A California man is suing federal officials on charges that, in retaliation for his refusal to become an FBI informant, he was kept on the secretive terrorist watchlist and unfairly denied critical security clearance for a truck-driving job. Mohamed Al Seraji, who is Muslim, says he was the sole source of financial support for his family after his father passed away and, due to the discrimination he faced, he lost an employment offer, throwing his family into significant hardship.
“It’s upsetting. It’s stigmatizing in the community,” said Charles Swift, director and counsel for the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, which filed the lawsuit in early September. “It affects his ability to earn a living, which means his family has less food, period. It’s that simple.”
Born in Yemen, 23-year-old Al Seraji become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009. While in college, he worked as an Uber driver to support his family and, according to the complaint, he eventually had to drop out” and “look for a full-time job.”
Al Seraji attended the Toro School of Truck Driving and received his commercial driver’s license from the state of California in September 2015, the complaint states. Soon after, he says he was offered a Los Angeles area job by “Emirates Shipping Line,” described in the filing as a “well-regarded shipping company.” The job offer was allegedly contingent on Al Seraji receiving a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card, which grants access to areas that are designated secure by the Department of Homeland Security.
In October, Al Seraji submitted his TWIC application to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and, soon after, allegedly received a phone call from a representative for the agency requesting that he come in for an interview. “When Plaintiff arrived, he was surprised by the presence of FBI Agent Nicholas Vicencia,” the lawsuit states.
According to the filing, Vicencia “began questioning Plaintiff regarding whether he had been sent by someone in Yemen to work in American ports” and asked him whether he has ties to “local or religious organizations other than his mosque.”
Al Seraji was also pressed about his relationship with Mohanad Badawi, who was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of conspiring to support ISIS. According to the lawsuit, Vicencia “asked whether Plaintiff and Badawi have discussed terrorism; Plaintiff said, ‘No,’ and clarified that he merely had brief conversations with him at the mosque.”
Vicencia then allegedly asked Al Seraji to provide his user names for all of his social media accounts, and the young man agreed, in what the lawsuit charges constituted one of many deviations from standard procedure.
Despite his compliance, Al Seraji allegedly received notification in December that his application had been denied because he was deemed to be a security threat, thereby precluding his employment at Emirates Shipping Line.
According to his attorneys, Al Seraji was likely rejected because he is included on the federal terrorist watchlist. “He was never shown that he was on the watchlist, but he was told that he was a security threat,” Christina Jump, senior staff attorney for the Center, told AlterNet. “One potential reason a person could be denied a TWIC card is inclusion on the list. There has been no response positive or negative from the government on whether he is on the list. That is one of the challenges. Because he doesn’t know for sure if he is on the list, he can’t challenge it.”
Under the Obama administration, the federal watchlisting system has been steadily expanding. Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux of the Intercept reported in 2014 that the Obama administration “has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither ‘concrete facts’ nor ‘irrefutable’ evidence’ to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist.” According to their reporting on leaked government materials, there were at least 680,000 people on the watchlist at the time, more than 40 percent of whom were “described by the government has having ‘no recognized terrorist group affiliation.’”
A class-action lawsuit filed in April by the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations charges, “Through extra‐judicial and secret means, the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse as a result of the shockingly large federal watchlist that now include hundreds of thousands of individuals.” According to that lawsuit, an infant as young as seven months old was included on the watchlist.
Not long after his TWIC application was rejected, Al Seraji was allegedly given an opportunity to clear his name in exchange for becoming an FBI informant.
One day, Al Seraji received a call from Vicencia, who “told Plaintiff that he was outside of Plaintiff’s house and wanted to come in and get to know Plaintiff better,” according to the lawsuit. Al Seraji allegedly declined to talk without the presence of his lawyer.
In a subsequent meeting with the lawyer present, Vicencia said that “the FBI was aware that Plaintiff’s father had passed away and that Plaintiff was the primary caretaker of his family,” the lawsuit states. “Agent Vicencia stated that the FBI would like to ‘help’ Plaintiff with the TWIC card situation, and implied he would be willing to assist if Plaintiff could assist the FBI.”
Vicencia then allegedly stated that the FBI “would like Plaintiff to be the government’s ‘eyes and ears on the ground’ to ‘stop another San Bernardino from happening.'”
When Al Seraji said he was unwilling to work as an informant, Vicencia “ended the meeting abruptly” and “told Plaintiff that he would not receive a TWIC card,” according to the lawsuit.
To this day, Al Seraji’s lawyers believe he remains on the federal watchlist.
Now, Al Seraji is suing officials from the TSA, DHS, FBI, Terrorism Screening Center and Department of Justice, on the grounds that the government violated his rights to due process and equal protection, as well as the Maritime Transportation Security Act, Administrative Procedural Act and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
This is not the first lawsuit of its kind. In the filing Tanvir v. Holder, four Muslim plaintiffs charged that the FBI put them or kept them on the secretive federal no-fly list in retaliation for their refusal to inform on their communities. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs in the ongoing case, “As a result of their placement on the No-Fly List and the FBI’s unwarranted scrutiny, some of the men were not able to see family members overseas for years. One was not able to visit his gravely ill 93-year-old grandmother; another was separated from his wife and three young daughters for roughly five years; a third was unable to see his wife for nearly two years.”
But lawyers say for more cases of FBI strong arming go un-litigated.
“There is no question that we at the Center and lawyers who do national security cases often encounter stories of people who have been pressed by the FBI to work for them and become informants,” Linda Moreno, who is acting as counsel to the Center, told AlterNet. “When they refuse or decline, they find themselves in some sort of trouble. This is ubiquitous around the United States.” According to Moreno, no one yet has been successful in their efforts to sue the government for such retaliation.
The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for an interview, and the DOJ and TSA declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
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