Banner on FBI Building in 2008

A lawsuit brought on behalf of four American Muslim men has been filed against the FBI for allegedly punishing them by placing them on the No Fly List when they refused to become informants and spy on American Muslim communities.

The case, Tanvir v. Holder, was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Creative Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR) project. It was filed against Attorney General Eric Holder, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey, Terrorist Screening Center Director Christopher M. Piehota, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and multiple FBI special agents.

According to the complaint, the American Muslim men are “among the many innocent people who find themselves swept up in the United States government’s secretive watch list dragnet.” When they “declined to act as informants” for the FBI and to “spy on their own American Muslim communities and other innocent people,” they faced retaliation from the FBI and subsequently discovered they were on the No Fly List.

The complaint further alleges FBI agents “exploited the significant burdens imposed by the No Fly List, its opaque nature and ill-defined standards and its lack of procedural safeguards.” This exploitation was intended to coerce them into entering “places of worship” to conduct surveillance for the FBI.

The men were never informed of why they were placed on the No Fly List. In fact, according to the complaint, they were denied “after-the-fact explanations for their inclusion on the list or an opportunity to contest their inclusion before an impartial decision-maker.”

Muhammad Tanvir, one of the plaintiffs, is a “lawful permanent resident” of the US. He “declined multiple requests by FBI agents to serve as an informant.” He believed it would violate his “sincerely held religious beliefs” and that “he had no relevant information to share.”

“After he learned that he had been placed on the No Fly List, he was told to contact the same FBI agents to clear up what he presumed was an error that led to his placement on the No Fly List,” the complaint describes. “Instead, the FBI agents offered to help him get off the List—but only in exchange for relaying information about his community. Mr. Tanvir again refused.”

Another “lawful permanent resident” in New Jersey, Awais Sajjad, sought removal from the No Fly List after he was prevented from flying. FBI agents apparently approached him and subjected Sajjad to “extensive interrogation, including a polygraph test, after which he was asked to work as an informant for the FBI.” He had no “relevant information to share” and refused to become an informant. Yet, for refusing to spy on other Muslims, he has been unable to return to Pakistan to see his family, including an “ailing 93 year-old grandmother, since February 2012.”

Jameel Algibhah, a US citizen who lives in the Bronx in New York, declined a “request from FBI agents to attend certain mosques, to act ‘extremist,’ and to participate in online Islamic forums and report back to the FBI agents.”

“After Mr. Algibhah learned that he was on the No Fly List, the same FBI agents again visited him, telling him that only they could remove his name from the No Fly List if he agreed to act as an informant,” according to the complaint. He refused to become an informant, and, as a result, has not been able to visit his wife and three daughters in Yemen since 2009.

Naveed Shinwari, who is a “lawful permanent resident of the United States” who lives in West Haven, Connecticut, refused to become an informant and subsequently found he was not allowed to board a flight to Orlando, Florida, “where had found work.” He claims the same FBI agents who approached him initially to become an informant approached him after he was unable to board. The acknowledged his situation and asked him again if he wanted to be an FBI informant. Shinwari refused, even though it meant he may not be able to travel and see his wife and family in Afghanistan any time soon.

For having their rights violated, they seek monetary relief as well as a declaration from the court against individuals who they believe had them put on the No Fly List and officials responsible for maintaining the No Fly List.

This is not the first lawsuit to attempt to hold the FBI responsible for exploiting the No Fly List to pressure someone to become an informant. In a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a US Marine veteran named Abe Mashal was placed on the list making it impossible to work a “specialized dog training business” by visiting clients who lived “beyond driving distance.” He was told by FBI agents that he could be removed from the list if he agreed to act an FBI informant.

Similarly, the FBI is also to have exploited vulnerabilities related to immigration, such as threatening deportation, if a Muslim does not agree to become an informant. Zuhair Mahd was visited by the FBI on multiple occasions and encouraged to become an informant “while his naturalization application was pending.” But, as described in a report from the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHR&GJ) and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF),  ”Mahd refused and his naturalization application was later denied.” Only after Mahd filed a lawsuit was the decision reversed so he could be “sworn in as a citizen in 2009.”

The same report highlights the case of Foad Farahi, an Iranian imam who was living in Florida. He came to the US on a student visa in 1994. Beginning in 2004, the FBI approached him multiple times requesting he serve as an informant but he refused. He appeared before a local immigration court in 2007 for a hearing on a political asylum application. Immigration Customs & Enforcement (ICE) agents showed up to the court to claim they had evidence he had supported a terrorist group. He ultimately chose to voluntarily depart the US so he was not detained and prosecuted for being a “terrorist.”

In August 2013, a court ruled in the ACLU’s lawsuit that “constitutional rights are at stake when the government puts Americans on the No Fly List.” It requested additional information on “redress procedures” to decide if the process violates the Fifth Amendment right to due process.

But this lawsuit alleges something much worse. These four men are not only claiming that they were improperly placed on a No Fly List and have no way to challenge their inclusion on the list. They are alleging they were deliberately placed on the list in retaliation for refusing to spy or even become an informant, who may have found themselves involved in a sting operation where they targeted some poor, young and mentally ill Muslim man. They may have found they were involved in an operation where they were being asked to essentially entrap a person so the government could have another “terrorism” case to prosecute.

They would have likely been tasked with doing “mosque outreach,” where they would be asked to eavesdrop on innocuous conversations in violation of persons’ First Amendment rights. They may have been asked to document who was worshipping at certain mosques and take down notes on sermons. They may have been told they had to hold meetings with representatives of Muslim organizations and to help the FBI keep track of their activities, even when they were engaged in no criminal activity.

If there was a meaningful process established for Americans to argue they should not be on the No Fly List, the four American Muslims probably would not be given a fair hearing to challenge their placement. The government would likely stymie their effort because there was a purpose for their name being on the list—to convince them to become a spy.

So, this lawsuit is critical because, in making allegations about the lack of due process, what these four men are really doing is trying to convince a court that it must rule against a watchlisting system so that it is much harder for this kind of abusive conduct by FBI agents to continue.

Creative Commons-licensed Photo by cliff1066™