A New Jersey mayor who was abruptly disinvited from a White House Eid celebration in May was not on the federal terrorism watchlist at the time when the U.S. Secret Service denied his security clearance in May, his attorneys said in a stunning revelation at a news conference on Monday.
Mohamed Khairullah was placed on the watchlist in 2019, but his name was later removed from the list, said attorneys with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Still, federal agencies have continued to use the list to scrutinize and surveil Khairullah and other Muslims even after their names are cleared, they said.
“The fact that [I was] refused access to the White House indicates that this watchlist has a ripple effect,” Khairullah said Monday at a news conference in Newark. “It’s obviously not something that is pleasant. It violates my constitutional rights as an American to due process. There are people out there who think I am a bad person. This was caused by the U.S. government. The U.S. government needs to clear my name and the name of others who are being harassed and intimidated through airports and border crossings.”
CAIR filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in Boston against the FBI and other federal agencies on behalf of a dozen plaintiffs including Khairullah, the longtime mayor of Prospect Park. The group alleges that the agencies are violating its clients’ rights to due process and equal protection under the law and that they were subjected to unreasonable search and seizure.
CAIR attorney Hannah Mullen said the list can affect people for the rest of their lives, even after their names are cleared.
“Once an individual is placed on the watchlist, they are branded as a second-class citizen for life, even if the government eventually realizes they should not have been placed on the list in the first place,” Mullen said. “Several agencies retain records of past watchlist status and continue to use it to deny formerly listed individuals government benefits, like security clearance, employment, access to government buildings and other licenses and permits for the rest of their lives.”
The FBI declined to comment on the lawsuit on Monday. “In an effort to protect the integrity of pending litigation, the FBI has no comment,” the agency responded in an email.
The federal terrorist watchlist reportedly includes about 1.5 million names that are “almost exclusively” Muslim, according to CAIR.
“We tried the path of getting an explanation from federal agencies for the reasons why I was denied entry to the White House and why I was being subjected to extra screening at airports and border crossings,” said Khairullah, the longest-serving Muslim mayor in New Jersey. “Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears and eliminated my right to due process, when I’m being painted as someone who is dangerous to those around me. At this point, we have no option left but to go the legal route.”
The FBI created the watchlist, called the Terrorist Screening Dataset, 20 years ago as a central place to share information across government and law enforcement agencies about known and suspected terrorists.
The list includes innocent people who have never been charged or investigated in connection with terrorism, and who have no meaningful way to challenge their inclusion on the list, CAIR alleges.
Khairullah’s case received national attention, but many other Muslim citizens and residents have complaints that go unheard, said Selaedin Maksut, executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter. He said his office has gotten calls from students, scholars, travelers and imams who have been detained, questioned and searched and “made to feel if they had committed a crime.”
CAIR said it obtained and analyzed a leaked portion of the 2019 watchlist and found that 98% of the names were of Muslim origin — including Mohamed Khairullah’s. In a June report, “Twenty Years Too Many: A Call to Stop the FBI’s Secret Watchlist,” the organization detailed how the watchlist has wreaked havoc in people’s lives.
Travelers have been harassed, searched, delayed or prevented from flying on airplanes or driving across borders — missing family vacations, funerals, weddings and other milestones, CAIR attorneys said. Others have faced hardships getting government jobs, travel visas, certain permits and citizenship. People on the list have faced traffic stops and law enforcement questioning.
Khairullah said his rejection from the White House party for Eid al-Fitr was not the first time he was profiled. In 2019, he was held for three hours at JFK International Airport after returning from a trip to Turkey with his family. He was questioned about his travels, asked whether he had met with any terrorists and forced to hand over his phone.
The Syrian-born mayor was detained again at the Canadian border and questioned after returning from a family vacation about two years ago, he said.
After the incident at JFK Airport, Khairullah said, he tried to find out why he had been flagged, but federal agencies would not provide any information. He reached out to CAIR — which has filed numerous lawsuits over the watchlist — for help. The organization informed him that his name was on the leaked list.
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In May, the Secret Service declined to explain why it barred Khairullah from the White House, saying it was “not able to comment further on the specific protective means and methods used to conduct our security operations at the White House.”
“From my perspective, I think I was denied my right to due process and an explanation,” Khairullah said. “At this point, I and my family who could be traveling with me feel like second-class citizens.”
People have ended up on the watchlist because of where they’ve traveled and whom they know or have encountered, according to CAIR. In some cases, individuals said they had been placed on the list after they refused to be informants for law enforcement, the organization said.
Individuals who donate to Muslim charities, who engage in religious study and who send money to people in Muslim-majority countries have also been flagged.
Federal officials say the watchlist is a tool to keep Americans safe. The FBI maintain that individuals cannot be added to the list based solely on race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation or activity protected under the First Amendment. Federal officials say they regularly review the lists and that names are added and removed as result.
The FBI National Press Office previously declined to answer questions about Khairullah’s case.
“Our standard practice is to neither confirm nor deny whether any individual may be included on the U.S. government’s federal terrorist watchlist or subset list,” the FBI said.
The lawsuit was filed against 29 defendants in various federal agencies including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Secret Service, the Officer of the Attorney General and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.