US Muslim rights group calls on Biden to suspend use of 'terror' watchlist
Following a massive leak of the US government's no-fly list, a leading Muslim rights group is calling on the Biden administration to stop the use of the "terrorist" watchlist the government has been utilising for decades, saying that the list is composed "almost entirely" of Arab and Muslim names.
Last week, a Swiss hacker reportedly gained access to two lists, the no-fly list and the selectee list, after a regional American airline left them on a data server that was left exposed on the public internet.
The list, which was from 2019, contained about 1.5 million entries. However, this included multiple aliases of individual persons, bringing the total number of persons named in the list down, according to the hacker.
"It’s just crazy to me how big that Terrorism Screening Database is and yet there is still very clear trends towards almost exclusively Arabic and Russian-sounding names throughout the million entries," the hacker said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), which obtained copies of the list, said the contents showed it contained mostly Muslim and Arab names, proving that the FBI is disproportionately targeting the Muslim community.
"Even a cursory review of the lists show they are both almost entirely lists of Arabic and Muslim names. Children who were at most 10 years old at the time are on the No-Fly List. A then 7-year-old is on the Selectee list," Justin Sadowsky, Cair's trial attorney, said in a statement.
The no-fly list is a small subset of the US government's Terrorist Screening Database, which is also known as the terrorist watchlist. The list is said to contain identifying information of “known or suspected terrorists”. The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center maintains the database.
The airline confirmed to The Daily Dot, a Texas-based media company, that the list was a version of the "federal no-fly list" from 2019, meaning that the Terrorist Screening Database could be much larger than the 1.5 million entry list that was leaked.
"On 19 January 2023, the FBI was notified of a potential data breach of information held by a privately held airline company, including purportedly sensitive government information. To be clear, no US Government systems were compromised or breached," the FBI said in response to Middle East Eye's request for comment.
The FBI said it had no further comment on the leak.
Muslims have long fought against the use of the list, as it deprives people of their ability to travel without presenting evidence against them.
In 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that Muslim Americans who were placed on the FBI's no-fly list after refusing to spy on their communities were allowed to sue individual FBI agents - who allegedly violated their religious freedom - for monetary compensation and damages.
In 2016, Cair filed a lawsuit against the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center on behalf of 23 individuals on the list. In 2019, a federal judge ruled the list was unconstitutional.
"These leaks confirm that, in response to 9/11, the FBI decided to build a Muslim registry," Gadeir Abbas, a senior litigation attorney at Cair, said in a statement. "If the FBI is allowed to keep its Muslim registry, it is only a matter of time before the FBI aims its secret lists at others."
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.