It was August 2002. My partner, Jan Adams, and I were just beginning our annual pilgrimage to Massachusetts to visit my father and stepmother. At the check-in line at San Francisco International Airport, we handed over our driver’s licenses and waited for the airline ticket agent to find our flight and reservation. Suddenly, she got a funny look on her face. “There’s something wrong with the computer,” she said. “I need to talk to my supervisor.”
So began a day of confusion and fear, followed by several years of indignation, frustration, and litigation, as we struggled to find out why—as the agent’s supervisor soon informed us with a similarly strange look on her face—we’d both “turned up on the FBI’s no-fly list.” Her eyes grew wide as she looked us over. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “You don’t fit the profile.”
She was right, of course. A pair of middle-aged, middle-class, white lesbians did not fit the profile of the “Arab terrorists” she expected the no-fly list to contain. What she didn’t know was that our suitcases held hundreds of copies of War Times/Tiempo de guerras, a free, bilingual antiwar tabloid we’d helped start. Could aging pacifists have fit the danger-to-America profile?
You might think that the no-fly list is old news, a relic of the panicked early days following the 9/11 attacks. In fact, as recently as 2012, there were still more than 21,000 names on the list, and it seems unlikely to have gotten any shorter since then, though we do know of at least four names that, with some legal prodding from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), were recently removed from it: Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, Naveed Shinwari, and Awais Sajjad. All four men were American citizens or permanent residents who ended up on the list as retaliation for refusing to become FBI informers and tell tales on their neighbors and others in Muslim communities in this country. For years, they could not visit wives, children, or ailing relatives in countries like Pakistan and Yemen.
According to a suit filed by the CCR in 2014, as reported by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, Jameel Algibhah’s troubles began in 2009, when he refused the FBI’s request to infiltrate a mosque in Queens, New York. The legal complaint continues:
“When Mr. Algibhah declined to do so, the agents then asked Mr. Algibhah to participate in certain online Islamic forums and ‘act like an extremist.’ When Mr. Algibhah again declined, the agents asked Mr. Algibhah to inform on his community in his neighborhood. The FBI agents offered Mr. Algibhah money and told him that they could bring his family from Yemen to the United States very quickly if he became an informant. Mr. Algibhah again told the FBI agents that he would not become an informant.”