CAIR Calls to Drop FBI Secret Watchlist

Biased List Has No Place in a Democratic Society

By Hamza Mohammed

Sept/Oct 2023

On May 1, 2023, the U.S. Secret Service barred Mayor Mohamed Khairullah, an elected official of Prospect Park, N.J., from entering the White House for an Eid celebration. This was despite the invitation he had from the President. Khairullah was treated this way because the FBI had assigned him a secret status years ago without any notice or explanation.

The names of many thousands of innocent Muslims over the last two decades have also been put on this list. As a result, they are banned from flying, pressured to spy on the community, treated as criminals while traveling, and forced to endure countless other indignities. 

All of this injustice comes from a secret list known variously as the Terrorist Watchlist, the Terrorism Screening Database or, as the FBI recently rebranded it, the Terrorism Screening Dataset. The equally famous No-Fly List is actually a designation given to some people on the watchlist, singling them out for the additional punishment of being unable to fly. 

CAIR reviewed a leaked copy of the watchlist from 2019 and found Mayor Khairullah’s name on it. Unfortunately, this incident is not an isolated case, and the evidence is no longer anecdotal. 

Our July report, “Twenty Years Too Many: A Call to Stop the FBI’s Secret Watchlist’.’ ( studied more than 1.5 million entries on a 2019 version of the FBI’s list. This was provided to us by a Swiss hacker who found them online after a regional air carrier accidentally posted them to the public internet. One scroll through it reveals a list almost completely composed of Muslim names. In fact, more than 350,000 entries alone include some transliteration of Mohamed or Ali or Mahmoud, and the top 50 most frequently occurring names are all Muslim ones. Of the watchlist entries we’ve reviewed, we estimate that it includes more than 1.47 million Muslims — over 98% of the total.

Second-class Citizen or Worse

The Muslim community has long been aware that the FBI’s list is nothing more than a list of innocent Muslims — an assertion now proved by CAIR’s recent study. The consequences of being on this list are borne almost exclusively by Muslims. Even non-Muslims who openly espouse political violence generally do not find themselves targeted in this manner.

A person’s watchlist status is life-defining. Made without notice by a government official whose name will never be known, this is the FBI’s way of formally branding a person a “KST” — a “known or suspected terrorist.” Government agencies use this designation to harass and humiliate travelers in many ways: outright forbidding them to fly, denying them licenses and permits, refusing to hire people or firing employees, delaying or denying visas and applications for U.S. citizenship and subjecting them to dangerous and invasive law enforcement actions. As one federal judge put it, a person’s watchlist status “transforms a person into a second-class citizen, or worse.”

The FBI’s list has acquired a global reach, as the bureau disseminates it throughout the federal government to airlines, every police department in the country, hundreds of private companies  and to an always-growing roster of foreign countries — asking each to act against the listed people they encounter.

A List That Follows You Everywhere

This list not only ruins the lives of people who are on it, but also follows them wherever they go. With the list, an FBI official in the D.C. suburbs can assign American citizens a status that will, for example, instantaneously interfere with their ability to get a visa to India, prevent them from boarding any plane that traverses US airspace, deny their spouse the immigration benefit needed to get married and live together in this country, as well as causing people to be handcuffed at gunpoint during a traffic stop. In short, it’s a substantial power without precedent in American history. 

Congress did not give the FBI this authority. Nor does its watchlist derive from any law. Even the presidential executive order that supposedly gave rise to this list did not put the FBI in charge. Instead, an agreement among several agencies put it, along with all the authorities having a list, in the bureau’s hands. 

Despite calls from Khairullah and several members of the New Jersey congressional delegation, including New Jersey’s Senators Cory Booker (D) and Bob Menendez (D) and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D) to provide a “detailed explanation of what occurred and why,” to “provide Mayor Khairullah with the substantive reasons he was denied admission,” and a “review of Mayor Khairullah’s status” on the FBI’s list, the agency has been silent, claiming a need for secrecy to avoid explaining what happened and why. But beyond this high-profile event, other people on the watchlist are denied access to military bases, some public buildings and other government-secured areas.

But neither the FBI nor any other government agency should have a secret list. They’ve abused the one they have now, and there’s no such thing as a good, lawful kind of secret government list made available to hundreds of thousands of government actors. It’s time to bring this practice to a close.

That is why Rep. Katie Porter’s (D-Calif.) congressional letter of June this year to President Biden has expressed “deep concern with disparity in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s terrorism watchlists” and called on the administration to “take all necessary steps to prevent the watchlist from being managed or applied in a way that disproportionately harms Muslims.” Congresswoman Porter has followed up by introducing an amendment that would require the administration to provide Congress answers on how its watch listing system is consistent with constitutional rights. 

For 20 years, the FBI’s secret list has brought hardship and fear to the Muslim community. But the FBI’s next million targets won’t be Muslim. With the War on Terror fog lifting, the FBI’s secret list will one day find a new target — our fellow Americans. This report is meant as a warning to them. 

We are raising the alarm. This can and will happen to all of us, from every community, even those beyond the Muslims currently on the FBI’s list. We call on all Americans to join our demand that the FBI stop sharing its secret list as a first step to responsibly disposing of it.

Justin Sadowsky is a trial attorney. Gadeir Abbas is an attorney with CAIR.

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