My FBI Experience

This story documents my encounter with the FBI, the full story, what I thought during it, and how it turned out.

It was February 2009 and I had just switched jobs to my first IT position. I was 24 and my life was looking great. The position required a security clearance, so I applied for one. The very next day I received a call from my father while I was at work. He said, “What are you doing online? The FBI came here and wanted to talk to you!” My immediate thought: Oh, it must be about the clearance. I didn’t think much of it and gave them a call. I came to learn that it was something questionable that came up about me, and that they wanted to get cleared up. I asked what and they said it cannot be said over the phone because the phone uses encryptioned lines – this is complete bullshit, but I didn’t much of it at the time.

That night, I came home and more or less got yelled at by my parents. They were saying I was “too involved”, whatever that means. Its stupid, because there is literally nothing questionable about me in that regard.

I just happened to have contact with some friends who had been to similar experiences. Their advice, do not meet them AT ALL. Cancel the meeting, you stand to gain nothing and lose everything. By morning I was convinced of just that, so I called the Agent and told him to cancel the meeting and if he wanted to speak to me, to contact my lawyer. His response, this is no big deal, you don’t need to get a lawyer involved, its something small. I insisted, upon which he asked “Do you have a lawyer?” and I said I can get one. He called back again, but I never replied.

I later spoke to a lawyer about this matter. He asked for the business card from the Agent and circled the letters “AFOSI-JTTF” which stands for Air Force Office of Special Investigations – Joint Terrorism Task Force. Why in God’s name would a terrorism task force want to speak to me? He sent the lawyer a short memo saying he now represents me, not to speak to me without his permission, and any further contact would be considered inappropriate. He said if you have questions, submit them to us in writing. They never spoke to him and I figured I was off the hook.

I had several sleepless nights, visualizing my doors being knocked down and armed gunmen bursting in. I started to think, my days of freedom are up and people are going to make a facebook page about me demanding my freedom. I also started encrypting a bunch of my Islamic lectures using a 4096-bit PGP key. Obviously nothing happened. Years pass…this episode contributed to my engagement breaking, people thinking I was questionable, my parents stopped trusting me, at least one person very close friend stopped being friends with me. I eventually got that security clearance. But interestingly the next job I took denied another, lower-level clearance later on. More on this later, because this later became an issue.

I was going through a lot of depression, mostly stemming from my failed engagement, her immediate success, and a deep feeling of being left behind and forgotten, jealousy, anger, frustration, etc. This continues to plague me til today. In 2010, in an attempt to “break free” and pave my own course, I purchased a firearm – a 9mm Beretta Px4. This was not a spur the moment decision, I spent a lot of time thinking about it, going to ranges to see what I liked, reseach, etc. I intended to learn it, and maybe move on to a rifle, get into hunting and just have it as a skill. Honestly, it made me feel better – something I deeply needed at the time. You might compare it to going to the gym or writing. It was my outlet.

I must have told 4-5 people max about the gun. I wanted to go camping and have them come along. I suppose one of them thought I was potentially getting out of hand, presumably approached the masjid and told them. Then I was approached by a member of our masjid saying they did not want someone who taught there to own a firearm and that it was bad for their reputation. He also said its known that I was upset about everything from before and that they did not want me to do something “crazy”. What the hell, I thought? This is the worst time for you to saying this to me. I’ve never cried in front of people until that day. Their perspective was, what if it became know that I owned it? What if it became an incident? It would be hard for them to distance themselves for me. I spoke with the president of the masjid that day, and was put on 2-weeks suspension. I had enough, the very next day I took the 9mm and all rounds I had to the police station for disposal. The day after that I met with the president of the masjid, who explained the suspension from my teaching position as a precautionary move and that he was happy that I disposed of it. I never went back into teaching, nor do I plan on it.

That day after the meeting, I went for a drive West – no particular destination, just wanted to be alone. I went west for miles. I guess natural beauty has a healing, if ever so slight. I still do this from time to time.

But this matter didn’t go away so easily. It just so happened that that very week someone had fired shots at the Pentagon and they were looking at all firearm purchases and disposals. A month or two later I was once again approached by the same person from masjid saying that in the monthly meeting with the FBI my name had come up. They asked if I was questionable in any way, to which the Imam said no, I am an active member of the community, that I am more Sufi not Salafi, and that I am peaceable. All very good things.

I went to meet the Imam a few days later and he said he could schedule a meeting with me, the FBI regional director and myself in his office and they would ask just two questions: A) Do I have any problems with the police; B) Why did I have the firearm?

That’s it? Sure, I’ll meet. Lets setup a meeting. I don’t mind that at all.

But what happened? Again, it just so happened that I was feverishly sick for several days and was home. During that time my brother came to my room saying “Two guys wearing suits want to talk to you”. I came outside and they identified themselves as FBI, and wanted to speak to me.

I have a notoriously bad memory, but I remember this interaction very well. They introduced themselves, provided ID, and said they wanted to talk. I came outside, didn’t invite them in (despite it being cold) and closed the door. I initially sat down because I was somewhat dizzy from being sick, then went inside to get shoes, then a jacket. Kinda awkward I suppose. They asked me a dozen questions, but they focused around three things:

A) Why did I buy then gun? What were my intentions with it? When I said hunting, one of them replied that no one hunts with a 9mm. He also said it was suspicous that someone with the same general characteristics (ie, race, religion) as a guy who had just earlier training to kill people and been taught was doing nearly the exact same thing. I had no solid answers for that.

B) In 2008, I was offered a job to do finance work for a company that build drone planes. I put up a question on an Islamic internet forum asking if people thought it was acceptable to do so. I don’t recall the responses, but I’m sure they were negative. I never took the job. His question was, do you have a dilemma between your American identity and Islamic identity? Obviously not. I ultimately turned the job down because it was too far away.

C) Did I know a “ring leader” of a group of people who went to Pakistan, ostensibly to join the Taliban, and were arrested. That question struck me as odd and out of place. I said no. More on this later, because this is related to that earlier denied clearance.

Random other things I was asked was what I would do if I knew someone was going to commit an act of terrorism. Would I turn him in? What was my email address. I gave it without thinking, then said “Oh, now you’re going to search for me online” and he said with a smirk on his face “Well, if you have nothing to hide, you should have no problems, right?” I was asked if I was a “Salafist” (no one says Salafist, they say Salafi) and if I was a regular attendee of Al-Maghrib. I was asked what my thoughts were on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That one, I just refused to answer, even when they asked me like 4 times. They asked me which security clearances I held. I hold one, and mentioned that another was denied. I said I want to get that cleared up and not denied a clearance. They asked where I worked. The stupidest question they asked me was if my brother was religious and if so, if they could talk to him. I said he was not, which is not true, but I didn’t want to get him into trouble. By the end of it my Attention Deficit went into full swing and I had trouble keeping focus. One of them concluded that I was just some ordinary guy who had attention problems (literally, he said that). But to be honest, I also channeled this problem into de-railing their questions. I compared the questioning to Racial profiling against blacks, and pointed to one of the agents who was black (who, btw, was a history major in college). They also hinted at trying to get me to work for them, maybe being a spy against the Muslim community. I obviously declined, saying I don’t want to get involved in that stuff.

After that meeting, they went to my previous places of employment and asked about me, what kinda person I am, if they had any reason to believe I would harm the US government, etc. Can you believe that?? I came to know this because one of my previous employers is a friend.

An very odd thing happened, something that inspires me to believe in God, especially whenever my doubts arise. One day I was going to the masjid and my mom pulled me aside and said “Nahraf, I be careful, I know more than you think!” Mind you, I had not told her about the second round of FBI visits, and nor did my father (who also knew). In fact, she did not know. Instead, she had a dream about me, and knew that something was wrong. It was only after I told her that she knew. So, maybe it was God giving her knowledge in her dreams? I don’t know.

I told our Masjids Imam, and a few other close trusted friends. The Imam told me not to worry, to put my trust in God, and then took me aside, and called the Washington Field office director or whatever about me. He said we were supposed to have this talk in his office, not at my house! What a guy, I love the Imam. Too bad the director was not at his desk and it went to his voice mail.

A few weeks later while at work I received a call from one of the agents who had come to my house. He said that the FBI’s interest in me at that point was over. My exact words were that the process had been “emotionally taxing”. He tried to justify it, not through arguments but more like “Well, we have to do this” sorta rhetoric. He then said that I had earlier expressed interest in getting whatever was on my record which caused my security clearance to be denied to be removed. I jumped at the opportunity! Of course. So we setup a preliminary meeting. I told only the Imam about this meeting.

The meeting occurred a while later at a Starbucks close to my house. I met the same agent I spoke to on the phone plus an initial person. The agent who worked for the police was not there. I brought with me my denied security clearance form and asked for an explanation. He did not have one just then. I suspect that they were mostly just trying to get to know me there, see what I was like, etc. I offered to buy him a Starbucks drink, because I felt rude for not inviting him into my house last time, but he declined and insisted he pay. I did most of the talking. Obviously a bad idea. I drew them a diagram of what I perceived as the breakdown of the Muslim community and where I believe the terrorism lays. What a stupid thing for me to do. It was very academic, but pointless. That meeting was largely unmemorable. I said that the FBI activities against the Muslim community were out of control, and presented him an article of recent anti-Muslim training stories. I remember explicitly that one article said that if a Muslim is silently praying, he might be an imminent threat. I said “I do that!”. I told them that this thing participated in the breaking apart of my engagement, at which one of them apologized.

A few weeks later there was another meeting, but this time the other agent spoke. I showed up early and was practicing my sign language. I did that for two reasons, first because I was interested in learning it, but secondly because I wanted them to see me doing it and realize my personality wasn’t that of a terrorist. (Very odd to have to write that!) One of them signed out the alphabet in ASL right there. They asked that we sit off to the side, not in the midst of everyone, in case someone was listening.

He said he performed research on what caused my clearance to be denied. He knew damn well what the issue was. He asked me if I had ever spoke to a certain individual who went to Pakistan and was arrested by Pakistani intelligence (not putting his name so that it doesn’t show up in search engines, but I remember the name). I said no. He said he had evidence that I spoke to him via Gtalk and that he had the chat records. I asked what the chat records consisted of. He said he cannot tell me. However, he said that the records were benign and were not cause of concern, otherwise, we would not be having this conversation. Again, they asked if I had spoke to him. I said no. Then they asked details about this conversation, specifically, that we had a conversation about translating something and the topic of marriage. I told them that marraige was a stable conversation topic amongst single Muslim guys. They said that we met through a conduit “Farooq”. I’m pretty sure I know exactly which Farooq they were talking about, but there is no way I would get that family-man in any sort of trouble, so I said that name is too general, its like saying “do you know Bob?” They kept asking me in different ways and in different forms if I recalled this conversation, but I continued to repeat that its too general of a conversation, that I have stuff translated all the time, and that marriage is a stable conversation. I asked if I could see the conversation and he said “um…no”. They asked if anyone else uses my Gmail account, and I made damn sure to say I was the only one. There was no way I was going to get anyone else into trouble. Looking back at it, its kinda funny. If I had this conversation, why can’t I see it? I again tried to derail some of their questionings by going off topic on purpose, but it didn’t work this time around.

In the end, he concluded its one of two things: A) You really don’t remember or B) You are lying about not remembering, upon which I said “yeah, in which case I would go to jail for a long time”. He asked said that I was a smart guy, and that I should look through my chat logs to see if I can find it. He asked me to call him when I found anything.

I went home that day, searched, and found nothing. Mind you, I also deleted a bunch of conversation logs, so that might be why. I never got back to them. That was that. I figured I was just going to lose my other clearance and would have to possibly find a new industry.

Months passed, nothing happened. Then there were a series of breaking stories about FBI training on Islam that were extremely bias, factually incorrect and anti-Islam. CNN even ran a 2-day program about it. Some of the classes were even taught by known Islamophobes. In response to that, the Washington Field Director of the FBI wanted to clarify how that happened and apologize while not apologizing, so he held an event at our masjid. I attended. Was an interesting talk, I took about 6 pages of notes. I submitted a question asking if Muslims were allowed to have firearms and if so, would that be considered suspicious. He said no, and I’m pretty sure by that point all my friends knew the question was mine. After a few hours and Maghrib, some people were meeting him. I went up to him and upon seeing me, the Imam of the masjid took my hand, and his hand and said “This young man needs to talk to you.” I could barely look him in the eye, but I said I had a security clearance issue, and that I’ve spoken to agents before, etc. He gave me his card and asked me to email him.

A few days later, I emailed him saying that I wanted to get this issue removed from my record and would be willing to talk, but at this point I really do not think there is anything more I can do. He forwarded the request to another person, who, after maybe 2-3 weeks, called me at work and said that she thoroughly looked into the issue and I have nothing to worry about, and should have no problems in getting one in the future. She said if I ever did, that I should speak to her to have it resolved.

And that’s that.

My take away thoughts? Just a few.

A) Watch who you talk to online, because you might just have a random conversation that come back to haunt you.

B) Do not talk to the police or law enforcement, ever. In fact, the first time the guy tried to talk to me and I refused, he called back and used words like “the bottom line is, we have to talk” blah blah. I ignored it.

C) Trust in God. My trust waxes and wanes on a daily basis, but when I look back at it, I can see divine providence taking place, even at my lowest points.

I sometimes think of starting a “Muslims who have been interviewed by the FBI” support group. What do ya’ll think?