The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) scored a public relations coup last month when it filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government on behalf of three Muslim Americans who complained of being repeatedly interviewed upon returning from trips abroad. The plaintiffs claim that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents single out Muslim travelers and subject them to intrusive interrogations about their religious beliefs.
Numerous outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and ABC News, dutifully repeated the concerns of one plaintiff in particular, describing how Minnesota cleric Abdirahman Kariye endured "religious questioning" at airports and border crossings and was forced to hide his Muslim identity to avoid additional screening. However, Kariye's affiliation with extremist elements, including a mosque that served as a pipeline for terrorist recruitment, explains why authorities may be interested in his foreign travels.
These one-sided reports failed to consider the reasons why the imam consistently faces questions at American ports of entry. They also betrayed the media's ignorance of extreme vetting techniques, or the use of basic and repeated questions about faith practices and affiliations to assess extremism.
Kariye is not the only suspected extremist to receive glowing press coverage. In the aftermath of 9/11, news stories about counter-terrorism tended to focus on perceived government overreach and civil rights abuses, frequently portraying Muslims living in the U.S. as the victims of broad-based, "suspicionless surveillance." Because these cases often rely on classified evidence, and prosecutors and law enforcement officials typically refuse to discuss pending investigations, journalists often base their reporting solely on the accounts of suspected terrorists and their attorneys.
Following this model, press reports describe Kariye as "a son of refugees who came to the U.S. from Somalia" who currently serves as "an imam in Bloomington, Minnesota." Media interest in the cleric's past apparently ended here, though, despite his extensive and public ties to Islamist radicals, and extremist statements he has published on social media.
Kariye is a U.S. manager at Helping Hand for Relief and Development, one of many Islamist charities that use humanitarian causes to advance an extremist agenda. HHRD is widely considered to be part of a U.S. nexus of Islamist nonprofits tied to Jamaat-e-Islami, a militant South Asian revolutionary movement accused of genocide in Bangladesh.
Kariye's employer is known to have worked with terror-connected charities in Pakistan. This includes the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), a U.S. designated terrorist group connected to the 2008 Mumbai attacks through its parent organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba; and the Al Khidmat Foundation, a Pakistani charity that has funded Hamas, the terrorist government in the Gaza Strip.
In addition, Kariye is an imam at the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington. This mosque has been a conduit for terrorism recruitment, with at least six congregants leaving or attempting to join ISIS and Al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. As detailed in US v. Ahmed, these individuals used the mosque to meet, plan, and carry out recruitment of other Somali youth.
Abdi Nur (presumed dead) abandoned dreams of becoming a lawyer or basketball player to join the Islamic State in Syria. His friend, 18-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf, was arrested while attempting to leave the country just hours before Nur departed. Both men had recently joined Dar Al Farooq.
"It was there that they became interested in ISIS," the New York Times reported.
Adopting a familiar strategy, Yusuf was reportedly trained to resist questioning about the nature of his travels by accusing law enforcement of discrimination based on his Somali identity and Islamic faith. Ironically, authorities saw through Yusuf's ploy by vetting the young Somali at a U.S. passport facility, and his subsequent arrest contributed to the conviction of eight additional co-conspirators.
Representatives from Kariye's mosque publicly blamed a single volunteer for "spreading radical views" among Somali youth. However, the mosque's extremism problem extends to senior leaders such as Waleed al-Maneese, president of Dar Al Farooq's board of trustees, who regularly espouses extremist and antisemitic views.
Incidentally, Kariye attended the Islamic University of Minnesota, where al-Maneese served as chairman and chancellor. According to the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which cites Egyptian media, IUM teaches a curriculum that endorses concepts embraced by ISIS, such as "killing a Muslim who does not pray, one who leaves Islam, [and] prisoners and infidels within Islam."
One IUM instructor, Sheikh Jamel Ben Ameur, asked Americans not to "jump into judgement" of ISIS and refused to denounce the terrorist group, calling reports of ISIS atrocities "confusing" and "complicated." Another IUM instructor offered condolences following the death of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was killed by Israel in 2004.
If Kariye's links to extremist groups aren't enough to arouse interest from an incurious press, perhaps his own words will convince reporters to explore why border officials are interested in the imam. His Facebook page indicates he supports a number of radical beliefs embraced by Islamists around the world.
Despite what Kariye may have told customs agents, his views on issues varying from music to gender equality are extreme and unsettling. "The biggest advocates of feminism believe that Men and Women are equal," he wrote in an April 2015 Facebook thread. "If we believe in the Quran as the book of Allah, and Islam as our religion than [sic] we wouldn't be able to say such a thing."
According to Kariye, "supporting the mosque" and "doing good deeds" are acceptable roles for women, but they are not built for "making decisions." He also insists that Muslim girls should be forced to wear the hijab, or traditional Islamic head-covering, before they "hit puberty," a practice rejected by many Muslims.
The Minnesota imam appears to regard music, singing, dancing, and even watching the Olympics as haram, or forbidden. Halloween is especially off-limits to Muslims, according to Kariye, who warned that "devil worshippers" use the occasion to achieve an "increase in their magic."
Judging from the ACLU complaint, it appears border agents who interviewed Kariye may have used techniques similar to extreme vetting procedures — methods implemented to separate law-abiding immigrants from Islamists who would "place violent ideologies above American law." Although some of these questions deal with basic religious beliefs and practices, these are not intended to discriminate against Muslims, but to look for candid and consistent answers to assess extremism.
Forbidding music, mandating wear of the hijab during adolescence, and confining women to subservient roles are entirely lawful religious practices; these are also beliefs endorsed by jihadis.
In light of Kariye's status as an employee of HHRD, an Islamist charity with ties to violent extremists, and his status as an imam of a mosque where terrorist recruiting has taken place, it seems reasonable to ask him direct questions concerning extreme religious beliefs upon his return from countries where radicalization is a problem.
Returning from Turkey in 2020, Kariye was asked where he studied Islam, and whether he listens to music. He was also asked for his "views on ibn Taymiyyah," a fundamentalist medieval scholar popular with Salafists whom Kariye has quoted on social media.
U.S. authorities have obviously done their homework on the Minnesota imam. According to his attorneys, Kariye was detained at the U.S.-Canada border in 2019 and quizzed about his "involvement with a charitable organization affiliated with Muslim communities, how he fundraised for this charity, and whether his fundraising involved visiting mosques." This appears to be related to his employment at HHRD, where Kariye was hired just 15 days earlier.
The ACLU's lawsuit claims that Kariye's constitutional rights were also violated because he was forced to hide his religious identity to avoid attracting attention from border agents. "It causes him distress to forgo wearing his kufi, modify his prayer practice, and avoid carrying religious texts as he travels," the complaint states.
This assessment might be tenable if CBP targeted the imam simply because he is Muslim, as the ACLU claims. However, the lawsuit asserts that Kariye is likely on a government watchlist, and his attorneys admit that printing his boarding pass automatically triggers secondary screening procedures. Therefore, changing his clothes or abstaining from prayer is a pointless exercise.
Kariye's case is just the latest in a series of ACLU lawsuits that challenge border security policies in the name of civil rights. From opposing police surveillance of suspected terrorists, to fighting to end the so-called "no-fly list," activist lawyers are dismantling counter-terrorism measures at the expense of public safety.
The ACLU has represented suspected jihadists before, and similar to its latest clients, these individuals were treated with kid gloves by a complicit media. If Islamists like Kariye should find themselves legally shielded from government scrutiny, then Americans will be ill-equipped to stop the spread of extremism and prevent the next terrorist attack.
Benjamin Baird is deputy director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.