An American teenager detained in Kuwait two weeks ago and placed on an American no-fly list claims that he was severely beaten by his Kuwaiti captors during a weeklong interrogation about possible contacts with terrorism suspects in Yemen.
The teenager, Gulet Mohamed, a Somali-American who turned 19 during his captivity, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday from a Kuwaiti detention cell that he was beaten with sticks, forced to stand for hours, threatened with electric shocks and warned that his mother would be imprisoned if he did not give truthful answers about his travels in Yemen and Somalia in 2009.
American officials have offered few details about the case, except to confirm that Mr. Mohamed is on a no-fly list and, for now at least, cannot return to the United States. Mr. Mohamed, from Alexandria, Va., remains in a Kuwaiti detention center even after Kuwait’s government, according to his brother, determined that he should be released.
During the interview with the NYT, Mohammed said, “I am a good Muslim, I despise terrorism.”
During the 90-minute telephone interview, Mr. Mohamed was agitated as he recounted his captivity, tripping over his words and breaking into tears. He said he left the United States in March 2009 to “see the world and learn my religion,” and had planned to return to the United States for college.
He said he had traveled to Yemen to study Arabic, but stayed less than a month because his mother worried about his safety. He said that he spent five months later that year living with an aunt and uncle in northern Somalia, before moving to Kuwait in August 2009 to live with an uncle and continue his Arabic studies.
Mohammed’s ordeal began when he went to the airport in Kuwait to renew his travel visa. He was held for five hours and then handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to a prison where he was interrogated and beaten on his feet and face with sticks when he didn’t give the “right answers.”
“Are you a terrorist?” they asked, according to his account.
“No,” he replied.
“Do you know Anwar?” his interrogators asked, referring to Mr. Awlaki.
“I’ve never met him,” Mr. Mohamed recalled saying.
“You are from Virginia, you have to know him,” they responded, according to Mr. Mohamed. From 2001 to 2002, Mr. Awlaki was the imam of a prominent mosque in northern Virginia.
Mohammed told the NYT in January that even after being released, he couldn’t sleep or eat and was constantly fearful. He said he has “always been pro-American” and obviously could not understand why he was targeted. After the article in the NYT, Mohammed was finally permitted to return home later in January. He told the Washington Post that his ordeal had “made me stronger.”
Mohammed is only one of many American citizens of Middle Eastern or African descent who have found themselves stranded overseas, unable to return home because their names have been put on a no-fly list while they were out of the country. Many of these people have been arrested and interrogated by foreign governments, apparently at the request of the F.B.I. From the Post article (1/21/2011):
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.
COINTELPRO was an FBI covert operation that targeted domestic left-wing and anti-war groups from 1956 to 1971, in the name of “national security.” Frankly, the covert operations have probably continued even though they are technically illegal. But lately we’ve seen an uptick in FBI operations targeting groups within the U.S. Until I came across a couple of blog posts last week about American muslims being targeted overseas, I had no idea the FBI had branched out to foreign covert operations.
At Mother Jones, Nick Baumann writes:
In the past, the FBI has denied that it asks foreign governments to apprehend Americans. But, a Mother Jones investigation has found, the bureau has a long-standing and until now undisclosed program for facilitating such detentions. Coordinated by elite agents who serve in terrorism hot spots around the world, the practice enables the interrogation of American suspects outside the US justice system. “Their citizenship doesn’t seem to matter to the government,” says Daphne Eviatar, a lawyer with Human Rights First. “It raises a question of whether there’s a whole class of people out there who’ve been denied the right to return home for the purpose of interrogation in foreign custody.”
I highly recommend reading the whole article. Baumann describes other cases similar to Mohammed’s and reveals information he obtained from government officials and representatives of human rights groups.
Here is another example from a 2010 Huffpo article:
A Virginia man said he has been stuck in limbo in Egypt for the last six weeks, living in a cheap hotel and surviving on fast food after his name was placed on a U.S. no-fly list because of a trip to Yemen.
Yahya Wehelie, a 26-year-old Muslim who was born in Fairfax, Virginia to Somali parents, said Wednesday he spent 18 months studying in Yemen and left in early May. The U.S. has been scrutinizing citizens who study in Yemen more closely since the man who tried to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas was linked to an al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen.
Wehelie was returning to the U.S. with his brother Yusuf via Egypt on May 5 when Egyptian authorities stopped him from boarding his flight to New York. They told him the FBI wanted to speak with him.
He said he was then told by FBI agents in Egypt that his name was on a no-fly list because of people he met in Yemen and he could not board a U.S. airline or enter American airspace. His passport was canceled and a new one issued only for travel to the United States, which expires on Sept. 12. He does not have Somali citizenship.
Wehelie said his brother Yusuf was allowed to return home, but only after he was detained for three days by Egyptian police on suspicion of carrying weapon. He said his brother was shackled to a jail wall and interrogated by a man who claimed to work for the CIA. He was then dumped in the street outside the prison when he feigned illness.
In June, 2010, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) posted a list of American Muslims who had been kept from returning to the U.S. after trips abroad.
In July, 2010, CAIR posted a warning on its website informing Muslim-Americans that they could end up in “forced exile” if they traveled to another country.
CAIR this week issued an advisory to American Muslims — whether citizens, permanent residents or visa holders — warning of the risk of “forced exile” when traveling overseas or attempting to return to the United States. Muslim travelers are urged to know their legal rights if they are placed on the so-called “no-fly list.”
In the past few months, CAIR has received a number of reports of American Muslims stranded overseas when they are placed on the government’s no-fly list. Those barred from returning to the United States report being denied proper legal representation, being subjected to FBI pressure tactics to give up the constitutionally-guaranteed right to remain silent, having their passports confiscated without due process, and being pressured to become informants for the FBI. These individuals have not been told why they were placed on the no-fly list or how to remove their names from the list.
FBI agents have reportedly told a number of individuals that they face being stranded outside the United States longer, or forever, unless they give up their rights to legal representation or to refuse interrogations and polygraph tests. But even those who submitted to interrogations without an attorney or to the “lie detector” tests remain stranded.
This situation is outrageous, and President Obama should be directly confronted about his support of this un-American, authoritarian policy (White House approval is required for many of these FBI activities). Perhaps a relatively high profile article like the one in Mother Jones will influence some mainstream reporters to do that. In the meantime, please spread the word in any way you can.