The Hidden Cost Of Being Branded A Terrorist By The US Government – Analysis


By Masood Farivar

Mirrakhmat Muminov’s American dream came crashing down on a snowy road near Great Falls, Montana.

It was December 2009. Muminov, then 30, was a refugee from persecution in his native Uzbekistan. He had recently obtained an American green card and bought his own truck, hauling cars from the East Coast to the Canadian border. He thought he had found freedom and opportunity in his adopted country.

But as he waited outside a service center, he had a surprise encounter with agents of the Department of Homeland Security.

With guns drawn, the agents forced him on the slush-covered ground, handcuffed and searched him, and then drove him to a DHS office in Great Falls.

There, in small room with blackened windows, they grilled him for hours about his past, his faith, his mosque.

Who are you? Are you a Shia? Are you a Sunni? Do you speak Arabic? Do you understand Arabic? Do you like America?

After more than four hours of relentless questioning, the agents released Muminov without any charges, saying only that he had been picked up randomly.

Muminov felt as if he were back in Uzbekistan, where security forces routinely rounded up devout Muslims and political activists like him.

Shaken by his ordeal, Muminov sought guidance from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group.

“What you’re describing,” Muminov recalls a CAIR lawyer telling him, “is what we see over and over all across the country.”

Then, the lawyer dropped a bombshell.

“You’re definitely on the watchlist.” the lawyer declared.

Muminov was stunned. He had been fully vetted before being allowed to migrate to the United States three years earlier.

It must be a mistake, he thought, sure he could clear his name with a lawyer’s help.

“I was saying, ‘This is America. You can fight for your rights,’” Muminov recalls telling CAIR. “I could file a lawsuit or a complaint. I was saying to the CAIR officials, ‘Let’s do the file.’”

But exonerating himself proved harder than he imagined. Once on the watchlist, it was nearly impossible to get off. There was no appeal process.

Warned by CAIR, he braced for security hassles at airports and border crossings. That was the price of being watchlisted.

Little did he know that this was just the beginning of a long and painful struggle that would upend his life and eventually force him into a tough decision to relocate out of the country he’d come to love.

For over a decade, Muminov faced endless obstacles and setbacks as he sought to become an American citizen, secure his wife a green card and bring his widowed mother to America.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “all my nightmares started a couple of years after arriving in America.”

Terrorism suspects

Except in its details, Muminov’s story is unexceptional. It exemplifies the experience of thousands of others swept up by a screening system the FBI credits with keeping the country safe, but which critics see as an unconstitutional tool that ensnares innocent Muslims.

The watchlist, created after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, contains more than 1.5 million names of “known or suspected terrorists,” including an estimated 15,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents. A CAIR analysis found that 98% of the names on the list are Muslim names such as Mohamed and Ali.

The FBI says it only watchlists “people reasonably suspected of terrorism” based on “specific intelligence-related criteria.”

“Individuals are not watchlisted based solely on race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, or any First Amendment-protected activities,” the FBI said in response to a list of questions from VOA.

But security agencies take no chances.

“When there’s a close call to be made, there is no reward for erring on the side of, ‘I don’t think I have enough here to watchlist someone,’” said Jeffrey Kahn, a former Justice Department official and a current law professor at Southern Methodist University who has written extensively about the watchlist.

That means anyone can land on the list based on the most tenuous link to terrorism, from posting a suspicious social media comment to being related or associated with someone already on the list. A recently leaked version of the No Fly List, a subset of the larger watchlist, had names of children as young as 10.

Most people discover they’re on the list at an airport when they are issued a boarding pass stamped with “SSSS,” short for Special Security Screening Selection.

They’re thoroughly searched and questioned before being allowed to board their flight. But their troubles don’t end there.

Because the FBI shares the list with thousands of entities outside the federal government, from financial institutions to local police departments, people may be affected in unexpected ways.

Some have had their bank accounts closed. Others have been blocked from wiring money to relatives back home. A Massachusetts man was denied a gun license. Muminov failed to get a coveted federal ID that gives drivers access to the secure areas of sea ports.

But many other immigrants like Muminov face another harsh reality: yearslong delays or denials of their applications for citizenship, an immigration status changes and visas for their relatives.

The immigration consequences of being watchlisted can be “far-reaching,” said Jennifer Nimer, a former CAIR attorney who is now in private practice and represents Muminov.

The punitive consequences can extend to friends and family seeking visas to the United States.

“When a consular officer sees a potential or an existing database hit, it’s a much safer option to either deny or refuse to decide rather than to be the one officer that let in the person that later poses a threat to the United States,” said Maryland-based immigration lawyer Sandra Grossman.

In recent years, CAIR and other civil rights groups have repeatedly sued the FBI and other federal agencies on behalf of watchlisted Muslim Americans. The strategy has helped get a handful of people off the list.

Muminov has not been so lucky. He is part of a 2018 class action lawsuit that is still pending in federal court in Maryland.

In September, as the watchlist turned 20, CAIR filed a new class action lawsuit in Boston on behalf of a dozen watchlisted Muslim Americans, accusing the federal government of sentencing them “to lifetime second-class citizenship.”

Like Muminov, several plaintiffs named in the lawsuit have faced immigration woes.

Ahmad Mirzay, a permanent U.S. resident from Afghanistan since 1999, has been twice denied citizenship because of his watchlist status.

Nusratillah Abdukhamidov, an Uzbek national and permanent U.S. resident, has had his citizenship case placed in indefinite “administrative processing” — government lingo for a background security check.

Talha Mohamed, a mosque leader and asylum-seeker from Egypt, claims the State Department denied visas to his mother and revoked a visa for one of his friends.

The lawsuit wants the government to reform “the watchlisting system to eliminate the discriminatory focus on Muslim identity and religious practice.”

Several agencies named in the lawsuit declined to comment when contacted by VOA.

While critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union decry the watchlist as an “affront to the constitution,” many lawmakers see it as a useful national security and public safety tool.

Republicans want border agents to use the list to stop suspected terrorists from crossing into the U.S., while Democrats want people on the list banned from buying guns, arguing that would prevent mass shootings and domestic terrorism.

‘Moderate and modern Muslim’

Muminov says his life is an open book to the FBI. Born in 1979 when Uzbekistan was still a Soviet republic, he grew up in a secular family that indulged in American movies, and dreamed of visiting the U.S.

But following Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, Muminov, like many young Uzbeks, turned to religion, praying five times a day.

To the authorities, that simple act of piety was a potential red flag. Fearing an Islamist takeover, the government of Islam Karimov, a former Soviet apparatchik, cracked down on religion, building its own list of devout Muslims.

“If I pray five times a day, they call [me] a religious person, but they don’t know there are 1 billion people praying five times a day,” Muminov says.

A long-time Uzbek friend describes Muminov as a “moderate and modern Muslim.”

“If I thought he was an extremist, if I saw him as dangerous, I wouldn’t come close to him,” said the friend, who has known Muminov for 20 years.

But Muminov’s faith was not the only reason for his troubles. While a student, he began following a charismatic cleric named Obidkhon Qori Nazarov.

Muminov says Nazarov championed democracy and opposed terrorism, but Karimov’s government viewed him as a threat, banning him from leading religious services and gatherings and eventually forcing him into exile.

Muminov clung to his faith, speaking out in online posts and interviews with foreign news outlets against the Karimov government’s repressive policies.

“He’s just straightforward,” the friend says. “If he sees something that’s against religion or against society, he’d say, ‘Hey, that’s wrong.’”

Muminov’s activism made him an enemy of the state. He says he was expelled from a Ph.D. program and arrested several times, once when he tried to flee to neighboring Kazakhstan in 2004.

“They tortured me for almost three days,” he says.

Arrested again later that year, he says he literally ran away from police “with my only two feet and $50 in my pocket,” joining several dozen other dissidents living in exile in Kazakhstan.

He was 24 and a well-known activist.

Over the next two years, the U.N. refugee agency in Kazakhstan helped resettle several dozen dissident Uzbeks in Western countries.

Muminov was given several options. Without a second thought, he picked the U.S., the country of his childhood dreams.

“I was really happy when it was offered by the embassy that they could take me to the United States,” Muminov says.

But before leaving for the U.S. in 2006, he was questioned for hours by refugee and consular officers.

“I gave them my entire life,” he says.

American dream

Aided by a refugee resettlement agency, Muminov moved to Akron, Ohio, where he was welcomed by a small community of Uzbek refugees.

To earn a living, he took any job he could find anywhere — first as a sanitation worker at the local mosque, then as an air conditioning technician for McDonald’s in the Washington, D.C., area.

But he soon found a new dream — owning a long-haul truck and driving across the country.

He got his big break in 2008, when he attended a truck driving school in Philadelphia and got his commercial driver’s license, a coveted credential among many Uzbek immigrants.

Returning to Ohio the next year, he bought his own truck and hit the road as an independent owner-operator.

He went on to found UNI Trans, a trucking company that employs about 130 drivers, many hired from the Uzbek diaspora.

“America should be lucky to have him,” said Abdurashid Yakubov, an Uzbek refugee. “He’s helping people around him. He’s creating jobs.”

In the 14 years since he started driving a truck, he’s put in over 3 million miles “with zero accident,” he says.

“During COVID, we were on the frontlines to work for the American people,” he says. “I was very proud of that.”

Muminov proudly says that he never depended on government assistance for more than a month after moving to the U.S.

“I was always working,” he said.

He was living the good life.

But even as he led a thriving trucking business, he remained an activist at heart, a blunt-spoken critic of repression in Uzbekistan.

In social media videos recorded on the road and in exchanges with fellow mosque-goers, he often railed at clerics that supported the Uzbek government but did not uphold democracy.

“We come in for prayer to this masjid (mosque), that’s it,” said a member of the Akron Uzbek community. “He’s talking about imams working for the government.”

The community member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suspects that Muminov’s outspokenness may have landed him on the FBI watchlist.

Muminov defends his activism.

“Mr. Muminov’s passion for democracy leads him to speak out against leaders and forces that he worries are pushing against freedom in the direction of more authoritarianism,” said CAIR lawyer Hannah Mullen.

Questions, no answers

Following his detention in Great Falls, Muminov queried DHS to find out why he had been stopped but received a boilerplate answer.

“DHS TRIP can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information,” the cryptic response read.

But if there were any doubts that he’d been placed on the watchlist, they vanished when he was detained again in 2013, this time while returning from a business trip to Canada.

The agents posed the same set of questions he had been asked in 2009. Muminov wanted to know why he was being questioned, but he got no answer.

“Mentally, I was very depressed,” Muminov says. “Even in Uzbekistan, which you call a dictator country, you have some voice [and can ask] why you’re taking me and what you’re doing to me.”

But not if you’re a watchlisted person in the United States. Over the years, Muminov has filed multiple inquiries with DHS. But when it became clear they “were having no effect on his treatment, [he] stopped submitting them,” Mullen says.

DHS did not respond to a request for comment.

Immigration lawyers and security experts interviewed by VOA say Muminov could be on the watchlist for any number of reasons, some more plausible than others. Watchlisting guidelines give government agencies wide latitude to nominate individuals for inclusion on the list.

“It might be that he shares a name with a suspected terrorist, or there was a typo,” said Jordan Strauss, a managing director at security firm Kroll.

“Maybe he had friends over, and he gave his phone to a friend, and his friend called somebody who was being watched,” Strauss, a former federal prosecutor, said.

“It’s possible that his name was given to a human source or an intelligence collector or an FBI agent,” Strauss said.

Or the reason could be something more nefarious, he said, “as security concerns mean the public isn’t often in a position to know why a particular name was added.”

CAIR lawyer Mullen has a different theory. She said people like Muminov are likely picked up by computer algorithms that the government uses to analyze travel patterns, demographics and other suspicious indicators.

“It seems very likely that much of these processes for nomination are automated,” Mullen said. “People can get pushed toward being watchlisted by computers without any individual intelligence analysts paging through their social media.”

Application denied

Whatever the reason, Muminov’s watchlist status soon came back to haunt him.

In 2011, after five years of U.S. residency, Muminov reached a crucial milestone: He became eligible for citizenship.

He knew he was watchlisted, but that didn’t stop him from applying. He hired a lawyer to help him file a naturalization application. Five months later, he was called in for an interview. He aced his citizenship test and waited for good news.

Instead, he received bad news. His application was rejected for leaving out a temporary Pennsylvania address he used to obtain his commercial driver’s license. The government accused him of “false testimony” and “fraud,” showing a “lack of good moral character.”

But Nimer, Muminov’s new immigration lawyer, suspected the real reason. Muminov, Nimer says, had been likely “CARRPed,” a victim of a secret U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program known as the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program.

CARRP was created in 2008 to prevent people with “national security concerns,” including those on the watchlist, from receiving immigration benefits such as naturalization.

“They deny people benefits for reasons that they would sort of look the other way for any other applicant,” said Patrick Taurel, an immigration attorney in Maryland.

Muminov had to wait another five years to reapply while the government watched him. But his case stalled again as a deadly terror attack by an Uzbek refugee in New York brought the Uzbek community under law enforcement scrutiny.

Muminov knew the attacker, Saypullo Saipov, and gave media interviews to denounce him. He then met with FBI agents in Cleveland and shared everything he knew.

He thought he was doing his civic duty. But he felt the government punished him by delaying his case.

“He felt really betrayed,” Nimer says.

He’s not alone. Several other Ohio-based Uzbek refugees that contacted the FBI experienced similar delays, according to Nimer and Uzbek-American activists.

The FBI did not respond to a question about the situation.

Nimer then sued USCIS in federal court. The judge dismissed the suit, but the government gave up after an appeal.

Muminov was called in for an interview and soon received his “naturalization letter from Mr. Trump,’” Muminov recalls with a laugh.

It was March 2019.

“I felt back to life,” he says. “A miracle had happened. I didn’t believe it.”

He hoped his citizenship would end his ordeal. He’d fight for his rights and reclaim his dignity. He’d sponsor his wife for a green card. He’d bring his mother to his adopted country.

Brimming with optimism, he booked a flight to Saudi Arabia to fulfill a lifelong dream to perform the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj.

He had no trouble on his flight there and back. But the reprieve didn’t last long.

“The first couple of times, I was having no issue. Then, everything started again after the third or fourth flight,” he recalls.

Visas denied

Muminov cherished his American citizenship, but it brought him little comfort in his mother’s and wife’s visa and immigration woes.

His mother, Fazila Muminova, had visited him several times after he arrived in the United States, but then the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent stopped issuing her a visitor visa.

“Once, she was issued a visa. But it was revoked the next day,” Muminov says.

He suspected his watchlist status was the reason.

Immigration lawyers say relatives of watchlisted individuals often face visa denials.

“That can happen, for sure,” said Anna Kerner Andersson, a former senior consular officer who is now an immigration lawyer in South Dakota.

Muminov says his mother only wanted to visit him and his family. But with no hope for a visitor visa, he tried another option as a citizen: sponsoring her for a green card.

The petition was approved quickly, but the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent put her case on hold, he says. He has no idea when or if she will get a visa.

“We always call the embassy, and they say please contact the State Department in Washington,” Muminov says. When they try the embassy, the reply is, “We cannot give you an answer.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on her case.

Muminov never told his mother about his watchlist status or how it might have affected her attempts to get a U.S. visa.

“She has a heart problem,” Muminov said. “If I [mention] these problems, maybe she’ll think I’m also [one of] the bad people, like in Uzbekistan.”

Meanwhile, Muminov’s wife, Nargiza Abdullaeva, has been trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare of her own as she has sought to get a green card.

The couple met and married shortly after Muminov arrived in Akron in 2006. She was a college student in Missouri; he was an industrious fellow Uzbek.

Muminov filed a petition for her to get a green card, but it was turned down, and she was put in removal proceedings.

Facing deportation, her lawyer advised her to apply for asylum. But immigration officials kept stalling her case, according to Muminov.

“They were giving different reasons every time she applied,” Muminov recalls. “They just kept saying come back in three, four or five years.”

In 2019, Muminov’s naturalization gave the family a glimmer of hope. As a citizen, he could sponsor his wife for a green card.

He filed a petition. She was called in for an interview, but then nothing.

“We have no hope,” Muminov says. “We waited a long time.”

Abdullaeva applied for a travel document, but that, too, was denied.

“They took my family hostage,” Muminov said.

Nimer says some but not all of the delays are due to Muminov’s watchlist status.

“It was just sitting waiting for him to naturalize,” she says. “I do believe that at this point, the delay is probably because of him being watchlisted.”

USCIS did not respond to a request for comment on Abdullaeva’s case.

New life in Dubai

Muminov reached a breaking point. Years of stress had taken a toll. He’d developed diabetes. He could no longer bear the indignities and injustices that plagued his life in America.

So in 2022, he packed up his family and moved to Dubai.

But even as they left, they endured one last humiliation at Washington’s Dulles airport.

As usual, their boarding passes were stamped with SSSS.

“They took all my four kids, and they searched everything,” he said. “They checked their notebooks and even checked [their] “Captain Underpants” [books] to see what’s inside.”

His voice rising, Muminov continued, “This is very bad. What did I [do] wrong to this country?”

Muminov never told his children about his watchlist status. He says he’s taught them that “this is a great country,” and he wants them to love America.

“I always say, ‘This is a mistake. A government mistake. Sorry about that, kids,’” Muminov says. ‘Next time, it’s not going to happen.’”

For now, though, he’s found solace in Dubai. He has his own business there, though he frequently travels to the U.S. for work and still undergoes extra security screening. His children attend the American school there. His mother can visit them from Uzbekistan. And he feels at home among fellow Muslims.

“I want to have peace and harmony a little bit here,” he said from Dubai.

Asked if he could not have peace in the United States, he replied, “Not right now. Not until I get this lawsuit successful or until I get … my rights, guarantee my protection. Then, we’re going to come back, of course.”


The VOA is the Voice of America

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