The FBI and federal prosecutors in Detroit say the risk of area residents joining the Islamic State militants is not amplified by the region’s large Muslim population, but they are concerned about recruitment efforts.
Federal agents are actively monitoring the threat locally and have encouraged community, religious and civil rights leaders to help discourage people from traveling overseas to train with the Islamic State group and returning to wage terror in Metro Detroit.
There has been only one Islamic State-related criminal case filed in Detroit. A man told federal agents last month that he was traveling overseas to join the militant group, according to federal court records.
The extremist group’s threat is not more acute in Metro Detroit, which has about 250,000 Muslims, particularly in Dearborn, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade told The Detroit News.
“It’s not necessarily Arabs and Muslims that are answering the call. It’s converts,” McQuade said in an exclusive interview. “Every part of the country is concerned about this issue.”
The Islamic State, also referred to by the acronym ISIS, is known for brutal tactics in the Middle East, including beheadings and mass shootings. The militants have taken over parts of Iraq and Syria and recruited thousands of foreign fighters, mostly from the Mideast and Europe. The U.S. has led airstrikes against the extremists.
McQuade’s office has close ties to religious, school and civil rights leaders, including those in Arab and Muslim communities, and has asked them to help protect people from being wooed by the militant group.
Paul Abbate, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Detroit, agreed that the threat of Islamic State is not unique to Metro Detroit and its large Muslim population.
“It’s a national problem. It’s a national priority and we are working hard to be on top of it,” Abbate told The News.
He would not disclose investigative techniques being used to track and thwart Islamic State recruitment efforts.
“There’s a whole spectrum of investigative techniques that we have utilized within the legal standards and guidelines,” Abbate said. “We leverage anything and everything, legally, that we can to identify individuals.”
Imam Steve Elturk, president of theIslamic Organization of North America mosque in Warren, believes the Islamic State’s influence is not being felt in local Islamic congregations.
“We don’t have these issues here,” said Elturk.
The threat of Islamic State recruiting in congregations nationwide is very small, Elturk believes.
The main concern in the community is discrimination against Muslims, Elturk said.
Last month, local religious leaders met to answer questions about terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and also how terrorists attacks carried out in the Middle East affect the perception of Muslims worldwide.
For local Muslims, who are mostly members of the Shia denomination, there is “zero support” for the Islamic State, said University of Michigan-Dearborn professor Ronald Stockton.
“You’re not going to have much sympathy when they are killing your relatives back home,” Stockton said, referring to Islamic State attacks in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. “ISIS is anti-Shia and two-thirds of Muslims in southeast Michigan are Shia.”
Mass executions of Christians in the Mideast and the “barbarity” of other Islamic State attacks have horrified people, Stockton said.
Even though there is hardly any support for the Islamic State locally, Stockton said there’s “no question” federal agents are “monitoring potentially dangerous individuals.”
And there likely is little objection to the investigation within the local Muslim community, he added. “They don’t want someone to blow up something and discredit the whole Muslim community.”
In a New York case last month that led to three arrests of people who allegedly conspired to join Islamic State and kill President Barack Obama, FBI agents relied on a paid informant and monitored Islamic State-related websites.
Locally, on Feb. 18, an Iraqi refugee living in East Lansing was charged with allegedly lying to federal officials about returning to the Middle East to fight with Islamic extremists.
Al-Hamzah Mohammad Jawad, 29, told agents at Detroit Metro Airport that he was traveling to “Iraq to conduct jihad,” according to federal court records.
When pressed to support his account, Jawad said he invented it, the report said. He is being held without bond and on Feb. 24 was ordered to undergo a psychological exam.
Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.