Flight Risk?

Illustration: Krzysztof Domaradzki

The FBI agents who showed up at Rahinah Ibrahim's campus apartment on the afternoon of December 23, 2004, were vague about their purpose, saying only that Immigration officials had asked them to come by. But after small talk about her pending trip home to Malaysia, they asked what Ibrahim knew about Jemaah Islamiyah, an Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization with cells across Southeast Asia. The Stanford graduate student told them it was a group she knew only from headlines.

After inquiries about her thesis, her family and religious practices, all lasting about an hour, all in front of her 14-year-old daughter, the two asked Ibrahim, a Malaysian citizen, if she had any questions.

She did.

She wanted to know why Immigration had sent them.  

"We also don't know why they did," the agents told her, according to a detailed account Ibrahim wrote soon after, "but we came." Then they wished her a safe journey and left.

Ten days later, the visit would take on a more ominous cast, becoming the prelude to Ibrahim's ensnarement in the war on terror—and to her seven-year struggle to seek redress in a U.S. court and clear her name. As her suit against the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies approaches trial this fall, Ibrahim through her lawyers has declined an interview. Nevertheless, court documents, her lawyers' statements and her own correspondence with the Malaysian consulate in Los Angeles tell a disturbing story.

During that December nine years ago, those who knew Ibrahim, then a doctoral student in civil engineering, had one chief concern: her health. She had undergone an emergency hysterectomy 10 weeks prior to the trip. And though she had passed the worst of her recovery, a period when she couldn't carry even her laptop, she remained unable to stand for long or go without medication for pain in her back and abdomen.

"She was very ill," says Taqwa Surapati, an Indonesian transplant to the Bay Area who met Ibrahim through their kids' Islamic Sunday school, where they bonded over their Southeast Asian roots. "Her doctor advised her not to go."

But Ibrahim, MS '02, PhD '05, was not one for taking it easy, Surapati says. A mother of four, she was accustomed to squeezing her days, scarcely wasting a moment as she balanced her studies and parenting with a commitment to serve as one of Stanford Hospital's first volunteer Islamic chaplains. Moreover, Ibrahim had places to be. The trip home was to begin with a detour to the 38th annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, where she was slated to present alongside her research partner, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

And so about an hour before sunrise on January 2, 2005, Surapati and her husband accompanied Ibrahim and her daughter to San Francisco International Airport, not expecting to see them again for two months. Things began to unravel as soon as Ibrahim reached the ticket counter, where she sought wheelchair assistance.

Instead of heeding Ibrahim's request for help, the ticket agent called police. Ibrahim's name had flashed up on the federal no-fly list, a consolidated database of thousands of known or suspected terrorists created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Surapati had barely made it back to Highway 101 before Ibrahim's daughter called in hysterics. They had taken her mother away in handcuffs, she said.

Without explanation, Ibrahim was put in the back of a squad car, taken to a police substation, searched beneath her hijab, the traditional Muslim dress, and refused her pain medications until paramedics arrived to validate that she was authorized to take them, according to Ibrahim's account.

After more than two hours, a Homeland Security agent arrived with release papers and told Ibrahim that her name had been removed from the no-fly list. The next day, after enhanced security searches, she flew to Hawaii, unaware that the time spent there would be her final days in America.

When Ibrahim tried to return to Stanford two months later, airline staff at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport told her she would need clearance from the U.S. Embassy to board. In a replay of her experience at SFO, a flurry of phone calls ensued. Eventually, the embassy informed Cathay Pacific that her student visa had been cancelled under rules barring entry to the United States to anyone with known or suspected connections to terrorism.

It was the beginning of a saga that provides yet another window into the recalibrated balance of security and individual freedom in the post 9/11 era. Eight years later, Ibrahim, a professor at the university in Malaysia that helped bring her to Stanford, is unable to return to the United States, cross its air space or even board an American airliner. And according to her lawyers, she is no more informed now about why she's been singled out than on the day she was stopped at SFO.

The U.S. government has given her no opportunity to hear the evidence against her, let alone challenge it, say her lawyers. Indeed, higher officials have never confirmed whether she remains as one of the 20,000 names now on the no-fly list.

"It's like Kafka's novel The Trial," says Jim McManis, '64, who estimates his law firm, McManis Faulkner, has tallied $2.9 million in attorney time providing Ibrahim with pro bono representation. In the book, "there's going to be a trial, but nobody will tell [the protagonist] when it is. Nobody is going to tell him anything, but he's going to be tried."

For those in the Stanford community who knew Ibrahim, the implications of the government's hard line are difficult to reconcile with memories of a smart, driven woman with a strong altruistic bent. "She is the last person you would think would have a problem with the authorities," says Jane Paulson, whose late husband, Boyd, had been Ibrahim's adviser until his fight with cancer forced him to withdraw.

Ibrahim was a devout Muslim, a fact McManis suggests may have helped draw authorities' attention. She prayed five times daily, covered herself in a hijab and declined to so much as shake hands with men.

When she joined the first group of volunteers training to be Muslim chaplains at Stanford Hospital, her first concern was whether she'd be visiting men, recalls Father John Hester, a Catholic priest who has worked at the hospital for 36 years. Baffled, he replied that of course she would.

"Then I'll have to ask my husband's permission," she told him.

Her husband, who remained in Malaysia where he had a construction business, apparently gave his blessing. Between 2001 and 2004, Ibrahim visited more than 300 patients in Stanford University Medical Center, "giving me a reason to survive my doctoral pursuit, and becoming friends for life," she wrote in the acknowledgements of her dissertation.

Indeed, Ibrahim became so enamored with the hospital's spiritual ministry she would tape interviews with Hester, as she planned to start a similar program in her homeland. The priest became a confidant to Ibrahim when she fell ill and helped her get surgery at a reduced cost. Ibrahim, he says, was especially moved by the collaboration of religious groups, marveling at the mix of yarmulkes, robes, hijabs, shaved heads and hallmarks of other faiths at the hospital. In Malaysia, where there are deep divides between Muslim, Christian and Buddhist communities, she saw such a program as a perfect way to bring people together through collaboration at the most sensitive of times, he says.

"I can't say enough about Rahinah. [She is] a very, very bright woman, a very open woman, a very caring woman. Just a genuine sweetheart with her gifts in dealing with people."

Fran Wagstaff likewise remembers her outsized community spirit. In researching her dissertation, which centered on information flow in affordable housing organizations, Ibrahim spent months at MidPen Housing, one of the nation's largest nonprofit developers, where Wagstaff was president. Ibrahim's project focused on the technical side of its operations. But she also had a deep interest in its soul—building affordable housing, Wagstaff says. It was a sector where Ibrahim said Malaysia sorely lagged.

Twice since Ibrahim's troubles began, Wagstaff has visited Malaysia for affordable housing conferences at Ibrahim's invitation, once accompanying her around the slums of Kuala Lumpur looking for possible places to build. Wagstaff has little doubt Ibrahim is the victim of a massive blunder: "I don't think we should sit still for these kinds of high-handed accusations without ever [being] told what you're accused of."

Certainly, the no-fly list has had documented problems. In 2007, a report by the Justice Department criticized the Terrorist Screen Center, the organization that manages the list, for "its weak quality assurance." In the same report, the DOJ stated that in July 2006, there were nearly 72,000 records on the list. Six months later, after a quality review, the total had dropped to less than half that.

Still, even for some who regard Ibrahim highly, it can be hard to dismiss the question marks raised by the government's actions. Ibrahim was never anything but kind, courteous and diligent in their encounters, says Ray Levitt, professor of civil and environmental engineering, who took over as her adviser after Paulson's illness. His instinct remains that the government has erred. But he knew little of her outside their academic encounters, and in light of the government's position, doubts can flicker.

"I assumed it was likely a mistake, just a confusion of names," he says. "But the trouble with these secret things is you never know. They make you suspicious of people."

For her supporters, such doubts underscore the insidiousness of Ibrahim's situation. Tarred with the suggestion of terrorism, but with little way to refute it thus far, Ibrahim has been powerless to fight back. As a matter of policy, the government refuses to confirm or deny if people are on the no-fly list or even what actions may have put them there.

In 2009, Ibrahim received a level of vindication for the treatment she was subjected to at SFO. The City and County of San Francisco joined in a $225,000 agreement to settle her claim of false and unlawful arrest.

But her best hope of clearing her name, or at least getting an explanation, has been much longer coming. Seven years ago her lawyers filed a suit against the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and related security entities and officials, challenging her alleged inclusion on the no-fly list and claiming violations of her First and Fifth Amendment rights. Every step, McManis says, has been an ordeal with government attorneys quick to cite national security in fighting requests for access and information.

Last December, William Alsup, the federal judge overseeing the case, expressed his own frustrations with the secretive behavior. The court, he said, had received a call, notifying them that a federal agent was en route from Washington to San Francisco carrying evidence to support dismissing the case on technical grounds.

But there were strict terms to how the evidence could be used. It couldn't be disclosed to Ibrahim's attorneys and, once reviewed by Alsup, it would have to be returned to Washington with no record of it ever being there—demands that so galled the judge he vented his frustration in writing. Only in extraordinary circumstances would such secrecy be appropriate, he wrote in his order to deny the government's motion to dismiss.

"It has gone so far as even to redact from its table of authorities some of the reported case law on which it relies!" Alsup noted in the same document. "This is too hard to swallow." He further chided the government for its "persistent and stubborn refusal to follow statute" by withholding information from Ibrahim's lawyers, and rejected the contention that they couldn't be trusted.

Alsup, who twice dismissed the case for technical reasons—only to have the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstate it—said it was time to resolve the matter on its merits, setting the stage for a trial scheduled to begin November 4 in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Ibrahim isn't the only challenger to the no-fly list. In a separate case, the ACLU is representing 13 American citizens, including four military veterans, who found themselves blocked from air travel in the wake of a failed bombing attempt on Christmas Day 2009. The terrorist, a 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to set off explosives in mid-flight, had been reported to U.S. security officials by his father but had not been included on the no-fly list. After subsequent steps to prevent such omissions, the number of American citizens and permanent residents blacklisted from flying doubled, according to the Government Accounting Office.

As in Ibrahim's case, none of the ACLU's litigants were told why they were banned, how to clear their names or whether they remain blacklisted, says ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury, who is leading the case. "They are simply wracking their brains trying to figure out why. They are left completely in the dark about why the government made this decision or whether their names remain on this list of suspected terrorists. The Constitution prohibits the government from smearing people as suspected terrorists due to an entirely secret process, then not giving them a fair chance to defend themselves."

Another person apparently caught up in the increased vigilance following the Christmas Day bombing attempt was the then 3-year-old son of Priya Satia, '96, a Stanford associate professor of history. In 2011, shortly before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Satia's family was traveling to India when her son Kabir began to trigger security concerns at inter-national airports in Asia.

His name, which Satia says is common in the Punjab area of India from where her family hails, apparently triggered a case of mistaken identity. But no matter his age, the toddler had to undergo rigorous luggage screenings and pat-down searches before he could fly, even as the rest of the family was left alone, she says.

After returning, they got a measure of help. While stating it could "neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watch lists," the Department of Homeland Security provided her son, addressed as Mr. Kabir, with a 7-digit pin number to provide any time he flies. Online travel booking sites now include space for such "redress" numbers as a standard part of their interface.

Satia says her family–including her son—has traveled without problems since, though it saddens her that a 5-year-old boy has to take such steps, perhaps for the rest of his life. "Why don't they just wipe out the case if there's nothing, if it was a mistake?"

Despite its many critics, the no-fly list is also extolled as a crucial weapon in the fight against terrorism. In 2010, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, '55, called for tightening rules requiring how often airlines check the list. "The no-fly list itself is one of our best lines of defense," she said.

Much has changed in the seven years since the DOJ released the report criticizing the list's accuracy, says a government official familiar with the Terrorist Screening Center. The current list is vetted by multiple layers of rigorous oversight. "It's the best intelligence that the federal government has about known and suspected terrorists," he says. "The list is thorough, reliable and accurate." It's also necessarily secret, he asserts; otherwise terrorist organizations would just tap an unknown entity to carry out their plans.

Stewart Baker, who spent more than three years in Homeland Security as first assistant secretary for policy, says names inevitably get added to the list by mistake. But he defends the process for remedying mistakes. "You might not like the answer," he says. "But that's not quite the same as saying there's no process or it's inherently unfair. But I know it does work."

The list has been a vital tool in the United States' ability to prevent another major domestic terror attack in the 12 years since 9/11, he adds. It's become very hard for terrorists to get on planes bound for the United StatesNot everybody on the list is intent on unleashing mayhem, he says, but they are people that the government is not willing to take a chance on.

"Could we live without it? Could we live with a less cautious application or with a set of ACLU procedural rights?" he says. "Maybe, but you're basically saying, 'We've succeeded so far. Let's see what we can throw overboard and whether we'll continue to succeed' and there are risks to that decision.'"

Ibrahim's supporters maintain the list has come at a high cost to innocent people. In July, Ibrahim was asked during deposition what she hoped would result from the suit.

"I [do] not want the same thing that happened to me to happen to anyone else," she said. "I want my children not to hate America because of what happened and to know the America that I came to respect."

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford.