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American Muslim Group Files Lawsuit to End FBI Watchlists

Published on 20 Dec 2023

The post-9/11 racial profiling adage of “Flying While Muslim” has impacted millions of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians all over the world for the last two decades. To challenge the constitutionality of these secret government watchlists, which almost exclusively single out Muslims, the largest American Muslim civil rights organization in the US recently filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a dozen Muslim plaintiffs, which seeks an end to the U.S. government’s secret watchlist.

In the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) submitted a 185-page federal lawsuit in September 2023. The lawsuit alleged that thousands of innocent Muslims —and over 1.5 million people worldwide- have been placed in the Terrorist Screening Dataset (TSDS), also known colloquially as the “federal terrorist watchlist,” without due process and adequate recourse to remove their names from these watchlists. 

During the George W. Bush administration, his first attorney general John Ashcroft established the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) in September 2003 to consolidate the government’s approach to terrorism screening. Administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the TSC develops and maintains the federal government’s consolidated TSDS (Terrorism Screening Dataset or “federal terrorist watchlist”), which ultimately became the US government’s centralized master repository used for watchlist-related screening.

The September 2023 federal lawsuit from CAIR stated that this watchlist has also been shared with over “18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, over 500 private entities, and dozens of foreign countries.” This sharing of a list irreparably harms and stigmatizes millions of innocent Muslims, as well as their friends, families, and social networks.

When creating these federal watchlist databases, the government considers many factors including (but not limited to): origins from Muslim-majority countries, travel to Muslim-majority countries, attending mosques/Islamic events, donations to Muslim charities, wearing of typical Muslim dress, Muslim-sounding names, frequency of prayer, adherence to Islamic religious practices, transfering money to individuals residing in Muslim-majority countries, affiliations with Muslim civic organizations, and more.

A few months earlier in June 2023, CAIR also released an 18-page  report called “Twenty Years Too Many, A Call to Stop the FBI’s Secret Watchlist,” which detailed the US government’s use of the Terrorism Screening Dataset (TSDS) to target Muslims, and called upon President Biden to take action to address the watchlist. They studied more than 1.5 million names on a 2019 version of the FBI’s terror watchlist that was leaked to them by a Swiss hacker. According to Al-Jazeera English, the authors of the study said that “98 percent of the names on the lists reviewed were of Muslim origin.” In fact, more than 350,000 entries alone include some transliteration of the Muslim names Mohamed or Ali or Mahmoud and the top 50 most frequently-occurring names on the watchlist were Muslim names. 

The hacker obtained these files—two Microsoft Excel spreadsheets—after finding them exposed and available for download on the public internet, having been carelessly left there by a small airline company, one of the tens of thousands of public and private entities all over the world to which the FBI distributed the watchlist.

An example of the impact of the watchlist occurred on May 1, 2023, when the Secret Service barred an elected official- Mayor Mohamed Khairullah of Prospect Park, New Jersey- from entering the White House for a post-Ramadan celebration. Mayor Khairullah was invited by President Joe Biden for the event. However, he was denied entry due to the “secret status” that the FBI had assigned him years ago without any notice or explanation. According to National Public Radio, Mayor Khairullah contacted CAIR after he was disinvited to the event and they informed him that he was on a “secret list.” Following this revelation, he agreed to become one of their plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against the government.

There have been numerous other cases involving the watchlist. In another major federal case called Mohamed v. Holder, a federal court judge explained that inclusion “on the No Fly List also labels an American citizen a disloyal American who is capable of, and disposed toward committing war crimes, and one can easily imagine the broad range of consequences that might be visited upon such a person if that stigmatizing designation were known by the general public.”

In addition to New Jersey Mayor Khairullah who was denied entry into the Biden White House event (and who also had his application for Global Entry denied), all of the other 12 Muslim plaintiffs were also impacted negatively by their placement on the FBI terror watchlists. One of the plaintiffs (Ahmad Mirzay) had several U.S. citizenship applications denied, and his applications for full permanent residency and U.S. citizenship remain stuck in indefinite administrative processing. Another plaintiff (Naveed Butt) lost several jobs as the result of his indefinitely-pending security clearances (in addition to also being denied for the Global Entry program). And yet another plaintiff (Tawhidullah Amini) lost the opportunity to work as an US Army interpreter while his U.S. citizenship application has also been stuck in indefinite administrative processing since 2019.

The CAIR lawsuit further stated that being on the FBI’s watchlist meant that your applications for visas, immigration benefits, even for a passport would be subject to a separate, more onerous process for you and your family. Watchlisted individuals have reported immigration applications delayed for years on end, stuck in a loop of “administrative processing” as the government runs endless background and security checks. These delays have devastating effects on families, who may be separated for years as the process drags on without any information about their loved one’s visa application.

For example, the CAIR lawsuit told the story of a Muslim US citizen residing in Texas who planned to return from Jordan to the United States to settle down with his family in California in 2013. To his shock, on the day of his trip, he was informed by an airline ticketing agent that he would be denied boarding and he was not able to re-enter his home country for three years. 

Other people on the watchlists have been pressured into becoming confidential informants for the government, as it’s alleged that the FBI would state that it can help make their travel problems go away so long as they agree to spy on their local mosque for them. The lawsuit stated that there are many examples of this trend: a Muslim teenager banned from flying and then recruited as a confidential  informant, a Muslim college student pressured to spy on his Libyan American community, and even a Muslim mother surveilled by federal agents as she walked with her family at the airport.

For millions of American Muslims, the watchlist is an ever-present threat of increased scrutiny and adverse consequences that descends without notice, cannot be effectively redressed, and chills their constitutionally-protected exercise of speech and religion.