TERRORISMThe Hidden Cost of Being Branded a Terrorist by the U.S. Government

By Masood Farivar

Published 17 January 2024

The FBI credits its Terror Watchlist with keeping the country safe, but critics point to the experience of thousands of innocent American Muslims who were swept up by a screening system, and then found themselves trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare as they tried to clear their names. The watchlist currently contains nearly two million names, of which about 15,000 are U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Mirrakhmat Muminov’s American dream came crashing down on a snowy road near Great Falls, Montana.

It was December 2009. Muminov, then 30, was a refugee from persecution in his native Uzbekistan. He had recently obtained an American green card and bought his own truck, hauling cars from the East Coast to the Canadian border. He thought he had found freedom and opportunity in his adopted country.

But as he waited outside a service center, he had a surprise encounter with agents of the Department of Homeland Security.

With guns drawn, the agents forced him on the slush-covered ground, handcuffed and searched him, and then drove him to a DHS office in Great Falls.

There, in small room with blackened windows, they grilled him for hours about his past, his faith, his mosque.

Who are you? Are you a Shia? Are you a Sunni? Do you speak Arabic? Do you understand Arabic? Do you like America?

After more than four hours of relentless questioning, the agents released Muminov without any charges, saying only that he had been picked up randomly.

Muminov felt as if he were back in Uzbekistan, where security forces routinely rounded up devout Muslims and political activists like him.

Shaken by his ordeal, Muminov sought guidance from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group.

“What you’re describing,” Muminov recalls a CAIR lawyer telling him, “is what we see over and over all across the country.”

Then, the lawyer dropped a bombshell.

“You’re definitely on the watchlist.” the lawyer declared.

Muminov was stunned. He had been fully vetted before being allowed to migrate to the United States three years earlier.

It must be a mistake, he thought, sure he could clear his name with a lawyer’s help.

“I was saying, ‘This is America. You can fight for your rights,’” Muminov recalls telling CAIR. “I could file a lawsuit or a complaint. I was saying to the CAIR officials, ‘Let’s do the file.’”

But exonerating himself proved harder than he imagined. Once on the watchlist, it was nearly impossible to get off. There was no appeal process.

Warned by CAIR, he braced for security hassles at airports and border crossings. That was the price of being watchlisted.

Little did he know that this was just the beginning of a long and painful struggle that would upend his life and eventually force him into a tough decision to relocate out of the country he’d come to love.