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Terrorism cop on a tightrope

A Muslim of North African descent, this detective says he is militants' 'worst enemy.' It's risky, but Europe wants more like him.

June 20, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

Paris — LIKE the other detectives in his anti-terrorism unit, Mustafa wears a mask during raids.

He calls it "the Spiderman thing." The mask protects his identity and adds to the intimidating effect as he bursts through doors behind SWAT officers aiming laser-sighted weapons at suspects.

During interrogations, the mask comes off. The suspects stare at a young man much like themselves: a son of North African immigrants, an Arabic-speaker, a practicing Muslim. They react with surprise or hate -- never indifference.

"I am the worst enemy for them," Mustafa says. "I speak their language. I know how they think. I have gotten a lot of threats. They say: 'You are worse than the Americans. The Americans are Christians. They are fighting their crusade. But you are a Muslim traitor.' ... One guy told me: 'If I could get hold of one of your guns and it only had one bullet, it would be for you.' "

But occasionally, encounters with fellow officers leave Mustafa feeling caught in the middle.

"When I am on the street working plainclothes, police have stopped me," he says. "I take out my badge. I tell them I am working anti-terrorism. But they lock the door of their car and call headquarters to check me out. They don't have an image of someone like me as a policeman."

Mustafa -- not his real name -- is one of a rare breed of police officers who represent the future of European law enforcement. Despite Europe's large immigrant population, predominantly Muslim, police forces are struggling to integrate and to improve relations with minority communities.

"Diversity in the police is a factor of social justice," says French police Capt. Mohamed Douhane, 42, an official of the Synergie Officers union, which represents mid-level police commanders. "It gives greater credibility to institutions. It reduces tensions. Vis-a-vis young people, we are ambassadors."

Anti-terrorism agencies aggressively recruit investigators from Muslim backgrounds, eager to use their skills against an array of extremist networks. But the number of minorities in law enforcement, let alone elite units, remains small, especially compared with the presence of black and Latino officers in the United States. Though immigrants are central to the American identity, immigration began transforming Europe only in recent decades. Integration will take time.

And some Muslim investigators avoid the top-secret world of anti-terrorism, wary of risks and pressures that can make it a no man's land.

"They have chosen to distance themselves from their community, where there are people who now despise them, yet we do not always accept them," says Belgian federal police Supt. Alain Grignard, an anti-terrorism expert who speaks Arabic. "That doubles the pressure. I know officers who have had psychological problems because of this conflict."

On condition that his identity and the country where he works be kept secret, Mustafa agreed to give an inside view of his unique world.

He comes across as cheerful and, in a relaxed way, proud of what he does. He is 30, alert but not intense, solid but not brawny. When he is off duty, he has a stylish look. You can imagine him hanging out at a disco on a Mediterranean coast or playing pick-up soccer in a park.

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MUSTAFA grew up in a devout, blue-collar family. He drinks an occasional glass of beer or wine, but attends mosque services and observes Ramadan. His relatives have made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

"I was taught that being Muslim meant being nice, honest, kind -- nothing about killing or hating," he says. "People are using Islam to hate other cultures. So I fight against that. That's my jihad."

As a boy, Mustafa was fascinated by "Miami Vice" and other television police dramas. Although his father wanted him to learn a trade, he applied to a national police academy, becoming one of the few Muslim cadets. Along with the allure of action, he felt a certain patriotic duty. It stirs whenever he goes on missions to North Africa and contemplates the sprawling misery of the shantytowns there.

"My father was so poor when he emigrated that the village chipped in to buy him a suit so he would look presentable," Mustafa says. "He was very well-received here. Yes, there are racists. But my parents integrated well."

Mustafa graduated near the top of his class. Religious discipline helped.

"Because I studied very hard," he says. "No girls, no drinking, no discos."

He started as a patrolman, but things moved quickly after an officer was killed by Moroccan gangsters. Detectives enlisted the rookie to analyze wiretaps in Arabic and gather intelligence.

After Al Qaeda struck the United States in September 2001, counter-terrorism forces across Europe went into overdrive. Mustafa's talents catapulted him into the unit where he works today.

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