YASEEN KADURA ARRIVED at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport more than four hours early for his flight to New York on January 15, hoping to ensure that security delays wouldn’t stop him from making his flight on time. Kadura had not been allowed to board a plane for roughly three-and-a-half years, but in his hand was a laminated copy of a letter from the Department of Homeland Security, which stated in writing that “the U.S. government knows of no reason Mr. Kadura should be unable to fly.”
Kadura, an American citizen, was placed on the federal government’s no-fly list in 2012. Since then, in addition to being prevented from boarding flights, he has been detained, interrogated, and harassed at border crossings and pressured by authorities to become a government informant.
Kadura’s January 15 flight was his first attempt to exercise this newly restored right. After years of arbitrary and capricious harassment at borders and airports, he felt unbearable anxiety about the trip. “I couldn’t even sleep the entire night before thinking about it,” Kadura told The Intercept. “I was taking cough medicine to try and make myself drowsy, but I was so scared about the prospect of trying to fly the next day that I couldn’t fall asleep.”
Before Kadura arrived at O’Hare, he attempted to check in online through an app on his phone, but was unable to do so. Once he got to the airport, he tried to check in at a JetBlue terminal, but the computer informed him this wouldn’t be possible either. After approaching an airline representative to be checked in manually, he waited for nearly an hour while the attendant spoke on the phone with a DHS representative, relaying questions to Kadura about the purpose of his visit to New York.
Finally, after receiving a boarding pass, he was escorted by a number of TSA agents to a special security room, segregated from other passengers for a private security check. “I told them, ‘I know the drill,’ to let them know I’m used to this kind of thing. After they searched me, they let me go and board my flight normally,” Kadura said. “After years of not being able to fly, I still didn’t believe it. I was sure that something was going to happen, up until the last minute, until the plane was in the air.”
Kadura’s flight to New York marked his first successful attempt to board a plane since he was first prevented from doing so in 2012. But despite this victory, Kadura’s case in many ways exemplifies how placement on the no-fly list, an opaque, unchallengeable, and seemingly arbitrary database, can completely upend an individual’s life.
IN FEBRUARY 2011, a wave of protests began in Libya that soon transformed into a mass uprising against the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi. As international media attention fixated on the Arab Spring, Kadura, who was born to Libyan parents, came to prominence on Twitter as a young activist tweeting under the handle @Cyrenaican. In March of that year, he left for Libya, where he says he spent six months helping run improvised civilian aid convoys over the border from Egypt and working as an English-language fixer for journalists from the New York Times, Associated Press, GQ, and Al Jazeera English.
When he returned to the United States in August 2011, Kadura says he was greeted warmly by customs agents at the airport, who were sympathetic toward his participation in a popular revolution supported by the West.
Soon thereafter, though, his travel problems began.
In December 2011, Kadura, along with his brother and father, at the time ages 17 and 57, were detained for several hours while crossing back into Michigan over the Canadian border. “When they scanned my passport, some kind of problem came up on their screen, and they told us to pull the car over,” Kadura said. “They handed us an orange slip that said ‘ATS-L x 3’ and then took us to a room where they started interrogating us and searching all our belongings.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, Kadura had been flagged by DHS’ Automated Targeting System, or ATS, a program originally created to identify potentially risky container cargo but later expanded to assign risk ratings to individual people. Kadura and his family were held for six-and-a-half hours, subjected to what Kadura described as “humiliating” searches, and their cellphones and other electronic devices were seized for “inspection.” “They didn’t give us any explanation for why they were treating us this way,” he said. “The worst thing though was to see them treating my dad like a criminal, someone who was older and had worked for us his whole life. It was really painful to watch.”
The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment for this article.
For the next several months, Kadura, then a student at Purdue University, was able to travel without major incident. In September 2012, however, following the deadly attack against the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, things began to change for him, as well as for many other Libyan-Americans.
While driving back to the United States from a trip to visit family in Toronto, Kadura was stopped at the U.S. border, handcuffed, and detained for nearly eight hours. “After I pulled up to the crossing and the officer scanned my passport, he ordered me to get out of my car and to walk backwards with my hands behind my head out into the open area near the crossing,” he said. “All the other traffic was backed up behind me and people were staring and taking cellphone videos, as though they were seeing a major terrorist being captured.”
“Later, when I was in the holding cell, I asked them why any of that had been necessary,” Kadura added. “They told me it was for both their protection and mine, so that I wouldn’t end up getting shot.”
Kadura again underwent humiliating searches and interrogation. ICE agents denied his requests to make a phone call and confiscated his phone, saying they would contact him to return it in 24 to 48 hours. In the end, he did not receive the phone for nearly two months.
It was close to 1 a.m. when Kadura, who had arrived at the crossing around 5 p.m., was finally allowed to enter the United States. Disoriented and upset by his experience, and with no phone or GPS to guide him, he arrived home in Indiana at 7 a.m.
BY THIS TIME, Kadura was growing deeply anxious about the scrutiny he was receiving from the U.S. government. “Every Libyan male I knew was having similar experiences and things were starting to get kind of worrisome, but I still didn’t fully comprehend how deep it went,” he said.
On October 22, 2012, as Kadura attempted to board a Turkish Airlines flight to visit his mother who had been staying in Libya for the Muslim festival of Eid, he was informed at the check-in counter that he would not be allowed aboard the flight. “They just told me straight-up that I wasn’t allowed to board the plane and I wouldn’t be receiving a refund. I was outraged and started demanding an explanation, but they wouldn’t tell me anything more,” he said. “After a while, a security officer who seemed more sympathetic took me aside and told me that I couldn’t fly because I had been placed on the no-fly list.”
On November 2, Kadura’s lawyer, working pro-bono through the Council on American-Islamic Relations, received a call from an ICE agent requesting a meeting with Kadura to discuss the contents of his phone. When this request was denied, the agent called him directly. During the call, Kadura says the agent explicitly threatened him with severe government harassment if he didn’t agree to meet privately with him, stating now that the meeting should be “without my lawyer present, or with me even telling my lawyer about it.”
Kadura also says the ICE agent told him that “the only way you’ll ever get your name off the no-fly list” would be by agreeing to work for the government as an informant.
ICE declined to answer questions about Kadura.
Kadura refused the offer to become an informant. Unable to travel, and with the government refusing to confirm or deny whether he was the target of any kind of criminal investigation, he became paralyzed with fear about what might come next. “I had been focused on my studies and preparing to apply for medical school, but by this time my mind was a mess,” he recalled. “I was terrified and didn’t even know what was going to happen to me or my family from day to day.”
Kadura’s lawyer filed a complaint on his behalf through the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, established by DHS in 2007 to “resolve possible watchlist misidentification issues.” On May 8, 2013, the department responded to the complaint with a letter that refused to acknowledge whether he was in fact on the no-fly list. Kadura and the four other Muslim Americans filed their suit 15 months later.
While that lawsuit proceeded, in April 2015 a separate case filed by the ACLU succeeded in compelling the government to at least inform U.S. citizens whether they were on the no-fly list or not. Months later, Kadura’s lawyers sent an email to the Department of Justice asking that Kadura’s complaint be processed under the new, slightly more transparent rules.
In return, they were forwarded an email from DHS noting the government had “reevaluated Mr. Kadura’s redress inquiry” and now suddenly had no objection to him flying. Although his lawyers had been preparing to meticulously make the case he was not a security threat and should be removed from the no-fly list, this “reevaluation” of his status made the point moot. Indeed, to all appearances, the government had arbitrarily changed his status, deeming Kadura suddenly safe enough to fly without receiving any new information.
ON THE AFTERNOON of Friday, January 15, Kadura breathed a sigh of relief as his plane touched down at New York City’s JFK International Airport. Despite the special TSA security check he had received in Chicago, he felt unburdened. “After I made it to New York, I just felt like on some level that I’m normal and that I’m part of society again,” Kadura said. “I’ve lived my whole life in the United States, and after these problems started I felt like I’d done something wrong and I wasn’t even welcome in my own country anymore.”
Tall and bespectacled, Kadura talks with a slight Midwestern accent, a reflection of his upbringing in Indianapolis. He is now studying to become a doctor at Chicago Medical School. In 2014, he was accepted into Boston’s Tufts University, but had to decline the offer, unsure of whether he’d be able to fly home to visit his parents and family in Indiana.
Although Kadura is now off the no-fly list, his lawyers think it’s likely his name remains in other government security databases, like the FBI’s massive Terrorist Screening Database of “known and suspected terrorists,” which is shared with local law enforcement as well as foreign countries. In the summer of 2014, The Intercept published stories revealing that the database had grown to hundreds of thousands of names, and the government did not require “concrete facts” or “irrefutable evidence” to secretly designate individuals, including American citizens, as terrorists.
Despite being allowed to board his recent flight, Kadura’s boarding pass had the trademark “Quad-S,” marking him as subject to elevated scrutiny. Citing the possibility he could be detained again at the border or while flying internationally, his lawyers have advised against ever traveling to countries like Turkey, Kenya, or even the United Kingdom, where foreign governments could wrongly accuse him of being a terrorist given his past inclusion on the no-fly list and likely presence in the TSDB.
The experience of the past several years has left Kadura anxious, pessimistic, and somewhat jaded. Having spent almost his entire life in the United States — he was born in Canada but came to the U.S. in his infancy — Kadura never expected to suddenly be treated like an outsider. At the height of the Arab Spring, when the world was full of optimism about the potential of the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa, and when Libyan-Americans like himself were actively encouraged to travel, give aid, and do media work in support of the uprising, he did his part. Afterward, when the revolution soured, he and many others found themselves treated not as heroes but as pariahs.
Even now, after succeeding in removing his name from the no-fly list, Kadura remains uncertain about what his future will hold. “I feel relieved at the moment, but I also feel like these problems are not really going away,” he predicted. “The political environment is obviously getting very scary for Muslims in the U.S, and when you’ve been placed on secret lists like this, it’s always something that could be used against you in the future.”
“I was only 22 when I was first placed on the no-fly list,” Kadura said. “Even though no charge or accusation has ever once been made against me, if I ever decide that I want to voice an opinion or be politically active in the future, there’s always going to be this hanging over me.”
Top photo: Security agents patrol JFK International Airport in New York City, December 27, 2009.