PATERSON, N.J. – Once again, FBI agents are heading to this heavily Arab-American community where at least six of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived. But this time they are not looking to lock anyone up.
Instead, the bureau wants to sign them up — as FBI recruits in the war on terrorism.
It may prove to be a hard sell in a community where many Muslims can tell of relatives and friends grabbed for questioning and not seen again for months.
"I don't think I'd be terribly interested in that," said Ali Erikenoglu, 40, an American-born Turk who was interrogated a week and a half after the attacks by four FBI agents. The agents questioned his patriotism and asked, "What kind of American are you?" he said.
Agents rummaged through his belongings and demanded his Social Security number, passport, work address and the names and phone numbers of his friends, he said. The agents told him an informant claimed he made disparaging remarks about America after the attack on the USS Cole, something Erikenoglu denies doing.
It questioning like Erikenoglu's that led to Saturday's job fair at Paterson's leading mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County.
After community leaders and residents complained about the tone and manner of questioning, the FBI and state and local law enforcement agencies held a series of meetings to mend fences. Agents were informed about Muslim customs and culture, and residents were assured the government was not out to harass them.
The American Muslim Union decided to sponsor the career day, inviting the FBI, New Jersey State Police, Paterson Police Department and the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office to interview potential recruits.
"Sure, people will have reservations," said Mohamed Younes, the group's president. "But we are part of this community — all of it. You can't complain that someone doesn't know you or understand you if you don't make an effort to teach them. We are as American as anybody else, and this country's problems are our problems, too."
The need for Arab-American officers and agents is great. Of the more than 300 FBI agents assigned to New Jersey, not one speaks Arabic, though the bureau has one staff translator, spokeswoman Sandra Carroll said.
Paterson is where a half-dozen of the hijackers rented an apartment shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The job fair was planned weeks before FBI Director Robert Mueller announced plans to hire an additional 900 agents to fight terrorism, but the event fits nicely into those plans, Carroll said.
Candidates must be U.S. citizens who have completed four years of college and can pass a written and physical test and a background check. Applicants not accepted for agent training could still work for the agency as translators.
"The pitch will be no different than it would to any other group," said John Page, supervisory agent in the FBI's West Paterson office. "We're hoping to convey that it would be a terrific occupation that would let them serve their country."
Residents like Erikenoglu are skeptical.
"It sounds like they're looking for people from the community to use to get at other people in the community," he said.
"Are these people going to be used as pawns against the community?" asked Hani Awadallah, president of the Paterson-based Arab-American Civic Organization. "You wonder."
Awadallah said there is a clear need for Arab-Americans to serve in law enforcement, but he questioned the timing.
"Why didn't they ask us before Sept. 11?" he said.