Challenging Discrimination: The Fight to End the Federal Terrorist Screening Dataset

Challenging Discrimination: The Fight to End the Federal Terrorist Screening Dataset

In a nation founded on principles of liberty and justice for all, the case of Mayor Mohamed Khairullah of Prospect Park, New Jersey, shines a spotlight on a controversial issue that has persisted since the aftermath of 9/11. Mohamed Khairullah, the longest-serving Muslim mayor in the United States, was recently denied entry to a White House Eid al-Fitr event, despite having previously received an invitation. This incident has ignited a legal battle challenging the Federal Terrorist Screening Dataset (FTSD), which has long faced accusations of discrimination, violation of due process, and questionable criteria for inclusion.

A Troubling Denial

Mayor Mohamed Khairullah’s ordeal began in 2019, when he returned to Syria to document atrocities committed by the Assad regime. This visit led to his apparent placement on the U.S. government’s secret terror watchlist, a designation that would have far-reaching consequences for his life in the United States.

The FTSD, colloquially known as the “federal terrorist watchlist,” contains approximately 1.5 million names, with the majority belonging to individuals of Muslim faith. While the government has stated that inclusion in the FTSD requires a “reasonable suspicion” of terrorism-related activities, critics argue that the criteria are vague, arbitrary, and disproportionately target Muslims based on religion, ethnicity, and nationality.

The Lawsuit

In a bold move, on September 18th, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mayor Khairullah and several other plaintiffs, aiming to challenge the constitutionality of the FTSD. The lawsuit contends that individuals placed on the watchlist suffer a wide range of adverse consequences, including public humiliation, harassment during travel, job denials, and even separation from their children.

One crucial aspect of the lawsuit is the assertion that once an individual is placed on the watchlist, their status as a “second-class citizen” is perpetuated, even if they are eventually removed from the list. This lingering stigma and harm are due to the government’s retention of records related to past watchlist status, a practice that the plaintiffs argue is unjust.

The Discriminatory Nature of the FTSD

The lawsuit challenges the Federal Terrorist Screening Database (FTSD) for its alleged discriminatory nature, with over 98% of listed individuals being identifiable as Muslim. It argues that vague criteria, such as travel to Muslim-majority countries or having Muslim-sounding names, are used intentionally to nominate people to the watchlist, infringing on their rights. The standards for inclusion are criticized for falling short of typical legal standards. Once on the list, individuals face numerous adverse consequences, including extra airport screening.

The nomination process is seen as rubberstamped, with individuals often placed on the list without specific information about their alleged activities. This has far-reaching consequences, as watchlist information is shared with numerous government agencies, foreign countries, and private entities.

Even if removed from the list, individuals continue to be stigmatized. The lawsuit also highlights that individuals are placed on the FTSD without reasonable suspicion, often based on guilt by association, impacting their legal status and benefits. In fact, the lawsuit alleges that “inclusion standards are so permissive, pliable, and laden with discriminatory assessments of race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion that they bear – at most – a vanishingly small connection to actual terrorist activities.”

Seeking Justice

As Mayor Mohamed Khairullah and other plaintiffs fight for their rights and the rights of countless others affected by the FTSD, the lawsuit challenges not only the constitutionality of the watchlist but also the broader issue of discrimination against Muslims in the United States. The FTSD, initially created to enhance national security, has raised significant concerns about its effectiveness and fairness.

Several legal counts are outlined in the lawsuit, each shedding light on the multiple aspects of injustice surrounding the FTSD. Among these counts are violations of the Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The lawsuit asserts a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It argues that individuals, including Mayor Mohamed Khairullah, are placed on the FTSD and its subsets without any meaningful process. This lack of due process raises concerns about the arbitrary and secretive nature of watchlist placements, where individuals are left without adequate means to challenge their inclusion.

Another significant count in the lawsuit is the violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. This clause, applied to the federal government through the Fifth Amendment, ensures that individuals are not denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The lawsuit contends that the FTSD disproportionately targets individuals based on their religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, and sex. It highlights that the watchlist’s criteria include factors like travel to Muslim-majority countries, affiliations with Muslim organizations, and associations with Muslims, which unfairly singles out individuals from specific backgrounds.

In a nation built on the principles of equality and justice, it is crucial to ensure that government policies and practices do not disproportionately target individuals based on their faith, ethnicity, or nationality. As this lawsuit unfolds, it has the potential to set a precedent for a more just and equitable approach to national security that respects the rights of all Americans.


Mayor Mohamed Khairullah’s journey from being denied entry to a White House event to becoming a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit challenging the FTSD is emblematic of a broader struggle for civil liberties and justice. The fight to end the federal terrorist watchlist and its discriminatory practices is a battle for the soul of the nation, reaffirming the principles upon which the United States was founded. As this legal battle unfolds, it reminds us that our commitment to liberty and justice for all must always be upheld, regardless of an individual’s faith, background, or beliefs.

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