Feds report clears FBI in imam shooting

By J. Patrick Pepper
Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — Federal investigators on Wednesday exonerated four FBI agents who shot and killed an imam during an undercover sting at an east-side warehouse last year.

The report cites witness accounts, forensic evidence, audio and video recordings of the incident in concluding that agents did not use excessive force when they opened fire on Imam Luqman Abdullah.

“They fired only after Imam Abdullah brandished a concealed handgun and shot toward them … they legitimately feared that Imam Abdullah was in a position to cause death or significant injury to another,” the report said.

The investigation, by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, was conducted per federal statute regarding FBI shooting incidents and comes nearly a year after Abdullah died in a hail of gunfire at the warehouse on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Miller Road.

The special operation was the culmination of a yearlong investigation centered on alleged Islamic extremism at the Imam Abdullah-led Masjid al-Haqq mosque in Detroit.

The sting itself centered on a stolen consumer electronics ring Abdullah allegedly headed, but the criminal complaint accused him and several members of his mostly African-American congregation of making violent threats against U.S. government targets in the presence of an undercover informant.

Several civil rights organizations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations and the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned the FBI’s account tying Abdullah to Islamic extremism, and also whether excessive force was used when agents shot him.

The Justice Department findings mirror those in a report issued earlier this month by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and also are consistent with a Dearborn Police Department investigation into the shooting.

According to the Justice Department, on Oct. 28, 2009, Abdullah was inside the FBI-controlled warehouse along with four associates moving flat-screen TVs from one semitrailer to another. Hiding throughout the building were nearly 30 FBI agents.

The operation was meticulously planned, having been practiced in full effect three times in the week beforehand, and included a Special Weapons and Tactics Hostage Response Team from FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va.

Once all the suspects were in position, agents detonated explosives to stun them and stormed the building with rifles drawn.

The four men with Abdullah surrendered without incident, but he retreated to one of the semitrailers, where he hid behind a pallet stacked with TVs, the report said. When agents closed in on him, several of them said they saw him reach into his pocket for what appeared to be a gun as they shouted for him to lie down and show his hands.

While he did lie down, agents said he refused to show his hands despite their warnings that they would release a dog to go after him if he didn’t, the report said. When the dog was deployed, Abdullah pulled out a handgun and shot it in the chest, inflicting a mortal wound. The report said the agents were justified when they shot back.

“The evidence indicates that each of the FBI agents who fired his weapon had a legitimate reason to believe that deadly force was necessary and reasonable in order to prevent Imam Abdullah from shooting agents with a handgun that he brandished and fired,” the report said.

“Accordingly, there is no federally prosecutable civil rights violation associated with this incident. At this time, this matter is closed and is being returned to the FBI to complete its administrative inquiry.”

The findings were welcome news for FBI officials, who have weathered criticism since the shooting.

“It’s a relief that it’s finally done,” said Special Agent Sandra Berchtold, of the FBI’s Detroit Field Office. “The evidence from the report accurately reflects what happened that day.”

But as well received as it was at the bureau, it drew an equally unfavorable response from those who have questioned the shooting since it happened. On Thursday, a group of civil rights organizations and Abdullah’s family and friends held a joint press conference in Detroit criticizing the report and calling for all of the evidence to be released publicly.

FBI officials said the investigation materials couldn’t be disclosed until the criminal cases against Abdullah’s associates have been resolved.