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Can the US Seize Would-Be Jihadis’ Passports?

Passport (110/365)

US Passport

Can the U.S. government seize the passports of American citizens who it believes may travel abroad to join ISIS or other terror groups? Yep. The process is almost no-cost to the government, extra-judicial, can be made secret and requires a lengthy court process to even try to contest. No passport, no international travel, the ultimate no-fly tool against would-be jihadis. So why hasn’t this process been used more often?

Scary Stories

Leaving aside the not-insubstantial questions about their validity, the warnings are ominous.

With some Americans seeking to join ISIS, there are fears that on their return they may commit terror in the U.S. Unlike foreign citizens, these radicalized Americans would sail through immigration checks and be able to easily disappear into a familiar society. The U.S. is seeking to tackle the problem at the supply end, preventing Americans from departing to join ISIS in the first place, as well as from the other side, blocking citizens from returning freely to the United States.

The arrest at O’Hare airport of Mohamed Khan, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, is one example. Authorities claim the young man headed to the Middle East to join ISIS, and, citing a left-behind note explaining his choice, waited at the airport to arrest Khan on charges of attempting to provide material support for a terrorist organization. The operation involved significant law enforcement resources to stop one teenager based largely on suspicion.

Another Tool in the Box

The United States can simply seize passports from American citizens if “The Secretary of State determines that the applicant’s activities abroad are causing or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States.”

The law allows this prospectively, the “or are likely to cause” part of the law, meaning the person needn’t have done anything. The government just needs to think they might.

A Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act request revealed that prior to Obama ordering him and his 16-year-old son to be killed by a drone in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secretly revoked the passport of Anwar al-Awlaki, alleged al Qaeda propagandist and U.S. citizen. The two would not have been able to travel to the United States without handing themselves over to law enforcement. Indeed, a letter to that effect was allegedly sent to some address in Yemen inviting al-Awlaki to visit the American Embassy to discuss the details.

Al-Awlaki isn’t the only person in Yemen to have his U.S. passport seized.

According to information obtained through a U.S. government whistleblower involved directly with U.S.-Yemeni affairs, the American embassy in Sanaa, Yemen seized over one hundred U.S. passports from Yemeni-Americans (some place the number at 500 passports) between 2011 and 2013. Only after several legal battles did the State Department curtail its actions. Though State publicly claims the seizures were an anti-fraud measure, many in the Yemeni community saw them as a pilot program.

A similar case involved the seizure of a Moroccan-American’s passport in Kuwait.

The actions at the American embassy in Yemen may fit into a larger pattern. For example, at the same time in 2011 the U.S. was ramping up its actions against Yemeni-Americans, Australia appeared to be doing much the same thing. “Withholding passports is an important means of preventing Australians from traveling overseas to train, support or participate in terrorism,” an Australian government spokesperson said. “It may also be used to help prevent an Australian already overseas from participating in activities that are prejudicial to the security of Australia or another country.”

How are Passport Seizures Legal?

CommunityThe Dissenter

Can the US Seize Would-Be Jihadis’ Passports?

Passport (110/365)

US Passport

Can the U.S. government seize the passports of American citizens who it believes may travel abroad to join ISIS or other terror groups? Yep. The process is almost no-cost to the government, extra-judicial, can be made secret and requires a lengthy court process to even try to contest. No passport, no international travel, the ultimate no-fly tool against would-be jihadis. So why hasn’t this process been used more often?

Scary Stories

Leaving aside the not-insubstantial questions about their validity, the warnings are ominous.

With some Americans seeking to join ISIS, there are fears that on their return they may commit terror in the U.S. Unlike foreign citizens, these radicalized Americans would sail through immigration checks and be able to easily disappear into a familiar society. The U.S. is seeking to tackle the problem at the supply end, preventing Americans from departing to join ISIS in the first place, as well as from the other side, blocking citizens from returning freely to the United States.

The arrest at O’Hare airport of Mohamed Khan, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, is one example. Authorities claim the young man headed to the Middle East to join ISIS, and, citing a left-behind note explaining his choice, waited at the airport to arrest Khan on charges of attempting to provide material support for a terrorist organization. The operation involved significant law enforcement resources to stop one teenager based largely on suspicion.

Another Tool in the Box

The United States can simply seize passports from American citizens if “The Secretary of State determines that the applicant’s activities abroad are causing or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States.”

The law allows this prospectively, the “or are likely to cause” part of the law, meaning the person needn’t have done anything. The government just needs to think they might.

A Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act request revealed that prior to Obama ordering him and his 16-year-old son to be killed by a drone in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secretly revoked the passport of Anwar al-Awlaki, alleged al Qaeda propagandist and U.S. citizen. The two would not have been able to travel to the United States without handing themselves over to law enforcement. Indeed, a letter to that effect was allegedly sent to some address in Yemen inviting al-Awlaki to visit the American Embassy to discuss the details.

Al-Awlaki isn’t the only person in Yemen to have his U.S. passport seized.

According to information obtained through a U.S. government whistleblower involved directly with U.S.-Yemeni affairs, the American embassy in Sanaa, Yemen seized over one hundred U.S. passports from Yemeni-Americans (some place the number at 500 passports) between 2011 and 2013. Only after several legal battles did the State Department curtail its actions. Though State publicly claims the seizures were an anti-fraud measure, many in the Yemeni community saw them as a pilot program.

A similar case involved the seizure of a Moroccan-American’s passport in Kuwait.

The actions at the American embassy in Yemen may fit into a larger pattern. For example, at the same time in 2011 the U.S. was ramping up its actions against Yemeni-Americans, Australia appeared to be doing much the same thing. “Withholding passports is an important means of preventing Australians from traveling overseas to train, support or participate in terrorism,” an Australian government spokesperson said. “It may also be used to help prevent an Australian already overseas from participating in activities that are prejudicial to the security of Australia or another country.”

How are Passport Seizures Legal? (more…)

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.