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

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; A06

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.

To streamline the process and reduce misidentifications, the Transportation Security Administration has begun the Secure Flight program, which asks for additional information from travelers, and the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or TRIP, which allows people who think they are on a list to ask the government to investigate their situation.

Since 2007, about 91,000 people have applied, and two thirds have received case numbers to present in travel. Most were never really on a list, Healy said, adding that airlines can have other reasons for questioning or delaying travelers.

Applicants are never told whether they were on a list or removed from one; the only way to know is to try flying again.

But if a traveler is abroad while waiting the 60 days for a case to be processed, "basically, if you're stuck, you're out of luck," Sabra said.

Darryl Dalil Javid, 44, a District native and convert to Islam, learned that when he tried to fly out of Yemen in January. He had moved there five years ago, returning regularly to the United States to work as a facilities manager. Last year, his Yemeni visa expired, but he said he continued to fly in and out without problems.

After the Christmas bombing attempt, however, Yemen began to deport people without valid visas, Javid said, and when it tried to deport him, he could not find an airline that would let him fly to the United States. At one point, he made it as far as Istanbul only to be denied boarding on a Chicago-bound flight.

"They don't tell you anything, what's your situation, how do you get out of your situation," he said. "You have to figure it out."

Speaking by phone last month from a holding cell in the Yemeni Interior Ministry, Javid said he had had the bad luck to study for a month at the same Arabic language school -- the Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language -- that Abdulmutallab had once attended, although Javid said he had never seen or heard of him there. Yemen was cheap, he said, and he found community there with other American converts.

"We are not disgruntled, we're not, 'Oh, I hate America, I want to live somewhere else,' " he said.

After he was barred from the Chicago flight, Javid spent a week sleeping in the Istanbul airport, flying briefly to Morocco only to be turned back. Finally, he was sent back to Yemen and put in a room full of detainees in the Interior Ministry. In each country, he said, he was questioned by embassy officials and FBI agents.

Knaeble, too, said he chose Yemen because it was cheap. He converted to Islam about a year ago, after working in Kuwait for three years as a driver. In the past 2 1/2 weeks, he said, FBI agents in Bogota have questioned him about his view of jihad and whether he knows the Christmas day bombing suspect and the suspect in the Fort Hood slayings.

Knaeble is paying $50 a night for a Bogota hotel. The FBI has given him $500 to cover expenses, but he said he feels trapped.

"I don't understand, what did I do? Why can't I go back to the USA?" He has lost his job, he said, and some of his faith in the government he served in the military.

Javid finally returned to the United States March 25, after U.S. Embassy officials told him that he could buy a ticket only on a certain flight carrying U.S. air marshals.

In his mother's townhouse in Laurel this week, he sat in a white robe, surrounded by copies of the Koran. He said the ordeal, including air tickets he could not use, cost him about $6,000.

"Security is always inconvenient," he said. "But I think it's without serious consideration of what people can go through, when you say, 'Okay, put them on [the list] first and investigate them later.' "

Staff writers Spencer Hsu and Glenn Kessler and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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