Portlands Muslims feel all eyes on them Ñ then and now
- Ben Jacklet
- Portland Tribune - News
Files show Middle Eastern people have long been watched by police
Kayse Jama used to consider Portland a safe place for Muslims.
Not any more.
Jama, a 28-year-old Somalian refugee, was one of two Muslims to testify about their surveillance concerns at the packed City Council hearing on the city's participation in the Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force on Thursday.
'I am full of fear and apprehension coming here today,' Jama said. 'The safe haven has been taken away.'
Jama is a member of the Islamic Center of Portland, or Masjed as-Saber, Portland's largest and most conservative mosque. His imam, or religious leader, Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, has been arrested amid a national crackdown on suspected Muslim terrorists. Jama considers Kariye a political prisoner.
The arrest has mobilized the city's Muslim community to protest what many are calling a witch hunt. Local Muslims say they are facing unfair scrutiny because of their beliefs. And police intelligence files recently obtained by the Portland Tribune show that the police began targeting Muslims and Arabs more than two decades ago, during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981.
City leaders and police officials emphatically deny that current police surveillance unfairly targets Muslims and Arabs. They say city police officers obey the state law that prohibits them from performing surveillance on law-abiding persons.
Police Chief Mark Kroeker said he has directed officers to 'be careful that you don't single out Muslim people and Mideastern people inappropriately. Do not put a jacket on them.'
Still, Jama and the approximately 15,000 Muslims of metropolitan Portland have ample reason to believe they are being watched.
FBI agents reportedly are keeping 24-hour-a-day surveillance on anyone remotely linked to businesses, charities and terrorist cells financed by Osama bin Laden.
The federal agents are working with the cooperation of intelligence and terrorism experts from every city police force in the nation, including Portland's. ABC News has quoted sources who say Portland is one of nine U.S. cities where the FBI is seeking out al-Qaida terror cells.
The Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Kariye on Sept. 8 at Portland International Airport. He was charged with unlawful use of a Social Security number and unlawful possession of an identification document. He was detained without bail after an agent found traces of TNT in two bags checked in under Kariye's name.
Follow-up tests on the luggage came up negative for explosives.
At least two other local Muslims are being investigated as possible terrorists amid reports that the FBI considers the Islamic center 'one of the most radical mosques in the country.'
Ali Steitiye, a local computer technician and mosque member, was arrested in October 2001 after law enforcement officials found thousands of rounds of ammunition and a calendar with Sept. 11 circled at his Southwest Portland home. He was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for unlawful possession of weapons and fraud.
During the Sept. 18 sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Anna Brown refused to increase Steitiye's sentence because of alleged terrorist links. 'Mere political thought cannot be a basis for sentencing a person,' Brown said.
Another mosque member, Farid Adlouni, is being investigated for his relationship with Osama bin Laden's personal secretary, Wadih El-Hage.
Wide public support
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there is broad public support for surveillance of Muslim groups.
Even some people who have been the subjects of past surveillance support the crackdown. David Horowitz, a professor of history at Portland State University who was watched by the police in the 1970s for his opposition to the Vietnam War, says today's threats are serious enough to justify thorough investigations.
'There's a big difference between doing surveillance of people like myself who hold certain political beliefs and doing surveillance of someone who is raising charity money that is going to support real terrorism,' Horowitz said.
But Muslim leaders say their community deserves the same constitutional protections as everyone else.
'We have nothing to hide,' said Alaa Abunijem, president of the Islamic Center of Portland. 'But we would like to have the same rights of privacy that every American has, without being subjected to harassment and guilt by association.'
Arabs, Muslims long targeted
The city of Portland made national headlines last November for its controversial refusal to conduct interviews of recent visitors from countries with large Muslim populations.
Kroeker said that decision was 'one piece of evidence that you can trust us to follow the law and the Constitution.'
The Portland intelligence files, which document local surveillance from the mid-1960s to the mid-'80s, show that local police long have targeted Oregon's Arabs and Muslims, building more than 20 dossiers on groups such as the Foundation for Middle East Peace, the Organization of Arab Students and the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran.
One 1983 document contains the entire Oregon member list of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Another document, from 1982, lists all of the Middle Eastern students at Oregon's universities and notes which groups they belong to, as well as room numbers, phone numbers and dates of birth.
The files also contain a list, compiled by an informant working with the Portland police, of the room numbers of all the Middle Eastern students living at Ondine Residence Hall, PSU student housing in the park blocks. There are lists of PSU students enrolled in English as a Second Language courses.
The files also show that at least some of the surveillance of Arab groups was justified.
One 1981 report describes a militant training exercise in an Oregon state park conducted by a group called the Muslim Arab Youth Association.
When the police ran checks on the license plate numbers in the parking lot of the event, all of them turned up as falsified. Police also found hundreds of bullets fired from 9 mm handguns and automatic weapons on park grounds.
There is no indication in the files as to what became of this investigation.
Surveillance led to deportation
Bishara Costandi was one of Portland's most vocal pro-Arabic activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He believes he was monitored for his political beliefs and thrown out of the country on a technicality.
A Lebanese-born Palestinian, Costandi studied at PSU before being ordered deported in 1981 in a controversial case.
Intelligence documents reveal that the Portland police kept a close eye on Costandi for his political activities. Costandi organized demonstrations to raise awareness about the plight of the Palestinian people. He worked with the Organization of Arab Students, staging rallies that he describes as emotional but nonviolent.
'I've never tried to hide my belief that Palestinians should use any means necessary to win freedom,' he says. 'If you want to arrest me for these beliefs, go ahead. But you'll have to arrest all Palestinians.'
A handwritten list of Southwest Portland addresses in the files includes Costandi's apartment, along with a Communist bookstore and the home of a Quaker activist.
In a July 1979 intelligence report Officer Winfield Falk alleged that Costandi is 'reported to be a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is an international terrorist organization. É He is the key individual that holds the local Arab terrorist support groups together and moves them in a common direction.'
Falk supplied no proof for these allegations, which Costandi emphatically denies.
'I freaked out'
Costandi remembers his arrest vividly. It was 5:30 a.m., and he was in bed. He heard a commotion outside his back door in the alley behind his apartment.
'I freaked out,' he says. 'I thought that somebody was coming to kill me.'
The door to his apartment flew open, and eight men rushed in with their weapons drawn.
'I saw eight double-barrel shotguns aimed at my head,' he recalls. 'They knocked me face-down onto the floor. Every time I lifted my head they would use the butt of a gun to knock my head back down.'
He was transported to Immigration and Naturalization Service offices in downtown Portland and interrogated.
A few weeks later, Costandi was sentenced by an immigration judge to be deported. His crime: not carrying enough course credits at PSU to justify his student visa.
He spent three months in a detention facility before leaving the United States in 1982 to travel to Europe and then Lebanon.
He returned in 1985. Now 50, Costandi is a U.S. citizen with a wife and three children in Southwest Portland. He works as a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union.
He says he is still outraged about his deportation. And while he cannot prove it, he believes he still is under surveillance.
Jama, the Somalian refugee who testified before City Council last week, says he also thinks he is under surveillance. 'I certainly wouldn't be surprised,' he said.