SEATTLE — Seattle Muslim leader Farid Sulayman said it was the usual drill for him last month when he flew to California to chaperone a youth basketball tournament. Checking in online proved impossible. At the ticket counter, he got a boarding pass with a special stamp — “SSSS” — indicating he would need an extra security screening.
He was told to go to a specific line, where federal agents ushered him past everyone else to search, as he put it, “every inch of my bag.” He felt all eyes on him.
At the gate, he found more Transportation Security Administration agents ostensibly conducting a random passenger search, which he found hard to believe because one agent walked straight to him.
On international trips, Sulayman said, border agents have pulled him aside for private questioning as soon as he stepped off the plane. And once, the 46-year-old imam — an American citizen who helps lead religious services at a South Seattle mosque, works for a nonprofit and drives for Uber on the side — tried to pick up a passenger at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Upon presenting his ID, Sulayman said, he was handcuffed and detained for over two hours.
Sulayman said an official at the gate told him he’d been identified as a “possible threat.” Why? It’s a question Sulayman says he’s been wondering for decades.
The imam believes he’s been put onto a federal government watchlist aimed at identifying known or suspected terrorists attempting to travel into or throughout the U.S. But he’s received no confirmation or explanation, typical of roughly a million people — according to an estimate by the Council on American-Islamic Relations — who share a similar fate.
Sulayman and dozens of others nationwide are suing the U.S. government in Maryland’s federal court over what they say are constitutional violations in a watch-listing system that puts people under permanent suspicion “without charges, without arrests, without even an investigation sometimes.”
“We’re hoping that Farid’s case is the one that ends the watchlist,” said CAIR lawyer Gadeir Abbas, adding it’s the biggest such lawsuit ever brought.
There are actually many watchlists, but feeding most of them is an FBI database that’s often colloquially referred to as “the” watchlist. It contains names of U.S. and foreign citizens.
Shared with many U.S. and foreign government agencies, local law enforcement, and some private corporations such as banks, it contains names of citizens around the world and can affect someone’s ability to travel, get a visa to the U.S., access credit and get a job, according to the Maryland lawsuit.
The government created the watchlist in 2003, at a time of heightened fear of terrorism following the 9/11 attacks. The need to more carefully monitor who came into the U.S. seemed apparent amid the wreckage and mourning. Some counterterrorism analysts say it is still necessary, if flawed.
Yet after 9/11, generalized and unfair suspicion, according to critics, fell upon Muslims, including American citizens. Many were detained for questioning, spied upon and added to the FBI database.
Some of these practices quietly continue, including the watchlist, which this year marks its 20th anniversary. In the last fiscal year, running through September 2022, border officials reported 478 encounters with people on the watchlist, and the current fiscal year’s numbers are already higher.
Once on the list, those targeted say, it is extremely difficult to get off.
Muslims remain the most affected, according to CAIR, which issued a report in June based on an analysis of a watchlist copy leaked in 2019. More than 98% of the 1.5 million names (some duplicating references to the same individual) likely belong to Muslims, CAIR concluded.
If correct, that’s worrying, said James Forest, director of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“As we know, the majority of terrorist attacks, especially in the U.S. for the last 20 years, has not been by Muslim extremists but by right-wing extremists,” Forest said. He cited racist, antisemitic and anti-immigrant shootings at a Philadelphia synagogue, a Kansas bar and a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store.
The FBI, in a statement to The Seattle Times, said the list relies upon “specific intelligence-related criteria” and that security reasons prevent the agency from confirming whether Sulayman or anyone else is included.
“No one is added to the watchlist based on their race, ethnicity, religion, beliefs or activities protected by the First Amendment, or on guesses or hunches,” the FBI said. The agency described its top priority as protecting Americans from terrorism by using “every lawful tool” to preempt potential attacks.
A government brief in the Maryland case also argued that plaintiffs’ experiences amount to inconveniences and delays that “slightly burdened” them but didn’t impede their right to travel or religious practice.
Sulayman, however, says the constant scrutiny is embarrassing and tiring. “I’m a citizen of America with no criminal record, but they treat me as if I’m a criminal — or worse.”
Becoming an imam
Sulayman was born in Vietnam, part of the Muslim ethnic Cham population that represents a small minority there and in Cambodia. He came to the U.S. as a toddler, went to Seattle’s Roosevelt High School and attended community college for a couple of years.
Wanting to learn more about his religion, he applied to the Islamic University of Madinah in Saudi Arabia — “the Yale or Harvard of Islamic universities,” in his mind — and won a scholarship. He left for Saudi Arabia in 1998.
The 9/11 attacks occurred midway through Sulayman’s time there. Many of the perpetrators were Saudi citizens. Sulayman said he began being pulled aside for additional security screenings when he visited home.
The screenings continued after he returned to Seattle in 2005 and started volunteering as one of several imams for a mosque associated with Cham Refugees Community, an organization that serves local Chams and other Muslims in a cluster of houses in Rainier Valley.
To earn a living, Sulayman said he first taught at an Islamic private school and later helped establish what’s now known as AbuBakr Academy, located in Tukwila. In 2009, he started working for ICNA Relief, an Islamic charity that runs food and housing programs.
Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of CAIR Washington, said Sulayman is well-respected and gives talks at mosques around the Seattle area. The imam also frequently leads groups on pilgrimages to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, considered a religious duty for Muslims.
Sulayman said he has to carefully plan such trips to avoid creating hassles for everyone else. He books his flights separately because anyone known to be traveling with him — including his wife, four children and 85-year-old mother — can receive the same intense scrutiny.
When he’s questioned, he said, officials ask him where he traveled and who he talked to. They sometimes show him photos of members of his community, asking what he knows about them.
“Why are you guys holding me?” he said he’ll ask. “What have I done? They won’t tell me anything.”
A tipping point came when Sulayman was handcuffed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. In Sulayman’s account, the official at the gate first said he was wanted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which made no sense because he’s an American citizen.
Then the official mentioned a possible warrant. “I was like, ‘There’s no way,’” Sulayman said, noting he frequently talked to police about general goings-on in the community.
After a series of calls, no one at the base could find any reason to hold him, Sulayman said, and he was released.
Still, his treatment seemed to be worsening. He called CAIR for help, which led to him becoming a plaintiff in the Maryland case.
Filed in 2018, the litigation has dragged on, in part because of a government motion to dismiss. A judge ruled in 2020 that many of the plaintiffs’ claims can go forward, including alleged violations of due process protections.
Sulayman and other plaintiffs will likely be deposed in the next couple of months, said Abbas, the CAIR lawyer.
Meanwhile, the advocacy group’s local office continues to hear about people facing similar treatment.
Siddiqi, who moved to the Seattle area in late 2020 after taking over as executive director, said at least six people have told him of rigorous security screenings that left them feeling humiliated.
Zahr Said, a University of Washington law professor, said she started getting pulled aside for extra screenings and questioning during a period in 2017 when she was traveling to a series of work conferences and to Canada with her son.
An American citizen whose mom hails from Michigan, she suspects the extra security had to do with her Yemeni dad. While not a terrorist, she said, he worked for a time in Iraq for the Ba’ath Party, best known for its reviled leader, Saddam Hussein.
The Columbia- and Harvard-educated law professor said she was largely estranged from her dad at the time, but was asked about him anyway. She said female agents touched every part of her body during pat-downs, and she was once touched so many times — 120, she counted — that she began to dissociate.
She was left feeling: “This country is at odds with me even though I don’t feel at odds with this country. I want to serve it.”
The FBI, when contacted by Said’s lawyer, reported she wasn’t a person of interest, she said. The extra security screenings eventually stopped — but only, she said, after a 2017 Intercept article detailed her experiences.
And still, her 19-year-old son and others in her circle continue to receive extra security screenings. Said believes she’s the reason why, as several — including a French woman who once worked as her au pair — have been questioned about her.
Just last month, her son traveled to the East Coast to visit his father. Marked on his boarding pass: the telltale SSSS.
Accountability and transparency
Counterterrorism analysts differ on how useful the watchlist is.
Brian Jenkins, an adviser to the president of Rand Corporation, a public policy think tank, calls the list “absolutely essential” to pinpoint potential threats and allow others to travel and get visas without undue delays.
Forest, of the University of Massachusetts, says the list is part of the “theater of security”: Its mere existence acts as a deterrent. But Forest said what’s missing is oversight and accountability to make the list more reliable.
Jason Blazakis, director of a center focused on terrorism and extremism at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, also argues for transparency. As it is now, he said, the watchlist serves as an investigative tool that appears to capture people who have merely crossed paths or perhaps gone to school with the government’s real targets.
Blazakis, who spent 10 years at the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau, said a better model are lists drawn up by the State and Treasury Department for implementing terrorism-related economic sanctions. To be included on the lists, individuals must meet legal criteria. Their names are published. Parties can go to court to challenge their listing, with a judge hearing sensitive information in private.
People who believe they’re wrongfully named on the watchlist, in contrast, must turn to the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, run by the Department of Homeland Security. It’s a lengthy and often futile process, CAIR’s Abbas said.
Sulayman said he’s never heard of it.
Last month, the imam returned for a second trip to Southern California for a family vacation. Facing more screenings or a 20-hour drive, he hit the road.