Privacy SOS

Through the looking glass and onto the “no fly” list

Imagine this. It is January 2, 2005. You are in the final year of your Ph.D. studies at Stanford University and are traveling to Malaysia to make a presentation at a Stanford-sponsored academic conference. Having recently had surgery, you arrive at San Francisco airport in a wheelchair, accompanied by your 14-year-old daughter.

You never make it onto the plane that day. Instead, you are handcuffed and taken to a holding cell after your name – Rahinah Ibrahim – or one resembling it is found to be on the government’s “no fly” list.

After a few hours, an FBI agent orders you to be released and says you have been taken off the list. The agent is mistaken. You find this out when you try again to fly the following day. But this time you are given extra screening and allowed to get on a plane to Malaysia.

However, in the seven years since then, you have never been permitted to fly back to the United States, no matter how hard you have tried to get off the “no fly” list and regardless of the fact that you have never been accused of any crime.

Your career has advanced. Stanford permitted you to finish your Ph.D. long distance and you are now the Dean of the Faculty of Design and Architecture at the University of Putra in Malaysia.


And now after seven years, you are again in the news, after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court ruling and permitted your lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to proceed. The Obama Justice Department may appeal the ruling. If it doesn’t, you will soon be permitted to return to the United States and fight in court to clear your name.

Rahinah Ibrahim’s suit is not the only legal challenge to the Terrorist Screening Center’s “no fly” list – which is not to be confused with the larger list of “selectees” given extra screening or the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database which weighs in at over a million in names. Beginning in 2003, the ACLU has filed lawsuits on behalf of people who claim to have been wrongly kept off airplanes.

Its current clients are 15 US citizens and lawful permanent residents who are barred from flying from, to or within the US, or over its airspace. They include Abe Mashal, an Illinois resident who received an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps and claims the FBI told him he would be taken off the list if he became an underground informant at mosques, and a disabled former Marine, Ayman Latif, who was stranded in Egypt for six months when trying to travel home.

The Associated Press reports that the “no fly” list has doubled in size during the past year, with 21,000 people now being kept off planes, including some 500 Americans. Now all it takes to get on the list is being regarded not as a threat to aviation – this was the old standard – but as a threat to domestic or international security or as a veteran of a “terror training camp.”

Did the wannabe warriors of the Hutaree militia – who are now on trial for preparing to “go to war” against the government – make it onto the list? Or don’t the members of the newly resurgent militia movement count as terrorist suspects?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.