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9528American War Crimes: No-fly list used by FBI to coerce Muslims into informing, lawsuit claims

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  • Zafar Khan
    Apr 26, 2014
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      No-fly list used by FBI to coerce Muslims into informing, lawsuit claims
      Case highlights plight of people wrongfully added to database who face lengthy, secretive process to clear their names
      Spencer Ackerman in New York
      Follow @attackerman Follow @guardianus
      theguardian.com, Wednesday 23 April 2014 03.00 BST


      Naveed Shinwari hasn’t seen his wife in 26 months. He suspects it’s because he refused to become an informant for the FBI.

      In February 2012 Shinwari, who has lived in the US since he was 14, flew to Afghanistan to get married. He says that before he could get home to Omaha, Nebraska, he was twice detained and questioned by FBI agents who wanted to know if he knew anything about national security threats. A third FBI visit followed when he got home.

      The following month, after Shinwari bought another plane ticket for a temporary job in Connecticut, he couldn’t get a boarding pass. Police told him he had been placed on the US no-fly list, although he had never in his life been accused of breaking any law. Another FBI visit soon followed, with agents wanting to know about the “local Omaha community, did I know anyone who’s a threat”, he says.

      “I’m just very frustrated, [and I said] what can I do to clear my name?” recalls Shinwari, 30. “And that’s where it was mentioned to me: you help us, we help you. We know you don’t have a job; we’ll give you money.”

      Shinwari is one of four American Muslims in a new lawsuit who accuse the FBI of placing them on the no-fly list, either to intimidate them into becoming informants or to retaliate against them for declining.

      Filed on Tuesday night in the US district court for the southern district of New York, the case accuses the US attorney general, Eric Holder, the FBI director, James Comey, the homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, and two dozen FBI agents of creating an atmosphere in which Muslims who are not accused of wrongdoing are forbidden from flying, apparently as leverage to get them snitching on their communities.

      Their lawsuit seeks not only the plaintiffs’ removal from the no-fly list but also the establishment of a more robust legal mechanism to contest placement upon it.

      “This policy and set of practices by the FBI is part of a much broader set of policies that reflect overpolicing in Muslim-American communities,” said Diala Shamas, one of the lawyers for the four plaintiffs.

      In recent years Muslim community leaders in the US have stated that they feel law enforcement at times considers them a target, particularly thanks to mosque infiltrations and other surveillance practices. Material demonizing Muslims and Islam has been present in FBI counter-terrorism training, which the bureau has conceded was inappropriate. The New York police department recently shut down a unit tasked with spying on Muslim businesses, mosques and community centers in New York and New Jersey.

      Like his co-plaintiffs Shinwari does not know for sure that the FBI deliberately placed him on the no-fly list as either a punitive measure or a pressure tactic.

      Their four stories differ in important respects.

      Jameel Algibhah of the Bronx alleges that the FBI explicitly asked him to infiltrate a Queens mosque and pose as an extremist in online forums. But they have in common an allegation of an implied quid pro quo. “We’re the only ones who can take you off the list,” an unnamed FBI agent who wanted Algibhah to inform to is alleged to have told him.

      Their case follows at least one other, brought by the ACLU in Oregon, that alleges the FBI attempted to leverage no-fly selectees into informants. That case also challenges as insufficient the process afforded to people seeking to remove themselves from the list.

      Shinwari, who now lives in Connecticut and works for a temp agency, has not attempted to return to Afghanistan to see his wife. While he was able to board a flight last month, he wonders if he received a reprieve from the no-fly list that the FBI offered to him in 2012 as enticement. Repeated attempts to formally remove himself from the list resulted in vague and inconclusive notifications from the government – which he, his co-plaintiffs and his lawyers contend feeds into the problem.

      The no-fly list is among the most opaque post-9/11 measures. It is maintained by the FBI and implemented at airports by the Department of Homeland Security. Few know they’ve been placed on it, and those who do face a complicated redress process to have themselves removed. The new lawsuit alleges that the opacity contributes to watchlist abuse.

      According to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the list, there were approximately 16,000 people, fewer than 500 of them Americans, on the no-fly list as of September 2011.

      A larger pool of data that feeds the no-fly list and other government watchlists, known as the Terrorist Screening Database, contemporaneously contained records of 420,000 people. Famously it included Nelson Mandela until 2008. The government’s policy is to not to confirm or deny someone’s placement upon a watchlist.

      Several earlier lawsuits have attempted to get people off the no-fly list. In February Rahinah Ibrahim became the first since 9/11 to win such a case, after demonstrating that the FBI adder her name by mistake. She had been unable to fly since 2004.

      The criteria for inclusion on the list are unclear. In a March 2011 federal court filing Christopher Piehota, the current director of the Terrorist Screening Center, affirmed that FBI agents could nominate candidates to it.

      Inclusion on the broader Terrorist Screening Database depends upon “whether there is reasonable suspicion to believe that a person is a known or suspected terrorist”, Piehota, then the deputy director of the Terrorist Screening Center, told the eastern district court of Virginia.

      “Mere guesses or ‘hunches,’ or the reporting of suspicious activity alone is not enough to constitute a reasonable suspicion and are not sufficient bases to watchlist an individual.” Audits and other quality control measures were periodic, Piehota told the court.

      An ACLU study last month challenged that criterion. “It is not at all clear what separates a reasonable-suspicion-based-on-a-reasonable-suspicion from a simple hunch,” it said, calling inclusion on a government watchlist a potentially “life-altering” experience.

      A redress system for thwarted travelers was operated by the Department of Homeland Security and referred complaints to the FBI, Piehota further affirmed. A subsequent records check determined “whether the complainant’s current status in the TSDB [Terrorist Screening Database] is suitable based on the most current, accurate and thorough information available”.

      The process was entirely internal, with DHS informing the would-be traveler what the system had determined “without disclosing the traveler’s status in the TSDB”, Piehota said.

      A study by the justice department’s inspector general, partially declassified on 25 March, painted a mixed picture of the FBI’s watchlisting processes. “Subjects of closed terrorism investigations were removed from the watchlist when the case was closed,” it found, but it noted the FBI was “not timely in submitting watchlist nomination and removal packages for individuals not under investigation by the FBI”. In such cases it took the FBI a median of 78 days to remove people from the lists.

      “Because non-investigative subjects may be retained on the watchlist for an extended period of time, this subset of watchlist practices will continue to grow throughout the years,” the inspector general’s report said.

      The FBI declined to comment on the allegations in the new lawsuit, which was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project at the City University of New York.

      Shinwari said his placement on the no-fly list and his dealings with the FBI had a chilling effect. “I don’t want to open up to people any more, or express myself politically or otherwise. It’s definitely had an effect on me participating in my local mosque,” he said.

      “I just want to see some changes to this process, and openness and transparency would be good. That’s what Obama originally ran for."

      Afghan boy killed by US forces as Nato staff die in aircraft accident
      Four-year-old shot dead in Helmand after being mistaken for enemy, as aircraft 'mishap' kills three in eastern Afghanistan
      Associated Press in Kabul
      theguardian.com, Friday 10 January 2014 09.57 GMT


      Two Nato servicemen and one civilian employee have been killed in an aircraft accident in Afghanistan, while a four-year-old Afghan boy has been shot dead by US forces.

      Afghan officials said on Friday that the boy had been accidently shot and killed in the latest violent incident to strain ties between the uneasy allies.

      The Afghan-US relationship has been damaged by President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a bilateral security deal that would allow for a US military presence after the withdrawal of most foreign troops this year.

      The US has said its troops cannot remain without a deal in place. Their complete departure would leave Afghan security forces on their own to fight the Taliban.

      Karzai is demanding that the US end all unilateral military operations on Afghan territory – among other things – before the pact is signed, because they cause avoidable civilian deaths.

      "We have called … for an absolute end to Isaf/Nato military operations on homes and villages in order to avoid such killings where innocent children or civilians are the victims," the president's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said when commenting on the death of the boy.

      The International Security Assistance force (Isaf) is Afghanistan's Nato-led force. It is dominated by US troops.

      A spokesman for the governor of the southern province of Helmand told Reuters that US marines based in the province mistakenly shot the boy on Wednesday because visibility was poor.

      "As the weather was dusty, the marine forces based there thought he was an enemy and opened fire. As result of mistaken fire, he was killed," the spokesman, Omar Zwak, said by telephone.

      A spokesman for the Nato-led force said the matter would be investigated and that all possible measures were taken to avoid civilian casualties.

      A separate Nato statement confirmed the "aircraft mishap" in eastern Afghanistan early on Friday but provided no details of the accident, or the names and nationalities of those killed.

      Friday's deaths push the number of Nato troops killed in Afghanistan this year to four. One service member was killed in a suicide attack on 4 January, also in eastern Afghanistan, and another on 1 January.

      "At this time, there are no indications of enemy involvement in the cause of the aircraft mishap," the force said.

      Pakistan on high alert after Taliban leader killed by US drone strike
      Government says death of Hakimullah Mehsud has destroyed attempts to hold peace talks with Islamist militants
      Conal Urquhart, and Jon Boone in Lahore
      theguardian.com, Saturday 2 November 2013 14.44 GMT


      Pakistan's security forces have been put on high alert after a CIA drone attack killed the leader of the country's Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, in the lawless tribal areas.

      A Pakistani government minister said the strike by an unmanned aircraft on Friday had destroyed attempts to hold peace talks with the militants which began this week.

      Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, said: "This is not just the killing of one person, it's the death of all peace efforts."

      His sentiments were echoed by the former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, who threatened to block lorries carrying supplies to Nato troops in Afghanistan unless the attacks stop. "Dialogue has been broken with this drone attack," said Khan.

      Mehsud and five other Taliban militants were killed and two others were wounded in the attack after leaving a meeting at a mosque in the Dande Darpa Khel area of North Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban have named Khan Sayed Sajna as their new leader after a secret meeting of their ruling council. He is described as lacking in formal education but with great military experience.

      Although Mehsud's death has been wrongly reported in the past, informants in the tribal area said they were confident one of the country's most agressive militant leaders was dead.

      "He was targeted as he was returning to his home from a nearby mosque where he had been holding discussions with his comrades," said a military officer based in a city close to the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a region which is home to many Islamist terrorist groups. "He was right at his front door and at least three missiles were fired."

      A senior US intelligence official told the Associated Press the US received positive confirmation on Friday morning that he had been killed.

      A Pakistani Taliban fighter said on Saturday that Mehsud's body was "damaged but recognisable", Reuters reported. Taliban commanders said Mehsud's funeral would be held on Saturday.

      Mehsud was secretly buried under cover of darkness in the early hours by a few companions amid fears that his funeral might be attacked by U.S. drones. "Every drop of Hakimullah's blood will turn into a suicide bomber," said Azam Tariq, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman. "America and their friends shouldn't be happy because we will take revenge for our martyr's blood."

      Pakistan's foreign ministry condemned the drone attack as a "violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity".

      Militant and official sources said Mehsud's driver and bodyguard were among the dead.

      Of the 60 shura council members attending the meeting, 43 voted in favour of Sayed succeeding Mehsud, according to the Karachi-based Dawn.com.

      The website said Sayed, 36, was involved in the attack on a naval base in Karachi in May 2011 and masterminded a 2012 jailbreak in which the Taliban freed 400 inmates in the north-western city of Bannu.

      "Sayed has no basic education, conventional or religious, but he is battle-hardened and has experience of fighting in Afghanistan," an official told Dawn.com.

      However, other reports suggested that Sheharyar Mehsud had been appointed as caretaker leader, possibly by another shura council.

      Although Mehsud's four-year tenure as head of Pakistan's most feared militant group has been marked by horrific attacks that have killed scores of soldiers, government officials and civilians, his death looked likely to provoke fury among some politicians who believe the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) should be brought in to peace talks.

      All political parties unanimously supported government attempts to negotiate with the TTP at a meeting in September. Just this week the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, announced that talks between the two sides had finally begun.

      A government official claimed Mehsud had been discussing the matter with fellow fighters just before he was killed, while the Taliban said a government peace delegation was in Miranshah, the regional capital of North Waziristan, at the time of the attack.

      The country's rightwing religious parties are likely to interpret the drone strike as a deliberate attempt by the US to scupper peace talks with an organisation that swears allegiance to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, who fight against Nato troops in the neighbouring country.

      Sharif, who held meetings with the US president, Barack Obama, in Washington DC last week, has repeatedly called for an end to drone strikes, despite suspicions that Pakistan continues to give secret backing to the attacks.

      But the US was never likely to turn down an opportunity to kill Mehsud, the mastermind of a devastating suicide bomb attack on a CIA station in Khost province in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 in which seven CIA officers died.

      The ingenious plot involved a Jordanian triple agent who the CIA believed was working for them but was in fact taking orders from Mehsud.

      The suicide bomber was ushered into the military base to brief CIA officers on al-Qaida, and detonated his explosive vest once he was inside.

      In a video filmed before the attack and released afterwards, Mehsud appeared alongside the Jordanian, who said the attack was in retribution for the death of his fellow tribesman and predecessor as Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike in August 2009.

      Saifullah Mahsud, the director of the Pakistani thinktank FATA Research Centre, said the movement was unlikely to be overly affected by the killing of its leader.

      "It's a very decentralised organisation," he said. "They've lost leaders to drone strikes before."

      Mehsud's death comes just weeks after the TTP chief took the risky and unusual step of granting an interview to a BBC cameraman who had travelled to Pakistan's north-west.

      The interview was conducted outside despite the constant presence of drones overhead.

      In May, a drone strike killed Mehsud's second-in-command, and one of his most trusted lieutenants was captured in Afghanistan last month.

      US drone strikes could be classed as war crimes, says Amnesty International
      Joint report with Human Rights Watch judges US attacks in Yemen and Pakistan to have broken international human rights law
      Jon Boone in Islamabad
      The Guardian, Tuesday 22 October 2013


      US officials responsible for the secret CIA drone campaign against suspected terrorists in Pakistan may have committed war crimes and should stand trial, a report by a leading human rights group warns. Amnesty International has highlighted the case of a grandmother who was killed while she was picking vegetables and other incidents which could have broken international laws designed to protect civilians.

      The report is issued in conjunction with an investigation by Human Rights Watch detailing missile attacks in Yemen which the group believes could contravene the laws of armed conflict, international human rights law and Barack Obama's own guidelines on drones.

      The reports are being published while Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister, is in Washington. Sharif has promised to tell Obama that the drone strikes – which have caused outrage in Pakistan – must end.

      Getting to the bottom of individual strikes is exceptionally difficult in the restive areas bordering Afghanistan, where thousands of militants have settled. People are often terrified of speaking out, fearing retribution from both militants and the state, which is widely suspected of colluding with the CIA-led campaign.

      There is also a risk of militants attempting to skew outside research by forcing interviewees into "providing false or inaccurate information", the report said.

      But Amnesty mounted a major effort to investigate nine of the many attacks to have struck the region over the last 18 months, including one that killed 18 labourers in North Waziristan as they waited to eat dinner in an area of heavy Taliban influence in July 2012. All those interviewed by Amnesty strongly denied any of the men had been involved in militancy. Even if they were members of a banned group, that would not be enough to justify killing them, the report said.

      "Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions," the report said. It called for those responsible to stand trial.

      The US has repeatedly claimed very few civilians have been killed by drones. It argues its campaign is conducted "consistent with all applicable domestic and international law".

      The Amnesty report supports media accounts from October last year that a 68-year-old woman called Mamana Bibi was killed by a missile fired from a drone while she was picking okra outside her home in North Waziristan with her grandchildren nearby. A second strike minutes later injured family members tending her.

      If true, the case is striking failure of a technology much vaunted for its accuracy. It is claimed the remote-controlled planes are able to observe their targets for hours or even days to verify them, and that the explosive force of the missiles is designed to limit collateral damage. As with other controversial drone strikes, the US has refused to acknowledge or explain what happened.

      Amnesty said it accepts some US drone strikes may not violate the law, "but it is impossible to reach any firm assessment without a full disclosure of the facts surrounding individual attacks and their legal basis. The USA appears to be exploiting the lawless and remote nature of the region to evade accountability for its violations," it said.

      In Yemen, another country where US drones are active, Human Rights Watch highlighted six incidents, two of which were a "clear violation of international humanitarian law". The remaining four may have broken the laws of armed conflict because the targets were illegitimate or because not enough was done to minimise civilian harm, the report said.

      It also argued that some of the Yemen attacks breach the guidelines announced by Obama earlier this year in his first major speech on a programme that is officially top secret. For example, the pledge to kill suspects only when it is impossible to capture them appears to have been ignored on 17 April this year when an al-Qaida leader was blown up in a township in Dhamar province in central Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.

      An attack on a truck driving 12 miles south of the capital Sana'a reportedly killed two al-Qaida suspects but also two civilians who had been hired by the other men. That means the attack could have been illegal because it "may have caused disproportionate harm to civilians".

      The legal arguments over drones are extremely complex, with much controversy focusing on whether or not the places where they are used amount to war zones.

      Amnesty said some of the strikes in Pakistan might be covered by that claim, but rejected a "global war doctrine" that allows the US to attack al-Qaida anywhere in the world.

      "To accept such a policy would be to endorse state practices that fundamentally undermine crucial human rights protections that have been painstakingly developed over more than a century of international law-making," the report said.

      Counting the cost of war: Nearly 500,000 Iraqis have been killed according to new survey
      PATRICK COCKBURN Author Biography Wednesday 16 October 2013


      An additional half million Iraqis died because of war and occupation between 2003 and 2011 according a new survey based on more rigorous research than those carried out in the past.

      The study, which is the result of a collaboration between researchers from the US, Canada and Iraq, estimates that 460,800 more Iraqis died during that period than would have done normally. Sixty per cent of the deaths were violent, with the remaining 40 per cent due to indirect causes linked to the collapse of infrastructure, the researchers claim.

      The casualty figures for Iraqi civilians has been a subject of furious debate since the early days of the US occupation with the US army at first claiming that it was not counting Iraqi dead in a vain attempt to avoid the same controversy over body count as had happened in Vietnam.

      Supporters of the US-led invasion appeared to consider that a lower figure for fatalities, even if it was over 100,000, justified the war while its critics believed that a higher number showed that the conflict had brought excessive and unnecessary suffering to Iraqis.

      The latest figures are published in PLoS medical journal in an article entitled “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003-11 War and Occupation.”

      The survey conducted in 2011 is based on 2,000 randomly selected households who were asked about births and deaths in their family since 2001. All adults in each household were asked about deaths of siblings. A purpose was to compare the death rate post 2003 with the rate in the 26 months before the war and thereby work out the excess of deaths after the invasion. Previous studies had not looked at what happened after 2006 when the war was in full swing.

      It remains unclear how far this type of study can be conducted in a country like Iraq in which government institutions had been degraded by sanctions since 1990 and all figures are suspect. Working out the death rate depends on assumptions about Iraq's population which is not precisely known but is estimated to be 33 million.

      The study says that the researchers “had to rely on outdated census data (the last complete population census in Iraq dates back to 1887)… The researchers are 95 per cent confident that the true number of excess deaths lies between 48,000 and 751,000 - a large range.”

      The survey is complicated by the large migration of Iraqis at its height in 2006-8 when many Iraqis fled to safer parts of their own country and up to a million took refuge in Syria while others fled to Jordan and Egypt. The survey estimates an extra 56,000 deaths were no counted due to migration though it is difficult to see how assumptions could be made about the death rates of people who had moved to safer places in Iraq with the purpose of staying alive.

      During the 13 years of severe sanctions before the war public health had already sharply declined in Iraq because of a falling standard of living and lack of medical facilities. After 2003 many doctors fled because they were a prime target for kidnappers and Iraqis often travelled to Syria and Jordan seeking medical attention.

      There were great differences in comparative safety in Iraq during the decade in which the US had troops in the country up to the end of 2011. The northern three Kurdish provinces were stable and safe and violence was less continuous in the Shia south of the country. Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia was at its worst in Baghdad, the mixed Sunni-Shia districts around the capital and mixed provinces like Diyala. Violence between the occupation forces and the Iraqi insurgents was at its most intense in these areas but also in Anbar, the vast Sunni province in western Iraq. In the battle for Fallujah in November 2004 some 2,000 insurgents and civilians may have been killed by the US Marines.

      The most convincing figures for Iraqi deaths by violence come from Iraqi Body Count (IBC) which looks at the number of people killed in verifiable incidents. In an analysis of over 31,500 incidents in the ten years up to Marc 2013 says that between 112,017 and 122,438 civilians died in addition to the death of 39,000 combatants and a further 11,500 civilians whose deaths have been revealed by Wikileaks publication of the American War logs. This would bring the full total of dead to 174,000 documented as being killed by violence in Iraq since 2003.

      The height of the slaughter was during the sectarian civil war between March 2006 and March 2008 when 52,000 people were killed. The distinction between civilian and military casualties is blurred since the US forces often recorded the Iraqi dead - such as the journalists and others machine gunned from a helicopter as recorded by a video published by Wikileaks or others killed by artillery in Fallujah - as being enemy combatants. The number killed has been rising sharply over the last year with 5,000 dead since April and 258 killed so far this month.