Hundreds of Thousands of People Unaffiliated With Terrorist Group on US Government Watchlist
Two hundred and eighty thousand people or more than forty percent of the individuals on the government’s main watchlist are not affiliated with any “recognized terrorist group,” according to a report from The Intercept.
“The watchlist,” as described in the story from journalists Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux, is typically the list with data from the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). The TSDB is an “unclassified pool of information shared across the intelligence community and the military as well as local law enforcement, foreign government and private contractors.”
An unnamed intelligence source provided The Intercept with documents from the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) that provide some of the most recent statistics on the government’s watchlisting of “known or suspected terrorists.” It is data the government insists is too sensitive to be voluntarily and regularly disclosed to the public.
There are a number of revelations in the report, but what stands out is the significant percentage of people who are on the list yet cannot be tied to any terrorist groups at all.
The watchlist has grown exponentially to 680,000 people. The category described as individuals having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation” has way more individuals that people “suspected of ties to al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah combined.”
Presumably, tens of thousands of these individuals live in the five US cities with the highest number of individuals on the watchlist: New York, Dearborn, Michigan, Houston, San Diego and Chicago.
The presence of Dearborn in the list of top five cities is one of the most obvious indicators that the watchlist is filled with the names of people, who would not be on the list if the national security state did not have a cultural bias toward Muslims.
Dearborn, as described in the report, is a city “much smaller than the other cities.” It only has 96,000 residents. Forty percent of the Dearborn population is “of Arab descent,” according to the US Census Bureau.
“Residents and civil liberties advocates have frequently argued the Muslim, Arab and Sikh communities in and around Dearborn are unfairly targeted by invasive law enforcement probes, unlawful profiling and racism,” the report notes.
“To my knowledge, there have been no Muslims in Dearborn who have committed acts of terrorism against our country,” Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Intercept. Walid added that the high concentration of Dearborn residents in the watchlisting system “just confirms the type of engagement the government has with our community—as seeing us as perpetual suspects.”
For example, Jamal Rizk, a paraplegic Dearborn resident sought to return to Lebanon so that he could receive stem cell treatments that might make it possible for him to walk again. He discovered he was on the No Fly List and sued the Justice Department, FBI and the Terrorist Screening Center so that he would be removed from the list. Attorney and Arab-American Civil Rights League Chairman Nabih Ayad was successful and he was removed in March. But there is no reason why he should have ever been on the list in the first place.
The number of people on the No Fly List, according to the documents obtained, is now over 47,000. This represents a “more than ten-fold” increase since Obama took office.
During Bush’s second term, there was an attempt to reduce the No Fly List significantly after it became known that the list had 44,000 names, which included Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nabih Berri, the head of Lebanon’s parliament. By 2009, the list was cut down to 4,000 names. However, after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted an attack on an airplane on Christmas Day that same year, the criteria for placing people on the list was relaxed again.
The No Fly List has now gone from 16 people in 2001 (when it was the “No Transport” list) to 47,000 people.
The Intercept report also contains the numbers of people identified as being tied to known terrorist groups. One detail emphasized is that the number of individuals associated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the US has targeted heavily in Yemen, is 8,211 people. This would seem to be a low number when considering the fact that national security officials have made claims that the group poses the “most significant external terrorist threat to the United States.”
“AQAP is outnumbered by people suspected of ties to the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network (12,491), the Colombia-based FARC (11,275) and the Somalia-based al-Shabab (11,547),” the report notes.
There are 21,913 people “affiliated” with Hamas and 21,199 “affiliated” with Hezbollah. How tenuous or nonexistent is this “affiliation” for tens of thousands of these people? How many of these people are simply having their contributions to charities in countries where these groups are based criminalized? (That goes for those “affiliated” with al Shabab, too.)
Three thousand and two hundred people are on the list as “known or suspected terrorists,” who are associated with the war in Syria. Again, this does not quite seem to match up with claims. Matthew Olsen, who is the NCTC director, has claimed “there are more than 12,000 foreign fighters in Syria, including more than 1,000 Westerners and roughly 100 Americans.” Why aren’t there more people involved in the Syrian conflict on the list if these numbers are supposed to be considered accurate?
Last month, The Intercept reported on a copy of the government’s watchlisting criteria. The document showed how people could be placed on the watchlist even if there was absolutely no evidence to connect them with any terrorist organizations. It also showed that entire “categories” of people could be put on the list by a single official in the White House. (Apparently, this was a power that now-CIA director John Brennan granted himself when he was an Obama counterterrorism adviser.)
The numbers match up with the criteria. Officials are able to make “rational inferences” to determine if a person really is “known or suspected to be or has knowingly engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism and/or terrorism activities.” “Irrefutable evidence or concrete facts” are not required. The suspicion should just be clear, which means the person’s confirmation bias, prejudice or hunch about a person may factor into listing an individual.
Another amazing revelation in the report is that the CIA has a program codenamed Hydra, which it uses to “secretly access databases maintained by foreign countries and extract data to add to the watchlists.”
One might imagine that all the people on foreign government lists, who are engaged in violent resistance against their government, have their names placed on the watchlist as potential threats to the US. They may have no beef with the US, and their names may make the list more inefficient and unlikely to help the government detect the next person who tries to attack the country. Nevertheless, it’s far easier to suck names out of databases of governments and plop them into government watchlists and hope for the best.
Finally, there are 1,200 Americans who are “selectees.” They are “targeted for enhanced screenings at airports and border crossings.” Five thousand Americans, as of August 2013, were on the watchlist. The number of Americans on the No Fly List is not in The Intercept’s report.
A much larger list, part of a classified system known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), contains the names of 1 million individuals. It has 15,800 Americans, as of August 2013.
No meaningful process for challenging one’s inclusion on these lists exists for US citizens. The Obama administration also refuses to recognize that Americans have “constitutionally-protected liberty interests in traveling internationally by air,” which are especially affected if one is on the No Fly List. The administration maintains this position in spite of the fact that a federal judge in Oregon ruled in June that the No Fly List violates procedural due process rights. (You can read the stories of Americans who won in this case here.)