How do you catch a terrorist?
As the U.S. government reasons, you cast a pretty wide net, and should start in a city like Seattle.
Ads depicting the “Faces of Global Terrorism” appeared on Metro busses and billboards around Seattle earlier in June, showing 16 of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) most wanted terrorists and encouraging Seattle residents to come forward with information about their whereabouts to collect cash rewards.
The ads prompted outrage from civil rights organizations and local politicians, who suggested that they were an incitement to racial profiling and hate crimes.
“It’s a series of men who at first glance all look like immigrants with brown skin,” said Roxana Norouzi, policy manager at statewide immigrant advocacy organization OneAmerica. “When these busses are going by at a pretty fast speed, the public is not reading the messages, they’re just seeing a series of brown faces with the word ‘terrorism.’”
Of the 16 men featured in the ad as the world’s most extreme terrorists, four are from the Phillipines, one is from Malaysia, one is from Chechnya and seven are from African countries. The ads were organized by the Puget Sound Joint Terrorism Task Force as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program, which pays sources up to $25 million for information that helps stop terrorism.
The campaign has been running in other countries since the ‘80s, and the State Department has paid out more than $125 million for tips. Seattle was chosen as the first domestic market to pilot the program, apparently because of its strong international connections.
“Seattle’s diverse and globally connected population frequently travels from this international hub and may come across useful information overseas,” according to the FBI press release on June 4th announcing the campaign.
In response to this statement, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn wrote in a letter of criticism to Gregory Starr, State Department assistant secretary, that “the overwhelming majority of individuals who will see these ads … in the Seattle area have never visited Somalia, Sudan or the Phillipines, and could not possibly possess any specific information regarding any of the individuals shown. From the general public, these ads will likely accomplish nothing, other than to foster a generalized sense that people who look like these people are evil and want to cause harm.”
It didn’t take long before the ads stirred up a backlash from civil rights groups and local politicians.
“These are people who are out there to protect us, and then they put out an ad that actually fuels the fire,” said Jeff Siddiqui, a member of American Muslims of Puget Sound, who was one of the first people to call attention to the ad campaign.
In mid-June, Congressmen Jim McDermott sent this objection to FBI Director Robert Mueller, claiming that the campaign is “not only offensive to Muslims and ethnic minorities, but it encourages racial and religious profiling.”
As McDermott asserted in his letter to Mueller: “The FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List includes individuals of other races and associated with other religions and causes, but their faces are missing from this campaign.The limited representation in the ‘Faces of Global Terrorism’ bus ad will only serve to exacerbate the disturbing trend of hate crimes against Middle Eastern, South Asian and Muslim Americans.”
Apparently, the negative response came as a surprise to the State Department officials behind the campaign, who met in late-June with a coalition of social justice and immigrant rights groups, including the Council of American-Islamic Relations Washington Chapter, the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“They were literally shocked. They’d thought that they’d done a great job,” said Norouzi, who attended the meeting.
But she said the State Department officials took the criticism seriously and agreed to pull the ads within seven to 10 days of June 25th.
Neither the State Department nor the FBI have released any new statements regarding the ads, but The Seattle Times is reporting that King County Metro has received a request to remove the ads from busses.