Before Friday, the only thing Hafiz Baqi knew about the FBI was what he saw on TV. He had seen news footage of FBI agents roaming around Lodi with big guns and bullet proof vests during the 2005 terrorism investigation.
Baqi's impression changed, however, after federal agents visited the Lodi Muslim Mosque on Friday to address the concerns of Lodi's Pakistani community.
"I think they are very nice," Baqi said. "I can see that they are human like us. They are just trying to do their job."
Drew Parenti, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Sacramento office, McGregor Scott, U.S. Attorney for the California Eastern District, Rick Eaton of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Capt. Gary Benincasa of the Lodi Police Department were invited by mosque president Mohammed Shoaib to answer questions from the community.
"Our community is afraid," Shoaib said. "We want some kind of communication instead of fear."
Melik Khan echoed the sentiment of fear that has remained in the Lodi Muslim community since Umer and Hamid Hayat were investigated for terrorism connections. Khan told the panel of agents that Muslims in Lodi were forced to keep a low profile since the investigation.
"If one or two guys do something, why do you scare the rest of the population?" he asked the agents. "People are scared to come and pray at the mosque."
Scott said he attended forum with his colleagues to create a better relationship with the Muslim community. He said the ongoing investigation is focused on a small group of people.
"(The investigation) is based on the statements given to us by the Hayats," he said. "They named other people in the Lodi community that went to Pakistan and attended terrorist training camps. If you are under investigation, you know it by now. Being scared should no longer be part of the climate."
Umer and Hamid Hayat were arrested in June 2005 after agents questioned them for hours. The father and son went on trial, and Umer Hayat's jury hung on two counts of lying to the FBI. He later pleaded guilty to lying about the amount of money he and family members were taking to Pakistan on a 2003 trip, a charge not related to terrorism, and was sentenced to time already served in jail.
Hamid Hayat was convicted of three counts of lying to the FBI and one count of providing material support to terrorists and awaits sentencing, pending a motion for a new trial. Hours into his videotaped interview he named several friends and relatives whom he said could have gone to "train." They have never been arrested.
Parenti said the FBI was not profiling and investigating the entire Muslim community.
"The FBI does not consider all Muslims terrorists," he said. "The FBI focuses on behavior. We know that terrorist organizations still want to target the United States. They will continue to place their operatives inside our communities. We need your help. We need your eyes and ears."
Many of the questions from the roughly 100 Pakistani men seated on the mosque floor were about immigration concerns and addressed to Eaton. Some said they felt discriminated against at the airport when they come back from Pakistan. Others thought that Pakistani Americans face greater challenges getting visas for family members back in Pakistan.
Shahnawaz Khan said he took the American citizenship test more than a year ago and he hadn't received citizenship because he was under investigation. He asked why the process takes so long for Muslims.
Eaton said the process is long for everyone.
"I assure you that they don't discriminate," he said. "The process is multifaceted."
Eaton agreed to look into individual cases of citizenship and visa status, and he met with concerned individuals after the forum.
Later, the agents continued the discussion with community leaders over spicy curry, chicken and rice at the imam's residence next door to the mosque. Former City Council candidate Roger Khan said he was impressed with the agents' willingness to listen and address the questions.
"I thought it was good because it built trust," he said. "It will enhance the relationship between the community and the government."
Parenti said that part of his job with the FBI is reaching out to different communities and he frequently attends forums like this.
"We'll come back and do it again next year," he said.
First published: Saturday, November 18, 2006