Why am I a threat?
A Muslim PhD student gets targeted as a security risk; now he wants to know why
One day last fall, a month before Donald Trump was elected president, Lassana Magassa disappeared from his job with Delta Airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Employees are fired or quit all the time, but Magassa, who is Black and Muslim, had given no indication he was ready to leave and, according to his colleagues, was a perfectly capable ramp agent. So without any word from supervisors or Magassa himself, all that was left to do was speculate.
“It just seemed super weird," says a former colleague. "One day everything was fine and the next thing he was gone.”
Jorge Harris, another of Magassa’s former co-workers, says "I couldn’t figure out what happened.”
As it turned out, the rank-and-file Delta employees were not the only ones in the dark. A directive to deny him access to the secure areas where he'd worked for over a year had been passed down to the Port of Seattle, Sea-Tac's operator, from the Transportation Security Administration. And the explanation — to Delta supervisors, to Port of Seattle employees and to Magassa — was thin.
"Mr. Magassa," reads an almost apologetic one-page note from the Port of Seattle's head of airport security, "We are in receipt of notification from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), that your status in their vetting system has changed requiring immediate revocation of your security badge."
"TSA does not provide any further information to the airport operator (Port of Seattle)," concludes the note. Magassa, for all intents and purposes, had been fired.
For Magassa, 36, it was the most puzzling piece in a series of perplexing interactions with federal law enforcement. A year earlier an FBI agent had started efforts to recruit him as an informant. And hours before losing his airport badge, he'd learned that he no longer qualified for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's global entry program, which expedites security for low-risk travelers.
Something was happening to Magassa behind closed doors, but no one, not even the people who wrote his paychecks, seemed to know what.
Since losing his job, Magassa, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, has spent 10 months searching for an explanation, reading through stacks of documents, working with a lawyer at Chicago's Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, contacting the offices of Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, and following all the necessary appeals steps. He has learned almost nothing, except that somewhere in the bowels of the federal government, he's been labeled a security threat.
Any document that could have offered an explanation has been redacted into uselessness.
As it turns out, Magassa's confusion and inability to get answers is part of a broader pattern nationally. Greg Siskind, a lawyer out of Memphis, Tennessee, has been tracking cases like Magassa's after hearing complaints of complicated travel for Muslims. Siskind has been fighting to obtain records from the federal government that may offer insight into why people like Magassa have similarly lost travel or work privileges. Siskind says he has pegged "hundreds" of cases where global entry cards have been revoked with little explanation and has spoken to some 30 people who have been flagged by the government.
But Siskind and his team, too, have had little success in finding answers. As they strike possibilities, one commonality stubbornly remains: All but one of the people Siskind’s team spoke to were Muslim. Nearly half had either a first, middle or last name of Mohammed.
Everywhere he goes, Magassa wears a suit, each one well tailored to his lean frame and long arms. The reason for his wardrobe choice is simple: Magassa sets a high bar for what he will achieve in life. As someone who is both Black and Muslim — he wears a kufi hat and visits his North Seattle mosque almost daily — he feels he must present as well as he can, all the time. He doesn’t know who he will run into or what perceptions they will have of Black people, he says. "When I make my first million, then I can put on jeans," he jokes.
One of eight children of Malian immigrants, Magassa was born and raised in Harlem, playing on the New York sidewalks and going to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, a mosque on 96th street. He's conservative Muslim: He doesn't drink or smoke and he bows to women, but will not shake hands with them. That's not uncommon for people from Mali, says Camille Mackler, director of legal initiatives with the New York Immigration Coalition.
Growing up, he saw people he knew get caught up in gangs or drugs. Many people from Mali in New York tend to live in heavily policed communities in New York and have higher rates of arrest and detention, says Mackler. Magassa's family knew this and hammered into him the importance of getting an education and working hard.
"My impetus for trying to be successful is really because I want to make my community proud," he says. "There’s a lot of negative attention around the accomplishments of African-Americans generally and so I want to show others that they can be successful, that they don’t have to be a basketball player, or an athlete or a musician, that there are other ways to contribute.”
His intensity can be consuming. Over the course of several long interviews, Magassa — who walks on the balls of his feet, his chin high enough so that his stiff beard never touches his chest and who opens every conversation by asking after your health or family, gently scolding if you somehow forget to answer — teeters on the edge of breaking down.
At times, his whole body shakes; he blames the shivers on the temperature in a small office on the University of Washington campus, but it doesn't seem cold. He clears his throat, coughs, laughs occasionally, but eventually, the emotion crawling up his throat catches. On several occasions, he's forced to stop talking as he begins to cry.
“One thing that makes me emotional is knowing that there are other people that are being affected by these sorts of policies that are in place, the casting of Muslim Americans as an outsider of sorts," he says.
But this is about him as well. In the moments he's reflecting on his community back in New York City, where he was born, and the young people who still live there, he's the protagonist, the one who made it. Everything he does — his suits, his personal website, his volunteerism — is anchored back in Harlem. Now, the last few months have kicked the anchor loose. Where he once viewed himself as an example for others, he's come to feel toxic, at times even avoiding calling his friends or his family for fear he might somehow implicate them. "I don’t want my hardships to hinder other people,” he says.
"Although they haven’t explicitly marked me with a scarlet 'A,' this is essentially a scarlet 'A,' ” he adds.
"They say, 'try hard, work hard, and you can be successful,' but it’s way more complex than that.”
For Magassa, law enforcement was never a dirty word, as it can be for some people of color. When he was younger, federal law enforcement was on his family's periphery. FBI agents would occasionally approach people he knew, including his uncle, he says. But that didn't deter Magassa; If anything, those contacts made him more interested in being helpful. After high school, he even put in an application to the FBI to work. It didn't lead anywhere, but he never lost interest.
Lassana Magassa, 36, near the Impact Hub where he works sometimes in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district.
After he graduated from St. Paul's College, a historically black school in Virginia that shut down a few years ago, with a degree in computer science, he went to work for AmeriCorps at the Harlem Community Justice Center doing youth conflict resolution work. Then he returned to school to study as a librarian. After working in New York for a few years as a web developer, he moved to Seattle in 2009 to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Washington's Information School. His studies in information sciences have trained him as a researcher; his dissertation focuses on digital literacy in prisons and whether that can cut down on recidivism.
He receives a modest income as a UW teaching and research assistant but to support his wife and three kids, Magassa also took the Delta ramp agent job, taking cargo inventory. To do the work, he needed to pass a background check and be issued a security badge that allowed him access not only to cargo areas but to the tarmac itself.
He was not always the fastest employee, say colleagues, but he always did everything he was asked and was always on time. "He’s awesome," says a former co-worker, who asked that his name not be published. "Super nice, cheerful. He’s a really cool person to talk to. Smart guy too.”
The Delta job was part-time on the night-shift and it was only one aspect of a very busy life. Magassa would get home at 4 in the morning, sleep for a few hours, then get up and go to the UW. He would also attend his mosque and volunteer with youth literacy programs and at a prison in Olympia.
After Magassa was dismissed, he held out some hope his position with Delta would be saved for him as he figured out what happened. But he's long since given up on that possibility. He's lost 30 to 35 percent of his annual income. Meanwhile, his rent has gone up and he couldn't afford to fix his broken down car, instead selling it to a junkyard. The small payments he used to send back to family in New York have stopped.
Magassa points to October 2015 as the beginning of his confusing troubles. An airport acquaintance, who worked for Customs and Border Protection, knew Magassa had expressed interest in the FBI and offered to set up a meeting with an agent, a man named Minh Tri Truong. Magassa believed the purpose was to discuss a career with the FBI; paths forward, options. So he agreed, even forwarding his resume to his CBP contact to pass along to Special Agent Truong.
But when the two met for coffee in the University District, it quickly became clear to Magassa that this was not about Magassa's career. The Special Agent instead asked him to stay in touch and tell him if he saw anything he thought looked suspicious — in Magassa's eyes, asking him to be an informant. Magassa declined the offer.
These meetings are not uncommon, especially for people who work at the airport. According to representatives from the Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR), the frequency of complaints they receive from people contacted by the FBI rises and falls. Leading up to the presidential election, for instance, CAIR saw a spike in the numbers, as Crosscut reported earlier this year. The cases continued to come in earlier this year, with one of those involving an interaction between an FBI agent and a former co-worker of Magassa's, a Muslim woman. While the FBI denies that they are specifically targeting any one group, what federal law enforcement characterizes as outreach can often be perceived as profiling. This was certainly the case for Magassa.
"To make me an informant would actually imply that I’m surrounding myself with people that are doing things that need to be informed about, which is actually quite offensive," he says. "I’m an American Muslim, and I have the same values as all other Americans.”
Last August, Magassa heard from Truong again. Then again in September. They never connected, but Magassa found it curious. In a statement, FBI spokesperson Ayn Dietrich said, "there are many reasons why the FBI contacts people, including when members of the community might be witnesses or victims of criminal activity," but did not elaborate on Magassa specifically.
Then in October, Magassa flew to Germany to attend a conference put on by the Association of Internet Researchers, an academic group dedicated to the advancement of the cross-disciplinary field of internet studies. He still had his security credentials at Sea-Tac and still had his global entry card, which he'd received only months before (as an employee of Delta, he was able to travel more freely and the global entry card allowed him to pass easily through security). His travel was smooth.
But while he was in Germany, he got an email. His global entry credentials had changed, it read.
Several days later, when he tried to fly back to the United States, things started to quickly fall apart. His global entry no longer worked at a kiosk in Paris and in his scramble to figure out why, he missed his flight home. When he finally did land in Cincinnati, his global entry only set off alarms again, causing him to miss yet another flight.
When he finally landed in Seattle, he was happy to see his supervisor, standing with airport security waiting for him at the gate. "He's here to walk me back, to support me and figure out what's going on," he thought to himself.
In reality, his supervisor was there to inform him that he was immediately suspended from work. Security was there to escort him out. It was so sudden, Magassa had to text a co-worker to ask him to clean out his locker.
It was a shock.
“I’ve tried my whole life to stay out of trouble," he says. "All of my mentors have always told me, 'Get an education. Education is your way out of trouble. You’re an African-American male, you have a one-in-three chance to be locked up. Get an education.' ”
But here he was, in trouble it seemed, and the prospects of working his way upward were suddenly fading.
In the months since, several people have come to take note of his case: his advisor at the University of Washington; the local chapter of CAIR; Chicago lawyer Christina Jump with the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America; and Siskind, the immigration lawyer in Memphis. The office of Rep. Pramila Jayapal confirms they are "working on his case," but a spokesperson declined to elaborate further.
Three things had happened to Magassa and he wanted to understand if or how they were related: He'd been asked to be a source for the FBI; he'd lost his global entry card, and he lost security clearance at Sea-Tac.
While those three things were not necessarily related, it was hard for Magassa to accept there was no connection. A spokesperson for the TSA office in Seattle, Lorie Dankers, says there could hypothetically be some connection: CBP, which is responsible for his global entry, and TSA, which took away his security clearance, are both customers of the Terrorist Screening Center, maintained by the FBI. Dankers says she’s not familiar with Magassa's case, nor could comment even if she was, but if someone is tagged in that database, it would likely affect both. "They are looking at some of the same events," she says of the various federal agencies.
Magassa had a theory: the FBI agent had tagged him; he was Muslim and traveled a lot. But it was only a theory.
Dietrich with the FBI said, "After discussing your inquiry with Seattle Field Office management, we want to point out that the FBI does not make decisions regarding the Global Entry program nor airport access," and suggested following up with those offices.
Dankers pointed to a list of 28 reasons for why someone may be flagged, adding, "These are not something that's arbitrary. They're codified in federal regulation."
And, in a comment that seemed to question Magassa's bafflement over his case, she added, "No one knows your criminal history or past better than you."
Siskind, the Memphis attorney, has been working with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in lobbying the federal government for records, and he's so far received tables of thousands of people who have lost their global entry cards. Most of the rejections do offer a specific reason: the person inappropriately tried to escort a partner through the global entry line or was pegged with a crime.
But in some cases it simply says, "You no longer meet program eligibility requirements." Siskind put out a call on Twitter for anyone who received this explanation and he received about 30 replies. "We were trying to figure out based on the surveys what the differences were. Was it nationality, region, airport?" he says. "The only pattern we found was that they were Muslims." Siskind says most were well-to-do — doctors, Silicon Valley engineers — and traveled a lot.
But Jason Givens from the Seattle office of Customs and Boarder Patrols said religion has nothing to do with why someone might lose global entry. "CBP doesn't discriminate on the basis of religion," he said. "So claims that it's because they're Muslim, that's just not accurate. There's always more to the story. There's a number of reasons why someone can lose their global entry card but it has nothing to do with their faith."
Jennifer Gabris with the national CBP office echoed Givens, referring to claims that in the months since Donald Trump became President, Muslims were losing global entry. "That was completely false. There was no truth it."
She said that she could look at Magassa's case, but because he's a U.S. would not be able to share any information
Magassa's lawyer Christina Jump says many people like the ones Siskind has found would be discouraged from wading through the bureaucracy to find answers about their case. That is part of the reason her organization doesn't have a grasp on how often cases like this occur.
But Magassa, trained as a researcher, proceeded. After returning to Sea-Tac the morning after his troubles and receiving little new information, he officially appealed the loss of his security clearance to TSA and requested any documents related to his case.
The papers he received in response amounted to about 15 pages with large blocks of text redacted in black. Then, Magassa received word from TSA that his appeal had been denied, still without explanation.
His next step is to go before an administrative law judge for a hearing. But even there, he's unlikely to learn more: The process does not require TSA to show either Magassa or his attorney any of their evidence if it's related to security concerns. The judge would review the information, but on an ex parte, in camera basis — meaning alone and without looping in Magassa's attorney. The judge could make a final decision and Magassa would still not know why.
“We don’t really see any justifiable reasons for him losing his job, which led to him losing the ability to provide for his family,” says Jump. "Unless the government provides another reason, it’s not leaving us much of an option than to assume it may be inappropriately related to his religion.”
Both Jump and Siskind think these cases could end up in federal court, although for slightly different reasons. Jump's primary focus is Magassa, whom she believes is being denied his due process rights. That, she says, could be for a federal judge to examine.
Siskind, who does not know any specifics about Magassa's case, believes his work could lead to a court case challenging how the global entry program is operated if these security flags are, in fact, disproportionally affecting Muslims. "If they don't have valid reasons for doing this and it's disproportionally impacting a certain faith, yeah, I would think that would probably be a pretty good case," he says.
With all the attention heaped on President Trump's travel ban and his harsh rhetoric on Muslims, it's tempting to tie instances like Magassa's to his administration. And according to data collected by CAIR, secondary screenings of Muslims at airports have increased post-Trump, although it can be difficult to separate this from more reporting. Siskind's work was spurred on as a result of the outrage surrounding Trump's initial travel ban.
But it's difficult to definitively tether it to the new president. After all, Magassa's troubles began even before the election. Jump, his attorney, concedes it's possible there have been changes under Trump, but she says the policies and rationale have always been so opaque, it would be impossible to know if anything has changed.
The morning after Magassa returned from Germany — before he returned to Sea-Tac to begin his dissection of losing his job and his ability to travel without extra searches — he did what he often does: visited the Idriss Mosque near Northgate. In a small, carpeted, columned space, where interfaith gatherings have been held and the occasional elected official has visited, Magassa prayed.
Magassa is adept at marketing himself — he has a website and Twitter handle — and enjoys talking up his plans for the future, his investment goals, the business he wants to start with a friend. Through the reporting for this story, he never shied away from answering questions about himself, even direct ones, such as whether he has a criminal history. He answered, no.
But he drew a line at the Mosque, declining to be photographed there. "To get the full benefit one should be fully engaged," he explains. "I already struggle to not be distracted by all of life’s happenings and be absorbed in the moment. Having a photographer present will not allow me to do that ... . I cannot speak for anyone else, but I cannot afford to let one of the prayers slip by."
What seems to be certain is that his job at Delta is gone. Travel is more inconvenient. Any hopes of a career in law enforcement have likely vanished. He jokes that the issues of the last year will mean his first million in the stock market may not come as quickly as he'd hoped.
But as Magassa adjusts to these realities, it is not so much what has already happened that worries him as what comes next. And on that, like the reason behind his label as a security threat, he is simply in the dark.