Mohamed Farah has testified before Congress, conferred with the State Department and met with the secretary of Homeland Security. Two weeks ago, he was among a select group invited to the White House for President Obama’s counterterrorism summit.
But despite security clearances from the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, the Somali youth leader from Minneapolis says he cannot board a plane at the Twin Cities airport without being stopped and double-screened by agents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
En route to the White House last month, Farah was pulled aside by local TSA agents, who conducted a body search and uttered a demeaning comment before clearing him. After the summit, he said, he endured the same profiling at Washington’s Reagan International Airport before he boarded a flight home.
“You are treated as a second-class citizen,” Farah said, “when you’re trying to change the narrative about being Somali.”
Farah, 30, is among a group of prominent Somali-American leaders in Minnesota who, in recent interviews, described what they say is an ongoing pattern of racial profiling and harassment by TSA agents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
Their anger helps explain why many Twin Cities Muslims voice skepticism toward the Justice Department’s new community outreach program to battle terrorist recruitment, and it underscores the challenge faced by Minnesota’s U.S. attorney and federal security agencies as they try to build trust in the Somali community.
“You are made to feel as if you are an outcast,” Farah said of his recent screening experiences. “When they finally gave me back my ticket, one of the TSA agents asked me, ‘Hey, were you going to make a run for it if I hadn’t given your ticket back?’ ”
Recognizing the corrosive potential of such incidents, TSA and customs officials said this week they are moving quickly to address the complaints.
The agencies told the Star Tribune they will be sending special teams to meet with local Somalis and anyone who believes they are being stopped at the airport without cause. It appears to be a first-time effort by both agencies to build credibility by meeting directly with members of a specific community to provide assistance with travel and documentation.
TSA and customs officials say they face a daunting mission: Tracking terror threats and screening up to 30,000 travelers daily at the Twin Cities airport, while avoiding the perception of racial profiling. The challenge is especially critical in the Twin Cities, where Somali youth are being aggressively recruited to join terrorist groups in the Middle East.
The balancing act has drawn personal empathy from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who visited the Twin Cities in November.
“There are people here who say they’d rather fly out of Chicago,” the angered secretary told reporters after meeting with members of the Somali community. Johnson, who is black, ended his remarks by saying, “I think I understand what is like to be the object of profiling.”
TSA and customs officials flatly deny that they use racial profiling and say they have taken pains to meet with Twin Cities Somalis.
“We don’t stop people based on where they were born or how they dress,” said Bill Ferrara, Chicago field director for Customs and Border Protection. “We question people based on where they’re coming from.”
Cliff Van Leuven, TSA security director for Minnesota, said Friday he has not received any complaints about mistreatment at the airport. He said he has taken every meeting, lunch and tea with any Somali who asked to air concerns. “We don’t profile, we don’t discriminate, but we have a serious security job to do,” he said.
Imams and elders, he noted, tell him: “ ‘We’re American citizens, too, and we want to be safe.’ ” As for Farah’s alleged recent airport mistreatment, he said, “That is certainly not acceptable behavior” and vowed to look into the incident.
‘I wish I had answers’
Such measures have not stopped a steady stream of complaints to elected leaders.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, a practicing Muslim, said he has fielded about two dozen complaints in the last several years over treatment of Somalis at the airport. He says he has tried to get answers from the federal agencies to no avail.
“We don’t understand their program because no one seems to be getting any relief from it,” Ellison said. “They assure us in letters that they take these complaints seriously, but I wish I had answers.”
Since Andy Luger became Minnesota’s U.S. attorney a year ago, he has made it a priority to work with TSA and customs officials to change perceptions in the Muslim community. In December the agencies hosted about 30 Somali elders at the airport, trying to resolve grievances and explaining how customs and TSA carry out their duties.
“I have listened carefully to members of the Somali community,” Luger said. “I’m very excited about the partnership between TSA and CBP to continue community engagement.”
Ferrara said his staff tried to explain the duties, protocols and training of TSA agents and Customs officers. “We tried to answer questions, ‘Why me, how come every time I come through this happens?’ ”
In addition, Somalis who travel internationally will be encouraged to enroll in Customs’ Global Entry Trusted Traveler program, a background check designed to expedite travel.
Three law degrees
When Hassan Mohamud returns to the Twin Cities airport from a trip, his wife is no longer there waiting by baggage claim. She’s seen him go through too many delays and indignities, he said, even though he has proper travel documentation.
Mohamud, who’s lived in the United States for nearly 20 years, said he’s puzzled that he would arouse suspicion. He holds three law degrees — from universities in Somalia, Egypt and the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul — and is an imam who has served on an advisory board for the Minneapolis Police Department. In addition, he said, he has a TSA control number from the agency’s “redress” program that is supposed to identify him in government databases as a traveler with proper documentation.
“It doesn’t help,” he said.
Now, he says, when he is stopped at the airport, he uses the occasion to explain why people should not fear Islam. “Allah was not supposed to be treated as he was, and I am following his experiences,” he said. “Be a man who has endurance.”
When he flew back to Minnesota from a conference in Rwanda in January, stopping in Amsterdam, he said U.S. customs agents pulled him aside for questioning, made copies of his documents and searched his luggage. He said he was never told the reason why.
Allison Sherry 202-383-6120