When Yonas Fikre stepped off a luxury private jet at Portland airport last month, the only passenger on a $200,000 flight from Sweden, he braced for the worst.
Would the FBI be waiting? That would mean more interrogation, maybe arrest. But he told himself that whatever happened it could hardly be as bad as the months of torture he endured in a foreign jail before years of exile in Scandinavia.
A US immigration officer boarded the plane and asked for his passport. Fikre handed over the flimsy travel document that was valid for a single flight to the US. The officer said all was in order. He was free to go.
“I don’t think they knew who I was. I think they thought I was just some rich guy who’d come on a private jet. A rapper or someone,” said Fikre.
The 36-year-old Eritrean-born American was finally back in Portland at the end of a five-year odyssey that began with a simple business trip but landed him in an Arab prison where he alleges he was tortured at the behest of US anti-terrorism officials because he refused to become an informant at his mosque in Oregon.
Fikre is suing the FBI, two of its agents and other American officials for allegedly putting him on the US’s no-fly list – a roster of suspected terrorists barred from taking commercial flights – to pressure him to collaborate. When that failed, the lawsuit said, the FBI had him arrested, interrogated and tortured for 106 days in the United Arab Emirates.
As shocking as the claims are, they are not the first to emanate from worshippers at Fikre’s mosque in Portland, where at least nine members have been barred from flying by the US authorities.
“The no-fly list gives the FBI an extrajudicial tool to coerce Muslims to become informants,” said Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer who represents other clients on the list. “There’s definitely a cluster of cases like this at the FBI’s Portland office.”
They include Jamal Tarhuni, a 58 year-old Portland businessman who travelled to Libya with a Christian charity, Medical Teams International, in 2012. He was blocked from flying back to the US and interrogated by an FBI agent who pressed him to sign a document waving his constitutional rights.
“The no-fly list is being used to intimidate and coerce people – not for protection, but instead for aggression,” said Tarhuni after getting back to Portland a month later. He was removed from the no-fly list in February after a federal lawsuit.
Detained, then put on the no-fly list
Another member of the mosque, Michael Migliore, chose to emigrate to live with his mother in Italy because he was placed on a no-fly list after refusing to answer FBI questions without a lawyer or become an informant. He had to take a train to New York and a ship to England. In the UK, he was detained under anti-terrorism legislation. Migliore said his British lawyer told him it was at the behest of US officials.
“We have a name for it: proxy detention,” said Abbas, Migliore’s lawyer. “It’s something the FBI does regularly. It’s not uncommon for American Muslims to travel outside the US and find they can’t fly back and then they get approached by law enforcement to answer questions at the behest of the Americans.”
Fikre’s problems began not long after he travelled to Khartoum to set up an electronics import business. He still had relatives in Sudan after his family fled there when he was a child to escape conflict in Eritrea. Fikre’s family arrived to California as refugees when he was 13 and he moved to Portland in 2006 where he worked for a mobile phone company.
Not long after he arrived in Khartoum in June 2010, Fikre went to the US embassy to seek advice from its commercial section. A couple of days later he was invited back to what he was told would be a briefing for US citizens on the security situation. Instead he found himself in a small room with two men.
“They pulled out their badges. They mentioned their names and said they were from the FBI Portland field office,” he said.
The agents were David Noordeloos and Jason Dundas, both attached to the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the FBI office in Portland. Fikre was immediately suspicious because of the agents’ duplicity in luring him to the embassy.
“They said, we just want to ask you a few questions. Right away I invoked my right to have a lawyer. Then they became threatening,” he said.
Fikre said it swiftly became clear the agents wanted information about his mosque in Portland, Masjed As-Saber.
The mosque is the largest in Oregon and drew the FBI’s attention not long after 9/11. In 2002, four years before Fikre arrived in Portland, seven members of its congregation were charged for attempting to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Six received prison sentences. A seventh was killed in Afghanistan.
In late 2010, a Somali American, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was arrested and later convicted for plotting to blow up the lighting of downtown Portland’s Christmas tree amid allegations of FBI entrapment. He occasionally prayed at the As-Saber mosque.
Fikre has acknowledged meeting Mohamud but said he was no more than a passing acquaintance and that he had left for Sudan months before the plot was even hatched or the FBI became involved.
When Fikre hesitated to answer the agents’ questions, he was told he had been placed on the US “no-fly list”.
“I asked them, why am I on a no-fly list after I leave the country? I said to them, you did this in order to coerce me to work with you guys,” he said. “They said there’s a case in Portland and they wanted me to help them. I asked, what is this case about? They said, we can’t talk about it. You have to agree you’ll work with us and if you agree, we’ll tell you.”
Fikre said he would answer questions about the mosque but he was not going to work as an informant.
“Eventually I was answering questions because you know how it feels to be in a room with two of the major agencies and you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “They wanted to know about fundraising. Were there any people that made me feel uncomfortable? What do they talk about during Friday sermons?”
‘The choice is yours to make’
The FBI’s account of the interrogation is summarised in a declassified document written a week later and marked “secret”. It is heavily redacted but Fikre’s claim that he was lured to the embassy under false pretences appears to be confirmed by a line which says that after being escorted to an interview room, “Fikre was informed of the true identity of the agents”.
The document shows part of the questioning focussed on financial transactions including his attempt to open a bank account in Dubai, which Fikre said he needed to do business in the region.
“Fikre was asked if he knew anyone related to international terrorism. Fikre denied any knowledge of anyone attempting to train or go to train for terrorist acts against the US or its interests,” the FBI document said. “Fikre agreed to assist and stated that he honestly does not know of anyone attempting to leave the US to attend terrorism related training.”
Fikre agreed to return for further questioning the next day.
“I said OK because I wanted to get out of there,” he said. “The next day I called David Noordeloos and told him, I’m wasting your time and you’re wasting my time. I don’t plan to work for you guys. He got very angry and he said, you mean to tell me you don’t want to work for us?”
About two weeks later, Fikre received an email from Noordeloos.
“While we hope to get your side of issues we keep hearing about, the choice is yours to make. The time to help yourself is now,” it said.
That was the last he heard from the agents. Fikre conclude Khartoum wasn’t the best place to do business and decided to try his hand in the United Arab Emirates but first went to visit relatives in Sweden. He worried that the no-fly list might create difficulties.
“If I was a threat, you would think the US would tell them. If some British guy was coming to this country and he was a threat, the US would be very pissed off if the British knew and didn’t make them aware of it. But nothing happened in Sweden. I came to Sweden normally,” he said.
That only confirmed Fikre’s belief he was on the no-fly list as a means to pressure him not because he was a terrorist threat.
Weeks later he moved to the UAE where he established himself trading in electronics with financial help from his family in California. Months went by. Then in June 2011 he was arrested by the local police.
“I didn’t know what was happening until I was taken away and the next day, that’s when I knew that it was questions related to Portland, Oregon,” he said. “At first I kept on saying, I’m an American. I need my lawyer, I need my embassy. They said to me, the American government don’t care about you. Then they started asking, tell us the story about what’s going on in Portland. The same questions the FBI were asking in Sudan about As-Saber I was being asked in the UAE.”
Fikre swiftly concluded the US had a hand in his arrest.
“Without a doubt this was instigated by the FBI. Why would the UAE ask me questions about this particular mosque in Portland?” he said.
So began months of interrogation.
“I refused to answer questions. That’s when the beating started,” he said. “They started with punches, slaps. They got tired of that so they brought water hose. There’s the hard ones, the black ones, and there’s the soft ones. The soft kind they would use for strangling. When I refused to answer, they put that thing on my neck. They had me lay down and beat me on the soles of my feet. They beat me on the back constantly.
“If they weren’t beating you, they made you stand for eight hours with your hands raised. The beating was much better than the standing.”
The torture continued even when he was alone in his cell at night.
“I was sleeping on tiles, very cold tiles. They put on this AC so it was very cold. The body can’t take this cold on top of the beating,” he said. “That’s when I decided to answer their questions.”
‘You want to believe it’s not true’
After eight weeks of demanding to see someone from the US embassy, he was told he was being taken to meet American diplomat but warned not to say anything about his torture or it would delay his release, which was promised within days.
Fikre found himself sitting in front of woman who only identified herself as Marwa.
“I look all fragile, pale. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’m drained. I wanted to tell her the situation but I felt like I was so close to my freedom, just two days, three days, and I was getting my ass beaten, and if I tell her it’ll set me back,” he said.
Fikre asked why it took so long for the US to find him, a citizen held by the security services of a close ally. He said Marwa told him they had been looking hard. Later he learned he was being held just blocks from the US embassy.
The State Department has confirmed that a US diplomat visited Fikre while he was being held in the UAE on “unspecified charges”. It said he “showed no signs of having been mistreated and was in good spirits”.
Fikre was not released and the questioning resumed. But an incident gave him hope. An interrogator beating Fikre with a hose caught him on the funny bone in his knee. He collapsed in agony. The man appeared alarmed he had done lasting damage.
“I thought to myself, why would you care? You were strangling me just a few days ago. Then I realised they didn’t want to leave me with any visible injuries. That’s when I had hope that I would get out of there,” he said.
Fikre said he was given a lie detector test but instead of more questions about Portland he was asked if he was a member of al-Qaida or soliciting funds for it. He denied it strenuously. He said it was clear from the response of his interrogators that he passed the test.
Through it all Fikre could not shake the sense that someone in the US had outsourced his interrogation to a place with few legal constraints.
“Toward the end of his interrogation [Fikre] inquired of his interrogator whether the FBI had requested that he be detained and interrogated,” the lawsuit said. “This time, instead of being beaten, the interrogator stated that indeed the FBI had made such a request and that the American and Emerati authorities work closely on a number of such matters.”
The FBI in Portland said it is unable to comment directly on the allegations because they are the subject of pending litigation. But an FBI spokesperson, Beth Anne Steele, said in a statement that the agency works within the law.
“A fundamental FBI core value is the belief that every person has the right to live, work and worship in this country without fear. As such, FBI agents take an oath to uphold the US constitution and to protect the rights of every American citizen under the Constitution, no matter where in the world an agent may working. This holds true every day in every situation,” she said.
After 106 days of imprisonment, the UAE released Fikre without charge.
The no-fly list prevented Fikre from flying back to the US so he opted to go to Sweden where he applied for political asylum. His application was rejected in January because he was unable to prove the US had a hand in his imprisonment although the Swedes accepted that he had been tortured.
In February, Fikre was finally formally notified by the US government he was on the no-fly list because he “may be a threat to civil aviation or national security”. Sweden paid for a private jet to fly him to Portland five years after he left.
Fikre has not been charged with any terrorism related crimes or even questioned as a potential threat on his return to the US. He remains on the no-fly list.
“It’s hard to comprehend that the government does something like this. You want to believe it’s not true, that some employee made a mistake,” he said. “I could be angry but anger doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t answer the question of why I was there. You can’t have this anger build up against your own government, your own country, your own people. I’m an American. I want to try to move on.”