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The US Persecution Of A Portland Imam Involved In Challenging The No Fly List

The United States seeks to deport the imam of the biggest mosque in Oregon, a religious leader who is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the No Fly List.

Mohamed Sheikh Abdirahman Kariye, a Somali who entered the US in 1982, stands accused of lying when he completed documents to become a naturalized citizen. The government claims he concealed his past membership or association with the Afghan Mujahideen, Maktab Al-Khidamat, and the Global Relief Foundation. He is also accused of committing “crimes of moral turpitude and unlawful acts,” which should have prevented him from “establishing the good moral character necessary to naturalize.” [PDF]

The allegations apparently stem from an FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation. But, as the ACLU points out in a filing, the new case aimed at revoking Kariye’s citizenship “makes it hard to take seriously” the government’s “assertion” that they cannot provide more information in DHS letters to Americans contesting their inclusion on the No Fly List.

The Justice Department complaint includes information government officials have insisted would jeopardize national security if revealed to Kariye and other plaintiffs in the ACLU’s case. “There can be no legitimate reason why information disclosed publicly in that context cannot be provided in these proceedings,” the ACLU maintains.

The government has specifically claimed [PDF] additional disclosures would compromise sources and methods. Yet, in the complaint against Kariye, the government reveals quite a bit of information about alleged criminal activity they believe Kariye has engaged in without having to reveal a single source or method.

All of which raises the prospect of whether the new case against Kariye is retaliation. The government has had well over a decade to charge Kariye for any crimes. So, is this a vindictive response to the imam’s continued participation in a prominent challenge to the US government’s No Fly List authority?

‘I felt humiliated’: Kariye learns he’s on the No-Fly List

The imam booked a flight to visit his daughter, who was attending a high school in Dubai in 2010. He went to the Portland International Airport to board a flight to Amsterdam on March 8, and a Delta Airlines employee informed him he could not fly because he is on a “government watch list.” He was told he was on the list while “five government officials, including a police officer, detective, US Marshal, and two FBI agents” surrounded him. One official even told him he could not be near the check-in counter.

“I felt humiliated that everyone near me in the airport, including government and airline officials and other travelers, could see that I was denied boarding on my flight. I felt like I was being treated like a suspected terrorist,” Kariye recalled.

His placement on the No Fly List has prevented him from traveling to Saudi Arabia to accompany his mother on the hajj, the pilgrimage which is an “Islamic religious obligation.” To travel over land would take more than one week to complete, and Kariye fears he would be detained and interrogated in countries through which he traveled.

Kariye attempts to prove government’s predictions of terrorism are wrong

In June 2014, a federal judge ruled US citizens placed on the No Fly List were denied their rights to “procedural due process” and found the lack of redress unconstitutional. The judge determined citizens have “constitutionally-protected liberty interests in traveling internationally by air, which are significantly affected by being placed on the No-Fly List.” The government was ordered to develop a “new process” that satisfies “constitutional requirements for due process.”

The same year, in October, the government notified seven of the thirteen Americans, who were plaintiffs, that they were not on the No Fly List. The other six Americans were provided “unclassified summaries” supposedly indicating why they would not be removed. The ACLU took issue with the lack of due process afforded to those six Americans, and the ACLU returned to court to argue the redress process remained unconstitutional.

This gave Kariye an opportunity to show the government their predictions about him were entirely incorrect. He did not plan to commit or support any future acts of terrorism.

Kariye received a DHS letter from Deborah Moore, the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) director, which responded to information he had shared. The letter notified Kariye that Moore still believes Kariye “represents a threat of committing an act of international terrorism against a US government facility abroad and associated or supporting personnel, including US embassies, consulates, and missions, military installations, US ships, US aircraft, or other auxiliary craft owned or leased by the US government.”

And, while the letter acknowledged information from Kariye shared to clear his name, it did not rebut anything Kariye had proffered. Instead, Moore repeated that she still felt “information” supported his placement on the No Fly List.

DHS bases allegations on Kariye’s First Amendment-protected conduct

On December 16, 2014, the ACLU responded in a letter to Moore [PDF].

“This standard is overbroad, in that it does not require any nexus to aviation security, lacks a meaningful temporal limitation, and is also unconstitutionally vague, both on its face and as applied to Imam Kariye,” the ACLU stated. “As applied to Imam Kariye, application of the standard also violates the First Amendment. Indeed, the DHS TRIP letter to Imam Kariye includes allegations related to his speech or other expressive activity, religious practice, and associations, making it clear that the criteria impermissibly impinge on First Amendment-protected conduct.” (Specific details related are blacked out.)

The ACLU contends there should be a hearing with “live witness testimony” and opportunities for cross-examination of witnesses so Kariye can testify that he poses no credible threat to aviation security and respond to “specific allegations against him.” The government does not believe it is under any constitutional obligation to provide such due process.

The government believes whatever is under these black bars is enough information to justify prohibiting Kariye from air travel, but if Kariye and his attorneys cannot talk about this information in public, it does not do Americans like Kariye any good. Not only does it mean Americans remain prohibited from air travel but it also means Americans cannot dispute spurious allegations dependent upon pre-crime logic.

Criminalizing Kariye’s history with the Afghan Mujahideen

The immigration fraud complaint highlights Kariye’s alleged history with the Afghan Mujahideen. He apparently fought with them against the Soviets in the Soviet-Afghan War between 1985 and 1988, and dealt with Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, founding members of al-Qaida.

What the Justice Department omits is the fact that the CIA armed, funded, and trained mujahideen fighters. According to The Guardian, “From 1985 to 1992, it is estimated 12,500 foreigners were “trained in bomb-making, sabotage, and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps the CIA helped set up.”

Secret aid flowed to mujahideen in Afghanistan as early as 1979, and it was a government-supported strategy to lure the Soviet Union into becoming caught in a quagmire that would bring about the fall of the Soviet empire.

Kariye’s association with charity prosecutors failed to prosecute for terrorism

Even more egregious are the allegations related to the Global Relief Foundation, an Islamic charity based in Chicago, which the government designated a terrorist organization and destroyed in the months after the September 11th attacks.

The Justice Department claims in the complaint against Kariye:

GRF and its officers and directors had connections to, and provided support for and assistance to, [OBL], the al Qaeda network, and other known terrorist groups. GRF officers dealt with officials of the Taliban before and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and repeatedly promoted armed jihad against groups perceived to be un-Islamic. Senior GRF personnel actively dealt with operatives in the bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and worked to promote the ideals of radical Islamic jihad.

Prosecutors point to the fact that Kariye served as the founding officer and director of GRF from January 10, 1992, to January 6, 1993, to show that he concealed his involvement in a terrorist organization when he filled out naturalization documents. The only problem is even the 9/11 Commission conceded in its specialized study of terrorism financing [PDF] that prosecutors were unable to find evidence that GRF had links to al-Qaida.

“The investigation “revealed little compelling evidence” that GRF “provided financial support to al Qaeda—at least after al Qaeda was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1999.” The 9/11 Commission acknowledged, “despite unprecedented access to the US and foreign records, one of the world’s most experienced and best terrorist prosecutors,” Patrick Fitzgerald, was unable to “make any criminal case against GRF.””

Roger Simmons, an attorney who defended GRF against terrorism allegations, recalls speaking to FBI agents after they raided GRF’s office in Chicago. The FBI was suspicious of the organization because it operated in “such a wide number of countries around the world.” It had raised millions of dollars for war-torn regions like Bosnia, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Chechnya. The agency simply did not believe GRF could be a “safe organization.”

The imam and the Islamic Center of Portland: Longtime government targets

The imam and his mosque, the Islamic Center of Portland (or Masjed As-Saber), has been the target of FBI operations and government surveillance for well over a decade.” Still, he only had trouble boarding a flight one time before he learned he was on the No Fly List.

On September 10, 2002 — one day before the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — Kariye was arrested by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) at the Portland International Airport. He planned to accept a teaching position in Dubai and was with his brother and four children. But the US government had a sealed indictment against him for alleged social security fraud.

As the ACLU recounts [PDF], “A senior customs inspector alleged that there were trace amounts of TNT in two of the bags carried by Mr. Kariye’s brother. Although no bombs were found in the luggage, Mr. Kariye was subsequently held without bail. After five weeks of detention, Mr. Kariye was released when lab tests showed there were no traces of any explosives. He was never charged with any explosives-related violations.” (Kariye pled guilty to using a Social Security card with a false birth date to obtain Oregon Health Plan benefits and understating his income.)

The FBI indicated that same year that they were investigating Kariye for supporting the “Portland Seven,” however, no charges were ever brought against him.

The “Portland Seven” were targeted in an FBI sting operation in 2002 after they traveled to China and were denied entry into Afghanistan to allegedly join the Taliban. They were indicted for unsuccessfully attempting to join a terrorist organization and pled guilty to terrorism-related crimes.

The immigration fraud complaint contains stunning allegations of support for the “Portland Seven.” It accuses him of encouraging “several” of the “conspirators to engage in violent jihad,” urged them to fight the US in Afghanistan, and funded their travel to Afghanistan.

According to the FBI, an informant “failed to record a key conversation that allegedly described” how he supported the “Portland Seven.” Whether Kariye did or not, the alleged misconduct has gone uncharged for over a decade until it is now useful to prosecutors.

Attendees of the Islamic Center have been placed on the No Fly List, according to The Oregonian.

In January 2012, two businessmen, Mustafa Elogbi and Jamal Tarhuni, who had previously attended the mosque, were on separate trips to Libya. Elogbi and Tarhuni were blocked from returning to the United States. Elogbi was detained in London, imprisoned for two days, and interrogated about his religion before being deported to the Middle East. Tarhuni was not permitted to leave Tunisia and was interrogated by FBI agents. Both were told they were on the No Fly List, and, in February 2012, Senator Ron Wyden and a lawyer helped the men gain re-entry to the US.

Michael Migliore, a Portland State University student and former acquaintance of Mohamed Mohamud, was detained by British authorities while traveling to Italy in September 2011. He, too, was asked about his religion and told he was on the No Fly List before he was finally released. (Mohamud occasionally attended Kariye’s mosque and was targeted by the FBI in a sting operation. He was convicted and sentenced for planning to set off bomb at a tree-lighting ceremony.)

Then, there is Yonas Fikre, who was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in June 2011. Fikre says he was tortured and alleges in a lawsuit against the FBI [PDF] that during blindfolded interrogations he was asked about the Portland mosque. Particularly, the UAE secret police wanted to know if the mosque hada “jihadi mentality,” what topics Kariye speaks about in public and private, and “how fundraising at the mosque occurs and who engages in fundraising there.”

The questions were very similar to ones he refused to answer in 2010 when he was in Sudan, and the FBI requested a meeting to interrogate him. Fikre would not answer the questions without a lawyer and rejected a request to become an informant.

Why did the Justice Department wait to have Kariye deported?

As the ACLU states in a recent filing [PDF], the government has admitted Kariye is on the No Fly List based on “their ‘predictive judgment’ that he will engage in ‘violent acts of terrorism,’ even though he has never been charged with, let alone convicted of, a violent crime.”

The government’s predictions depend upon Kariye’s future behavior, but the government has provided “no evidence whatsoever of the accuracy of their prediction model, any scientific basis or methodology that might justify it, or any indication of the extent to which it might result in errors.”

Now, although prosecutors have had more than a decade to prosecute Kariye for false claims in naturalization documents, the Justice Department has brought this case when he is in the midst of a rather successful challenge to the government’s authority to deny due process to Americans placed on the No Fly List.

Global Relief Foundation co-founder Rabih Haddad suffered a similar fate. As described by the Detroit Metro Times, Haddad lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and volunteered as an imam at the local mosque. Immigration officers arrested him in December 2001. He was confined in jails in Michigan and Chicago and kept in solitary confinement for most of the time before he was finally deported for “overstaying his tourist visa.” It effectively made it impossible for Haddad to challenge the government’s actions against GRF.

Kariye’s attorneys have not filed a response to the government’s complaint yet, but, clearly, it would appear to be a vindictive escalation in the government’s actions against not just Kariye but the entire Muslim community of Portland as well.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."