A RIGHT-WING BLOG called “Pajamas Media” published an article on November 24 claiming that Saadiq Long, a Muslim American veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was arrested in Turkey for being an ISIS operative. Written by Patrick Poole, a professional anti-Muslim activist and close associate of Frank Gaffney, the article asserted that Long “finds himself and several family members sitting in a Turkish prison — arrested earlier this month near the Turkey-Syria border as members of an ISIS cell.” Its only claimed sources were anonymous: “U.S. and Turkish officials confirmed Long’s arrest to PJ Media, saying that he was arrested along with eight others operating along the Turkish-Syrian border. So far, no U.S. media outlet has reported on his arrest.”
But the story is entirely false: a fabrication. Neither Long nor his wife or daughter have been arrested on charges that he joined ISIS. He faces no criminal charges of any kind in Turkey.
Instead, he and his family are being detained at the Geri Gonderme Merkezi deportation center in Erzurum, Turkey, evidently because he was placed years ago by the U.S. on its no-fly list. And the U.S. Embassy in Ankara has been working continually with Long’s family to secure his release, and, if he chooses, his return to the U.S.
A press officer with the Bureau of Consular Affairs, who asked to be identified only as “a State Department official,” contradicted the Pajamas Media claim. “We are aware of Mr. Long’s case and are providing consular assistance. At this time, we are not aware that he has been formally charged with a crime,” the official told The Intercept.
The Turkish government would not comment on the record, but a Turkish source with substantial connections to law enforcement agencies in Gaziantep also told The Intercept that Long has not been arrested, but is merely being held for deportation.
Long received substantial media attention in late 2012, when he was told he would not be permitted to board a flight from Qatar, where he lived, to travel to the U.S. to visit his ailing mother. When he arrived at the airport in Doha, he was told by an airlines representative he had been secretly placed on the U.S. government’s no-fly list (The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, then with The Guardian, was the first to report on that story, writing an article about Long’s situation after interviewing him in Doha; Long was then interviewed on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show, along with his attorney from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR).
Two weeks after that wave of media stories in 2012, the U.S. government issued a waiver from the no-fly list and permitted him to fly to the U.S. But he was once again denied boarding rights 10 weeks later when he attempted to fly from the U.S. back to Qatar, forcing him to take a bus to Mexico in order to get home. His situation became a case study in the injustices of the secret, due process-free no-fly list aimed overwhelmingly at Muslims. The Pajamas Media report trumpeted this angle in its headline:
In mid-November, Long attempted to enter Turkey along with his wife and daughter to explore the possibility of relocating there from Qatar, where Long has lived and worked for many years teaching English. Long had previously been stationed in Turkey as part of his 10-year Air Force service and thus knows the country well. The three of them were detained (presumably because he’s on the U.S. government’s no-fly list and other watchlists), told they would be deported, and were then moved to Turkey’s deportation center, where they have remained ever since.
From the start, U.S. officials repeatedly informed the family members of Long and his wife that they were being detained for deportation, not arrested or charged. On November 24, the day the Pajamas Media report was published, a security official with the U.S. Embassy emailed Long’s brother-in-law to say that the family “is being detained at the deportation center (Geri Gonderme Merkezi) in Erzurum, Turkey.”
Emails obtained by The Intercept between American consulate officials in Ankara and Long’s family members reflect efforts by a consular officer to facilitate the voluntary return of Long and his family from Turkey to the U.S. on commercial flights. On November 30, the consulate official wrote: “We are working with the Turkish government regarding your sister’s and her family’s departure from Turkey. We will contact you when tickets can be purchased.”
On December 2, the U.S. consular official wrote to Long’s brother-in-law: “We spoke to your sister’s husband today and are working with one of his friends to obtain tickets back to the United States for all of them. We hope to have them depart Turkey next week. We received a congressional inquiry today regarding your sister’s situation.” The consular official provided several flight itineraries on United Airlines from which they could choose and wrote, “We are waiting to hear from Mr. Long’s friend this morning to finalize the tickets.”
All of Long’s relatives have also been repeatedly told by Long’s Turkish lawyer, Harun Ozal, and by U.S. Embassy officials in Ankara that Long and his family were simply detained as part of the immigration process. “There are no local charges and they are being detained for immigration violations,” Long’s brother-in-law told The Intercept.
Long’s American attorney, Gadeir Abbas, similarly explained:
Saadiq and his family were detained by Turkey because they are all on the no-fly list, which means all of their names are in the Terrorist Screening Database — a database that the U.S. exports to governments across the world with the hope that doing so will make it as difficult as possible for the hundreds of thousands blacklisted to move about the world. This is what accounts for the family’s detention in Turkey, not the uncorroborated and unprofessionally reported smear that their predicament is somehow ISIS-related.
Notably, when the right-wing site the Daily Caller published its own follow-up report on the Pajamas Media story, it refrained from claiming that Long had been arrested on charges relating to ISIS or even that he had been arrested at all. Rather, it was willing and able only to report: “The Daily Caller was able to confirm that Long, his wife, and their daughter were detained in Turkey.” That’s because Long was not arrested or charged with anything.
It is, of course, possible that Long may be arrested or charged in the future: by Turkey, the U.S., or some other state. But to date, he has not been. The article claiming he has been, resulting in the widespread smearing of Long as having joined an ISIS cell, is completely false.
To begin with, it’s irresponsible in the extreme to spread claims that someone has been arrested for joining ISIS without a very substantial basis for believing that’s true. That’s a claim that will be permanently attached to the person’s name. The people who uncritically spread this “report” had nothing approaching a sufficient basis for doing so, and worse, most of them simply repeated the assertion that he was an ISIS operative as though it were verified fact.
But let’s assume that this fabricated report had been accurate. What would it have meant? Even the Pajamas Media story did not claim that Long had been convicted of being an ISIS member. It claimed that he had been charged with that: by the government of Turkey, which notoriously exploits terrorism accusations to imprison people ranging from Vice journalists to critics of the prime minister.
In general, only the most irresponsible people treat unproven government accusations as proof of guilt. That’s the lesson we were all supposed to have learned from the Guantánamo travesty, where large numbers of people were and still are imprisoned with no trial or due process of any kind, and many proved to be completely innocent. In this case, the government alleged to have accused Long of joining ISIS is particularly worthy of skepticism. Who treats unproven terrorism accusations by the Turkish government as gospel?
It is repellent to blithely assume that someone is an ISIS operative because they have been alleged by a government — with no proof or even a trial — to be one. But just review the links provided above of those citing this Pajamas Media story: that’s exactly what they did, including supposed journalists. “Hey CAIR, any comment on your good friend Saadiq Long being caught in an ISIS cell in Turkey?” the Toronto Sun’s right-wing columnist Tarek Fatah crowed. Note that there’s no indication this is merely an unproven charge; his guilt is just assumed. They all owe Saadiq Long and his family an apology.
The reason so many people were eager to mindlessly endorse this ISIS accusation is obvious. For his no-fly list challenge in 2012, Long was represented by CAIR. His story was first reported by The Guardian. And he was featured by a clearly sympathetic Chris Hayes in an MSNBC interview. So this entire episode started by this anonymous Pajamas Media claim became a means of attacking people who have defended Muslim Americans from the relentless assault on their civil liberties, as well as generally trying to discredit claims that Muslims are the victims of civil liberties abuses. Smearing Long as an ISIS operative was just a tool to accomplish that end. He, his family, and their reputations were just collateral damage.
Beyond all that, even if Long had, after 2012, broken some law that justified his current detention or arrest, it would not remotely undermine or even affect the argument made three years ago about his situation. No matter who ends up being placed on it, the no-fly list is a travesty of justice because it entails citizens being denied rights in secret, by unknown authorities, without any evidence or explanation, and lacking any transparency or real recourse to challenge it (just as due process-free imprisonment at Guantánamo is a travesty even if some of the people held there are actually guilty).
In fact, from the start, Long’s primary grievance was that the U.S. government had punished him but never charged him with anything, thus depriving him of the right to confront the evidence and challenge the accusations. As he told The Guardian back in 2012: “I don’t understand how the government can take away my right to travel without even telling me. If the U.S. government wanted me to question or arrest or prosecute me, they could have had me in a minute. But there are no charges, no accusations, nothing.”
Abbas, Long’s lawyer, made a similar point back then: “It is as if the U.S. has created a system of secret law whereby certain behaviors — being Muslim seems to be one of them — trigger one’s placement on government watchlists that separate people from their families, end careers, and poison personal relationships. All of this done without any due process.”
The point of the 2012 media coverage was not that Long was innocent: One can never prove a negative. The point was that it is unjust in the extreme for the U.S. government to deprive citizens of basic rights, such as the right to travel, without due process of any kind. As the original Guardian article stated: “Secret deprivation of core rights, no recourse, no due process, no right even to learn what has been done to you despite zero evidence of wrongdoing: that is the life of many American Muslims in the post-9/11 world.”
Ironically, the monumental injustice of the no-fly list has become a standard position within the GOP since President Obama began advocating its use to deny gun purchases. On CNN last Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio sounded exactly like the ACLU, or CAIR, saying, “These are everyday Americans that have nothing to do with terrorism, they wind up on the no-fly list, there’s no due process or any way to get your name removed from it in a timely fashion.” Ben Carson made the same point on ABC News:
Well, as you, I’m sure, know, there are a lot of people on that watchlist and they have no idea why they’re on that list and they’ve been trying to get their names off of it and no one will give them information. … It’s really unfair that people can’t get a real hearing. And they get put on a list and nobody can tell them why they’re there, and they go through for years and years and they have to be tormented. It just doesn’t make any sense.
That was, and is, the point of the 2012 coverage of Long’s story: that the no-fly list is inherently unjust because it deprives citizens of rights based purely on government suspicion and without any due process. If Long ends up subsequently being charged with a crime, that does not alter that point at all. Indeed, Long has long been hoping for an opportunity to clear his name.
In many ways, what just happened to Long is a microcosm of the abuses of the 14-year-old war on terror. First he was denied basic travel rights based solely on secret government suspicions. Now, an anonymous government official smeared him as an ISIS terrorist. A right-wing website “reported” the smear. And from there, a wide range of media outlets and individuals with prominent platforms and all kinds of axes to grind explicitly declared him to be a Terrorist: no evidence, no trial, no due process, not even any charges. The fact that he’s Muslim and under suspicion is enough for huge numbers of people to declare him to be a Terrorist, and he will now live his entire life under that cloud.
That’s life as an American Muslim in the war on terror. But even more importantly, it’s reflective of the rotting media and political climate that now festers, in which unproven, due process-free accusations against Muslims, unaccompanied by any evidence, are instantly equated with proven guilt.
Additional reporting: Tolga Tanis