Khairuldeen Makhzoomi is an Iraqi refugee and a student at the University of California-Berkeley.
The night before 26-year old Iraqi refugee Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight and interrogated by the FBI, he was at an event hosted by the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, asking UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about Popular Mobilization Units, the Shiite militia forces fighting against the so-called Islamic State in his home country.
Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California-Berkeley, was granted asylum in the United States six years ago after, he says, his father was abducted, imprisoned, and murdered by Saddam Hussein's secret police. In Baghdad, his father—who was once a diplomat—had reported corruption linked to Saddam's son-in-law. Today, as a double major in political science and Near East studies at Berkeley, Makhzoomi researches methods for improving people's lives in Iraq and hopes to one day return to help rebuild the nation.
Makhzoomi boarded a Southwest flight from Los Angeles to Oakland on April 6. He was speaking in Arabic on the phone with his uncle in Baghdad when he noticed that the woman in the seat in front of him turned to stare at him through the gap between the seats. Makhzoomi remembers thinking, Why are you staring at me? Feeling uneasy, he cut the call short. Using a common Arabic phrase that means "God willing," Makhzoomi told his uncle: "Inshallah, I will call you when I land."
"This is what Islamophobia got this country into."
"The moment I finished my call, she left the plane." He had a feeling something was wrong, and a short mantra repeated in his mind: I hope she's not reporting me; I hope she's not reporting me.
Within a few minutes, Makhzoomi was removed from the plane and taken to a hallway by the boarding gate where three police officers were waiting for him. The airline agent who pulled him off the plane, and who spoke Arabic, asked him, "What were you doing on the plane?"
"I was talking to my uncle," Makhzoomi replied.
"It seems you were having a serious conversation with him."
"No, I was telling him about an event I attended, a dinner with Ban Ki-moon. Look at this," Makhzoomi said, pulling out his phone to show the agent a video, "I was able to ask the secretary general a question." His explanation got him nowhere.
"Why are you speaking in that language?" the agent asked. "At the airport, you know this is a dangerous environment." Makhzoomi apologized, but the employee continued to criticize him, saying, "Look what you've done. Now the plane is going to leave late."
"You can't do anything," Makhzoomi tells me on the phone. "You can't tell him to shut up, but I needed to say something." Exasperated, he said he told the employee, "This is what Islamophobia got this country into." According to Makhzoomi, the agent shot back: "You're not getting back onto this plane."
At that point, a police officer leaned into his radio and said, "Call the FBI." Makhzoomi was taken to the terminal, where more police officers, police dogs, and later three FBI agents, joined him. He told me he was accused of trying to leave a bag on the airplane, which was actually another passenger's. He told me the police wanted to handcuff him when he tried to text his mother to tell her what was happening, and to tell her not to worry. (The last time a family member of hers didn't come home when expected was when her husband, Makhzoomi's father, was abducted by Saddam's secret police in 2001. "For two weeks, my mother was walking the streets looking for him," says Makhzoomi.)
Eventually, an officer searched Makhzoomi in plain view of everyone in the terminal. "He put my hands to my back and my head to the wall and he started searching me," Makhzoomi says. "Even when I visited my father in Abu Ghraib prison, I never have been through such a humiliating way of searching—reaching into my body parts and, let me be very honest with you, touching my balls and saying that if I have a knife, I might want to cut him."
"Even when I visited my father in Abu Ghraib prison, I never have been through such a humiliating way of searching."
Makhzoomi told me that at this point he was crying and just told the officer, "'No, I don't have a knife.' That is the maximum level of feeling of humiliation in my life. Everyone was looking at me."
When the FBI arrived at the airport, they took him to a private room and the questioning began anew. Agents told him that the passenger who reported him—who Southwest Airlines reports also speaks Arabic—thought she overheard him say the word shahid, which means "martyr."* An FBI agent said, "You need to be honest with us. Tell us everything you know about martyrdom."
Stunned, Makhzoomi told them that he never mentioned the word, that they could call his uncle to ask (he then offered them his phone), and that the word is associated with terrorism. In Makhzoomi's own writings at the Huffington Post, he advocates reconciliation and cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites as a way to purge "the ISIS menace." He has also formed a Facebook group called "United 4 Iraq," which has more than 130,000 followers and is aimed at anti-sectarianism, and he posts anti-extremism memes on his own Facebook account. Eventually, the FBI let Makhzoomi go but told him that he would not be able to fly Southwest that day. The same Southwest agent who pulled him off the plane also gave him a refund for the missed flight. The search and interrogation took nearly three hours, ending long after his original flight had arrived back in Oakland.
Makhzoomi's experience may be extreme, but it is not unique. So far this year, there have been at least six similar incidents reported in the United States, according to Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Billoo pointed to cases like the one last week in Chicago, also a Southwest Airlines flight, in which Hakima Abdulle, a Maryland resident of Somali descent who was wearing a hijab, was told she would not be able to remain on board her Seattle-bound flight. With Abdulle in tears, airport police escorted her off the plane without giving her "any reasonable explanation," according to a CAIR official.
In February, a Muslim family was removed from a United Airlines flight after having a discussion with an employee about how to secure a child's booster seat. In a YouTube video posted by the mother, Eaman-Amy Saad Shebley, an airline employee told them to leave because of "a safety of flight issue." "I felt singled-out, humiliated, and helpless," the mother reported in a statement released by CAIR.
Last November, two Palestinian Americans, Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad, were told they wouldn't be allowed on board a plane because another passenger felt afraid after hearing them speaking Arabic. "If that person doesn't feel safe, let them take the bus. We're American citizens just like everybody else," one said to a Southwest Airlines gate agent, according to NBC Philadelphia. Eventually they were allowed back on board, but several passengers demanded that Khalil show them what was in a small white box he carried. "So I shared my baklava with them," he told the NBC affiliate.
"Flying while Muslim is as much about language as it is appearance and perception, and the disproportionate disciplining of passengers," says CAIR's Zahra Billoo, adding that delays and harassment are becoming routine for the Muslim community in America. Billoo says that while these stories are getting more play in the press lately, her organization doesn't have comprehensive data to show whether such incidents are on the rise. "We hear more complaints anecdotally than formally," she says.
For Makhzoomi—and several others—what he wants most from the airline is a formal apology. Southwest, nearly two weeks after the incident, issued a statement, noting, "We provided the passenger an immediate refund of his unused ticket and regret any less than positive experience a Customer has onboard our aircraft." Makhzoomi told Mother Jones that he's sharing his story because he wants to show that these types of events, as well as anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians and pundits, are "affecting the minorities of this country." "Some people dislike Muslims. Maybe they don't like my language," he says, before adding, "You cannot degrade me as a human being, living in the United States of America. It's time to solve what we have going on in this country."
Shortly after news of Makhzoomi's ordeal broke, The Daily Show put out a video, offering some "advice" to Muslim flyers:
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Southwest’s statement about the passenger’s knowledge of Arabic.
A Saudi airstrike hit a crowded marketplace in Mastaba, Yemen, on March 15, killing at least 97 civilians, including 25 children. "We saw people shredded to pieces. Some with no head, no hands...Unrecognizable," one survivor told Human Rights Watch when a researcher from the organization investigated the site two weeks later.
It was one of the deadliest strikes in 12-month-old civil war, highlighting the devastating use of weapons supplied by the United States and other Western countries in attacks that human rights organizations call potential war crimes.
In Mastaba, Human Rights Watch came across what it says are remnants of an American-made MK-84 bomb paired with a "smart bomb" guidance kit. The group also reviewed images of remnants of another bomb found by British journalists and determined it to be the same kind. These 2,000-pound general purpose bombs are the largest of their class and are capable of inflicting massive damage on their targets.
The Saudi-led coalition has been criticized for carrying out indiscriminate bombings in the civil war, which began last year after rebel forces seized control of the government. The air campaign is responsible for the vast majority of the conflict's civilian deaths, according to the United Nations. An airstrike in February that resulted in at least 32 civilian deaths led UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to call for an investigation.
Remnant of an American-made satellite-guided bomb found at the scene of the Mastaba market airstrike. Human Rights Watch
Western governments have also come under fire for their roles in the conflict. In December, a group of lawyers wrote a legal opinion stating that the United Kingdom is breaking domestic, European, and international law by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia. A lawsuit filed in March seeks to overturn a $15 billion Canadian arms deal with Saudi Arabia. An international movement to seek an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia is growing.
Despite providing weapons, intelligence, drones, and other assistance to the Saudis, the United States has so far been subjected to less scrutiny. In the past year, the Obama administration has inked arms deals with Riyadh worth more than $20 billion.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the first MK-84 bomb struck near the entrance of the Mastaba market at around noon, and five minutes later, the second bomb hit, killing and wounding both those who were trying to escape and others helping the victims. The day after the strike, a team of UN investigators visited the site and compiled the names of the 97 civilian victims. And they found another 10 bodies "burned beyond recognition," bringing the death toll to 107.
"Even after dozens of airstrikes on markets, schools, hospitals, and residential neighborhoods have killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians, the coalition refuses to provide redress or change its practices," Priyanka Motaparthy, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The US and others should pull the plug on arms to the Saudis or further share responsibility for civilian lives lost."
President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 61 drug offenders on Wednesday, as part of his push to ramp up clemencies and reform sentencing laws. That brings his total commutations to 248 since taking office, more than the past six presidents combined.
More than a third of the 61 inmates were serving life sentences on charges related to possession and distribution of drugs including cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana. Unlike recent rounds of commutations, however, none of them were serving life sentences for marijuana-only crimes. As Mother Jones has reported in the past, scores of so-called pot lifers remain behind bars.
"Sadly none of my guys are on this list," says Cheri Sicard, founder of the Marijuana Lifer Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that aims to reversethe life sentences of people charged with marijuana crimes. "That will be a huge disappointment to all of them, especially 81-year-old Antonio Bascaro," she says, referring to the longest-serving marijuana prisoner in the United States. "He does not have much time left."
"That will be a huge disappointment to all of them, especially 81-year-old Antonio Bascaro. He does not have much time left."
Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, wrote in a blog post that Obama will continue his relatively aggressive pace of commutations during the remainder of his presidency.But his administration is still far from the goal it announced as part of a clemency initiative in 2011, when former Attorney General Eric Holder said that some 10,000 prisoners "were potentially going to be released."
More than 10,000 inmates have since applied for relief, but there's mounting evidence that the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA)—which is responsible for vetting and recommending clemency petitions to the White House—has been hampered by a bureaucratic culture and broken process in which the cases of qualifying applicants often go unheard or are regularly rejected against the OPA's recommendations.
In January, former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned from her post after less than two years on the job. Her resignation letter, obtained by USA Today under a Freedom of Information Act request, offers a rare glimpse into a department that is shrouded in secrecy. "Given that the Department has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the President, given your statement that the needed staff will not be forthcoming, and given that I have been instructed to set aside thousands of petitions for pardon and traditional commutation, I cannot fulfill my responsibilities as Pardon Attorney," Leff wrote to Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates, who is responsible for forwarding the OPA's recommendations to the White House.
Leff criticized Yates for overruling her recommendations and said the president was often not informed of the differences in opinion. "I believe that prior to making the serious and complex decisions underlying clemency, it is important for the President to have a full set of views," she wrote.
"The number of times the president doesn't do what the pardon attorney suggests is extremely low."
Leff's letter placed the blame for much dysfunction on the OPA's supervisors. But in the past, Samuel Morison, a former OPA staff attorney turned whistleblower, has accused the OPA itself of routinely denying petitions "without any real consideration." Morison noted that once cases do reach the White House, the president often takes the OPA's advice. "The number of times the president doesn't do what the pardon attorney suggests is extremely low," he told me last August.
Under Leff's leadership, Obama's clemency numbers slowly rose. Her predecessor, Ronald L. Rodgers, a former military judge and a major prosecutor of drug crimes, was removed from office in April 2014 after failing to accurately share key information with the president in a high-profile clemency case,and during his tenure Obama granted fewer clemencies than any other modern president.
America's federal prisons hold nearly 200,000 people; some 95,000 of them are incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges. Sicard of the Marijuana Lifer Projectbelieves the marijuana lifers offer low-hanging fruit for an administration that has vowed to reverse "unduly harsh sentences" for drug crimes. Of Wednesday's commutations, Amy Povah, president of the CAN-DO Foundation, which advocates on behalf of individuals charged with nonviolent drug crimes, says that while she is "thrilled that President Obama has chosen to end the suffering of these deserving applicants," she remains concerned about others whose long-standing petitions for clemency have not yet been granted. These include Michael Pelletier, who has been in a wheelchair since he was 11 years old and is serving a life sentence for marijuana charges. The way Povah sees it, "we have a long way to go before [Obama] leaves office."
An image of Donald Trump appears in a new ISIS recruitment video praising the Brussels attacks.
A new ISIS propaganda video released Thursday celebrates the attacks in Belgium and features Donald Trump. As images of flames dance over the Republican presidential front-runner's face and footage rolls of emergency workers in Brussels, audio from a recent Trump interview with Fox News plays. "Brussels was one of the great cities. One of the most beautiful cities of the world 20 years ago," Trump says. "It was amazing actually. And safe. And now it's a horror show. It's an absolute horror show."
The nine-minute video, allegedly released by the Al-Battar Media Foundation, a pro-ISIS media group, flashes phrases such as "Brothers, rise up!" and "Let's go, let's go, let's go for jihad" as Trump and pundits are heard describing the Brussels attacks. The video also includes shots of fighters brandishing AK-47s and other weapons and extols the virtues of those who are willing to attack the terrorist group's enemies. A narrator intones, "The Crusade jets—including the Belgian—are still bombing the Muslims in Iraq and Levant day and night, killing children, women, old, and destroying mosques and schools."
The user who uploaded the video to YouTube was banned within minutes of posting, according to Politico, because of the site's policy of taking down pro-ISIS recruitment videos.
Given Trump's support for monitoring American Muslims and torturing terrorists, his appearance in a pro-ISIS clip isn't surprising. As my colleague Max Rosenthal points out, Trump is playing directly into what ISIS wants: Broad anti-Muslim rhetoric that pushes Muslims to the fringes of society and feeds directly into extremists' recruitment strategies. In January, Trump was featured in a recruitment video from Somalia's Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab, in which the group portrayed America as a racist nation that will turn against its Muslim citizens.
On the day of the Brussels bombings, Malcolm Nance, the head of the Terrorism Asymmetrics Project, predicted that Trump's statements would play into the hands of ISIS' propagandists. "Good God, they're probably cutting videos of this right now," he said on MSNBC about Trump's comments on torture. "Donald Trump right now is validating the cartoonish view that they tell their operatives…that America is a racist nation, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and that that's why you must carry out terrorist attacks against them."
Following the Paris attacks, and now the Brussels bombings, the so-called Islamic State has been described as a terrorist organization unlike any seen in recent history. This isn't a new idea: Back in 2014 former defense secretary Chuck Hagel said that ISIS "is beyond anything that we've seen."
Yet even with the threat of terrorist attacks from homegrown and ISIS-linked jihadists, the streets of Western Europe are safer now than in the not-too-distant past, when terror groups ranging from the IRA to Basque separatists killed hundreds. After the ISIS attacks that struck Paris in November 2015, killing 130 people, the statistics portal Statista created this chart for Huffington Post showing the number of victims claimed by terrorist attacks in Western Europe since 1970.