Leena Al-Arian is the executive director of the Coalition for Civil Freedoms, a mostly volunteer civil liberties and prisoner advocacy organization that seeks to end abuses stemming from the government’s domestic “war on terror.” You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
1/ What are the Coalition for Civil Freedoms’ goals and why was it founded?
The story of the Coalition for Civil Freedoms begins with my father, Sami Al-Arian, and his solitary confinement cell in a maximum security federal penitentiary in Florida. He and his co-defendant were the only pre-trial detainees in the entire prison complex. My father was and remains a prominent human rights activist, scholar and tireless advocate for oppressed people globally. As he gained national recognition for his activism on behalf of Palestinians and Muslim civil liberties, he became a target of the Israel Lobby. It led a campaigned for nearly two decades to demonize him, smear him as a “terrorist,” and destroy his life. The long and the short of it is that, after a decade of government surveillance, the Bush administration decided to make an example of my father during its post-9/11 witch hunt of Muslims and charge him in one of its first major “terrorism” cases. A horde of FBI agents barged into our apartment to arrest him in an early morning raid, and then-attorney general John Ashcroft announced his arrest on international TV. (My brother learned the news in a London pub that had CNN playing in the background.) Eventually he would go through a lengthy imprisonment, including 42 months straight in solitary confinement, and a farcical trial that resulted in no guilty verdicts. An award-winning documentary about our family’s experience can be viewed here.
Behind a barrier of plexiglass, my father learned of the backlash our family suffered from the media, the university where he taught, and, most painfully, the Muslim community he led for more than a decade. The latter mostly cowered in fear — fear of guilt by association and relentless visits and harassment by the FBI. (A few years later, a member of the same Tampa Muslim community was forced to serve as an FBI informant — to avoid criminal charges of his own — and entrap a young man with a documented history of mental illness into a manufactured terror plot that would land him a 40-year sentence.) At the time, there was virtually no organization dedicated to tackling the new civil liberties crisis created by the Bush administration — the targeting, surveillance, criminalization and preemptive prosecution of Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. There was no support for political prisoners like my father who was targeted for constitutionally-protected speech and association. And there was no support for families like mine who were stigmatized, abandoned and treated as pariahs by our community. Thankfully, there was a small group of concerned citizens in Tampa, led by my father’s university colleague, Dr. Mel Underbakke, that recognized the injustice of his prosecution. Years later, after my father was once again held on spurious charges in Virginia — he was targeted by a rogue prosecutor out for blood. Despite having prevailed in his first “terrorism” trial, he observed the rapid proliferation of these false “terrorism” cases throughout the country. Awaiting a second trial while under house arrest, my father decided to assemble a coalition of human rights and justice advocates, criminal defense attorneys, impacted family member, and eighteen national and local organizations to challenge these abuses.
As we were fighting our legal and political battle in Florida, another horrible case, involving a Kurdish imam in Albany, New York, inspired a local group called Project SALAM (Project Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims). The imam was targeted in a corrupt sting case by a paid FBI informant — a conman who would later be responsible for the deaths of 20 people in a limousine crash. My father felt it was important to bring together all these dedicated organizers under the umbrella of the Coalition, which was founded in 2010. Project SALAM and CCF have produced reports (in 2014 and updated in 2019), ‘Inventing Terrorists: The Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution,’ which examines the data of all national security cases and contends that about 94% of these cases (around 1,300 in total) are based on the law enforcement strategy of preemptive prosecution, which targets and prosecutes individuals or organizations based on their beliefs, ideology, or religious affiliations. This practice was largely built on Dick Cheney’s One Percent Doctrine, which states that even if there is a 1% chance that someone might engage in terrorism, the government must respond as if it is a certainty. Unfortunately, this policy has resulted in a COINTELPRO redux against Muslim communities, with hundreds of wrongful prosecutions and convictions. CCF currently advocates on behalf of 230 political prisoners. Our goals are to end the abuses of the “war on terror,” to transform our criminal legal system to one built on justice, and to empower impacted families and bring their incarcerated loved ones home. We have a bill we’ve been working to get introduced into Congress called the Entrapment and Governmental Overreach Relief Act, or the EGO Relief Act, that would end many of these abuses and bring cases back into court.
2/ How common is FBI entrapment in terrorism cases?
Entrapment cases are extremely common unfortunately. It’s an easy model for the FBI to employ against their targets, most of whom suffer from some kind of vulnerability, such as extreme poverty, suggestibility and mental illness. According to a database our legal team created to track all “terrorism”-related cases, 38% are based on entrapment and corrupt sting cases in which the government uses agents provocateurs to target individuals who may have expressed criticism of U.S. policies or held some unpopular views. An FBI undercover agent or paid informant begins to radicalize or “groom” their targets, akin to the way sexual predators manipulate their vulnerable targets to go along with them.
The targets often have no intention of actually going through with the plot and express reluctance, but before they have a chance to back out the government will arrest him. One sad example is the case of a young college student named Rezwan Ferdaus, whose mental health had deteriorated so severely that at one point he had to wear adult diapers. When he finally began seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication and showed signs that he was backing out of the plot, the government swooped in and arrested him. The FBI often seeks charges that result in the harshest possible penalties and will engineer the “crime” to ensure this terrible outcome, e.g. a bomb plot rather than a smaller “material support” charge which would carry a lighter sentence. In the case of the Newburgh Four, a the government provocateur offered one defendant $250,000 when he wanted out of the government plot and he was convicted because he did not again try to withdraw after being offered the money. These types of stories perpetuate the fear and the myth of a violent Muslim extremist terrorist threat in the U.S.
3/ I’m vaguely familiar with another case the CCF is involved in, that of the Fort Dix Five. Can you describe it?
The case of the Fort Dix Five is yet another tragedy of epic proportions. It destroyed the lives of five innocent young men with families, children, and promising futures. This case is as cynical as it gets. Then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie initiated a sham prosecution against these men to perpetuate the myth of a violent “terrorist” threat in the U.S. and score political points for his later gubernatorial and presidential runs. All five men come from working class immigrant families who moved to the U.S. in search of the proverbial “American dream.” Instead, life sentences were handed down to three Albanian brothers, Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka; Eljvir’s Palestinian brother-in-law, Mohamad Shnewer; and 33 years for their friend, Turkish-born Serdar Tatar.
The case was built on a multimillion dollar FBI “investigation” which employed two informants with violent criminal histories who were paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to create a fake “terrorist” plot. Like many of the phantom “criminal” cases that CCF defends and educates about, the “evidence” used to prejudice the jury was largely inflammatory speech made by one or more of the men. But despite the thousands of hours of FISA wiretaps, not a single shred of evidence proves that there was ever a conspiracy to attack a military base, as the government alleged. In fact, Tatar reported one of the informants to a local sheriff, expressing concern that he might commit a violent attack. The FBI intervened and demanded that local police stay out of its “investigation” until they could arrest him.
To say that these men and their families’ lives were destroyed is no understatement: they lost their children (two of whom were born after their respective fathers were imprisoned), their homes, their businesses, more than a decade of their lives, and counting. They’ve exhausted nearly all legal recourse, but we have a team assisting them. To learn more about the case, I’d recommend watching a webinar we did about it last year and reading Huma Yasin’s forthcoming book, ‘Con
spiracy: The True Story of the Fort Dix Five.‘
4/ What is the CCF doing to gain the Fort Dix Five’s freedom?
Our lawyers are working to vacate some charges against the Duka brothers. Unfortunately, there is very little hope, unless there’s enough outrage about the political and criminal conspiracy that was employed against them. The family has asked us to circulate a petition to call for a new trial and we’d love as many people as possible to sign it. The Dukas’ younger brother (who was just a kid at the time of his brothers’ arrest; at one point the government even threatened his parents that they would go after him) has been creating TikToks recently to advocate for his brothers’ freedom. I think the fear and stigma around “terrorism”-related cases is slowly starting to dissipate as people learn more about the abusive tactics the government employs to target innocent people who never had any intention of engaging in criminal behavior.
5/ I’d also like to know about the Holy Land Five case, which I know the CCF is also working on. Can you fill me in on that case?
That’s another horrible miscarriage of justice that keeps me up at night. I highly recommend Miko Peled’s book, ‘Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five,’ which goes into detail about the case and the backgrounds of the five Palestinian humanitarians who led what at one point was the largest Muslim charity in the United States. By the government’s own admission the men only engaged in charitable works and did not fund any terrorist activities abroad, but by some twisted logic, the case is predicated on the idea that money is “fungible” and that by sending money to Palestine to fund hospitals, schools, orphans, and widows, the HLF was able to “free up” money that Hamas would have had to spent on the people suffering under occupation instead of for violent acts. What this argument neglects is the critical fact that the HLF dispensed its donations through entities called “Zakat committees” — the same ones used by….you guessed it, the U.S. government in its USAID-funded projects in the Palestinian territories. The five men went through two trials. The first resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial. The second resulted in guilty verdicts following a sham trial that featured grifters in the form of “terrorism experts” and literally a nameless and faceless witness in disguise spewing gems like, “I can smell Hamas” on the witness stand. The two leaders of the charity, Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu Baker, both received appalling 65-year sentences. Mufid Abdulqader was sentenced to 20 years. Abdulrahman Odeh and Ibrahim El-Mezain both received 15 years.
Peled explains how these men and the charity, which was headquartered in the Dallas area, were targeted by the Israel Lobby, which sought to demonize and criminalize its leaders and their work. In one telling example, Peled reveals how the Anti-Defamation League was particularly incensed by a possible partnership HLF was forming with American Airlines. For the Israel Lobby, the goal was simple: Palestinians, regardless of where they are in the world, would never be allowed to thrive or gain mainstream acceptance or be regarded as anything other than “terrorists.” HLF’s work was expansive. It was the first relief organization on the ground to provide aid to the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. While its main charity work was in Palestine, it worked around the world to provide humanitarian assistance to the needy. The government was able to exploit the post-9/11 hysteria to shut down its offices and cook up a manufactured and politically-motivated case against its leaders. Unfortunately, like many of the other cases we speak out about, the HLF 5 have exhausted all legal recourse and have no other hope of attaining justice other than a commutation of their sentences or a change of law that would bring their cases back to court.
6/ Does the Coalition work primarily or exclusively with Muslim political prisoners?
While the vast majority of the cases we work on involve Muslims whom we consider to be political prisoners, the FBI strategy of preemptive prosecution has unfortunately become a model for the government, So, as we predicted, it’s now being used against low-hanging fruit targets in the wider American society. CCF defines a Muslim political prisoner as a person who was targeted, criminally prosecuted, and imprisoned due to their political views, beliefs, associations, cultural identity, or activism. Our definition is based not only on the background of the prisoner but on the politics and policies that made them a target in the first place. There are a few recent cases of non-Muslim targets, including a young many named Jerry Drake Varnell, who had a documented history of mental illness (see a pattern here?) and allegedly espoused an “anti-government ideology” (and here?). The government sent in undercover agents to further groom and radicalize him into allegedly going along with the bomb plot of their creation—a Timothy McVeigh-inspired bombing of the largest Oklahoma City bank. According to Varnell’s family, he was targeted in what they believed to be a “corrupt sting” that led to his conviction and 25-year sentence. We have no doubt that the individuals targeted in such cases would never have the means or will to actually carry out an attack if it were not for FBI agents — provocateurs — prodding them. In Varnell’s case, according to his lawyer’s appeal, the informant at one point “berated” the vulnerable young man and insisted, “You need to do this.”
7/ These cases are all terrible, but people need to know about them, and to demand an end to the scourge of FBI entrapment. To close, can you give us one more example of the FBI running amok?
In Kansas, a group of three sort of down-and-out white men (struggling with unemployment, substance abuse, mental health issues, and instability, etc.) were targeted by the government in another fake “terror” plot that was manufactured and foiled by the FBI. According to one of their attorneys, the three men, Patrick Stein, Curtis Allen, and Gavin Wright, were highly influenced by Donald Trump’s rhetoric during his 2016 presidential campaign and were particularly outraged by the Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando that summer by an alleged Muslim “terrorist” (another FBI blunder, by the way). They came to fear a Muslim “takeover” of the U.S. and expressed their views publicly in the militia they were members of. Of course, the government will never take responsibility for its role over the past two decades in sowing fear and hatred against Muslims.
They became known as “the Crusaders,” a nickname they didn’t have until an FBI paid informant by the name of Dan Day entered their lives. Apparently, the men didn’t even know each other prior to the government introducing them and bringing them together in order to create this conspiracy. The tactics employed by the government are a near mirror image of what they do to their usual Muslim targets of entrapment. And, in one of the more cynical twists, the targets and would-be “victims” of this “scary” plot that the government “heroically” foiled were Somali Muslims in an apartment complex that housed several families from that community. The men eventually received “terrorism-enhancement” sentences ranging between 25 to 30 years, including civil rights violation charges, for good measure. Unsurprisingly, the case was hailed by liberal and left-leaning groups as a victory in the fight against White nationalist violence and domestic “terrorism,” without scrutinizing the laundry list of constitutional abuses utilized to ensnare people in a crime they very likely would not have committed on their own.
An unpopular or even a “hateful” opinion should never be grounds to target, further radicalize, and entrap an individual. Otherwise, we’d be living in an authoritarian regime and not a free society. It’s unfortunate that the FBI’s modus operandi is not only based on political and religious repression but also a “winning at all costs” policy that allows these outrageous abuses to continue. To read more about the enormous FBI budgets and the restructuring of the national security apparatus after 9/11, I highly encourage readers to follow the work of Trevor Aaronson, Mike German, and CCF, among others.