Border Incident Angers Muslims
By Kevin Johnson Washington, DC:

The Department of Homeland Security is examining the detentions and interrogations of dozens of Muslims who were stopped at border crossings in Upstate New York while returning to the USA from Canada in December, DHS spokeswoman Kristi Clemens said Tuesday. The moves by the DHS' civil rights and inspector general's offices come after an emotional meeting last week in Buffalo between members of the local Muslim Public Affairs Council and Michael Battle, the US attorney there. Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim group, said several Buffalo-area Muslims complained that they were unnecessarily held, fingerprinted and questioned by border agents for more than four hours. He said it was "degrading, humiliating and dishonorable." The DHS inquiries will examine whether US border agents incorrectly detained the Muslims by misusing a government database that is aimed at identifying potential terrorism suspects and violent gang members. The list, which is kept by the FBI and is known as the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File (VGTOF), is part of a network of databases that have been compiled by US agencies since the Sept. 11 attacks to monitor traffic at border crossings and airports.

The VGTOF list includes hundreds of names. It has been expanded during the past three years to include "associates" of suspected terrorists and gang leaders. The FBI acknowledges that in some cases, people have been flagged for increased scrutiny only because their names are similar to someone who has been targeted for surveillance, or because they unwittingly have had contact with the targets. Under federal guidelines, such "associates" are not supposed to be detained or questioned. US agents who come across them are merely supposed to make note of them as possible contacts in investigations. But recently, the FBI has received complaints that people with no apparent links to terrorism or gangs are being held for hours with little or no explanation at border crossings in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, NY. Clemens said that when the December detentions occurred, agents were acting on new intelligence reports that indicated crossings in the Buffalo area might be used by associates of potential terrorists to smuggle fake travel documents into the USA. Clemens said the reports also suggested the crossings could be used by those traveling to Canada to raise funds for terrorism.

The Buffalo area has been the focus of counter-terrorism efforts before. In the past two years, six men from nearby Lackawanna who trained at an al-Qaeda camp pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists. They got prison terms of seven to 10 years. Qazi, a Buffalo physician, said that as many as 50 members of the area's Muslim community were detained at the border in December. He said many were stopped while returning from a conference called Reviving the Islamic Spirit, held Dec. 25-26 in Toronto. Karema Atassi said she was detained along with her husband, Tamer Osman, and 7-month-old son, Ismail. She said the three, all US citizens, were held from 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 26 until 4:30 the next morning. When they got to the border station, Atassi said, there were "25 to 30 Muslims" there, waiting to be processed.

At one point, Atassi said, her husband was interrogated in a separate room. "We all demanded why we were being held and what were they looking for," Atassi said in a written statement offered at last week's meeting. "No answer was ever given. Our only sin was being Muslim and attending (a convention) ... about peace, unity and understanding." Battle, the US attorney, said that after the meeting he sought help from DHS. "We're very aware of the concerns," he said. "These were American citizens delayed at the border, and when they made inquiries about why, they weren't getting answers. We want to ... bring closure to this." (Courtesy USA TODAY)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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