Minneapolis imam pleased to be off no-fly list

Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad
Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad, the imam of Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis, learned this week he was taken off the federal no-fly list. The spiritual leader said he tested the new information by flying to and from Chicago on Tuesday. The flights went without a hitch, he said.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The imam of a Minneapolis mosque that has been associated with the disappearances of nearly 20 Somali men says he believes, in his words, "that the Constitution works."

That's because Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad learned this week that he has been taken off the federal no-fly list.

Ahmad was banned from flying to Saudi Arabia one year ago for unknown reasons. All along, he has maintained his innocence in a sweeping federal investigation into a number of young worshippers who allegedly left to fight with Islamic insurgents in their native Somalia.

Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad was elated when his attorney called him this week with good news. He said the FBI confirmed that Ahmad was no longer on the no-fly list.

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So, the leader of the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque put this new information to the test Tuesday, flying to and from Chicago in a single day.

"Instead of taking six hours to drive to Chicago, it took 50 minutes to fly," he said.

Ahmad said he celebrated his reclaimed freedom with relatives and friends in the Windy City.

It was a big change for Ahmad, who has driven to places as far as Seattle to help open a mosque and San Diego to visit family. He said the fact that he can now fly is a clear vindication against suspicions by some people in the local Somali community suggesting he may have indoctrinated young men who attended his mosque, and may have helped them lure them into a war zone on behalf of terrorist groups like al-Shabaab.

But, he said the earlier restrictions are still a mystery to him.

Abdulahi Farah
Abdulahi Farah, the mosque's volunteer youth coordinator, was barred from boarding a plane last November to Saudi Arabia with the mosque's imam. While the imam has since learned he has been taken off the no-fly list, Farah said he does not know his status and is nervous about flying again.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"While I do not understand to this day the reasons for imposing these restrictions, nor have the authorities offered an explanation, I'm indeed happy that they have been removed," Ahmad said.

But the FBI said it could not comment on Ahmad's status, citing security reasons and a policy not to discuss individual cases.

"We can't confirm that he was on the list, much less that he's off it, or why he's off it, or why he was on it in the first place," said Special Agent E.K. Wilson, a spokesman for the Minneapolis office of the FBI.

The government can place people on the terrorism watch list if they have reasonable suspicion to believe they're involved in terrorist activities. A spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center stressed that he had no knowledge of Ahmad's individual case, but he said generally, people land on the list when the investigations into those individuals are beginning, and they're removed when the investigations end.

Individuals can also be taken off the list and added back onto it.

In most cases, people who are on the list aren't told when they've been taken off of it.

"It's sort of being in a black hole. You don't know where you are," said 29-year-old Abdulahi Farah.

Farah was also planning to travel with Ahmad to Saudi Arabia last fall when he was also told he could not board the plane. Farah is the youth coordinator at Abubakar and also is an active outreach worker in the Somali community and recently created a new Muslim Boy Scout troop.

A U.S. Citizen, Farah remembers that day at the airport as the best day and the worst day of his life.

"I got married a week before, and I was still in my honeymoon period, and everyone was congratulating me and my wife because we were going to go to Hajj right after we were married," he said. "Not many young people get to do something like that."

He remembers being delayed at the ticket counter. Then a man who worked at the airport pulled him aside.

"He hesitated and said, 'You're on the no-fly list.' I didn't know the term," Farah said. "I said, 'What is the no-fly list? Why am I on the no-fly list?'"

Farah said over the next few months, he felt humiliation and indignation, and even sadness. He filed for redress with the Department of Homeland Security and was assigned a case number online. But the last time he checked his case, he was told, "in progress." Lately, he said, he has tried to not think about it, and he's nervous about the next time he flies.

While Farah doesn't know why he was put on the list, he has wondered if it's because he shares the same name as a man who was pulled over near Las Vegas last month. Another Twin Cities man in the car was charged recently with lying to federal authorities.

Some Somalis in Minnesota have told MPR News in interviews that the leaders of the mosque should have been responsible for keeping the young people safe. But Farah said that kind of finger-pointing doesn't allow for personal accountability.

"Unless the person is willing to share with you, there's no way to know what the person is going to do next,' Farah said. "And I think it's unfair for to hold someone accountable for the actions of someone else."

He notes that the young men didn't even tell their own families that they were going to Somalia.

As for Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad, his trial flight to Chicago this week wasn't just for kicks. He's planning to lead a group of Muslims on their annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia next week, and he said he didn't want to risk being stopped at the airport again.