It didn't seem terribly strange to Kevin Iraniha when an FBI agent showed up at his door in August 2011 just after he returned from a whirlwind trip through India, Egypt and Iran.
The 27-year-old Iranian American says the agent was "very friendly" and just kept repeating that, "You have been to a lot more places than we have and our job is to build relationships so if you see anything out of the ordinary and since you're involved in certain things that we're not involved in, and have expertise in, feel free to come to us without hesitation." He even met with the FBI agent once more after that.
It didn't strike him as being a problem until this week.
Iraniha, a U.S. citizen, born in the naval hospital in San Diego, California where his mother works in the Navy (she's an American born in Michigan) was bred in San Diego and is a known pro-Palestinian and anti-war activist. He just graduated with a masters degree in International Law with a focus on the peaceful settlement of disputes from the United Nations-accredited University for Peace in Costa Rica and was boarding a flight home to San Diego on Frontier Airlines this Tuesday, June 5, with his two brothers and father when he was informed that he is on a no-fly list.
"That was pretty shocking," he said, speaking from an internet cafe in Mexico City today.
His two brothers went ahead but he and his Iranian-born, U.S. citizen father were left behind. They headed to the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica to find out why and what could be done. Iraniha and his father endured 6 hours of interrogations. For two straight hours, Iraniha alone was asked "all sorts of ridiculous questions" by an FBI agent and a State Department official about a range of topics, most of which pertained to him being Muslim, having traveled to Muslim countries and his political views, primarily to do with activism for "Muslim" issues, such as Palestine and U.S. foreign policy.
"They told us we were lucky the FBI agent was in town because he covers all of Nicaragua and Panama and Costa Rica, so we were like, okay, lucky," Iraniha said. They then proceeded to ask him a range of questions primarily to do with Islam, his being Muslim and his views on and travels to Muslim countries, including specific questions about the full names of people he visited or stayed with. Questions about his visits to mosques in Costa Rica and San Diego seemed focused on whether he had "noticed anything or anyone suspicious" and whether he was part of any "groups that incite violence."
The Last Question
Yes, he had attended mosque in Costa Rica a few times (he is a practicing Muslim), his political ideologies generally involve civil rights and anti-war activism, fighting for the 99 percent along with Occupy protesters, his pro-Palestinian stance -- he was a member of Students for Justice in Palestine in San Diego -- and a reluctance to stand by while people criticize Iran and Iranians. He is not part of groups that incite violence, nor has he noticed any suspicious people in the mosques he's been in.
The FBI agent then asked him a question that struck Iraniha as "completely shocking" and "really ridiculous".
He started out the question just saying "I don't even know why I'm asking you this", mentioned that it was "just routine" and then proceeded to ask Iraniha whether he had ever wanted "to cause damage to a Jewish center in San Diego or a U.S. official building."
Iraniha says he had no idea what they were talking about. "I had never even been to a Jewish center in San Diego to even know where one's at," he says.
After that, the questioning was over. Iraniha's father was told he was on the no-fly list because he bought his son's plane ticket. Iraniha himself was told "you're an American citizen, so you have the right to go into America, you just can't fly into America, so if you want you can take a boat or you can go by land -- drive into America."
The FBI Tactic
The officials at the U.S. embassy didn't give Iraniha any reason why he was on the no-fly list -- "They didn't even seem to know themselves," Iraniha says -- but one person did. When he called the FBI agent who'd visited him in San Diego twice, he told Iraniha that he was already aware that Iraniha is on the no-fly list and that, "He knows why but can't tell me over the phone."
"He said he just wants to get me back to San Diego and then he'll straighten this out," Iraniha said of the FBI agent.
After putting in a call to the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Iraniha learned that what happened to him could in fact be an oft-used FBI tactic employed to encourage Muslim Americans to become informants against their community, by, well, intimidation.
"They put you on a no-fly list and then to get off of it they say, oh, we want you to be an informant," Iraniha says.
At press time, Iraniha was awaiting a flight to Tijuana, Mexico from which he plans to walk over the border into San Diego to reunite with his parents, brothers and wife. His no-fly list status apparently only applies to the United States -- though it did cause him to have to endure a bit of questioning and "giggling" by Mexican officials who ultimately "figured out how ridiculous this was" and let him proceed with his Tijuana travel.
Iraniha says he doesn't regret talking to the San Diego FBI Agent twice. It appears he felt pressured to speak with the agent on both occasions, if only to prove that he "had nothing to hide."
"It just seemed like if I don't talk him... it felt weird... they might become suspicious of me... and I don't need to hide anything from anybody." For many Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Americans who are targeted to be informants against their friends, family and community, the sentiment is the same: talk to us or you'll look guilty.
He says it was only when he spoke to the CAIR lawyer that he realized he was being targeted to become an informant, but it's not going to change his activism efforts -- "you can't try to silence us by scaring us," he says. As to whether the FBI's No-Fly List tactic is going to work on him, he says "no, of course not."