Inquiry launched into death of imam shot in raid by FBI agents

Amid mounting pressure, the justice department's civil rights division is conducting an FBI raid that ended in the killing of the spiritual leader of an African-American mosque.

WASHINGTON // The US justice department has launched an investigation into the fatal shooting of an imam near Detroit, Michigan, by FBI agents. Amid mounting pressure from Muslim-American groups, civil liberties activists and members of Congress, the justice department's civil rights division is conducting a probe of an FBI raid on October 28 that ended in gunfire, killing Luqman Ameen Abdullah, the spiritual leader of a small, predominantly African-American mosque.

The investigation was confirmed at a press conference in Detroit yesterday by John Conyers, a Democratic congressman from Michigan and chairman of the House judiciary committee, who had been pushing for an independent inquiry. A day earlier, medical examiners released an autopsy report showing that Abdullah was shot nearly two dozen times, sustaining wounds to the head, abdomen, genital area and back. Medical examiners said Abdullah's hands were cuffed behind his back when they arrived at the scene.

FBI agents have maintained that they used appropriate force in the raid after Abdullah opened fire on officers, killing an FBI dog. They said all suspects, in all circumstances, are handcuffed for the protection of police officers and agents. "On the surface, someone being shot 21 times raises quite a few questions in the criminal justice system," Mr Conyers said at the Tuesday press conference, the Detroit News reported.

The local police department is investigating the matter and the FBI has been carrying out an internal investigation. Sandra Berchtold, a spokeswoman for the FBI office in Detroit, stood by previous assertions that the agents acted according to agency protocol. "With all the information that we had, we did what we had to do. We did what we were trained to do," she said. "Before people make any judgment, wait for the rest of the information to come out."

The FBI has not said how many agents were involved in the raid. In a criminal complaint filed in October, the FBI painted Abdullah as an extremist who subscribed to a radical anti-government ideology and often talked of killing police officers. Abdullah was a "highly placed" leader of a radical Sunni fundamentalist group, Ummah, meaning community, that seeks to establish a separate Islamic state in the United States, the complaint said.

The group's leader, Jamil Abdullah al Amin, formerly known as H Rap Brown, is serving a life sentence in a federal prison for the murder of two police officers in Georgia. He was formerly a member of the Black Panther Party, which led the "black power" movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Abdullah's family denies that he was a violent extremist. The FBI said Abdullah was at the centre of a two-year-long undercover investigation into weapons violations and the alleged buying and selling of stolen items, including fur coats and laptop computers. Eleven other men have been indicted as part of that investigation, though no one has been charged with terrorist activity.

Abdullah's violent death sparked outrage from an array of advocacy groups who have suggested that the shooting was racially motivated or tied to anti-Islamic sentiments. Detroit is the country's 11th largest city and home to one of the country's largest Muslim communities. Detroit's mayor, Dave Bing, said in November that he supports an independent investigation, as has the editorial board of one of the city's major newspapers.

The case against Abdullah, which involved several undercover informants, also has touched a nerve in Muslim communities and among civil liberties advocates who have raised concerns about FBI surveillance in mosques and Islamic charities. In the past year, Muslims have decried the use of informants in mosques and charities in New York, California and Ohio. In April, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan asked Eric Holder, the federal attorney general, to investigate complaints that Michigan Muslims were being approached by the FBI to spy on unsuspecting worshippers, including monitoring their legitimate charitable donations.

"A lot of people's worst fears came true in [Abdullah's] case," said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, adding that members of the Michigan Muslim community are suspicious of the FBI's motives. "We are highly disturbed and we do question the veracity of some of the things the FBI has said." In a January 13 letter to Mr Holder, Mr Conyers called on the justice department to review the FBI's use of confidential informants in houses of worship. "This country has seen national security fears invoked to justify overreaching surveillance and investigation of religious leaders too many times in the past," Mr Conyers wrote, invoking the FBI wiretapping of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s.

"At a time when our national security depends so heavily on positive relations with Muslim communities in the United States and around the world, the controversy surrounding this aspect of the matter is especially destructive."