'I felt like I was getting kidnapped'

Gulet Mohamed, surrounded by family and supporters at Dulles International Airport, says the ordeal had "made me stronger."
Gulet Mohamed, surrounded by family and supporters at Dulles International Airport, says the ordeal had "made me stronger." (Dayna Smith)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Northern Virginia teen who had been barred from flying home from Kuwait landed in Washington on Friday morning, four weeks after being detained, allegedly beaten by Kuwait authorities and questioned by FBI agents about possible terrorist connections.

Gulet Mohamed, dressed in a worn hooded sweat shirt and sweat pants, was embraced by his family after he arrived at Dulles International Airport, the end of an ordeal that he said had "made me stronger."

The United States "is built upon fighting for your rights," Mohamed, 19, said in an interview.

Civil liberties groups charge that his case is the latest episode in which the U.S. government has temporarily exiled U.S. citizens or legal residents so they can be questioned about possible terrorist links without legal counsel.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. government on behalf of 17 citizens or legal residents who were not allowed to board flights to, from or within the United States, presumably because, like Mohamed, they were on the government's no-fly list. Of those stranded overseas, all were eventually told they could return, often after they agreed to speak to the FBI. None was arrested upon their return.

The ACLU suit, filed in Portland, Ore., alleges that Americans placed on the no-fly list are denied due process because there is no effective way to challenge their inclusion. The government does not acknowledge that any particular individual is on the no-fly list or its other watch lists. Nor will it reveal the exact criteria it uses to place people on its list.

There are about 10,000 people on the no-fly list, whose size fluctuates depending on the threat level, and up to 500 of those are U.S. citizens, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official.

The FBI has declined to discuss Mohamed's case. But U.S. officials insist that the process used to place individuals on the no-fly list is legal and well founded, and relies on credible intelligence.

Many individuals represented by the ACLU had been out of the country for an extended period and had traveled to Yemen, a major focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts after several plots targeting Americans originated there.

Mohamed said he left Northern Virginia in March 2009, traveling first to Yemen, where he stayed for three weeks before moving on, at his mother's request, to stay with relatives in a relatively peaceful region of Somalia. He said he went abroad to study Islam, Arabic and to get in touch with his roots.

In August 2009, Mohamed said he went to Kuwait, where another relative lives, to continue his studies. Last month, while at the airport to renew his visa, he was detained by two men. Once in the back seat of a car and blindfolded, he said, he burst into tears.

"I felt like I was getting kidnapped," said Mohamed, speaking at his home in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

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