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Biased Counterterrorism Trainings: Far More than One Bad Apple

Nusrat Choudhury,
Former Legal Director, ACLU of Illinois
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October 7, 2011

On Wednesday, yet another report confirmed the use of factually incorrect and bigoted training materials on Islam and Muslims — this time by the Department of Justice. Wired published a 2010 PowerPoint presentation created for the U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, which teaches that “Islam is convinced of the superiority of its culture; and obsessed with the inferiority of its power” and that “No Major Muslim group has ever renounced the doctrine of jihad of the sword.” It also includes a slide from a briefing by an FBI intelligence analyst notorious for his anti-Islam views, which claims that today, “Civilians, Juries, Lawyers, Media, Academia, and Charities” are engaged in a “Civilizational Jihad” in the United States. The article also reports that anti-Islam training materials are used in military intelligence schools, an online university geared towards people seeking jobs in intelligence, and the Army’s center at Fort Leavenworth.

This expose echoes recent reporting about anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias in numerous FBI trainings, including a 2009 power point employing stereotypes of the “Arabic mind” obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU of Northern California and Asian Law Caucus. Yet, biased training materials are only the tip of the iceberg; federal intelligence reports from as early as 2006 also contain similarly erroneous information or bigoted views.

These reports confirm what the ACLU has suspected: training materials and intelligence reports reflecting an anti-Muslim and anti-Arab viewpoint are not the result of isolated bad apples. They have been used by federal authorities for years — despite their factual flaws and lack of empirical support — painting millions of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians with the broad brush of terrorism.

Yet, biased and inaccurate trainings and intelligence reports are inappropriate and inherently counterproductive. They drive a wedge between the government and minority communities and result in biased policing, a hostile workplace for Arab and Muslim-American law enforcement personnel, and more broadly, an environment in which entire communities are wrongly treated with suspicion and subjected to unequal application of the law.

In response to these revelations, the FBI and Department of Justice have recently called for reviews of their counterterrorism training materials referencing religion and culture. This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. The ACLU and other civil rights and civil liberties groups issued a letter earlier this week urging the FBI to identify and withdraw both training materials and intelligence products that are factually inaccurate or contain assertions or analysis based on racial, ethnic or religious bias or political ideology. The DOJ should do the same. And both agencies should issue revised guidance clearly stating that religious practices and political advocacy are protected activities under the First Amendment, and are not indicators of future violence.

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