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Muslim Civil Rights Group Files Class Action Lawsuit Challenging Terror Watch List

"Through extra-judicial and secret means," the complaint alleges, "the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse."
US President Barack Obama greets Samantha Elauf, the Muslim woman who was denied a job over her head scarf at Abercrombie & Fitch, at the White House in July 2015. (Olivier Douliery/EPA/POOL)

A Muslim civil rights group filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of others who say they have been wrongfully placed on the United States Terrorist Watchlist. Attorneys from the Council of American-Islamic relations (CAIR) filed a suit contending that the list is the result of a broad sweep that specifically targets Muslim Americans without any evidence that a particular individual poses a threat to national security.


"Through extra-judicial and secret means," the complaint alleges, "the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse as a result of the shockingly large federal watchlist that now includes hundreds of thousands of individuals"

Among the 18 plaintiffs is "Baby John Doe," a four-year old from Alameda County, California, who has been on the watchlist since he was seven months old.

The document names 14 current and former high-ranking employees of the Terrorist Screening Center as defendants — as well as three unidentified FBI agents. It claims there have been more than 1.5 million nominations to the federal watch list since 2009, and that a high proportion of those nominations turn into watchlist placements. In 2013, for example, the complaint alleges that the Terrorist Screening Center converted almost 99 percent of every nomination it received into a placement. A percentage of those terror watch list placements will be moved into the "No Fly List" category.

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Being placed on the No Fly List is bad news, and means you won't be able to board any commercial aircraft in or out of the United States. If you're on the terror watchlist, your name will just be "flagged." In 2014, US District Judge Anthony Trenga allowed a Virginia man's challenge to his placement on the no-fly list to go forward, and in a strongly-worded 32-page ruling, said that a "No Fly List designation transforms a person into a second class citizen, or worse."


And for many, just being placed on the terror watchlist isn't much better. The list "makes people second class citizens," Dawud Walid, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter CAIR, said. "People have to go to the airport early. People miss their flights. It's humiliating to go through this process every single time when you're a law abiding citizen."

"The stigma, humiliation, fear and uncertainty that come with the knowledge that one has been placed on a watchlist can hardly be overstated," the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a 2014 report. "Stigmatization as a suspected terrorist is one of the worst labels our government can place on an individual — it is one of the cruelest consequences of inclusion on a watchlist."

According to a leaked document obtained by the Intercept, there were 680,000 people on the government's terrorism watch list by August 2013 — almost a third of whom had no known affiliation with any terror organization — and 47,000 people on the no-fly list.

Timothy Healy, who is being sued in his individual capacity by the plaintiffs, directed the Terrorist Screening Center between 2009 and 2013. Healy reportedly developed and maintained the federal government's Terrorism Screening Database, which consolidates names of individuals, both in the US and outside, who have been flagged as a potential terrorists.

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The lawsuit says that Healy "oversaw the dissemination of the stigmatizing label… of "known or suspected terrorists"" and ensured that "state and local authorities, foreign governments, corporations, private contractors, gun sellers, captains of sea-faring vessels, among other official and private entities and individuals" knew exactly who fell into that category.

Healy disputes that the data collection is in anyway overreaching. "It's not arbitrary or capricious," Healy said. "It's articulable facts — information about individuals and groups. What they've done and what's going on."

"It's an incredible process that no other country has," Healy continued. "There's a process in terms of nominating a known or suspected terrorist to ensure that its accurate, complete, and highly regards the rights of individuals. The liberties of every individual is taken into account. There's a watchlisting standard."

"Whenever I sit down and explain how the process works and what we were able to do" Healy said. "Even civil rights groups don't disagree that it's impressive. The problem I have… it would be criminal of me, that if we got information that a guy shouldn't be on a plane, it would be criminal for him not to be watchlisted."

Healy says people often confuse the terrorist watch list with the no-fly list, and says to be on the latter, a name has to have gone through seven or eight different vetting stages.


"The terrorism watch lists are premised on the false notion that the government can somehow accurately predict whether an innocent American citizen will commit a crime in the future based on religious affiliation or First Amendment activities," CAIR's Michigan Legal Director Lena F. Masri wrote in a statement. "Our lawsuits challenge the wrongful designation of thousands upon thousands of American Muslims as known or suspected terrorists without due process."

The rules of the terrorist watchlist system — namely who could be watched and why — were quietly expanded in 2013 under the Obama administration, authorizing "a secret process that requires neither "concrete facts" nor "irrefutable evidence," an investigation by the Intercept found. According to the "March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance" – a 166-page document issued by the National Counterterrorism Center and obtained by the Intercept, the new mandate gave officials the authority to designate people as representatives of terror organizations without needing any proof that they were actually connected to such organizations.

Those documents indicate that "travel for no known lawful or legitimate purpose to a locus of terrorist activity" can be a basis for being placed on a watchlist. "While a "locus of Terrorist Activity" is not defined by the document," the complaint states, "upon information and belief, it likely includes any place where many Muslims reside. The complaint also notes that Dearborn, Michigan which has the highest per capita number of Muslim-Americans on the watchlist than anywhere in the US, likely falls into this category.

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Anas Elhady of Dearborn is one of the plaintiffs in the suit and says he's frequently detained and arrested by US security officials when returning by land from vacation in Canada. He says authorities ask prying questions about his religious beliefs, practices, what sect of Islam he belongs to and which mosque he attends, among other things. Questioning can last between anywhere between four and 12 hours. Whenever he travels by air, his boarding pass is stamped with "SSSS" — meaning that he has been selected for secondary screening, and could indicate that he's been placed on a watchlist (although travelers and airline passengers are also selected for this screening at random, or can trigger an automatic screening for a variety of reasons, like buying a one-way plane ticket).

"If the government has enough information to say that someone rises the the level of a suspected terrorist, they should be indicted" Walid said. "But in this country, we have due process."

The lawsuit seeks monetary compensation for plaintiffs who have been wrongfully placed on a terror watch list.