Fairfax man returning from Yemen stranded in Cairo after landing on no-fly list

Yahya Wehelie, born in the U.S. to Somali immigrants, said he left Burke to seek a bride.
Yahya Wehelie, born in the U.S. to Somali immigrants, said he left Burke to seek a bride. (Ben Curtis/associated Press)
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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Fairfax County man returning home from Yemen has been stranded in Egypt for six weeks after being told he was on a no-fly list.

Yahya Wehelie, 26, said Wednesday that after landing at the airport in Cairo in early May, he was told he would not be able to board his connection to New York and would have to go to the U.S. Embassy for an explanation. Embassy officials later told Wehelie and a younger brother with whom he was traveling that they would have to wait for FBI agents to arrive from Washington.

Since then, Wehelie said in a phone interview, he has spoken with the FBI 10 times and submitted to a polygraph test. He said his attorney has advised him and his family not to discuss the FBI's questions, but they appear to have centered on suspected American radicals living in Yemen.

Civil liberties groups say the case is part of an emerging pattern in which American citizens are barred from flying to the United States so they can be questioned overseas by U.S. agents without counsel. The Council on American-Islamic Relations cited Wehelie's case and that of other Americans stranded abroad in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. this week.

"We are concerned that FBI interrogations of American citizens in a condition of forced exile are being conducted without due process," wrote Nihad Awad, the council's executive director. "If the FBI wishes to question American citizens, they should be allowed to return to the United States where they will be able to maintain their constitutional rights free of threats or intimidation."

The letter cited the cases of other Americans who have been stranded in Turkey and Italy while trying to return from Yemen. U.S. authorities have been especially concerned about travelers from Yemen since the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who allegedly spent time there before trying to detonate a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Wehelie, who was born in the United States to Somali immigrants, said U.S. officials took his old passport and issued him a new one that was good only for a one-way trip to the United States. But, he said, he was also informed by an FBI agent that he cannot board any plane scheduled to enter U.S. or Canadian airspace, leaving him in a kind of limbo.

"I don't know any other way to get home," said Wehelie, who said he had spent 18 months in Yemen after leaving Burke to find a bride and learn Arabic. He said that he has offered to sit between two FBI agents on any flight home but that for the moment he is living in a run-down hotel in Cairo.

At a news conference in Washington on Wednesday, Wehelie's parents spoke of their patriotism and their disavowal of Islamic extremists; they noted that Yahya's older brother served in Iraq with the U.S. Army and that members of their extended family work at the Department of Homeland Security.

In the interview, Wehelie said he was not involved with radical groups.

"This isn't right; I want to come back home," he said, adding that he hopes to sponsor his wife, who is a Somali refugee in Yemen, for U.S. residency.

FBI spokesman Michael P. Kortan said that "as a matter of long-standing policy, we do not comment on whether a particular individual may be on a watch list, and we will not do so here." He added that "the FBI is always careful to protect the civil rights and privacy concerns of all Americans."

Wehelie said that each questioning he underwent took place at the U.S. Embassy and that he was never arrested by Egyptian authorities. But his younger brother, Yusuf, said he was taken to a police station after U.S. officials cleared him to fly home.

Yusuf Wehelie said he was interrogated and beaten by Egyptian police, who asked him much the same questions as the Americans had. After several days in custody, he was permitted to leave.

"What happened to me was wrong, and I want to make sure that it does not happen to any other American citizens," Yusuf Wehelie, who graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary School last year, said at the news conference Wednesday. "My brother is still trapped in Cairo because the FBI will not allow him to return."

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