FBI Keeping Watch on Quran-Burning Threat

Pastor Terry Jones at a Sept. 8, 2010, press conference. John Raoux / AP

The FBI has begun to collect information relating to a plan by a radical Christian pastor in Florida to stage a public Quran burning on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this Saturday. Given constitutional provisions protecting the freedom of expression, however, officials say they don't believe the FBI or any other federal authority has the power to stop at least a token Quran burning by the Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center.

Craig Lowe, mayor of Gainesville, the Florida university town where Jones's church is located, has confirmed to Declassified that local authorities have been in contact with both the FBI's small resident office in Gainesville and with the bureau's larger field office in Jacksonville to discuss the Quran-burning threat. The FBI, Lowe says, is "gathering information that might be related" to the church's plans, but he declined to elaborate on what kind of information was being gathered or what the bureau or other authorities might be able to do with it. Jeff Westcott, a spokesman for the FBI's Jacksonville office, refused to comment on or confirm Lowe's claims.

Mayor Lowe says that Jones's church applied last month for a permit to stage a bonfire to burn Qurans on the 9/11 anniversary. The mayor says Gainesville city authorities rejected the permit application on grounds of public safety and environmental protection. What city or other authorities—local, state, or federal—can or will do if Jones and his followers stage a bonfire without a permit is unclear. The mayor says the city's response would be "based within the law" and would be framed so as to ensure "compliance with the law." He says that authorities have been making contingency plans for such an eventuality, which they are "updating . . . as we receive new information." However, he declined to discuss the details of these contingency plans or any possible responses to a Quran burning that might be under consideration.

Lowe confirms that when he was running for mayor earlier this year, Jones and his church launched a personal attack on him because he's gay. During the election, Jones's church posted a sign reading "No Homo Mayor," similar to one currently posted announcing the Quran-burning event. After a secularist group filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service questioning whether such a proclamation by the church constituted a potential violation of its tax-exempt status because it constituted a political statement, the sign was then truncated to "No Homo," the mayor says. He says he doesn't believe the church's opposition to his election had a significant influence on his successful campaign for mayor.

Numerous religious and political leaders, including such Obama administration figures as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder, have condemned the Quran-burning threats by Jones, an outspoken fundamentalist who previously headed a church in Germany, from which he was ousted by local parishioners last year, according to the German magazine Der Spiegel.

The FBI has evidently been paying attention to the uproar surrounding the Quran-burning plan for several weeks; an "Intelligence Bulletin" issued by the Jacksonville office on Aug. 19 refers to scraps of information suggesting Muslim "Extremists Likely to Retaliate Against Florida Group's Planned 'International Burn A Koran Day' Scheduled for 11 September 2010."

A government official following the developments, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, says that the FBI's current monitoring of events does not constitute an "investigation" of Jones or his church because authorities at this point do not believe there is any federal law under which an FBI investigation could be launched.