How the FBI May Have Tried to Turn a Muslim Civil Rights Advocate Into an Informant
It’s a story that one former Special Agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis division denies ever happened.
But as Omar Jamal tells it, the first time the FBI tried to turn him into an informant was late one night in 2003, when he got a knock on the door of his apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Somali immigrant was thirty years old and the head of a new civil rights organization when he claims that Deborah Pierce, then head of the FBI’s Minneapolis office, approached him at his home with $20,000 cash and a written contract for him to sign. The alleged offer in the contract: to become a paid informant for the FBI within his own Somali Muslim community of Minnesota — in essence, to spy on the people for whom he had just become an advocate
According to Jamal, he declined and the brief meeting concluded. Two weeks later, he was arrested and charged with providing fraudulent answers on his asylum application in the United States. He didn’t know it yet, but a long nightmare of legal trouble had just begun.
After 9/11, the Justice Department had a mandate to investigate alleged al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States. In Minnesota, this put the large Somali Muslim immigrant community directly in the crosshairs.
It was in this new environment that Jamal founded the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, with a mission to educate Somali immigrants about their rights and retain legal representation for them when necessary. His work quickly earned him a high profile in the media as an outspoken critic of the government’s treatment of his community. But he also began building relations with government officials along the way.
One of those officials, Paul McCabe, was an FBI agent from the Minneapolis division who he first met back in November 2001. “Paul McCabe and I had an occasional get together. He was a friend of mine. He used to seek out my consultation of how they were doing and I was honest and open and critical of their handling with the community,” says Jamal.
But Jamal says that in 2008, McCabe revealed to him that the legal troubles he had found himself in for the last five years could have been avoided. “He simply said the fact that if I had accepted the offer given to me back then by the FBI [Special Agent] in charge, Debbie Pierce, none of this fraud, immigration fraud, would have ever happened.”
Pierce, who retired in 2006, says that this meeting never happened and that she never offered him money: “That is absolutely, incredibly false.” She said her only direct contact with Jamal occurred at a community outreach meeting in St. Cloud. Pierce did say, however, that Jamal was one of the best English speakers in the Somali community at the time, and he worked as a translator at these meetings with the Somali community after 9/11.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Paul McCabe went on to work for the Target Corporation after retiring from the FBI in 2012. I asked the FBI’s spokesperson for the Minneapolis division, Kyle Loven, if he could put me in touch with McCabe, but he was not able to. McCabe could not be reached despite the best efforts of the author. Loven also declined to comment on Omar Jamal and whether or not the FBI had ever approached him to become an informant.
Jamal says he told McCabe he believes he did the right thing. “And that to me is really quite shocking…it was planned, that they knew she was coming to me and they knew what she was going to offer to me? And when she went back to him, that I turned down the offer, they said, you know, let’s get him.”
Omar Jamal first came to the United States in 1997 and was granted asylum status in Memphis. While studying biology at the University of Tennessee, he took a job as a security guard to support his family. As a new immigrant, he hung out with a cousin, exploring the city streets and familiarizing himself with America. The poverty and despair that he witnessed disproportionately afflicting the African American community shocked him. Yet even as an immigrant, he felt alienated among the marginalized existence of black life in the South.
Jamal observed that life for the few Somalis he could find in Memphis wasn’t much better. Public housing units were stricken with mold, faulty plumbing, and the walls were full of holes. Though they weren’t many in number, Jamal nonetheless sought out his fellow Somalis.
Jamal speaks of one old man in particular that he had gotten to know, who kept half of his face hidden behind a scarf for reasons unknown. Jamal befriended him, helping him make tearful calls back home to his wife and kids while also accompanying him at the end of each month to help send money back home. One day Jamal grudgingly asked why his face was hidden, and the man revealed the grave damage he had suffered from a grenade explosion back in Somalia. Jamal urged him to seek a corrective surgery and helped coordinate it.
It was “a decision I regretted for the rest of my life,” he says. The surgery would unfortunately end up costing the man his life. Since he had no one to take care of him while he lived in Memphis, Jamal worked with an Egyptian imam from a local mosque to arrange for a burial.
Knowing that the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area was home to the nation’s largest population of Somali immigrants, Jamal eventually made his way to Minnesota where he worked on citizen outreach for Governor Jesse Ventura for one year, after which he secured a job as an assistant bacteriologist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
But then 9/11 happened, and he was abruptly let go a day later. “I think they were paranoid [about] the fact that I was a Muslim,” he says.
After 9/11, preventing another attack had quickly become the top priority of the Department of Justice. An array of new counterterrorism initiatives had major implications for the Somali Muslim immigrant community of Minnesota, which numbered around 15,000 at the time (though unofficial estimates have always been much higher).
With investigations came community outreach initiatives aimed at creating lines of communication to explain what the government was doing, while FBI agents carried out surprise home visits seeking to interview Muslims. It was in this new climate that Jamal founded the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, which was fiscally sponsored by the nonprofit Friends for a Nonviolent World.
“We focused on making sure that anyone going through the legal system would have fair representation,” says Jamal.
“One of the first things I did was to reach out to members of the Islamic community,” says Tom Heffelfinger, who was sworn in as the presidentially-appointed U.S. Attorney of Minnesota on September 23rd, 2001. “It was not a community that was well known by most of us in law enforcement, and I was concerned because I wanted, frankly, to have connections in the community. And I also wanted to be able to head off any retaliation that may have been initiated after 9/11.”
“We needed to establish people who would tell us if there was something we needed to be worried about,” Heffelfinger adds.
As Jamal’s advocacy was under way, he was also building a working relationship with U.S. Attorney Heffelfinger. In particular, Jamal would introduce him to imams and community leaders, and would help recruit people to attend outreach meetings in which Heffelfinger sought to explain what the Justice Department and the FBI were doing. Jamal would serve as a translator, a service for which Heffelfinger was grateful.
The two didn’t always see eye-to-eye on things. Heffelfinger says that one of the Justice Department’s early war on terror initiatives was to have every FBI office interview approximately 500 Muslim men per federal district. The goal was “just to see if they had knowledge of interactions of — frankly, we were looking for sleeper cells,” says Heffelfinger.
While Omar advocated against the program, Heffelfinger notes that he was instrumental in arranging at least two community meetings for the attorney to have an opportunity to explain “that people didn’t have to feel intimidated if an FBI agent knocked on their door.”
“But you can imagine that wasn’t well received,” Heffelfinger concedes.
Not all of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center’s initiatives were well received, either. “Almost every case…the feds were urging the community not to contact us,” says Jamal.
One terrorism-related issue in particular that Jamal was vocally opposed to was the government’s crackdown on hawallahs, which were Somali wire services that working immigrants would use to send money back to their families without going through a bank that charged interest. But in the Justice Department’s view, they were unregulated, unlicensed monetary transit operations and thus a potential vehicle for terrorist financing.
“I recall Omar advocating on behalf of people who were operating those facilities, and he was doing it not only on behalf of the operators but on behalf of members of the community that relied upon it to get money to and from Somalia,” says Heffelfinger.
Jamal gained further notoriety for himself as a self-styled advocate for the Somali American community after a now-infamous incident in 2002 in which Minneapolis police fatally shot Abu Kassim Jeilani, a mentally ill Somali man walking down the street wielding a machete. Jamal told the local press that Minneapolis is becoming a “slaughterhouse for the immigrants.”
Meanwhile, a Homeland Security investigation into Jamal’s immigration history was underway – not in Memphis, where he was processed for asylum, but in Minneapolis.
On March 31, 2003, at a time Jamal says was after the alleged encounter with Pierce, Jamal was awoken by an early morning phone call from the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Minneapolis. They asked if he was willing to come into their office and identify a photo of a suspect.
Frozen with fear, Jamal stuttered, answering in the affirmative, but he did not go. Instead, he went to the home of his attorney, Peter Erlinder. Shortly after getting into Erlinder’s car, a squad of INS agents surrounded the vehicle, guns drawn, and arrested Jamal. He was brought to the federal courthouse in Minneapolis, and charged with immigration fraud in Tennessee District Court.
Sometime within the first year of being charged, two FBI agents requested to meet with Jamal at his office – but without an attorney present, according to Erlinder.
“I remember Omar coming to get me and telling me he wanted me to be with him during this meeting,” says Erlinder. “My arrival sort of cast a pall…they indicated that they didn’t realize that I was going to be there.”
Erlinder can’t independently confirm why the agents wanted to meet with Jamal, but he was incensed that they would try to do this since all government communication with his client at that time was legally required to go through him. Jamal maintains that it was Paul McCabe and another agent who went on to become the Special Agent in Charge, Ralph Boelter, who were trying to pressure him to become an informant again. Boelter did not respond to two emails sent asking for his comments. Surprised by Omar’s unannounced guest, the agents left shortly thereafter.
Jamal would later be convicted in 2005 of having answered three questions incorrectly on his immigration form when he applied for asylum in Memphis in 1997.
The first question on his application asked if he had ever attained “permanent resident” status or citizenship in any other country before coming to the United States. The second asked if he had ever been “granted or denied” asylum before – a vaguely worded non-binary question for which a binary “yes or no” response was required. The third asked if he had traveled through any other country on his way to the United States.
Jamal answered all three in the negative. But he had, in fact, first come to Canada as a teenager where he was granted “landed immigrant” status, and had traveled from Kenya on through the UK when he later came to the United States.
According to Peter Erlinder, who represented Jamal in criminal court, an honest answer to the first question would have required an understanding of the fine differences between the nomenclatures of both Canadian and United States immigration law. “Omar would have had to understand the status he had as landed immigrant…would be the equivalent of permanent residency…” says Erlinder. “…Unless you’re schooled in U.S. and Canadian immigration law, you wouldn’t know what landed immigrant meant in terms of U.S. immigration law.”
Erlinder says there was no need to have Jamal testify because the immigration officer who oversaw Jamal’s application testified that both herself and members of the jury “wouldn’t [have] understood the questions even if English was their first language.”
However, with respect to the third question that asked whether Jamal had traveled through any other countries after leaving the country from which he was seeking asylum before entering the U.S., Erlinder argued unsuccessfully in court that the immigration form itself, which contained strikeouts and notations in the margin, revealed a high level of confusion on Jamal’s part when he filled it out. Jamal claims that it was not his intention to conceal the fact that he had lived in Canada as a teenager and traveled to Kenya and the UK before finally arriving in the U.S.
Court documents show that the government introduced into evidence documentation revealing that Jamal had given two different stories about his tribal affiliations and birthdate when he entered Canada and later the United States. When Jamal came to Canada in 1989, a relative processed the immigration forms on his behalf, claiming that he was a member of the Majertan clan of Somalia and was born in February 1969. Jamal says that claiming this tribe was favorable to his status given the political climate in Somalia at the time. But he says he was truthful when he entered the United States, telling the immigration officer that he was a member of the Migdan clan, and was born in 1973.
In a decision given on May 31, 2005, rejecting Jamal’s motion for acquittal and for a new trial, Judge J. Daniel Breen noted that, “according to [immigration officer] Uthman, if Jamal had disclosed his Canadian refugee and permanent resident status, which he did not, he would have been excluded for consideration for asylum.”
Jamal unsuccessfully appealed his conviction and was sentenced to one year of probation; after which he was to be referred to immigration authorities for a deportation proceeding.
Most crucial to Jamal’s motion for acquittal was his argument that the original criminal investigation was initiated in Minnesota, and not in Tennessee, “as a result of his public objection to the closing of Somali-owned wire services in Minnesota called ‘Hawallahs’,” as Judge J. Daniel Breen summarized in his decision – and not, as the government claimed, based on a tip from an informant.
Erlinder recalls that at the end of the trial in January 2005, the prosecutor had accidentally left behind a document revealing that the investigation was started by an immigration officer from the Bloomington Department of Homeland Security. According to court documents, in reply to the government’s reiteration that Jamal was provided with his entire immigration file, Erlinder put forward documentary evidence signed by a federal agent named Petrie, which stated that “this case originally came to the attention of the INS in Minneapolis during a Hawallah investigation.”
“This was a political decision mainly because they wanted to silence me for the work I was doing at the time,” says Jamal. “They wanted to set an example for the rest of the community – if you try to speak up, whatever happened to this guy will happen to you too.”
Jamal would end up winning a withholding of deportation in 2011 after he served his year of probation in Minnesota, based on a credible fear that his life would be in danger if he was sent back to Somalia. In spite of the ruling, the government unsuccessfully appealed his withholding, and Jamal gained legal status to stay in the country.
Yet when he moved forward with his application for a green card, Jamal says the government went after his marriage, accusing him of dating another woman even though his wife made the petition on his behalf. When Jamal’s application was denied, leaving him ineligible for US citizenship, he gave up but says he does plan on applying again. Meanwhile, the harassment continued.
In April of 2009, amidst the capture of the one surviving Somali pirate involved in the infamous Captain Phillips hostage situation, Jamal received a text from an FBI agent he alleges was Special Agent in Charge Ralph Boelter calling him a self-promoter after Jamal spoke on the issue on a local news channel. At the time, Jamal’s organization had been in contact with the family of the accused pirate and was working on getting him a lawyer, which seems to have put Jamal back on the FBI’s radar. It quickly degenerated into a nasty exchange, with the agent appearing to pressure Jamal. (An attempt to call the phone number of the sender in the texts provided below returned a notice that the number had been disconnected)
April 11, 2009:
10:58pm: “How can u help? U know the pirates?”
11:04pm: “Good point. U have their cell phone number? What can u do? Fbi and navy working on it.”
April 12, 2009
7:18am: “U always say u can help, but u never really help – like with the travelers. U only say you can help it seems. What can you do, specifically, w/ the pirates?”
8:06am: “It is sad u said i only appear on television and talk.”
8:16am: “Thanks for waking me up n i guess u can everything because of your power n now I am scared afraid”
8:35am: “I was only responding to your many texts. Mostly u r a self promoter.”
8:45: “I have been called much worse than that before believe me but u texted me this morning, i did not n woke me up so u can call me a self promoter. I am afraid n i know I shouldnt be n tell my wife now anything can happen to me”
(screen shots of these alleged exchanges are embedded at the bottom of the article below)
Later in 2009, when Jamal was appointed First Secretary to the Permanent Mission of the Somali Republic to the United Nations by that government, the US Mission to the UN sent a letter to the UN petitioning to deny him employment as a diplomat, stating that they had “possession of United States Court documentation that puts into question Mr. Jamal’s legal status in the United States.”
The UN did not accede and registered him, but it appears that the US Mission never gave up in challenging Jamal’s legal status. In November of 2011, Jamal reached out to Sen. Al Franken and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota for help. In an email to his attorney, Mark Prokosch, provided to Alternet, Jamal says, “All I am asking is US to get off my back so I can work for my government,” . Prokosch sent a letter to Sen. Klobuchar clarifying that Jamal was authorized to be lawfully employed in the U.S. pursuant to the withholding of removal to Somalia granted by the Board of Immigration Appeals.
After Andrew Luger was sworn in as the U.S. Attorney of the District of Minnesota in February 2014, he turned to Heffelfinger’s playbook and sought out Omar Jamal, among many others in the Somali American community of the Twin Cities.
According to Jamal, Luger invited him out for a lunch meeting in which he said that he wanted to consult with Jamal on Somali issues and asked Jamal which imams he should talk to.
Andrew Luger’s spokesperson, Ben Petok, said that “when Luger took office, he reached out to a wide array of Somali community leaders and activists including Omar Jamal, to ask community members how, as US Attorney, he could best serve the Somali community.” Petok added that it “seemed he would be an important person to hear from, from among dozens and dozens of others that the US Attorney spoke to” and that the US Attorney “appreciated hearing Jamal’s view on how this office could best serve the community.”
In 2015, Jamal took a public stance in support of Andrew Luger’s initiative to implement Countering Violent Extremism, a controversial White House program ostensibly aimed at preventing radicalization, which critics say is a cover for surveillance of the Muslim community.
Before that, in addition to penning an op-ed declaring his support for Luger’s program, Jamal clashed with CAIR-Minnesota Executive Director Jaylani Hussein over the trustworthiness of the government’s program in a debate on CNN. But Jamal tells me his view on the program is more nuanced. He thinks CVE initiatives should be based on a mixture of private and governmental oversight. But he also said that he took a public stance in favor of it because he was concerned about government retaliation.
For the Muslim community of the Twin Cities, the feeling is that coercing people into becoming informants and surveilling mosques in the Twin Cities is a common practice, says Imam Hassan Mohamud of the Da’wah Institute of St. Paul. “When you cannot go to the mosque because you think the mosque is under surveillance...freedom of religion is limited,” says Mohamud.
Mohamud says he knew one Somali man who was asked to become an informant and also declined. “He told us that the government is going after him, and his family, to scrutinize his legal status…there are rumors that he moved to outside the US seeking asylum,” says Mohamud. A recent Buzzfeed News investigation revealed that the FBI “has assumed a powerful but unacknowledged role in…decisions about the legal status of immigrants.”
“I came to trust him,” says Heffelfinger, speaking about Omar Jamal. “…he was well aware that [with] terrorist acts committed by Muslims, the number one loser was the American Muslim community. That, you know, those men and women came to this country to establish this as a new home, and that becomes hard to do if other people of your faith are in a jihad against the United States. I thought, and I still to this day think that Omar was, perhaps from a different direction, but he shared the same goal, which was to prevent a terrorist act against this country. Especially one against the state of Minnesota.”
For Jamal, his post-9/11 experiences as a Muslim, East African immigrant speak to the wider mistrust between the government and the community. Specifically, the atmosphere of fear and desperation in which Muslims are pressured to inform is a fertile breeding ground for future terrorists, and is counterproductive. “This is a relationship based on fear...how they going to be able to think reasonably that they can be effective when...half if not more of the informants have no option but to do that because otherwise they'll go to prison?” he asks.
Below are screenshots provided to the author of this story that are alleged to be text messages between Jamal and an FBI agent in 2009: