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The No-Fly List: FBI Says It's Smaller Than You Think

Gulet Mohamed of Alexandria, Va., says he wasn't allowed to return to the United States from Kuwait for more than a month. The teenager is suing the government and hoping to find out whether he's on the no-fly list.
Jacquelyn Martin
Gulet Mohamed of Alexandria, Va., says he wasn't allowed to return to the United States from Kuwait for more than a month. The teenager is suing the government and hoping to find out whether he's on the no-fly list.

Gulet Mohamed, a Virginia teenager, is back home after being forced to stay in Kuwait for more than a month. He says he couldn't return because he was on the U.S. no-fly list.

The government refuses to say whether he is or isn't on it. And while the no-fly list has grown in recent years, the FBI says the list is not nearly as big as people think.

"We don't confirm or deny that you're on the watch list, and candidly, people just assume they are, and 99.4 percent of the time they are wrong," says Timothy Healy, director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the list.

In the case of Mohamed, his lawyer points to the fact that the Kuwaitis tried to force him onto a flight to the U.S. and failed. "At that point, it was clear it was the U.S. and not the Kuwaitis that were mainly responsible for his detention. It really simplified our legal argument," Gadeir Abbas says.

A district court judge agreed and ordered Mohamed home. His lawyers are now suing the government and waiting to find out if he's on the list.

So how many people are on the list?

"About 10,000," Healy says. "And [the number of] U.S. citizens on the no-fly list is even much smaller, between 500 and 1,000."

Healy says there has to be credible intelligence for authorities to put someone on the list. Officials must believe the passenger is a threat to the plane, could be traveling somewhere to commit a terrorist act or went to a terrorist camp.

And since people aren't told they're on the list, most don't find out until they're at the airport. Ben Wizner, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, says he thinks that traveling to Yemen, as Gulet Mohamed did, is a red flag that could get you on the list.

"I think if the class of people is going to be defined that broadly, it really underscores the need for a fair process to sort out who belongs on it and who doesn't," Wizner says.

The ACLU has sued on behalf of 17 people who found themselves on the list. All 17 are American citizens, some with family in the Middle East. One is a dog trainer in Chicago. Others are former members of the U.S. military.

"The lawsuit doesn't challenge the government's right to have a list like this. The lawsuit says at a minimum you have to give that person some ability to object," Wizner says.

Right now, the main way people can object is to go to the Department of Homeland Security website and file a complaint. Healy says the challenge is trying to balance civil liberties with security. He says the list is necessary and points to one example to show that it works: Faisal Shahzad.

Shahzad was a suspect in the botched car bomb attempt in the middle of New York's Times Square last May. He was able to purchase a ticket and board a plane to Dubai. Law enforcement agents pulled him off the plane just before it took off.

"The benefit of being able to stop him traveling on a plane was the no-fly list," Healy says.

But Shahzad was still able to board his flight. Douglas Laird, formerly with the Secret Service and now an aviation consultant, says the system isn't perfect — and would-be terrorists can get around it.

"If that person is a professional, it's too easy to change an identity, so for that reason I wouldn't put a lot of faith in the system," Laird says.

Those in favor of the list describe it as a useful tool in the arsenal of national security. But, they also say, it shouldn't be the only one.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.