Video by Pedro Armando Aparicio
As his plane touched down on the tarmac at Karachi International Airport in August 2020, Ashraf Maniar finally felt himself relax. After a harrowing 24 hours of travel, beginning from the United States, connecting in Turkey, and on to his final destination in Pakistan, he felt like he was on the threshold of resuming a normal life. For years, Maniar, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen born and raised in California, had been living a life gripped by fear and paranoia. A friendship he had cultivated years earlier with a young woman in the United Kingdom, who was later accused of extremism, had brought him to the attention of security officials in the U.S., resulting in years of harassment, though never any charges against him.
Worst of all, during the years Maniar had been living under government suspicion, he had been unable to continue his normal lifestyle of frequent travel. After several failed attempts to board flights, where he sometimes found himself met by FBI agents at the airport who prevented him from boarding, his lawyers had undertaken a lengthy administrative process with the Department of Homeland Security and determined that he had been placed on the government’s secretive no-fly list. They launched a legal effort to clear his name and get him removed, which took several more years of fighting against an opaque system set up by Homeland Security to clandestinely blacklist suspected terrorists.
After years of stress, Maniar’s problems now seemed to be resolved. Packed along with his passport and travel documents, Maniar had a one-page document that signified his freedom: an official letter from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirming that he had been taken off the no-fly list and was not considered a danger to travel.
“For all the years since my problems started, I had been nurtured to feel like I was a criminal, especially when I’m at a border or doing anything government-related,” Maniar said. “So I had this letter clearing me gripped in my hand.”
Disembarking from his flight into the cavernous arrival terminal at Karachi International Airport, Maniar, bleary-eyed from his long journey, joined the teeming crowds making their way toward customs. Waiting in the customs line, he scanned the crowd of travelers, many of them families, arriving from the United States and other Western countries to visit relatives. A family friend was idling in a car sent to pick him up outside, and relatives were waiting to greet him at their home.
When Maniar got to the front of the customs line, a young female agent took his passport. She asked a few brief questions about his stay, before pausing and turning to make a quick call out of earshot. Hanging up, she nodded to him that everything was in order. Maniar was elated. After years of invariably being detained and treated as a criminal at every border he tried to cross, he felt he had finally made his way back to freedom.
“I was so relieved, honestly. At that moment, I was feeling like my new life had begun,” Maniar said. “I felt like I was finally free from harassment and back to traveling like I used to.”
As his passport was stamped and handed back to him, an invisible weight lifted off his shoulders. Pulling his carry-on behind him, he began picking up his steps toward the baggage claim, feeling suddenly invigorated about what lay before him.
As he was walking, Maniar heard a voice call out from behind.
Locking eyes on him was a lanky, broad-shouldered man with a salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a flowing beige shalwar kameez. The man strode up to Maniar, towering over his thin 5-foot-9-inch frame, and brusquely took his passport, stating that he was to follow him immediately. Maniar’s heart sank: He was not free after all. Struggling for some way to explain his convoluted bureaucratic experience in the U.S. to this security official in a strange country that he had never visited, he pulled out the DHS letter clearing him from the no-fly list.
The man took the paper and looked at it for a moment without recognition, before repeating flatly that Maniar was to follow him for questioning.
Maniar was taken up several flights of stairs to an interrogation room, where five uniformed men, agents of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency were waiting for him. By this time, his pulse was racing. Despite his U.S. citizenship, he knew very well that in Pakistan authorities routinely make people disappear without a trace, and they seemed to have been well prepared for his arrival.
Two of the men roughly placed Maniar down on a chair in the center room and handcuffed him with his arms in front. One of the agents asked why he was visiting Pakistan and what he knew about the war in Syria. In thickly accented English, the agent said if Maniar didn’t truthfully tell them everything they wanted to know, “this is not going to be easy for you.”
“At this point, in my mind, I was like, dude, I’m done. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know the ISI is a big deal,” Maniar said. “I was thinking I’m never seeing my family again. I’m either going to be dead, or they’re about to set me up for something.”
Maniar said that he didn’t have anything to tell them. Frantically scanning his mind for something that could explain his situation to the ISI agents and get him out of this, he went back to the no-fly list letter. That one-page document, issued under the letterhead of the Department of Homeland Security, permitting him to fly and clearing his name of suspicions of terrorism back home, had been his ticket out of the nightmare of law enforcement harassment he’d been experiencing for years. But somehow the message that he wasn’t a threat hadn’t been communicated abroad.
Maniar tried with increasing desperation to explain the letter and how he had resolved his issues in the United States. As he was speaking, a black bag came down over his head.
In the years after 9/11, the U.S. government developed an expansive watchlisting system for tracking individuals suspected of being national security threats. By 2013, a list known as the Terrorist Screening Database — TSDB, more commonly known as the terrorist watchlist — had grown to hundreds of thousands of names. These were people, some American citizens, whom the government had blacklisted without due process for having possible ties to terrorist groups. Information from the terrorist watchlist was used to construct other lists used to subject people to added scrutiny at borders, airports, or even during routine encounters with U.S. law enforcement. Among these smaller lists was the no-fly list that bars individuals from traveling by air, as well as another database called the selectee list, which flags individuals for intensified scrutiny at airports and border crossings.
In 2014, a major investigation based on leaked documents was published by The Intercept shedding light on how the terrorist watchlist was constructed. A 166-page document titled “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance,” exposed a covert program that blacklisted large numbers of people based on unchallengeable secret criteria. The watchlisting guidance revealed the levels of “derogatory information” that could lead to someone winding up on the list, exposing an opaque system with few checks and balances that was ripe for abuse. It was easy to get yourself on the list and suffer its consequences, but very difficult to know how to clear your name if you were actually innocent.
Over the years, several lawsuits were filed by individuals seeking to challenge their inclusion on the list. After being subjected to repeated detention by U.S. customs officials after traveling abroad, a U.S. citizen named Anas Elhady, along with two dozen other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit over the watchlisting program in 2016. A federal judge ruled in 2019 that the watchlisting program was unconstitutional.
In March, the U.S. government successfully appealed that ruling, leaving the watchlisting system in place for now. But court documents from the Elhady case revealed some important details about the secretive program. In a statement of facts related to the case, the U.S. government disclosed that in June 2017 approximately 1.2 million people were included on the watchlist, of whom roughly 4,600 were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The same filing also helped demonstrate how the list can go global: “TSDB data is also shared with more than sixty foreign governments with which the TSC [Terrorist Screening Center] has entered into foreign partner arrangements, which, subject to their domestic laws and the restrictions in the agreements, use the information for terrorist screening purposes.”
Despite years of efforts by civil liberties lawyers and journalists, much about the watchlisting program remains unknown, including how information used to construct the list might be used by foreign governments.
“We don’t have a lot of hard information about the form that information sharing agreements with foreign governments on intelligence and the contents of the watchlist take. It’s not at all implausible that governments we share watchlist information with could go on and share it with other governments or use it to create their own intelligence commodities,” said Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
But, Handeyside added, the simple fact of sharing information with foreign governments suggesting that someone might be a terrorist can create enormous dangers for them: “To the extent that the U.S. government is using and sharing watchlist information at all, it creates serious risks. You can have a hell of a time clearing your name with the U.S. government but still be detained, targeted, interrogated, or searched very intensively abroad, based on information about you that is outdated or inaccurate.”
“The entire watchlisting enterprise is predicated on the idea of guilt by association.”
When it comes to the no-fly list specifically, U.S. citizens and permanent residents can now go through a legal process to remove themselves from the list. But even if they are cleared to fly, it remains possible that they could remain on other secret lists or that negative information about them could wind up persisting on databases maintained by foreign governments. The dangers of this could be very serious, particularly when individuals who have been watchlisted are traveling to foreign countries where legal protections are weak.
“The entire watchlisting enterprise is predicated on the idea of guilt by association,” said Gadeir Abbas a staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations who represented individuals on the watchlist. “People are connected to others based on their associations, and based on those associations, potentially determined to be higher risk and subject to more scrutiny.”
It was that formula of guilt-by-association that got Maniar listed in the first place, trapping him in a web of problems from which there seemed to be no escape.
The chain of events that ended up with Maniar hooded and handcuffed in the custody of Pakistani intelligence agents had begun several years earlier. In 2014, Maniar had become friendly with a young British woman named Fatima Peer-Mohammed. Peer-Mohammed was a friend of his British wife and had met with Maniar during visits he made to the U.K. The two developed a bond, mostly continued over WhatsApp messages while he was in the U.S., over their shared interest in the humanitarian crisis then occurring in Syria.
At the same time, Peer-Mohammed’s social media posts were separately bringing her to the attention of British intelligence, which had become by alarmed by reports of British citizens traveling to Syria to join the conflict or expressing support for extremist groups there.
At the end of 2014, after a number of prior visits, Peer-Mohammed’s house was raided by security officials. After searching the house, they confiscated her digital devices, including the phone on which she’d chatted on WhatsApp with Maniar. In May 2015, Maniar’s then-wife called and told him that Peer-Mohammed had been arrested by British counterterrorism police. She was now in custody on terrorism charges related to her social media posts, and authorities were also asking questions about Peer-Mohammed’s brother, who they had suspected of traveling to Syria to join an extremist group. Maniar’s wife had other bad news for him: British intelligence agents had stopped by her home to interview her as well, asking several questions about Maniar himself.
Within a few weeks of Peer-Mohammed’s arrest, the FBI contacted Maniar by phone at his home in California, asking for an interview. On the advice of a friend, who had told him never to speak the FBI without a lawyer, he told them that he had nothing to say. But after declining that initial interview, his problems started multiplying. Maniar ran an online kitchenware business and frequently traveled around the United States by air. While he had never experienced travel problems before, on the first flight he took after that call from the FBI, he noticed that his boarding passes had begun printing out the “SSSS” notification: a security tag flagging him for additional scrutiny. On several subsequent flights he experienced unexplained delays getting a boarding pass. On a trip to Toronto in February 2016, he was stopped for several hours at the Canadian border after arriving by air, an experience that was repeated on his return journey to California by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. After that ill-fated journey, Maniar scheduled a meeting with the FBI at their West Covina branch office in the hopes of dispelling whatever scrutiny he was under. During that meeting, according to Maniar, the FBI told him that they had no negative information about him and expressed no objection to him continuing to travel.
In the summer of 2016, Maniar traveled to Saudi Arabia on a religious pilgrimage before heading to Turkey to join a charity convoy trip organized by the British nongovernmental organization Live Updates From Syria. On that trip, he traveled with several other British activists, crossing the Turkish border with Syria and posting on social media for two weeks from the town of Atmeh, where he and others distributed food, medicine, and clothing to displaced refugees. Upon his return to the United States, he was briefly taken aside and questioned again by CBP agents but experienced no other problems and was allowed to continue home.
Maniar began noticing disturbing things after that trip, however. Strange cars would be parked outside his home for days. When he left the house, the cars would sometimes follow him as he went on errands to the grocery store or mosque. On several occasions, according to Maniar and documented in court papers outlining his experiences, helicopters loudly hovered low over his home for extended periods of time while he was there with his family. In May 2017, when he arrived at the airport for a trip to Dubai, several plainclothes FBI agents were waiting for him at the check-in desk. They informed him that he would not be allowed to board his flight, before telling him to go home immediately and following him in their cars.
In the early morning hours of December 14, 2017, Maniar was at home with his mother when he heard a long banging on the door. He roused himself from bed and saw dozens of FBI agents who had a warrant to raid his home, ostensibly on allegations of harassing his wife, from whom he had become estranged after the arrest of Peer-Mohammed. For several hours the agents raided his house and took electronics, while he and his mother sat handcuffed outside in the driveway. Maniar was not charged with any crime. But they were doing a full-court press to find something.
“I felt like I was an investment for them: like they’d invested so much money and time into investigating me, and now they just wanted to get a return.”
“I tried to be as open as I could with the FBI, wanted to tell them that I am not a threat and to leave me alone. I’m a business person so I know about profiles, and when someone fits my profile for a customer I go after them like a shark. When this was happening, I felt like that was exactly how they were treating me,” Maniar said. “I felt like I was an investment for them: like they’d invested so much money and time into investigating me, and now they just wanted to get a return.”
A few days after the raid, Maniar went to the airport to catch another flight and was again stopped at the airport by FBI agents who had been waiting for him at the check-in desk. Once again they prevented him from boarding and told him to go home.
Maniar had little understanding of national security law. But by this time he had done enough of his own research online to understand that he was on the government no-fly list. He contacted a lawyer, who initiated a process with the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether he was listed. Months later, in June 2018, he received a letter confirming that he was on the no-fly list but with no details about the reason for his placement. Upon further pressure from his lawyer, Homeland Security provided a document confirming that he was “on the U.S. Government’s No Fly List due to, in part, [his] association and extensive communication with a known extremist located in the United Kingdom who has supported terrorist organizations.”
After several years of frustration and fear, Maniar now felt that he had at least gotten to the bottom of things. He had always suspected that his friendship with Peer-Mohammed had put him on the U.S. government’s radar, though he had no idea how to clear his name. Now the government had confirmed it to him writing what their problem was with him, in a terse one-sentence summary.
On August 22, 2020, after several years of litigation, Maniar finally received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security that cleared him from the list and stated that he was not a danger to fly. As far as he knew, his name was cleared. Maniar booked a flight scheduled for one week later, to visit his new wife’s family in Pakistan, with a short stopover in Turkey. He was eager to take some time away after the years of stress and paranoia he had experienced in the United States. It was supposed to be a relaxing trip.
After being interrogated for several hours by ISI agents at the airport, much of it with a black hood over his head, Maniar was taken, still hooded, to a loading area of Karachi International Airport and placed into an SUV along with several ISI agents.
“At this point, my knees were shaking, I knew I was done for, and my family was never going to see me again,” he recalled.
After being driven for about half an hour, Maniar was taken to a building inside a gated compound and left in a small brown-carpeted office by himself. Hooded with his hands cuffed in front, he sat for a full day by himself in silence, occasionally hearing yelling and what he thought were muffled screams coming through the walls. He had had no opportunity to tell his family where he was or what had happened at the airport. Over the course of roughly three days, Maniar was kept in custody, questioned by a rotating set of Pakistani interrogators. They asked him questions about Syria, as well as various terrorist groups in Pakistan around the world. At times they vaguely threatened him that things were going to become “very difficult” if he didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.
Left alone for hours in the interrogation room, Maniar would sometimes work the bag off his head and look around at the empty brown-carpeted room that had suddenly condensed to become his entire world.
“When you have a bag over your head that long, it becomes a pleasure to just take it off and look around and see light,” Maniar said. “At the same time, I was looking around, and I’m thinking that I could not even believe this is how far the U.S. government would go to harass me: They wouldn’t let me step on a plane, they wouldn’t let me step foot in another country, and now they had me brought here and were just leaving me.”
On the fourth day, an interrogator came and brought him a breakfast of paratha and chai. Over the past three days of interrogation, Maniar had told his Pakistani interrogators the whole story of his ex-wife and her friends in England, including Peer-Mohammed, as well as his problems with the U.S. government and the no-fly list and how that had led to the breakup of his marriage. This interrogator, who unlike the others wore a suit, tie, and immaculately shined dress shoes, told him that from the perspective of the Pakistani government they had no problem with Maniar, but that the U.S. had shared information flagging him as a possible terrorist.
Since he had disappeared at the airport, Maniar’s family had been furiously contacting officials in Pakistan and at the U.S. Embassy trying to find out what had happened to him. His interrogator now told him that he’d informed them that he was safe and would soon be released. But he also advised him to book a flight out of the country within the next few days and go back to the United States and sort out whatever problem he had with the U.S. government there before returning.
Maniar was relieved but also demoralized. He was not free, after all, despite the years of effort he had spent trying to clear his name. As instructed, he booked a flight back to the United States. At Atlanta’s international airport, as Maniar disembarked from the plane, he spotted two Homeland Security officials who were scanning the crowd of passengers. “As soon as I saw them, I walked up, I said, ‘I know you’re waiting for me, let’s just go.’” The agents laughed and took Maniar for questioning, letting him go after roughly 30 minutes of discussion of his trip. He told them about his detention in Pakistan and the ISI agent’s statement that he had been flagged as a terrorist by the U.S. government, despite his clearance from the no-fly list. The agents told him they had no idea about any of this, before letting him proceed home.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment for this story.
The arbitrary, opaque nature of the watchlisting system and the dangers that it can pose to people while traveling abroad have been criticized for years by civil liberties experts, many of whom who have also cautioned against recent calls to expand the system to deal with suspected domestic extremists.
In recent months, right-wing figures, including a far-right YouTube personality named Nicholas Fuentes, have allegedly been placed on the no-fly list. While unconfirmed, the possible listing comes months after top Democratic officials called for expanding the watchlisting system to combat the threat of domestic extremism.
Maniar is presently fighting in court to have his name removed from what his lawyer believes is the selectee list, one of the other secret lists created from the Terrorist Screening Database. Although the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed to him in writing that he is cleared to fly by removing him from the no-fly list, winning that fight means little if every foreign country he arrives in has him flagged as a potential terrorist because of his presence on some other secret database, or because information has been shared with foreign governments that he is a danger but follow-up messages clearing him never reach them.
Maniar has since settled into a quiet domestic life with his new wife and their newborn child. Despite persistent fears and paranoia every time he boards a flight, Maniar continues to run his business while trying to live as normally as possible. But the yearslong experience of being surveilled, watchlisted, and even detained with seemingly no way of clearing his name has left him feeling psychologically homeless.
“I feel sad and almost betrayed as an American citizen because I thought I had all these rights, and as a taxpayer, if I’m paying money, that they use it to go after criminals,” Maniar said from his new home in Texas. “It makes me sad because when you don’t have a government that has your back, you feel almost alienated. You feel like an alien who doesn’t belong anywhere.”