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What it’s like to be a Muslim in the CIA

It was the day after the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. I was working as a CIA analyst. I sat in a room with the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, along with several other analysts, as we discussed the attack. The mood was intense and somber. We focused on the killer, an Army psychiatrist and practicing Muslim named Nidal Malik Hasan, and how he had slipped through the cracks — how had he not been identified as an insider threat to our military? I was the only Muslim in the room — an observant Muslim convert who also is African American.

Did I feel in any way awkward or conflicted as a practicing Muslim? No. My colleagues knew my character and allegiances. And I know my own. It pained me, though, to realize that more people, both Muslim and not, would now consider a Muslim working in US military, law enforcement, or intelligence to be at odds with Islam.

Many Muslims see America’s national security focus on violent Islamist groups as evidence of an anti-Islam conspiracy. And many non-Muslims assume that religiously adherent Muslims must sympathize with the jihadist cause. As a practicing Muslim who worked inside the national security establishment, I found both of those perceptions invalid.

For me, fighting terrorism is an act of faith

There are Muslims like myself who believe not just that we must denounce terrorists but that stopping them is an honorable act of faith. The practice of Islam encourages cultivating Salaam inwardly and outwardly. This term means more than peace. It denotes establishing security and safety.

I understood even before 9/11 that building a prosperous life for my faith in America meant accepting leadership for my country’s defense. So applying to the CIA a few years after 9/11 was not a far leap in logic after studying international affairs in graduate school. I was hired as an economic analyst, covering economic security issues.

But in 2005, when the July 7 bombings in London were carried out by four young British Muslims (including a Jamaican-born convert), I started to think about how I could use my skills to help prevent such carnage. I felt that my love and firsthand understanding of Islam could be an asset in stopping the people who falsely claimed to represent my faith.

The next year, I volunteered to join an analytic unit at National Counterterrorism Center focused on identifying and preventing al-Qaeda attacks.

Muslim Americans should be at the forefront of establishing the security of their neighbors. While my perspective is grounded in my religious sensitivities, I don’t think that sermons or scholarly rebuttals against extremist arguments are what’s needed to defeat terrorists.

Muslims should counter them on two overlooked fronts: by engaging in necessary counterterrorism work as active participants and by cultivating a Muslim pop culture that makes such work relatable and honorable.

Clearly, not every Muslim American can, or should want to, do counterterrorism or intelligence work as a career — that was my choice. But all Muslim Americans should understand that the Quran takes a very practical view about the nature of security, fighting. and war. It is never something to take lightly, but it is considered an option within the context of the right of self-defense and to prevent violations of human freedom.

The Quran says, "Had not God checked one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure. God will certainly aid those who aid his cause."

This verse sounds like it could be describing the turmoil we’re witnessing around the world, with places of worship attacked by Islamist groups bent on exterminating others’ modes of worship. These Islamists certainly need to be "checked."

And with the Quran describing the prevention of religious persecution as part of God’s cause, the most devout Muslim should be comfortable with national security work in principle. Certainly, religious freedom in America means little if the faithful do nothing to defend it.

What Muslims and non-Muslims alike get wrong about Islam and counterterrorism

A misperception I encountered at times from my fellow Muslims is that counterterrorism is an effort to undermine Islam as a faith. To some, the US government’s focus on fighting terrorism was a cover for imperialistic aims.

When I first became a counterterrorism analyst, I had more than one conversation with Muslims who were skeptical about the role of al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks. It took me looking people in the eyes and telling them that al-Qaeda was real and actively plotting to attack for them to accept that the terrorist threat was not some government fabrication.

As the Islamic State has gained prominence, similar conspiracy theories are circulating in social media. And just a few hours after the Orlando shootings, I noticed Internet postings calling the shootings a probable "false flag" operation, orchestrated by the US government. It’s not necessarily Muslims initially peddling these theories, but those who latch onto them perpetuate a culture of denial, making it harder for Muslims to take ownership of the fight against terrorism.

A misperception I encountered from my fellow Muslims is that counterterrorism is an effort to undermine Islam as a faith

A cultural shift must come about where Muslims view counterterrorism not from the standpoint of critics on the sidelines, but as thoughtful citizens who should be leading the charge with their unique insights and sensibilities.

And, more broadly, Americans as a whole should have greater knowledge about what Muslims are doing in the fight against terrorism, because it corrects the misperception by some non-Muslims that we’re not committed to our country’s security.

I was far from the only Muslim in the intelligence community

Muslims and non-Muslims might be surprised that the intelligence community has other converts — both African American and white — and Muslims of South Asian, Arab, African, and Persian descent. We varied in our levels of religious observance. Some prayed five times a day. Others might rarely set foot in a mosque. But we all had unique stories that could broaden how the public sees the US counterterrorism fight.

One officer I know — a white convert — once used her vacation leave to make pilgrimage to Mecca. When she returned, she explained to her CIA colleagues how her spiritual experience strengthened her in both life and work.

Another officer, a Pakistani American in her 20s, was visiting Islamabad for a few months in 2008. She had visited the Marriott Hotel there shortly before it was bombed in a terrorist attack that killed dozens and wounded hundreds. She told me she was frazzled by the close call and was considering shortening her assignment to return home. Ironically, she told me that her father, a man of faith, encouraged her to complete her trip; that he believed in her work and that she should remember that Allah was in control of life and death.

I left the CIA in 2012. But only last year did I decide to become more public about my experience as an African-American Muslim in the intelligence community. On my personal storytelling podcast, I shared what it was like as a Muslim joining the CIA and what went through my mind during and after the London bombings. Many Muslims responded positively to my story. One person told me that I inspired him to consider working in national security.

Even when I was in the CIA, I knew that US government activity was only one part of the effort against terrorism — albeit a critical one. As I see it, my work in the classified environment was to prevent terrorist attacks from those already radicalized.

But in my post-government personal life, I now use culture and media to amplify alternative narratives; promoting cultural expression reflecting the experiences of faithful, thinking Muslims. And by taking counterterrorism out of the headlines and relating it a Muslim’s point of view within the field, I hope it will help Muslims engage national security issues from a more informed perspective.

The stakes are too high not to engage.

The Islamic State recently launched a series of new and renewed threats at Muslims in the West. The latest edition of the group's high-quality magazine Dabiq features a 10-page article called "Kill the Imams of Kufr in the West." It calls for the murder of a wide range of Muslim public figures in the US and Europe whom the group deems to have strayed from the faith.

After naming names, including Congress member Keith Ellison, the article ends by exhorting Muslims to use any means available to make an example out of them.

Why it's so important to tell the stories of Muslims in intelligence

This jihadist narrative relies on a thin, one-dimensional perception of Islam, of America, and of the West. And it seduces those who don’t look beyond the surface of religious rhetoric.

But there’s a hadith that says if you see wrong occurring, you should change it by your hand. If you can’t do that, try to change it with your words. And if that’s too difficult, simply feel bad about it in your heart, which is the weakest of faith. I’m not a religious scholar, but I’ve made it a priority of the practice of my faith to help change the wrong I see coming from jihadists.

Muslims in the US and Europe must be confident in our beliefs and not defensive or dismissive about terrorism. That confidence can come from learning the true stories of Muslims preventing and combating jihadist violence. Counterterrorism must be reframed, with Muslims not just as subjects but as actors. This is not PR. It is about shedding light on what already exists in counterterrorism circles.

Thankfully, the media is beginning to cover Muslim Americans working in the intelligence community. If more Muslims know how their brothers and sisters in faith have taken risks to fight terrorism, they will see defeating groups like the Islamic State as an Islamic endeavor.

With few well-known examples of Muslims working in US national security besides Nidal Malik Hasan, it is crucial for us to first consider what anyone who actually spends time with Muslims in America will learn. Our weapon against Islamist radicalization already exists within the authentically American Muslim experience. It is about time it no longer remained a secret.

The Fort Hood shootings dealt a blow to everyone working in US intelligence at the time. But Muslim officers probably felt the most betrayed by Hasan’s actions.

In the days that followed, however, I remember sensing a greater resolve among other Muslim Americans at the CIA, FBI, and other agencies. We wanted to be of greater service in the national security mission we signed up for. Doing so was not about seeking approval from the public, but about being true to our faith.

Yaya J. Fanusie is the director of analysis at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. His personal podcast, Rhythm of Wisdom, features true stories about Muslim-American life and is on iTunes and SoundCloud. He tweets at @SignCurve.

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