Friday, December 13, 2013
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Foria Younis is a former FBI agent who worked for the counter terrorism unit and now teaches law enforcement how to conduct investigations in muslim communities. Photographed with Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion at the Hilton Garden Inn in Portland on Monday, July 27, 2009.
PORTLAND — Police officers planning to interview members of a Muslim household approached the door, only to spot a woman inside dashing into a back room. Was she grabbing a weapon? Warning a suspect? Fleeing out a back door?
''She did not want to answer the door without getting her head covering,'' said Foria Younis, a former terrorism investigator with the FBI. In many Muslim cultures, ''if a woman doesn't have a head scarf on, it's almost as if she's nude.''
Younis tells the true story to help illustrate the importance of understanding Muslim traditions if police are to work effectively within their local Muslim communities.
Younis was the key presenter Tuesday at a daylong training program at the University of Southern Maine, attended by 62 officers from across the state.
Organized by the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, the training was provided by the U.S. Department of Justice in hopes of helping local and state authorities build ties with people in Muslim communities. It's also meant to give officers the tools to conduct investigations in those populations.
''People want to know how to do it right rather than being told they did it wrong,'' said Sheriff Mark Dion, who has worked in recent years to develop relationships with members of the local Muslim community. ''You don't have to become an Islamist expert, but all we have now are stereotypes, which don't work for anyone.''
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, law enforcement officials have had an increasing need to make contact with, and conduct investigations in, the country's Muslim communities, including those in Maine. But there are two ways to proceed, Yousin said: Build relationships with witnesses, sources and community leaders, or take approaches that alienate them.
Maine's Muslim communities are still relatively small, which Dion said can contribute to a sense of isolation and wariness, including when it comes to police.
The Muslim populations in Maine include the growing Somali community, primarily in Lewiston and Portland, as well as immigrants from southern Asia. Although many Sudanese are Muslim, most of those who have come to Portland are Christian refugees from southern Sudan.
A former member of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York City, Younis was raised in a moderate to conservative Muslim household by Pakistani parents; she speaks fluent Urdu and Punjabi.
Her duties for the FBI over 10 years included extensive work in the Middle East and Asia, investigating cases such as the deadly 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
She was presented the FBI Director's Award for her efforts in Pakistan investigating the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
It was in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks that Younis realized there was a need for FBI agents and other law enforcement to be trained in Muslim culture.
As investigators worked feverishly to locate other terrorists and search for ties to the hijackers and al-Qaida, relations with many in the Muslim community soured. It was the first time many law enforcement officers had interacted with Muslims in their communities, and it didn't always go smoothly.
''It caused the bridges between the Muslim community and the law enforcement community to collapse,'' Younis said. ''It's easy to make a bridge fall apart, but building it back is very hard.''
Younis said something as simple as recognizing a prayer rug and being respectful of it can go a long way toward achieving cooperation.
''There are probably hundreds of examples like that,'' she said. ''All of the things law enforcement officers do, such as community relations, all of the contacts law enforcement has with the Muslim community, we want that to be as positive as can be.''
In addition to teaching officers how to interact positively with members of the Muslim community, Younis covered indicators of criminal activity and extremism.
Understanding what is normal can help investigators understand what is not, she said.
''The energy has to be spent,'' Younis said. ''Sometimes you don't get back as much as you want, but if you have the right officers doing community relations, hopefully things can get better.''
And in a crisis, police will have already built relationships in the community.
Muslim communities in America are some of the fastest-growing segments of the population, Younis said. Beyond terrorism investigations, police need to build a rapport with those communities so residents trust and respect the police, she said.
Tuesday's training was attended by police from many cities, including Portland, Saco, Lewiston and Brunswick. The Maine State Police, the Department of Corrections, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies were represented as well.
Younis conceded that she can give officers only a glimpse into understanding the complexity of Muslim culture, but said she hopes to encourage them to do more research.
South Portland Officer Allen Andrews said he's doing just that.
''I'm the high school resource officer, and we have an increasing number of people from the Muslim community, and I'm just so ignorant about the traditions,'' he said. ''As we become more diverse, I need to have a better idea of what's going on so I don't alienate people.''
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: