More U.S. Muslims facing problems in return from abroad, groups say

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Travelers from 14 countries that have been home to terrorists will no longer automatically face extra screening before they fly to the U.S.

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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010

Muslim advocacy groups say an increasing number of Muslim and Arab U.S. citizens and permanent residents who travel abroad are facing new complications in returning to the United States because of heightened security.

An attempted Christmas day bombing on a Detroit-bound airplane caused soul-searching in government agencies after it became clear that the alleged would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was not on a watch list. Since then, the no-fly list has swelled from 3,400 people to about 6,000, with thousands more on the list for travelers who warrant extra screening.

The lists are not made public, and most people don't know they are on one until they arrive at the airport. In one case, an American says he has been barred from returning to the United States without explanation.

Raymond Earl Knaeble IV said that when he presented his U.S. passport at the airport in Bogota, Colombia, for a flight to Miami last month, "They came back and told me, 'You can't fly with any airlines to the USA.' "

Knaeble, 29, a California-born military contractor scheduled to start a job in Texas that week, said the airline sent him to the U.S. Embassy to straighten things out. There, he said, an FBI agent questioned him about his recent conversion to Islam and a trip to Yemen, where he had spent three months studying Arabic.

"He said, 'I can't give you back your passport,' " Knaeble said. That was almost three weeks ago, and Knaeble says no one has told him why.

Khalilah Sabra, director of the immigrant justice program at the Falls Church-based Muslim American Society, said that since Christmas the organization has seen a 50 percent increase in reports of extensive questioning and delays of Arabs and Muslims, to about 16 cases a month. "Getting out [of the U.S.] is okay. No one says anything, but when they try to come back they are not allowed in, or they are being questioned," she said.

The Obama administration plans to replace rules instituted after the Christmas bombing attempt that stepped up airport screening of people traveling to or from 14 countries, or holding passports from those countries, to a system that focuses more on intelligence data such as red-flag travel patterns, senior officials said Thursday. It's not clear whether that change will affect people who have faced increased difficulties traveling in recent months.

Government officials have said in recent weeks that the lists are likely to continue to grow. "The entire federal government is leaning very far forward on putting people on lists," said Russell Travers, deputy director for Information Sharing and Knowledge Development at the National Counterterrorism Center, at a Senate hearing March 10.

Timothy Healy, director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, said that for now, based on intelligence and the threat level at the time, certain people have been provisionally moved from lower-level watchlists to more restrictive ones. "They were moved as a precaution, and we're in the process of reviewing that," he said.

For travelers -- mostly men -- who are questioned, "it's really having a chilling effect," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, which has been advising Knaeble and others. "People do whatever they can now not to cross borders if they're Muslim because they feel there's some potential for humiliation."

The State and Homeland Security departments declined to comment for this article, but officials have acknowledged that the lists can produce false positives.


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