Three days before the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a Muslim cleric arrived at the airport in Portland, Oregon, with his four children, a brother, several thousand dollars in cash, and tickets to the United Arab Emirates. Inside the terminal, federal agents and local cops surrounded them and arrested the cleric, a Somali-born American citizen named Sheikh Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye. The following day, a customs inspector testified in court that two checked bags containing Kariye’s personal items tested positive for explosives. The judge ruled Kariye a flight risk and denied bail. The cleric would spend the next five weeks in custody.
Kariye leads Masjed As-Saber, a Portland mosque that had been infiltrated by an undercover informant months before his arrest. The operation was part of a case later known as the Portland Seven—one of the first major domestic terror prosecutions following 9/11. Kariye was never charged with a terrorism-related offense, but in the eyes of the federal government, he’s never been exonerated. Nearly 15 years after his initial arrest, both he and his Portland community continue to be the subject of intense interest from the government’s counterterrorism apparatus. In July, prosecutors moved to strip Kariye of his citizenship, claiming that he lied to immigration authorities about his alleged prior affiliations with terrorist groups.
Dig beneath the surface of the government’s portrait of Kariye, however, and it’s possible to see him not as a national-security threat but as an object of obsession—as well as a case study in the way that domestic counterterrorism operations since 9/11 have singled out Muslims for intrusive surveillance and selective prosecution, based on things they’ve said, people they’ve known, and things they could do in the future.
In the wake of the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, counterterrorism officials are recalibrating their strategy to better identify isolated threats. There have been calls for the increased surveillance of Muslim communities, based on an assumption that Islamic radicalism is more dangerous than other kinds. Kariye’s case presents something of a cautionary tale. It’s not clear that the relentless pursuit of the imam, as well as the seemingly lengthy surveillance of other worshippers at his mosque, has made Portland or the rest of the country any safer. Instead, it has alienated the Muslim community in Portland and discouraged it from cooperating with law enforcement.
“I don’t think there’s any room for debate that there’s been a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the Muslim community in Portland,” says Gadeir Abbas, an attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) who has represented several Oregon Muslims. “As far as I can tell, there’s nothing particularly distinctive about that Muslim community compared to the thousands of others across the US. The difference is the FBI’s approach.”
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Masjed As-Saber, a gray stone building trimmed in pink and encircled by a white picket fence, occupies a corner lot in a modest suburb a few miles southwest of Portland. I drove to the mosque early on a gray afternoon in August. It was raining, and the freeway was already clogged with traffic. The population of the metro area has grown by more than 5 percent since 2010, but in spite of the newcomers, it remains the whitest major city in America. High housing prices at its core have driven the majority of immigrants to the outskirts.
Men went in at the mosque’s main entrance; women entered through an unmarked door at the side of the building, ascended a staircase, and removed their shoes on the landing. It was still summer vacation, and the hall was noisy with children. The women greeted one another with hugs and a salutation in Arabic—“Peace be upon you”—then found seats facing a frosted-glass partition in the prayer room or in the hall outside. The service, delivered first in Arabic and then in English, focused on the subject of mercy. As-Saber is one of the largest mosques in the Pacific Northwest, and among the most conservative. Compared to other mosques in the area, it attracts more migrants from North Africa and the Middle East—people too easily profiled as being vulnerable to radicalization.
Kariye was traveling and did not lead the prayer. But one woman told me that a few weeks earlier, he’d spoken about the latest charges against him. “Of course we hear these”—she paused—“things. And, personally, I don’t believe it, because he is not that kind of man.” The whole thing saddened her: “He’s our leader, our imam. He’s the one holding the community together.”
The FBI sees something more sinister in Kariye’s influence. In October 2001, a worshipper at the mosque named Jeffrey Battle and five others traveled to China, hoping to make their way to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. But they failed to cross the border, so Battle returned to Portland and to As-Saber. The FBI sent an informant to the mosque in the spring of 2002, and Battle and the others were indicted that October, part of a group that became known as the Portland Seven. Attorney General John Ashcroft crowed, “We’ve neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders.”
At the time, the US Attorney for Oregon told the press that there was no known terrorism connection between the Portland Seven and Kariye. But several months later, prosecutors announced that Kariye was indeed a target in the investigation. According to an FBI agent’s affidavit, Battle and another of man had told the informant that the imam had fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the late 1980s; that he had “spoken out very strongly for jihad”; and that he’d raised money for their trip.
Kariye is now barred from flying, and at least seven other people who have worshipped at As-Saber have also been placed on watch lists. But Kariye has never actually been charged with a crime related to terrorism—the latest complaint, though it paints him as a potential terrorist, is actually a civil immigration matter. The evidence marshaled against him in a variety of cases has turned on his associations and his religious beliefs—or has simply never materialized. After Kariye spent five weeks in jail following the airport arrest, a federal prosecutor admitted that further testing had invalidated the claim that there were explosives in his luggage. (Kariye pled guilty to two unrelated counts, for using a fraudulent Social Security number and for misstating his income in order to receive state health benefits. Both are crimes, but neither is terrorism.) The “direct evidence” that the feds said they had against him in the Portland Seven case didn’t hold up, either: Although the informant recorded many of his conversations, he failed to tape the one that supposedly implicated the imam as a financier of the Portland Seven trip.
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Kariye was born in 1961 in Hargeisa, a city in northern Somalia. His father was an imam as well; Kariye has said that through his father’s example he became “very motivated to follow the right path.” He arrived in Oregon in 1982, spent a year at a high school in Salem, and went on to study at Portland State University. He worked as a teacher in Pakistan in the early 1990s, a period that would later become of interest to federal investigators. He became a citizen in 1998, after marrying an American named Anna Valdez. (They are now divorced.)
Kariye’s acquaintances describe him as generous and devout, a serious scholar and the “go-to guy” in his community. He is religiously and socially conservative, preaching a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam known as Salafism. (Kariye once said he doesn’t “understand how anyone could say they are gay and Muslim,” and reportedly does not shake hands with women who aren’t related to him.) Several people mentioned that he leads the prayer during the citywide celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, an indication of his prominence. He speaks publicly not only of religious principles but also about the condition of the global Islamic community. In 2014, a few weeks after an Israeli rocket killed four children on beach in Gaza, Kariye centered his Eid address on the plight of Palestinians.
Kariye found out that he was on a government watch list in 2010, when he tried to board a flight from Portland to Amsterdam. Once again, federal agents surrounded him. “I felt humiliated,” he later recalled. That year, he and nine other men who had also never been charged with a terrorism-related crime sued the federal government, arguing that placing them on the no-fly list without notification or an opportunity for redress violated their Fifth Amendment due-process rights and 14th Amendment citizenship rights. Working with the ACLU, Kariye complained that he’d been prevented from visiting his daughter, who was studying in Dubai, and from accompanying his mother on the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Some 47,000 people are on the no-fly list, a subset of a longer watch list of “known or suspected terrorists” called the Terrorist Screening Database. According to documents obtained by The Intercept, the government acknowledges that more than 40 percent of those on the master list have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” Most have no idea they’re on a watch list until they show up at the airport and are prevented from boarding.
Recently, the FBI and the Justice Department conceded that at least some of those people were selected not because of anything they’d done, but because of “predictive assessments” of what they might do. It’s not clear what, if any, scientific methodology the government bases its predictions on. “The little we currently know makes clear that a decision to engage in political violence is context-specific and particular to any given individual, which makes it very difficult to identify indicators that could be used to predict whether an individual will actually commit an act of political violence,” said Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer, forensic psychiatrist, and counterterrorism expert, in a filing in support of the ACLU’s suit. “More fundamentally, the government’s predictive judgments are necessarily unreliable, and the risk of error associated with them is extremely high, because the events they attempt to predict—violent acts of terrorism—are exceedingly rare.”
CAIR’s Abbas charges that the no-fly list has become a coercive tool for the FBI, giving agents “the ability to punish people extrajudicially.” Two men who worship at As-Saber and were placed on the no-fly list say it was a move intended to prod them into working as informants. One, an Eritrean-born American named Yonas Fikre, says that shortly after refusing to cooperate with agents from the FBI’s Portland field office, he was arrested and tortured by local police in the UAE. They happened to be curious about what was going on at As-Saber, some 7,600 miles away. “We know that the FBI is going to extraordinary effort to infiltrate the mosque, and we are sure that there are a number of individuals who attend regularly that are on the FBI payroll,” says Tom Nelson, a lawyer who sometimes attends As-Saber.
In January 2012, two other men who prayed at As-Saber were prevented from returning to Portland from Libya. Jamal Tarhuni, a businessman, had accompanied members of a Christian charity to Libya to do relief work; Mustafa Elogbi, a grocer, was visiting family there. Both were asked to submit to questioning by the FBI. After both refused to do so, an agent named Jared Garth wrote to Nelson, their attorney: “[I]f your clients provided full and truthful cooperation, starting with an interview overseas, perhaps the FBI could facilitate a more expeditious mode of travel back to the US. In other words, with their cooperation, maybe the FBI can help them get on a plane as opposed to their having to take an ocean voyage.” Both Fikre and Tarhuni are engaged in ongoing suits over the incidents.
In a ruling last year in the ACLU suit, a federal judge in Oregon ordered the government to establish a process for Kariye and the other plaintiffs to challenge their placement on the list. Several of the original plaintiffs were cleared to fly in the months following the ruling. But Kariye received a letter from the DHS informing him that he was still considered a “threat to civil aviation or national security.” The determination was based on old accusations from the Portland Seven case, though the letter hinted that the DHS has other evidence that it cannot divulge without damaging “sensitive information, sources, and methods.”
So the ACLU sued the government again in April, arguing that putting Kariye on the list because of who has attended his mosque, which is open to the public, or what he preaches may conflict with his First Amendment right to freedom of speech, association, and religious activity. The implications are serious: If the government loses, it could be forced to reveal more about how and why people like Kariye are put on the list, including its surveillance methods.
When the Justice Department moved to revoke Kariye’s citizenship in July, it drew the expected headlines. “Portland imam had ties to osama bin laden, 4 terrorist groups years ago, government alleges,” an article on The Oregonian’s website trumpeted. Denaturalization cases are extremely rare, but what makes the complaint against Kariye striking is the timing. Much of the salient information in the complaint has been available for years. Why, after fighting to keep Kariye grounded in the United States, does the government suddenly seem so intent on deporting him? “You have to question the timing,” says ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi. “The government has never charged him with a crime with respect to the underlying allegations, and he has secured important victories in a lawsuit with significant consequences for civil rights.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on a number of questions for this article, but a spokesperson denied that the denaturalization case was retaliatory or related to Kariye’s case against the no-fly list. Kariye also declined to comment for this article.
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A few days before I visited As-Saber, I met Tom Nelson in the food court of a Portland mall. Nelson became interested in Islam as a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, and as an attorney he’s been active in many of the cases involving Oregon Muslims. He believes that the government’s heavy-handed pursuit of Kariye and other members of As-Saber has alienated the community in dangerous ways. Nelson recounted an incident in which a newcomer at the mosque started “talking up jihad” to teenagers. A committee at As-Saber decided to speak with him themselves so as not to draw renewed attention from the FBI, but then the newcomer vanished. “What [the FBI investigators] have done now is driven all of the people who’d be willing to have a dialogue with them away,” Nelson says. “They’ve been going for headlines for the past 14 years, and they’ve got their headlines, but at a tremendous cost—at the cost of national security.”
A spokesperson for the FBI’s Portland Division declined to make a representative available for an interview, instead sending a long statement that read, in part: “People are more or less willing to engage with us based, in large part, on their personal experiences and history with the FBI. We recognize this as a challenge that we must address, and we work to do so every day.”
One of the cases often cited as a reason to distrust the FBI is that of Mohamed Mohamud, a young Somali American who sometimes prayed at As-Saber. In 2014, Mohamud was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to blow up a public square in Portland during a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony. According to his lawyers, Mohamud’s parents were the first to tell the FBI that they were concerned he was becoming radicalized. The FBI developed an elaborate sting operation involving undercover informants who helped the teenager plan the bombing. Mohamud’s defense accused the government of “grooming” him and “manufacturing a crime,” while local Muslim leaders questioned why law enforcement waited until after the fake bomb had inspired terror to arrest him.
The most egregious misstep by federal agents was the arrest of Brandon Mayfield, an immigration lawyer who knows Kariye and occasionally attends As-Saber. In 2004, he was arrested for allegedly taking part in the bombings on a commuter-train line that killed 191 people in Madrid. Mayfield spent two weeks in jail, even though Spanish authorities told the FBI that the fingerprint match was erroneous. “I’m shocked that they would go to this length, but not surprised given the past history,” Mayfield said when I asked him about the attempt to revoke Kariye’s citizenship. The complaint hinges on the accusation that Kariye gave false or incomplete testimony during the naturalization process, on a variety of matters that occurred a dozen or more years ago. Some of them were trivial—having used alternate spellings of his name, for example—while others were more serious, such as concealing affiliations with two terrorist groups, although neither was deemed such at the time. There’s a claim that Kariye worked with the mujahideen in the late 1980s and met Osama bin Laden, but no mention of the fact that the United States was supporting the Afghan insurgents back then.
The complaint leans heavily on recycled accusations from the Portland Seven case, and from the counts of Social Security fraud. One exhibit, marked “sensitive but unclassified,” states that Kariye “incited several of the Portland Seven conspirators to engage in violent jihad” and gave them money to do so. It quotes him as telling members of that plot that “Muslims should fight with fellow Muslim brothers of Afghanistan against Americans” and that it was “legitimate jihad.” It sounds terrible—but if there’s solid evidence to support these claims, it’s difficult to understand why the government has been unable to charge Kariye with a single terrorism offense in all the years it’s been investigating him.
In Sageman’s view, the FBI is operating on an assumption of guilt by association “There was smoke” at Masjed As-Saber, Sageman says, referring to the Portland Seven case. “Maybe not the fire, but there was smoke.” And after 9/11, smoke was all that was necessary to provoke an investigation and sustained surveillance. “Through both inertia and self-categorizing as a team of ‘good guys’ versus ‘jihadis,’ the focus on Portland got out of proportion with what the threat really is,” Sageman adds.
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In January, police in Pendleton, a town in northeastern Oregon famous for its annual rodeo, arrested three white supremacists suspected in a series of violent incidents, including drive-by shootings and a bombing. More than 50 people associated with a variety of white hate groups had been arrested in a major statewide operation during the previous year. The arrests made local news, but received nothing like the attention that the allegations against Kariye have. Many people heard of the fake bomb that Mohamed Mohamud tried to detonate in Portland with the government’s help; far fewer have heard of Cody Seth Crawford, the 24-year-old who was arrested for setting off a real bomb at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, Oregon, two days later.
Nationally, white supremacists, antigovernment radicals, and other non-Muslims have carried out twice as many attacks since September 11, 2001, as have Muslim extremists, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation. Yet public conversations about domestic terrorists, particularly in the wake of the attacks in Paris attacks and San Bernardino, are rife with Islamophobia: Few people suggest prolonged surveillance of Christian churches, or helping troubled white men plant fake bombs in Planned Parenthood clinics. The preemptive approach to countering domestic terrorism has focused disproportionately on Muslims, driven by a “flawed concept of radicalization,” one that assumes radical ideas lead to violence, says Michael German, a former FBI agent who specialized in domestic terrorism. The result is a heightened focus on things someone has said, people they know, and other First Amendment–protected activity.
“The net is cast so broadly,” German notes, “that you have the problem of selective prosecution, where people are being targeted because of their beliefs and their speech for crimes that otherwise would not be prosecuted—minor errors on some sort of government document…immigration violations, these sorts of small, low-level things that, absent the government’s belief that their speech is dangerous, wouldn’t be prosecuted or pursued.”
I asked Dan Nielsen, formerly the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland field office, why the government was so interested in Kariye. He couldn’t tell me anything specific that Kariye had done that could be considered dangerous. “He certainly had the upbringing to be a radical imam,” Nielsen said. “Sometimes, you know—what’s radical? That becomes in the eyes of the beholder.”