Speaking Arabic, Other Eastern Languages, is High on FBI's Wish List

February 19, 2007

Author: Moustafa Ayad

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Standing in the main prayer room of the ornate Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara in Monroeville, the FBI's special agent looked out at a sea of turban-wearing worshippers with dark beards.

The clean-cut agent, armed with brochures and a short video extolling the virtues of Sikhs to the worshippers gathered for prayer services, was playing an increasingly important post-Sept. 11, 2001, role -- that of recruiter.

The FBI is mounting such recruiting efforts at a time when the need among its ranks for speakers of languages such as Punjabi, spoken by Sikhs, as well as Arabic, Urdu and Farsi, is high and the supply is low. Just a fraction of 1 percent of the 12,000 FBI field agents have limited working proficiency in Arabic, for example -- a total of 40, up from 33 in October.

Turning places of worship into the front lines of recruitment in the global War on Terror means the FBI and other government agencies in charge of protecting U.S. citizens are now venturing into mosques, temples and community meetings in search of the next expert linguist, analyst or field agent.

"They were looking for FBI special agents with Punjabi language skills and cultural knowledge," said Rajbir Singh, the associate director of The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, of the recent recruiting effort focused on Sikhs in this area. The Sikh civil rights organization helped coordinate the FBI meeting last month.

Sikhism, which has millions of adherents and is among the major organized religions in the world, was founded in India in the 16th century. Sikhs grew to be a significant regional political and military force. They have clashed with Indian governments over issues of independence and religious rights.