Islamists are fuming after one of their own, a long-serving mayor from Prospect Park, New Jersey, was unceremoniously disinvited from a May 1 White House dinner belatedly marking the end of Ramadan. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a controversial Islamist nonprofit posing as a Muslim rights group, mobilized a nationwide media blitz on behalf of Mayor Mohammed Khairullah, who reportedly lost the chance to mingle with White House elites after his name came up on a government watchlist.
Apparently unwilling to waste a perfectly good controversy, CAIR leaders took the opportunity nearly a month later to turn Khairullah’s snubbing into a teachable moment – a lecture about the nuances of government watchlists and how they are supposedly used to harass and intimidate law-abiding Muslims. Writing for the activist news outlet Common Dreams, CAIR’s Robert McCaw and Justin Sadowsky called on the Biden administration to “end” the “Islamophobic watchlist,” which they referred to as “a nightmare of a list.”
Despite spending two decades fighting the terrorist watchlist in courtrooms, congressional hearings, and PR campaigns, CAIR officials are surprisingly misinformed about the government’s system of monitoring “known or suspected terrorists.” McCaw, CAIR’s government affairs manager, and Sadowsky, a trial attorney for CAIR, published an anti-government diatribe that is littered with embarrassing errors and half-truths.
Indeed, they don’t even get the name right of the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), the unclassified watchlist that government agencies use to house and share the names of 1.5 million potential terrorists.
McCaw and Sadowsky correctly wrote that the George W. Bush administration established the terrorist watchlist in the aftermath of 9/11, but the facts about the program appear to end here. The list was first officially called the “‘Terrorist Screening Database,’” the co-authors explained, before it was suddenly renamed the “Terrorist Screening Dataset.”
This is false. According to Andrew Arthur at the Center for Immigration Studies, the TSDB was not retired. Rather, the Terrorist Screening Dataset is unique to the Customs and Border Protection Agency and includes not just known and suspected terrorists, but individuals associated with terrorists. It makes sense that customs agents would work from this broader dataset, given the frequency of encounters with individuals looking to covertly cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
The authors’ confusion with naming conventions continued. The government institution that maintains the TSDB is apparently “an organization the FBI made up,” readers are told, “though the FBI cannot decide” whether to call it the “‘Terrorist Screening Center’ or ‘Threat Screening Center,’” according to the authors.
First, the FBI did not invent the Terrorist Screening Center. Rather, it was established in 2003 by Homeland Security Presidential Directive-6, which directed the Attorney General to create a new organization that would consolidate the government’s 12 separate anti-terrorism watchlists.
Second, the Terrorist Screening Center was renamed in 2021 as the Threat Screening Center. Contrary to CAIR’s opinion, there was no dithering among agencies or uncertainty about the new name. Law enforcement around the country were notified of the change in a system-wide update.
From here, McCaw and Sadowsky’s essay descended into new lows, vastly understating the TSDB’s potential to prevent acts of terrorism.
“This whole nightmare of a list might be defensible if it made us safer, but it doesn’t,” the authors claimed, arguing that the watchlist has failed to prevent a single act of terror.
When a would-be terrorist is blocked from entering the U.S. as a result of their listing in a terrorism database, there are no headlines or FBI press releases to tell the story. Therefore, Americans will never know just how effective the TSDB is at its intended purpose.
That didn’t stop McCaw and Sadowsky from hazarding a guess. The CAIR duo insisted that the “closest thing to any domestic terrorist attack committed by someone on the watchlist was a teenager who attempted to attack three police officers.” This “teenager” was Trevor Bickford, a 19-year-old “Islamic extremist” who used an 18-inch machete to brutally assault three unsuspecting cops at last year’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square.
“Other than that, CAIR is not aware of anyone charged for engaging in terrorist-related activity while on the watchlist” the pair wrote. Ready to pull the plug on the entire program, they declared: “The government’s experiment in pre-crime has failed.”
Not so fast. For CAIR’s information, Bickford is hardly the “closest thing” to an individual on the watchlist who participated in terrorist activity. The actual list of examples include some of the most notorious terrorists in American history.
This includes Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was placed on a terrorist watchlist 18 months prior to carrying out the deadly Boston Marathon bombing, following tips from Russian authorities. Nevertheless, the co-authors balked at the idea that “even foreign countries can nominate people to the list.”
In 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an Al Qaeda member, set off a bomb hidden in his underpants while on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, badly burning himself when the device failed to properly detonate. At the time of the attack, Abdulmutallab was listed on a classified version of the terrorist watchlist that feeds the TSDB.
The TSDB was instrumental in apprehending a terrorist who set off a car bomb in New York’s Time Square on May 1, 2010. Investigators quickly identified Faisal Shahzad as the culprit behind the bombing and added his name to the “no-fly list,” a subgroup of TSDB listees barred from boarding commercial airplanes. Customs agents spotted Shahzad’s name on the watchlist during a “final check” and made the arrest just minutes before his flight was due to depart for Pakistan.
Another infamous killer, Omar Mateen, was on the TSDB for 10 months before carrying out the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting rampage in Orlando, Florida. However, authorities removed his name from the watchlist prior to the attack after Mateen was twice interviewed and cleared by FBI agents.
The failure of law enforcement to stop terrorists on the watchlist before they carried out their murderous plans – as in the cases of Tsarnaev, Abdulmutallab, and Mateen – is hardly a reasonable argument for less robust screening and enforcement procedures. Placement on the TSDB does not automatically trigger police surveillance; it does not ban listees from purchasing firearms, and officers may not even detain a suspected terrorist simply for appearing on the list.
This might be confusing for CAIR and its clients. Mayor Khairullah, who complained that customs agents temporarily detained and interrogated him at the airport and while crossing the U.S.-Canada border, is on the “selectee list,” another sub-category of the TSDB that subjects travelers to additional screening.
It turns out that the very pretense for CAIR’s anti-watchlist exposé – Khairullah’s disinvitation from a White House dinner – is likewise grounded in misconceptions. The mayor, who McCaw and Sadowsky insist “has never been accused of any wrongdoing or crime,” was profiled in 2019 by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which uncovered numerous troubling terrorism connections, including publicly sympathizing with ISIS.
Common Dreams did not respond to a request to issue a correction regarding false statements appearing in the May 30 article on its website. Contacted by email, McCaw also ignored a request to comment or correct the record.
To be certain, the TSDB is far from perfect. A database of its size naturally contains a massive number of duplicate names, and the Threat Screening Center has not been timely in correcting erroneous entries and removing them from the database.
Yet, CAIR officials are not seeking to reform the terrorist watchlist; they want to “disband” it altogether, a policy that presents enormous national security implications for all Americans. In reality, the Secret Service’s decision to blacklist Khairullah and keep him far away from the president demonstrates that, at least in this case, the terrorist watchlist is working as advertised.
Benjamin Baird is the Director of MEF Action, an advocacy project of the Middle East Forum.