Saadiq Long was on his way to a night shift at the transportation company he works at when he saw flashing lights behind his car. Two police cruisers were signaling him to pull over. This would be the third time in just over a month that Long, a U.S. Air Force veteran with no criminal record, had been pulled over without explanation by Oklahoma City police officers. The stops frustrated Long. He suspected he was being targeted.
After wondering again why he’d been pulled over, this time would be different: He would get some answers, however unsettling, about why it was happening.
Long, 52, was initially told by an officer who stopped him that his car had been listed in a gang database. After waiting in his car for roughly 20 minutes, the officer, according to a video that Long made of the incident, came back with a different story. The police officer told Long that his car had come up as a “hit” in a national watchlist database, one that “automatically alerts us that this vehicle is under suspicion for a terrorist watchlist.” The cop said that Long’s presence on the watchlist, rather than any driving-related infraction or accusation of criminality, was why he had been pulled over.
Long is no stranger to harassment by federal authorities. In 2015, he sued the U.S. government over his placement on the Department of Homeland Security’s no-fly list, as well as the larger terrorist watchlist from which that database is built. Eventually, Long was told his name was removed from the no-fly list, but, as the traffic stops in Oklahoma indicate, he has remained on the broader terrorism watchlist. His lawsuit in federal court related to that watchlist is still ongoing.
More immediately, Long is trying to deal with the very local consequences of being on the federal watchlist.
The U.S. government’s terror lists are often thought of as a tool for protecting against foreign national security threats. Yet in Long’s case, his continued presence on the list, which is secret and has no clear avenues for an individual to be delisted, has now resulted in an unending cycle of harassment from local police in his hometown of Oklahoma City, where he lives with his family.
Since the December 30, 2022, stop where he was verbally informed that his car was on the terrorist watchlist, things have gotten much worse for Long. In subsequent stops, he has been pulled over, handcuffed, and placed in the back of a police cruiser. In one incident, Oklahoma City police officers leveled their guns at Long while blaring orders over a loudspeaker instructing Long to exit his vehicle.
Having failed thus far in his case against the federal government, Long is now suing the Oklahoma City Police Department over the traffic stops, as well as their use of the federal terrorist watchlist as a pretext to target his vehicle. (The Oklahoma City Police Department declined to comment on the case.)
“He is not under investigation for anything, but this secret list is still terrorizing him whether on land or air.”
“As Saadiq Long drives the roads of his city, the Oklahoma City Police Department has been watching, aiming its vast network of cameras and computers at him repeatedly,” the lawsuit says. “Using a secret, racist list of Muslims that the FBI illegally maintains, officers have repeatedly pulled Saadiq Long over, sometimes at gunpoint, unlawfully arresting him twice in the last two months.”
“Despite the fact that he has never been arrested or charged for any crime, due to his presence on this list, he has lost work licenses, been denied visas, and been prevented from flying on airplanes,” said Gadeir Abbas, an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations who is representing Long. “The officers who are pulling him over are just doing it because their computers are telling them to do so due to his watchlisting status. He is not under investigation for anything, but this secret list is still terrorizing him whether on land or air.”
In 2013, Long was prevented from boarding a flight to Oklahoma from Qatar, where he then resided. A U.S. citizen and Air Force veteran, the denied flight to Qatar was when Long first discovered that he was on the DHS’s no-fly list. Ever since, he has faced detention and other harassment while traveling.
Long sued in 2015 to clear his name from this secret database. In 2020, Homeland Security informed Long that he had been removed from the no-fly list and would not be placed back on absent further information. The government argued in court that the removal of Long’s name from the no-fly list had rendered his claims moot. Yet his removal from the no-fly list has not meant his removal from the broader terrorism watchlisting database, nor from the dire consequences of his status.
Civil liberties advocates, who routinely challenge the constitutionality of the terrorism watchlist in court, have grown increasingly alarmed by the expansion of its use by local law enforcement agencies. In some cases, these local agencies have been tasked with both monitoring individuals assigned to the list and expanding its scope. In 2014, The Intercept published the government’s secret guidance for selecting individuals to the watchlist. Disclosures in a lawsuit from 2017 revealed that the watchlist had grown to 1.2 million people, the majority of whom are believed to be noncitizens and nonresidents of the United States.
Presence on the watchlist can generate numerous problems for those targeted, from harassment and detention while traveling to the type of routine law enforcement threats and harassment Long now faces.
“His experience, unfortunately, is very common for people who are still on watchlists, even if they are not on the no-fly list. It is par for the course for anyone on a watchlist to experience more aggressive traffic stops,” said Naz Ahmed, a staff attorney with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility project at the City University of New York School of Law. “Officers are instructed not to do anything that gives away that a person they have pulled over is on a watchlist or to carry out warrantless searches. But you can imagine how an officer may react who doesn’t have much training on this subject, and does not see it commonly, when they come across someone in this situation.”
A 2016 report by Yale Law School and the American Civil Liberties Union found that the U.S. government had “drastically expanded a consolidated watchlisting system that includes hundreds of thousands of individuals based on secret evidence.” The report documented how the system was now being used and interpreted by local police forces who were frequently acting upon “potentially erroneous, inaccurate, or outdated information.” Unlike the no-fly list, which has some limited redress processes, the broader terrorism watchlist remains largely opaque and unchallengeable.
“The FBI accepts almost every single ‘nomination’ to its list submitted by anyone,” Long’s lawsuit says. “This is because the FBI uses a standard so low that, based on a string of speculative inferences, any person can be made to qualify.”
Long’s lawyers filed suit against the local police department in Oklahoma City on Thursday, to compel its officers to stop pulling him over based on his watchlisting status. Long is also asking for financial compensation for violations of his Fourth Amendment rights. (The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the suit.)
Despite his recent experiences, Long has continued driving to work, doing errands, and visiting family in Oklahoma City but with increasing trepidation about how his watchlisting status is being interpreted by local police. Some police officers have been apologetic while pulling him over; others have responded aggressively, treating him as a threat, pulling out weapons, and causing him to fear for his life.
“For the past year or two, I noticed that the Oklahoma City police often followed me while driving, though without pulling me over,” said Long. “I got kind of used to it, but just recently, within the last month and a half, that’s when this started turning into something much more serious.”
“I was wondering if they were going to make my wife a widow now for something so silly, just for me being on this list, when they themselves don’t even know why I’m on it.”
The most recent incident, when he was pulled over earlier this month by a group of police officers who drew guns on him and ordered him out of his vehicle — an incident that Long also caught on his own dashboard camera — was the most alarming in his recent series of run-ins. A video of the incident shows police officers yelling contradictory instructions at him for several minutes while standing with guns drawn behind his vehicle.
“I was wondering if they were going to make my wife a widow now for something so silly,” Long said, “just for me being on this list, when they themselves don’t even know why I’m on it.”