TAMPA — The email Khalid Shakfeh received in April from U.S. Special Operations Command was a bit unnerving.
The military command leading the nation's commandos, the folks who killed Osama Bin Laden, wanted to talk to the University of South Florida student about a recent humanitarian trip to Syria.
A day or two later, someone else from the Department of Defense contacted him too.
What followed was a lesson in the mistrust the Muslim community in Tampa and elsewhere in this country feels toward the federal government. Shakfeh, 18, was willing to answer questions. But he wanted them in writing. The military people refused, eventually walking away.
Nobody was accusing him of doing anything wrong. So-called "traveler debriefs" have been a routine fixture in American intelligence gathering for decades.
They are portrayed as innocent, nonthreatening contacts where lawyers aren't needed and the questions are basic. What did you see? What were the conditions like? Is the electricity working?
But to Muslim Americans like Shakfeh, who was born in Hernando County and holds U.S. and Syrian citizenship, there is no such thing as a routine contact with the feds.
"My ultimate concern," he said, "is that I'm going to end up saying something by accident and he hears it and he reports it, whether … it's out of context or misinterpreted, and that's going to follow me the rest of my life. I didn't want to deal with that."
SOCom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, confirmed that its Strategic Engagement Division contacted Shakfeh and his sister Noor Shakfeh, also a USF student.
The command said someone at USF contacted SOCom suggesting it talk to the students, who had given a radio interview.
SOCom "does engage groups and individuals in the Muslim-American community for a variety of reasons," SOCom spokesman Ken McGraw said in an email. Those include greater cultural understanding.
In this case, McGraw said, "The purpose was to get the general impressions of what the situation was like on the ground" in Syria.
He said SOCom "is routinely contacted by and routinely contacts individuals and organizations … (including) academia, business, think tanks, etc., with offers to provide information they think may be of interest" to SOCom.
Such contacts might be especially important now because SOCom and U.S. Central Command (also at MacDill) would help plan any military action against the Syrian regime, which the Obama administration says used chemical weapons against its citizens.
Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said federal agents, usually the FBI, often contact the Muslim community.
But he said too often agents try to coerce someone to become an informant, sometimes by accusing them of lying to a federal agent. SOCom said it doesn't do that.
Shibly said he urges Muslims to know their rights and insist that an attorney be present in interviews or that questions be given in writing.
"If there is a reason to talk, we can work it out," Shibly said. "We don't have anything to hide."
Shakfeh and his sister traveled to Syria with other students during spring break in March. The trip was organized by the Syrian American Council to provide aid such as clothing and medicine.
Shakfeh is a second-year microbiology major who wants to be a doctor, like his father in Brooksville. His parents are Syrian immigrants.
The siblings' sympathies are aligned with rebels in that nation's civil war, but Shakfeh said the trip was not political.
A woman with SOCom contacted the siblings within a few weeks of their return and asked for an informal meeting in public at or near USF.
Shakfeh said Shibly suggested a meeting at CAIR's Tampa office with Shibly present.
"She got real defensive," Shakfeh said. "She said, 'I don't want it to be like that.' She wanted to make it very informal."
Shakfeh proposed written questions. "SOCom was adamant," he said. "They didn't like the idea of written questions at all."
A day or so later, a Defense Department worker showed up unannounced at his father's office trying to arrange a meeting with the siblings.
This bothered Shakfeh. "Is this going to be the beginning of harassment where they're going to follow me for the rest of my life?" he said.
This time, Shakfeh sat down with the man to discuss whether he would answer questions. Again, Shakfeh suggested written queries. The man said that was fine, but he never sent questions.
Shakfeh said he didn't see anything in Syria that SOCom wouldn't already know.
Asked if he worried about what friends might think if they knew SOCom contacted him, Shakfeh shrugged.
"They know me as a person who doesn't do stupid things, who doesn't say stupid things, who is very cautious."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.