A Muslim American man filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday accusing the U.S. government of putting him on the federal no-fly list after he refused to become an informant for the FBI.
Ahmad Chebli, a 32-year-old American-born citizen from Michigan, said in the lawsuit that in 2018 an FBI agent repeatedly pressured him to help “identify and track people in his community who intended to harm the United States” through his “language skills” and “Lebanese background.”
When he refused, he was placed on the government screening database that prevents individuals from flying because they are considered a threat, often called the no-fly list. Chebli, who is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government has failed to provide him with a “fair and timely process to challenge the indefinite flying ban.”
Last year, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that three other Muslim men who were placed on the list after refusing to serve as FBI informants could seek to hold federal agents financially liable.
Advocates and civil rights lawyers applauded that ruling as a small win against religious discrimination and an opportunity to hold government officials accountable for decades of discriminatory profiling and government surveillance based on the vilification of Muslim Americans. Individuals placed on the list, which was created in 2003, are disproportionately Muslim and of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent.
“The no-fly list is a particularly problematic part of a vast watchlisting system that can unfairly stigmatize people as terrorism suspects,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.
“Ahmad’s story and what happened to him shows how the government uses the no-fly list abusively, especially against Muslims in violation of due process and in Ahmad’s case, also in violation of the First Amendment and his religious freedom rights,” Shamsi added.
The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security both declined to comment.
Harassed And Pressured By The FBI
In August 2018, FBI agents first engaged Chebli in what the lawsuit called a “deceptive” meeting about city permits regarding a gas station he leased and managed. During that meeting, the agents tried to recruit Chebli to spy on his Arab Muslim community in Michigan, a state with one of the largest Arab and Muslim populations in the country. The city of Dearborn has the most per capita residents on a shadowy and unaccountable government watchlist — a database of terrorist suspects shared with various government agencies. Nearly half of the people on that watchlist were not in any way connected to any known terrorist groups.
Chebli said that when he refused, the agents accused him of affiliating with Hezbollah, a political party in Lebanon that the U.S. government has deemed a terrorist organization, and that the agents would investigate and surveil him as well as his friends and family. According to the lawsuit, “the agents further asserted that Mr. Chebli’s refusal to work with the FBI could have negative consequences for his wife’s pending immigration application.” The FBI allegedly gave Chebli two options: work for them or leave the country.
“It’s hard to fully describe my inner turmoil after that meeting. As a Muslim in America, I know from firsthand experience that our government too often views us with discriminatory suspicion. But it’s different when FBI agents sit across a table from you, with all the power of the government behind them, accusing you of things you have never done and would never do. I was scared, and I was especially scared for my family’s safety,” Chebli wrote in a blog post.
When I refused to give in to government coercion, I was put on the No Fly List and now I’m indefinitely banned from flying to see family, do my job, or fulfill my religious obligations as a Muslim.
Fearful, Chebli sent his wife and two children to Lebanon to stay with extended family. The agents showed up unannounced to the passport office and called Chebli after he dropped off his family at the airport. For the months that followed, the agents frequently met with Chebli asking about his high school, the mosque he attended, and his political beliefs. Stressed about the situation, Chebli told the agents that he was going to Lebanon for a month to see his family and determine if he could make a new life abroad. He hoped the time away would lead to the FBI leaving him alone.
In November 2018, just one month after he left, Chebli decided to return to the U.S. after not being able to sustain a living for himself and his family in Lebanon. But when Chebli checked in at the airport, the agent barred him from boarding his plane due to a directive by the U.S. government. He later found out that he had been placed on the no-fly list.
“FBI agents threatened me and my family, pressuring me to work as an informant in my community. This is frightening and wrong,” Chebli said in a press release from the ACLU.
“When I refused to give in to government coercion, I was put on the No Fly List and now I’m indefinitely banned from flying to see family, do my job, or fulfill my religious obligations as a Muslim,” he continued. “For over two years I’ve tried to get off the No Fly List, but the government won’t even give me its reason for putting me on the list or a fair process to clear my name and regain my rights. No one should suffer what my family and I have had to suffer.”
After contacting the ACLU and sending multiple requests to the Department of Homeland Security, Chebli was granted a one-time waiver to return to the U.S. in December 2018.
But he said the harassment continued, and he was subjected to heightened screening, delays, and searches every time he flew domestically. More agents began to question Chebli about his political views and Lebanese ancestry. The agents also threatened to denaturalize his wife, the lawsuit said.
In December 2020 and January 2021, when Chebli attempted to fly to Lebanon, he was twice refused boarding. Chebli also submitted two redress requests to DHS, as part of a government program designed to provide solutions to travelers with difficulties getting through airport security checkpoints, but to no avail.
Chebli said he hasn’t been provided any reason for being placed on the list and that the designation has prohibited him from traveling abroad to fulfill his religious pilgrimage, which the ACLU says violates his religious freedoms.
In 2014, the ACLU won a district court ruling in a similar lawsuit forcing the government to tell U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents whether they are on the list and possibly offer reasons. Still, those processes fall short, said the ACLU, noting that in Chebli’s case, he never received any explanation as to why he was placed on the list to begin with.
For those reasons, the issue of profiling and government surveillance remains a grave concern for many people, said Shamsi, and leaves those affected with no real process to fight the designation.
“We hope that the court will rule that the government redress process for people on the no-fly list is unconstitutional, find that his constitutional rights have been violated, and remove him from the list,” she added.
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