It didn’t seem terribly strange to Kevin Iraniha when an FBI agent showed up at his door in August 2011 just after he returned from a whirlwind trip through India, Egypt and Iran.
The 27-year-old Iranian American says the agent was “very friendly” and just kept repeating that, “You have been to a lot more places than we have and our job is to build relationships, so if you see anything out of the ordinary and since you’re involved in certain things that we’re not involved in, and have expertise in, feel free to come to us without hesitation.” He even met with the FBI agent once more after that.
It didn’t strike him as being a problem until this week.
Iraniha, a US citizen born in the naval hospital in San Diego, California, where his mother works in the Navy (she’s an American born in Michigan), was raised in San Diego and is a known pro-Palestinian and anti-US-imperialism activist. He just graduated with a masters degree in international law with a focus on the peaceful settlement of disputes from the United Nations-accredited University for Peace in Costa Rica, and was boarding a flight home to San Diego on Frontier Airlines this Tuesday, June 5, with his two brothers and father when he was informed that he is on a no-fly list.
“That was pretty shocking,” he said, speaking from an Internet cafe in Mexico City on June 7, two days after his ordeal began.
His two brothers went ahead, but he and his Iranian-born, US citizen father were left behind. They headed to the US Embassy in Costa Rica to find out why they were on the list and what could be done. Iraniha and his father endured six hours of interrogations. For two straight hours, Iraniha alone was asked “all sorts of ridiculous questions” by an FBI agent and a State Department official about a range of topics, most of which pertained to him being Muslim, having traveled to Muslim countries and his political views, primarily to do with activism for “Muslim” issues, such as Palestine and US foreign policy.
“They told us we were lucky the FBI agent was in town because he covers all of Nicaragua and Panama and Costa Rica, so we were like, okay, lucky,” Iraniha said. They then proceeded to ask him a range of questions primarily to do with Islam, his being Muslim and his views on and travels to Muslim countries, including specific questions about the full names of people he visited or stayed with. Questions about his visits to mosques in Costa Rica and San Diego seemed focused on whether he had “noticed anything or anyone suspicious” and whether he was part of any “groups that incite violence.”
Yes, he had attended mosque in Costa Rica a few times (he is a practicing Muslim); his political ideologies generally involve civil rights and anti-war activism, fighting for the 99 percent along with Occupy protesters, his pro-Palestinian stance - he was a member of Students for Justice in Palestine in San Diego - and a reluctance to stand by while people criticize Iran and Iranians. He is not part of groups that incite violence, nor has he noticed any suspicious people in the mosques he’s been in.
The FBI agent then asked him a question that struck Iraniha as “completely shocking” and “really ridiculous.”
He started out the question just saying, “I don’t even know why I’m asking you this,” mentioned that it was “just routine” and then proceeded to ask Iraniha whether he had ever wanted “to cause damage to a Jewish center in San Diego or a US official building.”
Iraniha says he had no idea what they were talking about. “I had never even been to a Jewish center in San Diego to even know where one’s at,” he says.
After that, the questioning was over. Iraniha’s father was told he was on the no-fly list because he bought his son’s plane ticket, but was then apparently taken off the list because he used his existing plane ticket to take the next flight to San Diego. Iraniha himself was told, “You’re an American citizen, so you have the right to go into America; you just can’t fly into America, so if you want, you can take a boat or you can go by land - drive into America.”
The officials at the US Embassy didn’t give Iraniha any reason why he was on the no-fly list - “They didn’t even seem to know themselves,” Iraniha says - but one person did. When he called the FBI agent who’d visited him in San Diego twice, he told Iraniha that he was already aware that Iraniha is on the no-fly list and that, “He knows why, but can’t tell me over the phone.”
“He said he just wants to get me back to San Diego and then he’ll straighten this out,” Iraniha said of the FBI agent.
After putting in a call to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Iraniha learned that what happened to him could in fact be an often-used FBI tactic employed to encourage Muslim Americans to become informants against their community, by, well, intimidation.
“They put you on a no-fly list, and then to get off of it, they say, ‘Oh, we want you to be an informant,’” Iraniha says.
The tactic is not uncommon: CAIR has received “dozens” of complaints along these lines. According to Hanif Mohebi, executive director of CAIR San Diego, the organization receives one or more cases pertaining to the no-fly list per month, nationally. “The government has been very secret about this; they don’t want to reveal anything about how a person may get on and how a person may get off that list,” he says. “The problem we have is that unfortunately, innocent people get on that list.” CAIR has filed a lawsuit challenging the government on the legitimacy of the no-fly list, and that case is still pending in Virginia’s Fourth Circuit Court.
But it isn’t just CAIR that has noticed a pattern of using this tactic. In May 2012, 15 American Muslims, including four military veterans, filed a joint lawsuit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleging that they, too, were victims of this intimidating - and presumably unlawful – intelligence-gathering tactic. One plaintiff, Ibrahim “Abe” Mashal, a veteran marine, told a national radio program that after he discovered that he was on the no-fly list while trying to board a flight from Chicago to Spokane, he was then invited to another location outside of the airport - a hotel - where FBI agents told him they could get him off the no-fly list if he agreed to become an informant.
“At that point, I told them I’m no longer comfortable speaking without a lawyer present and they told me I had to leave after that,” Mashal told the station.
In response to Iraniha’s case, a spokesperson for the FBI stated to a San Diego news outlet that no person is added to the no-fly list “based solely on their religious affiliation or other personal characteristics.” The FBI has also maintained that it will not release the names or demographics of the no-fly list. But saying something does not make it true. Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans (and those who appear to be of those backgrounds) have learned all too well that the airport “random” checks and no-fly list look and feel a lot like good, old-fashioned racial profiling.
“In cases like Kevin’s, you see racial and religious profiling and it’s connected to the negative training, the anti-Muslim training that the FBI has received,” Mohebi told Truthout. He is referring to the hundreds of documents, videos and other training materials that have been discovered by journalists as being used by both local law enforcement agencies - the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) use of one highly biased training video made headlines recently - and national agencies such as the FBI and the military. According to the ACLU, these materials “not only contain erroneous stereotypes and derogatory remarks about Muslims and Arabs, they included a four-phase plan for transformation of Islam that would reduce Islam to a ‘cult status’ and possibly result in ‘total war’ against Islam.”
“These policies and these tactics that they use at the highest levels will trickle down on to the street level,” Mohebi says, citing incidents of animosity, hate crimes, bullying in school and segregation-era behavior, such as the case brought to CAIR San Diego of a Muslim couple who were told, “We don’t allow your kind in here” when entering a restaurant for a meal.
Mohebi, like many others involved with no-fly list cases, sees the government’s secrecy behind the list as a sort of game that often goes wrong. He cites the famous cases of Nelson Mandela, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and an 18-month-old baby girl as examples of how wrong the list can indeed be. “If you are going to say that an individual is dangerous enough not to fly, then my question is, isn’t he dangerous enough to be arrested? And isn’t he dangerous enough to be brought to court and prosecuted and taken to jail and given whatever punishment that he deserves? Why is he allowed to drive through the border; why is it that he can walk through? Take a boat, just don’t fly. Why is it that we are playing games if we don’t have sufficient evidence?”
Still, without an answer as to why he was put on the no-fly list, by evening on June 7, Iraniha had made it to Tijuana and walked over the border into San Diego to reunite with his parents, brothers and wife. His no-fly list status apparently only applies to the United States - though it did cause him to have to endure a bit of questioning and “giggling” by Mexican officials who ultimately “figured out how ridiculous this was” and let him proceed with his Tijuana travel.
Iraniha says he doesn’t regret talking to the San Diego FBI agent twice. It appears he felt pressured to speak with the agent on both occasions, if only to prove that he “had nothing to hide.”
“It just seemed like if I don’t talk him ... it felt weird ... they might become suspicious of me ... and I don’t need to hide anything from anybody.” For many Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans who are targeted to be informants against their friends, family and community, the perception about agents’ attitudes is the same: Talk to us or you’ll look guilty.
He says it was only when he spoke to the CAIR lawyer that he realized he was being targeted to become an informant, but it’s not going to change his activism efforts.”You can’t try to silence us by scaring us,” he says. And, with CAIR’s help, it appears Iraniha is going to keep looking for answers from the government and perhaps even compensation, including for the plane ticket he was not allowed to use and the last- minute ticket to Tijuana he had to buy. Mohebi says CAIR is “keeping its options open” but is continuing to look into the matter.
As to whether the FBI’s no-fly list tactic is going to work on him, Iraniha says, “No, of course not.”
Shirin Sadeghi is an independent journalist and Middle East specialist with an emphasis on Iran, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf countries. Her other specialties are minorities in the United States and comparative media analysis. Her broadcast career began as a producer and reporter for the BBC World Service and later as a producer and reporter for Al Jazeera. She has a PhD in Middle Eastern studies. Find Sadeghi on Twitter @ShirinSadeghi.
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