Border Incident Angers
By Kevin Johnson Washington,
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
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)