A lawsuit was filed in federal court last Monday by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on behalf of a dozen plaintiffs alleging they’ve been unfairly targeted by the national terrorist watchlist.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the lawsuit names 29 government entities and seeks injunctive relief, declaratory relief and damages for its 12 plaintiffs, as well as seeking to remove their names from the list and declare it unconstitutional.
The list, formally known as the Terrorist Screening Dataset, was created during former President Bush’s era to surveil people in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Lena Masri, CAIR national litigation director and general counsel, says the watchlist disproportionately impacts American Muslims.
“Earlier this year, we obtained leaked copies of the watchlist, specifically the Selectee list and the No Fly list, combined to the number of names that we have from 2019 on the watchlist are about 1.3 million names, and 98.3% of those names are Muslim,” she said.
Thousands of government entities use information from the watchlist to make decisions about things like restricting people from jobs, traveling, and even stalling their immigration status, she says.
Masri, who was then the CAIR Michigan staff attorney in 2009, says there was not much known about the watchlist at the time. People began coming into the office to file reports of being harassed on the borders and while flying. CAIR Michigan and CAIR filed several lawsuits against the government’s operation of the terror watchlist.
Something as simple as having a common Muslim name could get you on the list, she said.
Michigan resident Nidal El-Takach – one of the plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit – was first interrogated by the Customs Border Patrol upon returning to Detroit from a trip to Lebanon in July 2017.
Due to ongoing invasive searches and stops El-Takach stopped flying for three years. During that time he lost his mom in Lebanon.
He says he wants to regain his religious freedom and be able to fly free of harassment again.
“I’m stepping up and talking about it, and step up and also share their experience. Because if we’re going to be silent and keep it as a silent, a lot of people probably they’re going to suffer from that. And, and they’re going to continue to live suffering,” he said.
The current CAIR lawsuit aims to end the watchlist system altogether to avoid further discrimination of Muslims.
“If we are able to prove the claims that we have alleged in this lawsuit with evidence, then the court would rule in our favor at summary judgment, which would mean that the court would be declaring the watchlist unconstitutional,” said Masri.
She added if the government targets one community, it can also target others.
“The fact that the government is able to target a single group in the way that it is, and essentially inflict harm in every aspect of their lives, without being checked at all should be terrifying to anybody.”