police departments across the state declined to participate.
SEE: Muslim groups to Bob Fletcher: There's No "Islam" in Terrorism (Minnesota Public Radio)
Groups Object to St. Paul Somali Seminar, Call It Anti-Muslim (Pioneer Press)
The training claimed that there is "an alarming trend of radical imams recruiting and radicalizing American-raised Somalis to be suicide bombers for the Al Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab."
However, the FBI said it has no reason to believe the mosque was indoctrinating people:
"At this point, we have uncovered no evidence to show there was any effort of any mosque or mosque leadership or mosque imam to take part in any recruitment or radicalization of these young men," said Special Agent E.K .Wilson of the Minneapolis division of the FBI.
While investigators believe that some of the secret meetings happened in a mosque, it doesn't appear to be a case of a radical imam brainwashing his students. In most cases, Wilson said, it was likely friends influencing friends.
"It looks like the recruitment process of these men was on a very peer-to-peer type scale," Wilson said. "Some of the individuals were more culpable than others, but it was a very lateral chain of command when it came to who is responsible."
SEE: Minnesota Muslim leaders skeptical and disappointed after radicalization hearing (MPR)
In May 2012, Fletcher's training was canceled in Mankato after Somali leaders met with city leaders to discuss the controversial content of the seminar. As a result, all of the city organizers withdrew their support of the seminar.
In March 2013, Catholic Charities, who had agreed to host the training in Waite Park, apologized for the training's anti-Somali/anti-Muslim flyer. They also agreed to remove the anti-Muslim/anti-Somali content from the presentation slides.
The Executive Director of Catholic Charities publicly stated: “It used language that was wrong. It was a mistake on our part. No one should ever think of anyone from the Somali or Muslim community as affiliated with a terrorist organization."
SEE: Muslim Education Event Comes Under Fire (KNSI)
We must support educational trainings on terrorism. It is within our nation’s interest. However, we must stand against trainings by fearmongers. It is against our nation’s interest.
Fearmongering undermines our nation, in particular law enforcement’s ability to effectively protect our country. It undermines peace officers’ relationships with the American Muslim community, leading to a rise in racial and religious profiling. Reports have highlighted law enforcement's use of biased experts and anti-Muslim training materials nationwide. The United States Congress has scrutinized these practices.
SEE: Congress Grills FBI Chief About Anti-Islam Trainings
Let us question the methodology.
A sound methodology is a methodology that can be challenged openly and transparently. It stands on arguments that are complete, critical thinking processes that are cold, sterile and devoid of emotional manipulation. It is difficult to question the methodology of this training.
On Thursday, November 21, CAIR-MN reported that a Muslim contacted the civil rights organization to report that he was barred from this controversial law enforcement training seminar on terrorism. The man reported that he approached the registration table, registered his name and email address, and was provided with a folder containing training materials and the agenda. However, he said that Bob Fletcher then approached him and asked him to leave. Fletcher allegedly told him that the training was by invitation only, mostly for law enforcement and for Fletcher’s Somali friends. Yet, this appears to be pretext. The event was publicized in public venues, including the main page of the organization’s website. The website includes an online registration page open to the community, along with a link to Paypal.
This raises a serious red flag: Omission and suppression of alternative voices, hence the arguments are not complete or sound.
Educational trainings for law enforcement should test for hidden bias. Our ability to understand others can be obfuscated by our own hidden biases and stereotypes. It is easy to argue we are not biased, but the reality is that bias is outside our sense of awareness. Acknowledging hidden biases is the first step to an effective training. Test Yourself for Hidden Bias
In addition, trainings on terrorism should involve terrorism experts that do not have a motive in the training. Trainings that omit alternative voices and relevant evidence can appear to be stronger than they really are.
As we work together to protect our country, we must be vigilant and firm in the face of arguments or expertise embedded with fear mongering and bias. We must do the job well and right and rely on credible sources and factual information. We must not readily accept whoever speaks on the matter without sound investigation. When sources and experts prove to be questionable, we must be accountable and responsible to seek out more reliable information, sources and experts.
A word of caution, it is extremely easy to manipulate people with numbers. Hence, we must seek out experts on the fundamental principles of probability and statistics before believing statistical information offered to us in a manipulative manner.
SEE: How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff, and Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos.
When sources and experts are biased or have a self-interest, chances are numbers and arguments are being used to manipulate instead of educate the audience. This is not within the interest of our nation. We must stand against such trainings. Profiling, misrepresenting and alienating an entire community does not help combat terrorism.
Source: CAIR-MN Action Alert