The FBI is intensifying efforts to interview Muslims and other Valley residents this month as part of a nationwide plan to thwart a terrorist attack before the Nov. 2 election.
"We’re worried about an attack on American soil," said Susan Herskovits, FBI spokeswoman in Phoenix. "We’ll talk to anybody we think we need to, hoping to get information from anybody who has any of value."
The Oct. 13 presidential debate in Tempe is of "particular interest" to the Valley, but agents have a broad goal to discover any kind of violent plot, whether it is related to the debate or not, she said.
Conducting mass interviews has been an ongoing tactic of the FBI since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite occasional complaints from community members and civil rights activists. This latest push is to step up the informationgathering process and contact as many people as possible — not just Muslims, Herskovits said.
"It isn’t really targeting any group," she said.
An FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C., who declined to be named, said some of the people interviewed may have been identified through other intelligence efforts. Others may be people who at one time provided information to the FBI that is not necessarily terror-related, he said.
The October plan also may include surveillance of people suspected of being terrorist sympathizers and their families, according to a Sept. 17 report on the CBS Evening News. Recent thefts of trucks and chemicals also will be reviewed, CBS reported.
"They called me yesterday," said Deedra Abboud, executive director of the local chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. "They said there are no (terrorist) plans indicated in Arizona, but they can’t be too sure."
Muslims are obviously a focus of the effort, she said.
"They are contacting Muslims they’ve already contacted and contacting ones they haven’t met," Abboud said. "They tell us they are not using ethnic profiling — we tend to disagree, but we won’t deny they are interviewing other people."
She said the agent’s tone was friendly, and most Muslims she knows who were interviewed also reported a fairly innocuous experience. Still, a visit or phone call from the FBI can be a bit disconcerting.
"You tend to wonder if you’re on a list — why they are at your door," she said. "You feel like you’re under investigation even if you’re not."
A couple of times, people felt threatened by the interviews, she said.
"One lady — they indicated if she lied to them they could take her children away, and we filed a formal complaint on that," she said. In that case, which occurred last month in Phoenix, the FBI agent called and apologized to the woman, Abboud said.
Herskovits said the FBI does not want to upset people. A sensitive approach encourages cooperation and builds good relationships in the community, which can lead to the discovery of vital information, she said.
However, "we may not approach people in a way they want to be all the time," she said. "The bottom line is we want to obtain information."
Herskovits said anyone can call the FBI 24 hours a day to report suspicious activity or share information at (602) 279-5511.
"We’ll respond to it as quickly as we can," she said.