A delegation of 18 Yemeni citizens invited to Washington by the U.S. State Department was held for five hours after arriving at Dulles International Airport while immigration officials questioned and fingerprinted them.
The Sept. 3 incident, during which one member of the delegation was handcuffed for half an hour, angered the visitors from Yemen, whose government has been a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism.
"I was in shock. If things are going to continue like this, why should I come to this country?" said Yahya al Habari, 44, a member of Yemen's legislature who had come to meet with senior trade and agriculture officials. Habari, who travels on a diplomatic passport and has been to the United States dozens of times for his business as an importer of U.S. crops, said, "I'd rather import Australian or Canadian wheat and save myself problems."
Besides businessmen and legislators invited to meetings with top U.S. officials, the Yemeni delegation included cultural figures participating in "Windows on the Cultural Heritage of Yemen," a symposium held Sept. 5 and 6 at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art. The event was sponsored by the Smithsonian, the State Department, the Yemen Embassy and the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.
The episode at Dulles is one of many recent cases in which Muslim air travelers have complained of being subjected to lengthy delays and sometimes being questioned by U.S. law enforcement officials for no apparent legitimate reason.
Last month, two well-known Muslim scholars who live in the United States were questioned for several hours at U.S. airports after traveling abroad. Ali A. Mazrui, 70, a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, said he was detained for more than seven hours at Miami International Airport and asked to explain his ideas on jihad. Radwan Masmoudi, who heads a Washington-based think tank that promotes democracy in the Middle East, was delayed four hours because of FBI questioning at a Detroit airport.
Asked about the treatment of the Yemenis at Dulles, Bill Anthony, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the State Department had not notified immigration officials at the airport about their arrival. Had it done so, the delegates would have been exempted from a special registration procedure -- involving fingerprinting and photographing -- required for male visitors between the ages of 16 and 45 from about 20 designated countries, Anthony said.
"Without pre-clearance, we are required to enforce the law, and we don't have discretion on the ground," he said.
The handcuffing of Mohannad al Sayani, 40, who is general director for antiquities in one of Yemen's provinces, was a case of mistaken identity. "It was a very close match that turned out to be incorrect," Anthony said, declining to elaborate.
The State Department did not return a call seeking comment.
Anthony said Mazrui was detained in Miami for about six hours because of a "breakdown in communication" between immigration and customs officials. He said this led to Mazrui being questioned separately by two sets of officials and possibly an official from a third agency. Anthony declined to say why Mazrui was flagged for interrogation, saying, "There are many reasons why people get detained."
Mazrui, a political scientist, is the Albert Schweitzer professor in the humanities and director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at SUNY-Binghamton and also teaches at Cornell University. An Internet search brings up his picture and biography. He travels on his Kenyan passport and has been a permanent U.S. resident since 1974.
In a telephone interview, Mazrui said that after he landed at Miami on Aug. 3 as he returned from Trinidad, he was questioned first by immigration officials, then by customs representatives and finally by agents from the Department of Homeland Security.
Their questions included " 'What is jihad?' and whether I believed in it. I gave them 'Jihad 101,' " Mazrui said.
"Then they wanted to know what sect of Islam I believe in. When I said Sunni, they asked why I was not Shia," he recalled. "That was definitely a first. That's like asking a Catholic why he isn't a Protestant."
During the last round of questioning, Mazrui said, officials asked him whether he had met with a radical Islamist leader in Trinidad. "I told them no but that I did try to meet him," he said. "I said it's my business to know about Muslims because I teach that."
His final interrogators, Mazrui said, apologized for keeping him so long, gave him $25 for dinner, paid for a hotel room and booked him on a flight the next morning.
He said he still does not know why he was singled out.
Masmoudi, 40, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said he landed in Detroit on Aug. 11 after visiting five Arab countries as part of the center's efforts to promote democracy. His trip was funded by a National Endowment for Democracy grant.
He said FBI agents questioned him about his trip while he was waiting for a flight to Charlotte, where he lives. "They asked me what I was doing, who I met with, if I knew anybody who had contacts with Islamic terrorist groups," said Masmoudi, a U.S. citizen.
"I showed them my passport, my business card and even told them that we are funded by the State Department, and that didn't seem to make a difference for them," he said. "We support the government's efforts to fight terrorism, but sometimes it goes overboard. They've got to be careful not to antagonize the Arabs and Muslims of the United States."
Dawn Clenney, a spokeswoman for the Detroit office of the FBI, said Masmoudi "was only interviewed for an hour. He missed a connecting flight, so he had to wait two to three hours for another one." She declined to say why the FBI wanted to speak with him. "Sometimes we have things we have to clear up. That's all. I can't be specific."
Fouad Al-Kohlany, the Yemen Embassy's commercial and economic attache, said his country's citizens "understand the need for security, we know the magnitude of September 11, and we sympathize with the policies and regulations that the United States has. However, the U.S. government should have more faith in their own officers and embassies abroad. If business people are issued invitations from the U.S. ambassador himself, that should count for something."