STEVE INSKEEP, host:
President Obama's administration has set aside millions of dollars to help local police and sheriffs understand and recognize terrorism. The money has helped create an industry.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Self-styled terrorism experts travel to local law enforcement agencies across the U.S.; they teach about the threat. The surprise came when a trainer began using a session to question a fellow American who has also served the government.
INSKEEP: That trainer in Ohio began raising questions about a man who was Muslim. This is the first of two stories in which we'll report on law enforcement efforts to reach out to American Muslims. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on the training session that turned a state employee into a suspect.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: His name is Omar al-Omari and he looks very much like the college professor that he is - tweed jacket, button down shirt, thick round glasses, big coffee drinker. Which is why we met at a coffee shop near downtown Columbus. That's where he told me how he ended up being accused of having links to terrorists.
Professor OMAR AL-OMARI (Ethnic Studies, Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio): Actually, I was out of town, out of state attending a conference and on my way back to Columbus, I received a call from one of the attendees in which I was told that my name was used repeatedly during the training.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The training was a three-day seminar for police and others in the Columbus area. It was entitled Understanding the True Nature of the Threat to America. The trainers talked about that threat, about how the enemy using U.S. law to its advantage and then they offered specific examples of what they said was Islamic radicalism in Ohio. And it was in that context that the trainers focused on Professor Omari.
Mr. OMARI: I was labeled as a suspect. They personalized, of course, you know, the attacks. There was a promise to dig into my background and basically as an Arab-Muslim American, they thought that I'm a suspect.
TEMPLE-RASTON: A picture of Omari with members of a local Muslim advocacy group was shown on the screen. According to people in the class that day, the trainers didn't say outright that Omari was a terrorist, but they suggested that he had links to bad people, people who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and even al-Qaida.
One of the trainers was a man named John Guandolo. He's a former FBI agent. He wouldn't talk on tape but he told me that he stood by what he said that day about Omari. He said the facts are on my side.
Now, to understand why the accusations against Omari were so surprising, you have to understand that at the time Omari ran a key Muslim outreach program for the state of Ohio. What he was doing was considered so effective, counterterrorism officials in Washington sent him overseas to talk about it. Omari is from Jordan. He's been living in the U.S. for 30 years. He's an American citizen.
Even so, for many people in the class it seemed entirely possible that he could be a terrorist. That surprised one of the people in the room that day, Deputy Chief Jeffrey Blackwell.
(Soundbite of woman speaking on radio)
TEMPLE-RASTON: I spoke with Chief Blackwell in an unmarked squad car outside the Columbus Police Academy where last year's training took place.
Mr. JEFFREY BLACKWELL (Deputy Police Chief, Columbus, Ohio): I was shocked; I was shocked that a person at his level in the State of Ohio in the Department of Public Safety would have his picture displayed by an anti-terrorism group.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Chief Blackwell is now in charge of the police department's homeland security unit.
Mr. BLACKWELL: His reputation was impugned incredibly by the speakers.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And nobody sort of said, hey, wait a minute?
Mr. BLACKWELL: Yeah, there was a wait-a-minute moment; there clearly was a wait-a-minute moment.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Blackwell and some of the other leaders in the department suspended the class.
Mr. BLACKWELL: We had a meeting and we discussed what in fact we were witnessing right before our very eyes, what was transpiring in the lecture hall.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Remember, nearly everyone in the room knew Omari. Most of the visiting officers and Columbus cops had actually worked with him on outreach in the Muslim community. But for some reason, maybe because former government officials said that Omari couldn't be trusted, people in the room were ready to believe the worst. Chief Blackwell hadn't expected that.
Mr. BLACKWELL: There were a large amount of people there that felt the class was in fact appropriate, that the finger-pointing and the name calling and nexuses that were developed and discussed were appropriate to discuss. And then you had a huge percentage that were equally and diametrically opposed to that way of teaching and the substance of the anti-terrorism class.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So what was the lesson you took from that?
Mr. BLACKWELL: That as Americans we are all over the board on our feelings about the terrorism issue and as a law enforcement professional even law enforcement is divided in how they view people.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The next day, some people came to Omari's defense. The head of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force and one of the FBI's top agents in Ohio came to the academy and assured the class that Omari wasn't a terrorism suspect. Everyone says that at that point the room erupted in shouts. Half the officers sided with Omari; the other half trusted the trainer, Guandolo, and assumed he must be privy to information on Omari that he wasn't revealing.
Guandolo suggested when I interviewed him on the phone that there were things he knew that the FBI didn't. Chief Blackwell says even more than a year later he's still upset by the episode.
Mr. BLACKWELL: That was not a good day, in my opinion, for the Columbus Division of Police or law enforcement in general.
Mr. BILL BRANIFF (Instructor, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point): I think this is something that happens across the nation fairly consistently.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Bill Braniff. He's in charge of the training program at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He sees what happened in Ohio as part of a larger problem.
Mr. BRANIFF: The Muslim-American community is being preyed upon from two different directions. One: the jihadist recruitment and radicalization that is actively preying on their sons and daughters; and two: the elevated levels of Islamophobia, and Islamophobia at worst and just distrust or alienation at best.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That distrust had consequences in Columbus. Omar al-Omari, he lost his job, and not because he had ties to terrorism. After that training session, officials began digging into Omari's past and they eventually found something - they discovered that Omari had lied on his employment application. He hadn't listed all the schools where he'd worked before taking the job with the State of Ohio.
Omari says he just listed places where he had taught relevant courses, but he was fired anyway some six months after the training session. Federal officials familiar with the case say Omari was singled out because he distinguished between extremist Muslims and mainstream Muslims in his outreach and training programs.
Guandolo, the trainer, had a different view. When he talked to me about Muslim groups in the U.S., he spoke in terms of whether Muslims were patriotic or not. Omar al-Omari still can't believe he got fired.
Mr. OMARI: I lost a lot of things over this. I lost respect, dignity, reputation; everything really was connected with that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And the trainers that day at the Columbus Police Department? One of them is scheduled to hold another training session in August at the CIA.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
KELLY: And here's one other development in that case: Omar al-Omari has filed suit against the Ohio Department of Public Safety for wrongful dismissal. We'll have another report tomorrow on counterterrorism training and we'll learn how law enforcement works successfully with a Muslim community in Florida.
(Soundbite of music)
KELLY: This is NPR News.