UC Irvine's chief of police said Friday that his officers were investigating a complaint that an FBI agent doing surveillance assaulted a Muslim student with his unmarked car near the site of an anti-Israel demonstration.
The alleged incident Monday has ratcheted up tension between the university's Muslim students and the FBI. In May 2006, an FBI agent was quoted as telling a business group in Newport Beach that the agency was monitoring Muslims at UC Irvine and USC. Her comments led to protests from students and parents who said Muslims were being singled out.
J. Stephen Tidwell, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles, met with students and parents at an Irvine mosque to assure them there was no monitoring of their community. However, Tidwell did not say the agent was misquoted. The skeptical audience was not convinced, and this week's controversy has led to new complaints.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the agent was "in the course of an investigation that brought him to the campus" but declined to elaborate. She said the agency would not comment further while the investigation was underway. "But I can tell you we don't monitor students exercising their 1st Amendment rights," she said.
The alleged incident has led to "a degree of emotion and concern" on campus, said UC Irvine Police Chief Paul Henisey.
Senior Yasser Ahmed said a silver Ford Taurus followed him as he drove a 24-foot moving van from a nearby parking lot to UC Irvine's Free Speech Zone to pick up an exhibit sponsored by the Muslim Student Union. The group had sponsored a weeklong presentation, "Israel: Apartheid Resurrected," to protest that country's policies against the Palestinians.
Ahmed, 21, said he got out of the truck, walked to the car and asked the driver why he was following him. The driver did not respond, Ahmed said, and he tried to snap a photo of the license plate with his cellphone camera. At that point, Ahmed said, the car nudged him with its front bumper and he got out of the way. He was not injured.
The man behind the wheel drove off but was stopped almost immediately by a campus police officer, who had responded to cries for help from Ahmed and other students. The driver identified himself as an FBI agent "who was doing surveillance," Henisey said.
On Friday, Ahmed, an economics major and lifelong Orange County resident, said he was still reeling.
"He didn't open his window and didn't let me know who he was. He never said anything," Ahmed said. "All he had to say was that he was FBI or law enforcement and this wouldn't have happened. I was frightened. He pushed me with the car, which had tinted windows and then tried to drive away. What's one supposed to think?"
Henisey said campus officers were interviewing witnesses.
"There are potential criminal allegations, and we're still not certain what happened," he said. "We're trying to determine if there was an assault and if the vehicle was used."
The chief said investigators were also looking into an allegation that a cinder block was thrown at the FBI agent's car.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Anaheim, said his organization had been in discussions with the FBI for the last few days.
"Some parents are asking, again, 'What's the FBI doing on campus?' They're also challenging my credibility," said Ayloush, who arranged last year's meeting with Tidwell. "The parents are reminding me that Tidwell said the FBI doesn't monitor students, and they're demanding answers from me."
Ayloush said he asked Tidwell to conduct an internal investigation of the agent's conduct, especially his initial refusal to identify himself. The agency has yet to respond, he said.
UC Irvine has a history of tension between Muslim and Jewish students. In 2003, a Holocaust memorial was vandalized, and the next year an anti-Zionism exhibit was burned down.
This year, the Hillel Foundation of Orange County launched an investigation of alleged anti-Semitic incidents on campus and blamed Muslim students for disrupting a Jan. 31 lecture by Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes.
The U.S. Office for Civil Rights also is investigating anti-Semitism at UC Irvine, the first probe of its kind at a college. Muslim students have said Jewish students consider any criticism of the Israeli government anti-Semitic.