A Muslim American mayor from Prospect Park, New Jersey, was recently denied access to a White House celebration marking the end of Ramadan, prompting outcry from groups that claim to represent Muslim American interests. Although Mohamed Khairullah insists that the Secret Service "targeted" him because of his "identity," U.S. law enforcement and intelligence may have genuine security concerns about the 5-term mayor resulting from his past support of jihadist militants operating in Syria.
As first detailed by John Rossomando, a senior counterterrorism analyst with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Khairullah openly supported Al Nusra Front while it was Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. He celebrated Al-Nusra military victories, attended an apparent Al Nusra rally in Syria, and worked for a charity that has partnered with Al Nusra's financial backers.
Khairullah, whose name appears on a leaked government watchlist, took at least seven trips to Syria between 2012 and 2015, while the country was gripped by civil warfare involving multiple terrorist militias. Yet, the mayor doesn't believe his foreign travels have anything to do with his placement on a "no-fly list," and he has refused to acknowledge reports regarding his sympathetic views of Al Qaeda's Syrian branch.
"In my opinion, and regardless of previous theories, this does not appear to be about my activism in Syria," Khairullah stated in a press conference. "Our crimes are our names, ethnicities, and religion," he added, referring to the 1.5 million mostly Arab and Muslim names appearing on the U.S. watchlist.
Khairullah was on his way to attend the belated Eid al-Fitr ceremony, a fast-breaking dinner party hosted by President Joe Biden, when the White House reached out to deliver the bad news: the Secret Service would not clear the mayor to attend the function.
That phone call occurred on Monday at 12:11 p.m., according to Khairullah. First, the mayor solicited help from his local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). A self-described "Muslim civil liberties organization" with its own ties to foreign terrorist groups, CAIR manages a vast and influential network of sympathetic journalists and politicians who, with little understanding of Muslim Americans or Islam, faithfully repeat the group's talking points.
By Monday evening, CAIR-NJ issued a stinging press release that accused the government of maintaining a "secret watchlist" that "reeks of government overreach." Selaedin Maksut, who directs the local chapter, called the incident "an affront to the Muslim community and the American public at large."
By Tuesday, nearly every major national news outlet from coast to coast was repeating compassionate stories about Khairullah's ordeal. Prominent Democratic politicians from throughout the state, including Gov. Phil Murphy, Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, Rep. Bill Pascrell, and several fellow New Jersey mayors, released statements praising Khairullah's public service or demanding answers from the White House and Secret Service.
It's a familiar song and dance from Khairullah, who orchestrated a similar public relations blitz following trouble at New York's JFK International Airport, where Customs and Border Protection Agents stopped him for questioning in August 2019 following a trip to Türkiye. According to Khairullah, agents seized his cell phone and asked if he knew "about any terrorist groups forming over there."
In response, Khairullah floated far-fetched theories suggesting his travel delays were politically motivated and orchestrated at the highest levels of government. He told the Daily Beast that his questioning at the airport wasn't just "Muslim profiling," but punishment for his recent Facebook posts calling the president a "racist street thug" and supporting Muslim Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
Then, as now, the scores of journalists, activists, and politicians looking into the mayor's situation have refused to explore the reasons why customs agents would have placed Khairullah on a government watchlist in the first place. As secretive and archaic as the no-fly list may be, reasonable conclusions may be drawn from reviewing the mayor's social media and employment history to determine what may have attracted the government's attention.
This is precisely the course Rossomando took in 2019, logging Facebook posts and examining the nature of Khairullah's humanitarian work. The results were informative.
In a 2014 post, Khairullah cheered when a faction of Hezbollah joined Al Nusra. "The Lord will be pleased," he wrote of the terrorist merger.
In other posts, Khairullah demonstrated his support for the "Army of Conquest," a jihadist coalition led by Al Nusra, applauding its 2015 "liberation" of Idlib. Images from his trips to Syria show Khairullah posing with various militants, including members of the Free Syrian Army, a complicated union of various Turkish-backed jihadist fighters involved in perpetrating horrific war crimes.
More recently, the mayor hosted a 2019 event honoring his "role model," Abdul Baset Al Sarout, a celebrity athlete turned rebel fighter who pledged allegiance to ISIS before he was killed fighting Syrian government forces. According to Rossomando, Khairullah even commended ISIS for how it instilled law and order in Syria.
"A good thing that ISIS has done is to eliminate the thieves and bandits in their area of control. Allah knows what was behind this move," Khairullah wrote in a since-deleted tweet from 2014. ISIS was notorious for meting out justice with extreme forms of punishment, such as chopping the hands off of petty thieves and common criminals.
While serving as the mayor of Prospect Park, Khairullah was also a senior official with Watan USA, the American branch of the London-based Watan Foundation. "Watan's partner organizations and some of its leaders have supported and assisted Al-Qaida in Syria," Rossomando reported. His sources include a cooperation agreement between Watan Foundation and Türkiye's IHH Humanitarian Relief, which leaked documents implicated in a scheme to fund and support Al Nusra Front's terrorist activities in 2013.
Equally troubling, Khairullah has imported some of the revolutionary zeal from Syria's political battlegrounds back home to his own community, targeting immigrant businesses that failed to share his convictions about the war in Syria. The mayor helped boycott a restaurant whose owner was rumored to favor the Bashar Al-Assad regime, and he provided the same treatment to a pair of Arab-owned grocery stores that refused to hang pro-revolutionary banners from their storefront walls.
Responding to Khairullah's latest round of "Islamophobia" accusations, a Secret Service spokesperson confirmed the mayor was disinvited from the event, which included some 400 Muslim American guests, but was "not able to comment further on the specific protective means and methods used to conduct our security operations at the White House." While there is no evidence confirming Khairullah's support for jihadist causes merited his placement on a government watchlist, the evidence certainly suggests possibilities other than prejudice or religious persecution.
The predictable silence of U.S. intelligence and security services allows Khairullah to level uncontested allegations of racial and religious profiling at authorities, without any fear of pushback from agencies that must safeguard valuable intelligence and national security assets. He is not the first to wage this battle in the court of public opinion, but it is the duty of responsible journalists and public officials to recognize the simple adage that there are at least two sides to every story.
As for Rossomando, who was reached by email, the counterterrorism analyst provided his own parting wisdom for Khairullah: "If you don't want to end up on a terrorist watchlist," he wrote," then don't associate with terrorists."
Benjamin Baird is the Director of MEF Action, an advocacy project of the Middle East Forum.