How the Hunt for Bin Laden Made U.S. Muslims and Immigrants Threats

The massive national security apparatus built in the wake of 9/11 reshaped life at our borders and in our communities.

By Seth Freed Wessler May 04, 2011

Ten years after Sept. 11, 2001, the animating target of the war on terror is dead, his body cast into the sea. A chapter is closed. Yet, in many communities here in the United States, it seemed the target was never just Osama bin Laden. For Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., and for those lumped carelessly together with them, the war on terrorism has not been an abstraction waged in far off lands, but a fight that’s engulfed communities right here at home.

In the long decade since Al Qaeda accomplished the unthinkable, slaughtering thousands and ushering in a global war that’s taken countless more lives, the U.S. has massively expanded anti-terrorism operations within our own borders. The homeland security infrastructure quickly erected in the attack’s aftermath regularly targets men and women who have nothing to do with terrorism, while making racial profiling and mass deportation a regular feature of life.

Less than a month after 9/11, George W. Bush launched the Office of Homeland Security, which would soon become the Department of Homeland Security. As the Department of Defense led our military into one, two, and then three wars, the Department of Homeland Security was charged with defending against the barbarians at the gates, or worse, those already in our midst. To fight the menace, DHS consolidated more than 20 agencies into one mamouth department.

Perhaps the most consequential element of this bureaucratic shift was the decision to move the regulation of immigration and borders into the realm of anti-terrorism. Overnight, decisions about who would be allowed to enter and who would be forced to leave were refracted through a lens of national security. Non-citizens and those traveling through our ports became threats by definition–people to be secured against.

Racial Profiling as National Security

Muslims in the U.S. became the most ominous threat, by policy. The Department of Homeland Security created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), commonly called "Special Registration," which functioned as a deportation net specifically for Muslims. As Colorlines’ Channing Kennedy wrote in April:

Initiated in September 2002, NSEERS functioned like Arizona’s SB 1070, with working-class Muslims as the target. Its first phase required all non-citizen male residents, ages 16 to 65, from a list of "suspect" nations, to register at INS offices. Thousands of families went out of their way to comply with the law, thinking it would be part of the government-sponsored pathways to citizenship that they were already participating in. Instead, in July 2003, the Washington Post reported it as the deportation of "the largest number of visitors from Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries in U.S. history–more than 13,000 of the nearly 83,000 men older than 16 who complied with the registration program by various deadlines between last September and April."

Last week, the federal government officially ended the NSEERS program. That, says Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan, "is hugely important. A victory. But we have a long, long way."

Indeed, a new report released today jointly by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the NYU Law School and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund (AALDEF) finds that even without the explicit racial and religious targeting built into Special Registration, the Department of Homeland Security continues to push Muslims into detention and deportation in equally insidious, but less formal ways.

Tareq Abu Fayad, a young Saudi man profiled in the report, has been detained for four years, since trying to enter the country with a valid immigration visa. Agents at the San Francisco airport deemed him a possible terrorist threat because he had saved Al Jazeera articles and September 11 conspiracy theory series on his laptop. He was ordered deported. He appealed the ruling, but a circuit court upheld the order.

Sameer Ahmed, an attorney at AALDEF, explains, "After 9/11 the Bush administration was more than clear that it would use the immigration legal system to target people they deemed to be possible threats. The reason they decided to do this, rather than to only use the criminal system, is that the immigration system does not afford individuals the same rights and due process that exist in criminal law."

Fayad could never have been tried criminally because he’d never done anything to warrant criminal charges, but in immigration court the government can have him removed.

"We’re seeing a trend where Muslims are being deported, detained and denied entry into the United States for no good reason except tenuous affiliations or unsubstantiated claims," said Ahmed.

Borders and airports are often the points where non-citizens are first detained. Muslims and Arabs now face a dense layer of racial profiling when traveling through airports and borders. Dawud Walid of CAIR explains that for communities in and around Detroit and Dearborn, Mich., which has one of the county’s largest Arab populations, "the issues at the border with border patrol are huge. People coming back from Canada and some are detained for hours, cuffed and asked questions about religious practice, about how many times they pray, ridiculous questions that have nothing to do with crime."

That’s because they have committed no crime.

The FBI’s Manufactured Threats

Of course, in the absence of actual crimes and real threats, the massive domestic security apparatus has simply created them. The FBI, in its search for "homegrown" Bin Ladens, has repeatedly used secret informant-instigators to manufacture terrorist plots and then entice disaffected young men of color to get involved.

According to a 2010 investigation by "Democracy Now!," an FBI informant allegedly entrapped four black Muslim men from a poor neighborhood in Newburgh, N.Y., pushing them to participate in a concocted attack on a synagogue in the area.

The government argues that the Newburgh men’s participation in the fake plot proves that they were predisposed to terrorism. "Those who characterize the FBI’s activities in this case as ‘entrapment’ simply do not have their facts straight–or do not have a full understanding of the law," Attorney General Eric Holder said. But the defense contends that the men would never have committed any act of violence were it not for the FBI’s fabrication of a plot and its concerted campaign to convince them to join it.

The broad use of manufactured plots and informants are not the Department of Justice’s only shady homeland security practices. A recent investigation in the Washington Monthly digs into the world of unchecked anti-terrorism training programs for local and state government. The programs, funded with billions in federal dollars, are often run by sideshow figures that make their money purportedly teaching local cops how to spot a terrorist. In one such class in Florida, 60 cops listened as a private-sector anti-terrorism "expert" explained Islam and how to deal with Muslims:

"Anyone who says that Islam is a religion of peace is either ignorant or flat out lying…. The best way to handle these people is what I call legal harassment."

The training efforts, which is one of many around the country, fit squarely within a set of Department of Justice programs meant to use local police to report "suspicious activity" to the feds–suspicious activity explained by an unabashed islamophobe.

All of this is the legacy of our government’s hunt for Bin Laden. Now that U.S. forces have killed him, Muslim communities in the U.S. are left wondering what happens next.

"This is a time for closure for the victims of 9/11 and in fact for all victims of terrorism all over the world," said Hassan Jaber, the director of an Arab American social services organization in Dearborn called ACCESS. "The conversation after 9/11, that there is a clash of civilizations, really that was never the case and that theory did not work in real life."

There are sadly few signs, however, that the internal security apparatus constructed to meet that post-9/11 view of the world will die with Bin Laden.

"I think the targeting of Muslims has gotten worse during the Obama administration," says Dawud Walid of CAIR. "Just recently, FBI interrogations, which many people call fishing expeditions, have occurred and we have had people [in Michigan] who were asked by the FBI about their political viewpoints about what’s happening in Arab countries, in the so-called Arab Spring."

The search for terrorists continues.

*This article has been altered since publication.