The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts on behalf of 12 Muslim American plaintiffs around the country, seeks not only to remove their names from the Federal Terrorist Screening Dataset but asks the court to declare it unconstitutional.
“Twenty years later, there is not a shred of credible evidence that the unconstitutional watch-listing of American Muslims has made America even the slightest bit safer,” said Amy Doukoure, staff attorney for the council’s Michigan chapter, which filed the suit along with CAIR’s national office and multiple other chapters.
The suit names 29 federal agencies as defendants and describes the plaintiffs as law-abiding Muslim American citizens, lawful permanent residents and asylees.
“They work hard, pay their taxes, pursue their education, and care for their families,” the suit reads. “They have never been indicted, charged, or convicted of any terrorism-related offense. And yet, without any notice or explanation, the federal government extrajudicially sentenced them to lifetime second-class citizenship.”
Federal terrorism watchlist includes 1.25 million names
The suit joins similar lawsuits winding their way through U.S. courts. In 2019, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the watchlist violated the rights of Muslims, failing to inform them of their inclusion and leaving them unable to do anything about it, but the decision was overturned by 4th Circuit Court judges.
The most recent suit filed comes three months after the council's national office issued a report, "Twenty Years Too Many," calling on President Joe Biden to suspend the watchlist.
Earlier this year, the council, known as CAIR, obtained what it said were leaked portions of a 2019 version of the watchlist, consisting of 1.25 million names.
“It came as no surprise that almost all of the names were identifiably Muslim and Middle Eastern in origin,” Lena Masri, CAIR’s national litigation director and general counsel, said at a recent news conference announcing the lawsuit.
A statistical analysis of the list commissioned by the group showed that more than 98% of the names – or 1.22 million of them – fit that description, she said.
“This cannot happen by accident,” Masri said, describing the watchlist as “a de facto Muslim registry.”
The lawsuit charges that the standards for being included on the watchlist are discriminatory and subjective, with criteria such as origin from and travel to Muslim-majority countries, attendance at mosque services and other Islamic events, donations to Muslim charities, frequency of prayer and the wearing of typical Muslim attire.
As a result, it says, the watchlist is ineffective, even as it is disseminated by the FBI and Terrorism Screening Center to other federal agencies, dozens of foreign countries and more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies.
“Defendants ... make it known that listed individuals should be treated as dangerous threats,” it charges. “The stigma and harm of watchlisting placement lasts a lifetime, even if Defendants eventually decide that an individual does not meet the vague, all-inclusive standard for placement and choose to remove an individual from the watchlist.”
New Jersey mayor was refused entry to White House event
As an example, Masri cited an instance this year in which Mohamed Khairullah, the Syrian-born mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, was “uninvited” to an Eid al-Fitr celebration at the White House after the U.S. Secret Service denied him security clearance – allegedly because his name was included on an outdated version of the watchlist, from which he was allegedly later told he had been removed in or around 2022, according to the suit.
The Secret Service has declined to say why Khairullah, the longest-serving Muslim mayor in New Jersey, was denied clearance, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre deflected inquiries about the mayor’s watchlist status, saying the decision was a Secret Service matter.
Khairullah called the May incident “disappointing” and “shocking” but had suspected he was on the watchlist since 2019, when he began experiencing aggressive questioning and searches while traveling.
Similarly, Masri said, other American Muslims have been subjected to mass surveillance and interrogated about their religious beliefs and practices whenever they return on an international flight or cross the U.S. border.
“American Muslims on the list are publicly humiliated in front of their friends, family members and coworkers,” Masri said. “They are surveilled and harassed when they travel and their private data is downloaded from all of their electronic devices. ... They have lost their jobs; they have been denied security clearances; they have been denied licenses, gun permits and immigration benefits.”
Michigan man said he 'felt humiliated'
Nidal El-Takach, a Michigan man who is among the plaintiffs in the suit, said at the news conference that starting in 2017, he began to be repeatedly detained and questioned before and after international flights, including trips he made to Lebanon to visit his ailing mother.
He recalled the first instance, in July 2017, as he and his two children arrived in Detroit from Lebanon. When the plane arrived at the gate, he said, an officer’s voice sounded over the loudspeaker asking the passengers to remain seated.
El-Takach said the officer then named him and his two children and asked them to exit the aircraft.
“That alone sparked a lot of fear,” he said. “That was the moment when my life and my kids’ lives changed.”
He complied with the officers’ requests, he said; he gave them the password to his phone. He was asked whether he attended Friday prayers, and whether his wife wore a hijab.
“I felt humiliated,” he said. “My religious freedom was violated and I feared for my and my kids’ safety.”
Terrorism list can spark trauma for Muslim Americans
El-Takach said he was released after a few hours. But that would be just the first of many times that he, and sometimes his children, would be detained, interrogated and patted down without ever being told why. Once, he said, he was asked to wait while an explosives specialist was summoned to check his bag.
“I was traveling with my kids,” El-Takach said. “That was outrageous.”
El-Takach said the repeated trauma of such incidences ultimately gave him such severe anxiety that he sought medical help. In 2021, when his mother passed away, he said he was too upset by his experiences to attend her funeral.
Doukoure, of CAIR-Michigan, said El-Takach’s experience is just one example of what many Muslim Americans have gone through because of the watchlist.
“Muslims get put on the list without any notice, without being provided the reason for their inclusion and without any real process to get off that list,” she said. “And they’re forever tainted with the stigma of having been on the list in the first place.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US terrorism watchlist excessively targets Muslims, lawsuit charges