When Yonas Fikre stepped off a luxury private jet at Portland airport last month, the only passenger on a $200,000 flight from Sweden, he braced for the worst.
Would the FBI be waiting? That would mean more interrogation, maybe arrest. But he told himself that whatever happened it could hardly be as bad as the months of torture he endured in a foreign jail before years of exile in Scandinavia.
A US immigration officer boarded the plane and asked for his passport. Fikre handed over the flimsy travel document that was valid for a single flight to the US. The officer said all was in order. He was free to go.
“I don’t think they knew who I was. I think they thought I was just some rich guy who’d come on a private jet. A rapper or someone,” said Fikre.
The 36-year-old Eritrean-born American was finally back in Portland at the end of a five-year odyssey that began with a simple business trip but landed him in an Arab prison where he alleges he was tortured at the behest of US anti-terrorism officials because he refused to become an informant at his mosque in Oregon.
Fikre is suing the FBI, two of its agents and other American officials for allegedly putting him on the US’s no-fly list – a roster of suspected terrorists barred from taking commercial flights – to pressure him to collaborate. When that failed, the lawsuit said, the FBI had him arrested, interrogated and tortured for 106 days in the United Arab Emirates.
As shocking as the claims are, they are not the first to emanate from worshippers at Fikre’s mosque in Portland, where at least nine members have been barred from flying by the US authorities.
“The no-fly list gives the FBI an extrajudicial tool to coerce Muslims to become informants,” said Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer who represents other clients on the list. “There’s definitely a cluster of cases like this at the FBI’s Portland office.”
They include Jamal Tarhuni, a 58 year-old Portland businessman who travelled to Libya with a Christian charity, Medical Teams International, in 2012. He was blocked from flying back to the US and interrogated by an FBI agent who pressed him to sign a document waving his constitutional rights.
“The no-fly list is being used to intimidate and coerce people – not for protection, but instead for aggression,” said Tarhuni after getting back to Portland a month later. He was removed from the no-fly list in February after a federal lawsuit.
Detained, then put on the no-fly list
Another member of the mosque, Michael Migliore, chose to emigrate to live with his mother in Italy because he was placed on a no-fly list after refusing to answer FBI questions without a lawyer or become an informant. He had to take a train to New York and a ship to England. In the UK, he was detained under anti-terrorism legislation. Migliore said his British lawyer told him it was at the behest of US officials.
“We have a name for it: proxy detention,” said Abbas, Migliore’s lawyer. “It’s something the FBI does regularly. It’s not uncommon for American Muslims to travel outside the US and find they can’t fly back and then they get approached by law enforcement to answer questions at the behest of the Americans.”
Fikre’s problems began not long after he travelled to Khartoum to set up an electronics import business. He still had relatives in Sudan after his family fled there when he was a child to escape conflict in Eritrea. Fikre’s family arrived to California as refugees when he was 13 and he moved to Portland in 2006 where he worked for a mobile phone company.
Not long after he arrived in Khartoum in June 2010, Fikre went to the US embassy to seek advice from its commercial section. A couple of days later he was invited back to what he was told would be a briefing for US citizens on the security situation. Instead he found himself in a small room with two men.
“They pulled out their badges. They mentioned their names and said they were from the FBI Portland field office,” he said.
The agents were David Noordeloos and Jason Dundas, both attached to the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the FBI office in Portland. Fikre was immediately suspicious because of the agents’ duplicity in luring him to the embassy.
“They said, we just want to ask you a few questions. Right away I invoked my right to have a lawyer. Then they became threatening,” he said.
Fikre said it swiftly became clear the agents wanted information about his mosque in Portland, Masjed As-Saber.
The mosque is the largest in Oregon and drew the FBI’s attention not long after 9/11. In 2002, four years before Fikre arrived in Portland, seven members of its congregation were charged for attempting to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Six received prison sentences. A seventh was killed in Afghanistan.