Does the FBI Use Stasi-Style Tactics Against Muslims?

According to a lawsuit, four people who refused to act as informants have been denied the ability to travel abroad.
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A complaint filed this week in a Manhattan federal court alleges that the FBI is cornering innocent people, insisting that they act as informants for the federal government and preventing them from leaving the country if they refuse to collaborate.

Those are the tactics of the Stasi: Spy on other members of society or else. If you refuse? Forget about the ability to travel freely or visit family abroad.

If Tanvir v. Holder is decided on the merits, rather than suppressed in the name of state secrets, we'll find out if the FBI has turned those tactics against Muslim Americans. That's what four plaintiffs allege. The stories they tell are chilling.

Jameel Algibhah is an American citizen who lives in New York City. His wife and three daughters live in Yemen, where he used to visit them for several months each year. Starting in 2010 he was denied permission to board airplanes. As usual, the government won't provide any official explanation. According to the lawsuit, however, the No-Fly List is being used as leverage.

This is the version of events in the complaint:

In late 2009, FBI agents came to the store where the plaintiff works. "They proceeded to ask him questions about his friends, his acquaintances, other Muslim students who attended his college, and the names of Muslim friends with whom he worked at a hospital library, one of several jobs he held as a college student. The agents also asked Mr. Algibhah where he worships on Fridays, and asked for additional personal information. Despite being deeply uncomfortable with the FBI agents’ questions, Mr. Algibhah answered them to the best of his ability."

They next asked if he would infiltrate a mosque in Queens that he had never before attended:

When Mr. Algibhah declined to do so, the agents then asked Mr. Algibhah to participate in certain online Islamic forums and “act like an extremist.” When Mr. Algibhah again declined, the agents asked Mr. Algibhah to inform on his community in his neighborhood. The FBI agents offered Mr. Algibhah money and told him that they could bring his family from Yemen to the United States very quickly if he became an informant. Mr. Algibhah again told the FBI agents that he would not become an informant.

Can you imagine how terrifying it would be, as a Muslim immigrant, to have the FBI show up at your door and demand that you go seek out extremists at an unfamiliar mosque, or pretend to be an extremist online? The plaintiff says he refused because it sounded dangerous, and he was also averse to telling authorities about the activities of innocent people. He worried that he would be forced to act in a deceptive manner, asked to entrap innocent people, and that his relationships would suffer. That is to say, he had all of the same fears and concerns most Americans would experience if asked to spy on their neighbors or co-religionists.

He kept refusing the FBI. The next time he tried to board a flight, he was blocked. At this point, he couldn't know for sure that he was on the No-Fly List. Some time later, he purchased another ticket in hopes of visiting his wife and children, but was again denied permission to board, and had to eat the cost of the ticket. This is common for people on the No-Fly List. Since the government won't tell them if they're on or off it, the only option is to buy a plane ticket and hope for the best—at least unless the FBI offers another resolution to the problem.

In June 2012 ... Agent Artousa denied placing Mr. Algibhah on the No Fly List, but informed Mr. Algibhah that he would take Mr. Algibhah off of the No Fly List in one week’s time should their present conversation “go well” and should Mr. Algibhah work for them.

The lawsuit goes on:

The Special Agent Defendants who dealt with Mr. Algibhah ... had no basis to believe that Mr. Algibhah was a “known or suspected terrorist” or potential or actual threat to civil aviation. Had Mr. Algibhah actually presented a threat to aviation safety, Agents Artousa and John Doe #5 would not, and could not, have offered to remove Mr. Algibhah from the List merely in exchange for his willingness to become an informant. Yet, knowing that Mr. Algibhah was wrongfully placed on the No Fly List, Agents Artousa and Defendant John Doe #5, kept him on the No Fly List to retaliate against Mr. Algibhah’s exercise of his constitutionally protected rights and to coerce him into becoming an informant.

This plaintiff alleges that the FBI has made his life difficult in various other ways as well. "Mr. Algibhah’s American Muslim relatives and acquaintances have reported to him that they have been approached by government agents, including FBI agents, at their places of work or at the airport, and extensively questioned about Mr. Algibhah," the complaint states. "This has caused Mr. Algibhah to be viewed in his community as someone targeted by law enforcement, resulting in his alienation, stigmatization, and loss of employment. Since the FBI’s attempts to recruit Mr. Algibhah as an informant, members of Mr. Algibhah’s community have taken to distancing themselves from him. In turn, Mr. Algibhah has also distanced himself from Muslim organizations, from his mosque and from many in his community. He no longer speaks with people in his mosque or his community because he is worried that they will report what he says to the FBI."

Three other individuals make similar allegations in the lawsuit. Perhaps all of these individuals are fabricating interactions in which they're unable to fly after refusing to become informants, and are subsequently told by FBI agents that if they change their minds they'll be removed from the No-Fly List. What do you think?

I think the way that the No-Fly List is run makes abuse inevitable.

The very existence of a secret punitive list that anyone can be put on for no known reason, and without any clear process for challenging their designation, is disgraceful.

Sooner or later, it is bound to be abused.

It certainly gives the FBI ample opportunity to target minorities. And don't think the agency is above such behavior. "In recent years Muslim community leaders in the US have stated that they feel law enforcement at times considers them a target, particularly thanks to mosque infiltrations and other surveillance practices," Spencer Ackerman notes. "Material demonizing Muslims has been present in FBI counter-terrorism training, which the bureau has conceded was inappropriate. New York police department recently shut down a unit tasked with spying on Muslim businesses, mosques and community centers in New York and New Jersey."

Let's hope this lawsuit, as well as the ACLU's efforts in Oregon, force the federal government to provide greater transparency and reform its No-Fly List policies. The rights of Muslim Americans won't be secure unless and until that happens.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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