Canada’s no-fly list—who’s considered too dangerous?

A Montreal Muslim stuck on the no-fly list is fighting to get off

The Canadian “no-fly” list is such a sensitive document that the federal government won’t even disclose how many names it contains. Instead, Transport Canada has simply assured the public that the top-secret list, in effect since 2007, is based on “reliable and vetted” intelligence collected from trusted sources. Translation: if you’re on it, authorities have good reason to believe you are an aspiring hijacker. Or worse—another Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a U.S. jet on Christmas Day.

Though classified, the Canadian list contains one name for sure: Hani Ahmed Al Telbani. As first reported in Maclean’s, the 28-year-old Muslim—an engineering grad who allegedly surfed extremist websites using the online alias “Mujahid Taqni” (Technical Jihad)—is the only person to ever be denied boarding as a result of the so-called Passenger Protect Program, which springs into action when a blacklisted individual arrives at the check-in counter. A Palestinian immigrant, Telbani tried to catch a flight from Montreal’s Trudeau Airport to Saudi Arabia on June 4, 2008, but instead of a seat number, the airline agent handed him an “Emergency Direction” from Transport Canada. “You,” it proclaimed, “pose an immediate threat to aviation security.”

But 18 months later, with airport safety once again at the top of the agenda, the evidence against Hani Al Telbani has been called into question—and with it, the credibility of the entire no-fly list. As the American government scrambles to figure out how its own maze of anti-terror watch lists failed to thwart a potential catastrophe, Canadian officials have been forced to consider a very different question: does our no-fly list include some names that don’t belong there?
According to an internal government report obtained by Maclean’s, a team of independent investigators has concluded that Telbani is not too dangerous to fly. Commissioned by Ottawa, the report is especially critical of the country’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. It was CSIS that convinced Transport Canada to ground Telbani, relying on evidence that was “decidedly vague and incomplete.”

The report urges Ottawa to not only delete him from the database, but to reassess all the evidence used to justify each entry on the list. After all, if the only person ever stopped by the no-fly program has been wrongfully targeted, how reliable is the rest of the list?

For a man desperate to clear his name, the findings read like a victory. In the eyes of Transport Canada, however, the results mean absolutely nothing. Rather than follow the recommendations, senior officials met behind closed doors, re-examined his CSIS file—including secret new details not disclosed to the independent advisers—and stuck to their original conclusion.

A permanent resident whose application for Canadian citizenship is pending, the Quebec man is now locked in a series of court battles with the feds, including a civil lawsuit demanding $550,000 in damages for the “stigma, humiliation, contempt, hatred and ridicule” he has endured. He claims the no-fly list (known officially as the “Specified Persons List”) violates his Charter rights to free movement and due process because it gives bureaucrats the power to brand someone a terrorist and ban him from the skies without any chance to challenge the evidence. Simply put, Telbani is stuck in national security limbo: deemed too dangerous to fly, though not dangerous enough to arrest.

The case raises troubling questions about civil liberties in a post-9/11 world, but it also raises just as many questions about the mystery man at the centre of the fight. Exactly why CSIS considers him so dangerous is still a state secret, but the fact that pages and pages of court documents are blacked out certainly suggests that the spies believed they had sufficient—if not urgent—reason to be monitoring Telbani’s online chatter.

Those censored allegations are apparently so incriminating that Telbani’s lawyers are now asking a judge to seal them from public view in the hopes of salvaging what’s left of his reputation. Telbani, who insists he is not a threat, says in a sworn affidavit that keeping the CSIS material confidential “is essential to prevent me from suffering irreparable harm to my safety, dignity, reputation, private life [and] right to work.”

At this point, all that’s known for sure is that the young Muslim was a master’s student at Concordia University’s Institute for Information Systems Engineering, where he studied “innovative applications to a wide range of information systems,” including “security, cryptography and embedded systems engineering as they apply to sectors such as banking, manufacturing and aerospace.” And when he wasn’t studying, he allegedly surfed the Internet under the pseudonym “Mujahid Taqni”—as well as other aliases that have yet to be revealed.

No-fly lists are far from perfect. If they were, Umar Abdulmutallab and his explosive underwear would have never boarded that Christmas morning flight to Detroit. Yet, unlike the American list, which has ballooned to the point of uselessness, the Canadian version was specifically designed to focus on the worst of the worst. Inclusion is not based on race or religion or mere suspicion. Authorities must conclude that a target is involved in a terrorist group and shows signs of potentially “endangering” an aircraft, or has been convicted of a serious crime that suggests he may “attack or harm an air carrier.” In the words of one senior Transport Canada official, “We’re looking at individuals and actions they have decided to take. It’s their behaviour that leads us to this conclusion.”

Concerns about Telbani’s behaviour—whatever it was—first surfaced on May 8, 2008, during a monthly meeting of the “Specified Persons List Advisory Group,” a three-member committee with representatives from Transport, CSIS and the RCMP. CSIS nominated him for the list; the other two members agreed. The very next day, Louis Ranger, then the deputy transport minister, signed off on the advice, branding Telbani a suspected member of “a terrorist group” who “will endanger the security of any aircraft.”

Two weeks later, Telbani—unaware that he was now forbidden to fly—reserved a $1,500 round-trip ticket to Riyadh, via Heathrow Airport. His plan, he claims, was to visit relatives and renew his residency status in Saudi Arabia, which was set to expire.

On June 2, just 48 hours before his scheduled departure, two CSIS agents knocked on the front door of his Longueuil apartment, on Montreal’s South Shore. According to  Telbani’s version of events, disclosed in court filings, the unnamed spies accused him of collaborating with a website linked to al-Qaeda. After convincing him to get in their car and drive to a café, the agents asked for his help, promising “they could correct the situation if he worked with them.” The next day, when the agents phoned again and asked to meet at a hotel, Telbani refused.

That same day, June 3, a warning began to circulate on a number of extremist Internet sites. “My brothers, one among us has betrayed the forums and their members and is co-operating with kufar [enemy],” the posting said. “Mujahid Taqni has been compromised; do not expect his return. He let them in the forums and now it’s only a matter of time.”

The following afternoon, luggage in tow, Telbani was sent home from the airport.

It wasn’t long before he retained the services of Johanne Doyon, a high-profile Montreal lawyer who has made a career defending other accused terrorists, including Adil Charkaoui, a Moroccan who successfully challenged the government’s use of security certificates to deport non-citizens. Doyon set forth a flurry of complaints—to CSIS headquarters, to the Security Intelligence Review Committee (an independent CSIS watchdog), and to the Federal Court. Telbani also appealed to the so-called Office of Reconsideration, a Transport Canada department created specifically to deal with passengers who want to challenge their inclusion on the no-fly list. The office hired two outside security experts to review the case: Allan F. Fenske, a retired colonel and former deputy judge advocate general of the Canadian Forces, and Wendy Sutton, a Toronto lawyer.

They did not mince words. After reviewing the classified CSIS material and interviewing Telbani, they concluded he doesn’t belong on the list, and that the secretive process used to place him there does not abide by the government’s own rules. Their report reveals, for instance, that the deputy transport minister, who must approve each entry, is not provided with any evidence. Rather, the advisory group simply forwards a memo with the person’s name and the word “YES” handwritten by each member, a process the report calls “patently unreasonable and invalid.”

The investigators save their harshest words for CSIS. Fenske and Sutton, who declined to be interviewed for this article, repeatedly criticize the spy agency for providing the rest of the advisory group with “information severed from their surrounding and underlying context” that is “selectively and incompletely stated” and that “gives rise to a serious risk that the information considered is vague, inaccurate, and incomplete.”

During their May 8 meeting, for instance, the anonymous CSIS agent who sits on the committee provided a written assessment on Telbani, known as a data sheet. The other two members—Debra Normoyle of Transport Canada and Superintendent Reg Trudel of the RCMP—agreed that the evidence was strong enough for inclusion, but just to be sure, they asked CSIS for more corroboration. The agent returned two weeks later with a revised assessment, but according to the independent investigators, the new data sheet “reiterated without significant change much of the information contained in the May 8, 2008, data sheet. In some cases, the information was moved to a different paragraph.”

Nor were investigators particularly alarmed by Telbani’s supposedly sinister alias, “Mujahid Taqni” (Technical Jihad). “While it may provide some insight into the state of mind and potential motivation of the applicant, we would not give it any weight in the absence of more understanding of the applicant’s activities related to aviation.”

Bottom line: CSIS is wrong, and Telbani should be free to fly. “We have not been able to identify a discernible threat, immediate or otherwise,” the investigators concluded.

The report is a blow to Canada’s spy agency, which is still reeling from a year’s worth of embarrassing revelations. Most notably, judges in two separate security certificate cases lambasted CSIS for withholding crucial evidence about the credibility of confidential informants, including the fact that one key source flunked a lie detector test. (A third case, Charkaoui’s, was also thrown out, but only because CSIS chose to drop it rather than reveal its sources.)

Marc Boyer, a CSIS spokesman, would not discuss Telbani’s file because it is before the courts. When asked why Canadians should trust the agency—when the report’s authors did not—he said: “Everything we do is carried out in accordance with Canadian law.”

One thing is clear: Transport Canada is sticking with CSIS’s advice. The department waited eight months, until June 2009, to provide Telbani with a copy of the reconsideration report. In the meantime, the advisory group voted three more times to ignore the findings and keep him on the list, relying on a new “Aviation Security Risk Assessment” that Fenske and Sutton never saw.

That new assessment has sparked yet another round of legal punches. Telbani’s lawyers say the feds had no right to consider new evidence against their client when the original no-fly declaration—based on different evidence—is still being argued in court. Transport Canada fired back, arguing the government “is not limited to the information on which the initial decision is based, as the power to react in the name of airline security is ever-evolving.” (The law governing the no-fly list also makes clear that the feds are under no legal obligation to follow the advice of the Office of Reconsideration.)

Like CSIS, Transport Canada will not talk about Telbani, citing both the Privacy Act and the court cases. When asked whether the entire list has been reviewed for accuracy, as per the advisers’ recommendation, the department issued this statement: “The Passenger Protect Program provides for a regular review of the list that includes the authority to add and remove people based on the very best evidence available.”

As for Telbani himself, he remains a bit of an enigma. His cellphone number has changed, and Doyon declined several interview requests from Maclean’s. It is obvious, though, that the case and the ensuing publicity have taken a toll on Canada’s only known member of the no-fly club. He claims in court documents to have lost his residency status in Saudi Arabia, and his academic life has suffered, too. According to one of his former university advisers, Telbani was too distracted to finish his master’s thesis in applied science. “He was bothered by the case,” says Benjamin Fung, a professor at Concordia. “He didn’t have to tell me. Usually if I assign a task to a student he can finish it in a period of time. He kept not being able to do that.”

For now, at least, the same goes for stepping foot on an airplane.




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Canada’s no-fly list—who’s considered too dangerous?

  1. If he is really a danger , They can allow him to fly after scrutinizing his underwear and not allowing carry on baggage. I don't think one can do much with his fists alone, I am surprised that in US they are religiously scrutinizing the genitalia of every passenger when all they have to do is trust the father of a terrorist who tries to alarm the world about his son's suspicious behavior. is it a comedy or a tragicomedy? whatever it is , it is not a laughable matter, any one who laughs might find himself on the list.

    • Yep! And give him a one way ticket!

  2. A good friend of mine was denied boarding once and was told he was on the no fly list. There was no information available to him as to why. Transport Canada claimed it was Air Canada's no fly list; Air Canada claimed that they did not have have a list of their own, they relied on the gov't list. That is about all the information he could get.

    Previously, he had been warned, anonymously, to temper his behavior and activism otherwise things might become difficult for him. He is not an terrorist, not an arab and his last name is about as WASPish as you can get.

    But he did start a Facebook group called "Canaccord and other ABCP clients" which did an incredible job in holding the banks and financial services industry in Canada to account for their shameful behavior towards their retail investors when the market for Asset Back Commercial Paper froze. I took 18 months to resolve this and the banks and investment dealers had to pony up an additional $400 million for the retail investors to make their 'restructuring' succeed.

    He is no longer on this mystical no-fly list and he has no more information as to why it happened. No one has admitted it was a mistake.

    These secret lists, which cannot be divulged for "national security reasons", are one of the powerful weapons to silence critics. There may be valid reasons to not disclosing a list, but there is nothing valid about withholding the reasons why a person is on a list or not giving them any recourse to challenge those reasons.

    I hope that some readers here will be astonished to learn that the family of the late Tommy Douglas (father of Canada's medicare system) has gone to Federal Court to have the RCMP dossier on Tommy Douglas released. Some of this information is over 40 years old.

    The RCMP have refused, citing "national security reasons". IMHO, these words have become synonymous with evil and abuse of power.

  3. I take the view on these no-fly lists that if you're so dangerous you can't fly then you should be arrested and charged with something. Otherwise it's just a massive top secret bureaucratic circle jerk.

  4. he allegedly surfed the Internet under the pseudonym “Mujahid Taqni”—as well as other aliases that have yet to be revealed.

    Who doesn't surf the net under a pseudonym? Even potentially offensive/insensitive/questionable ones? Hell, one of the most common forum troll names is probably Hitler…

  5. Known to be a Muslim = no fly list. Sounds ok to me.

    I suggest we would have a 99% drop in terror related airline incidents if this rule was really applied. Don’t think so? Sorry, the statistics over the last 20 years don’t lie.

    Savings in security costs per year, about $10 Billion.

    • There is at least a slight chance you were being serious. If so, feel free to leave behind whatever freedom-loving country you so despise, and move to wherever discrimination on the basis of religious belief makes you happy.

    • enough of these 'politically correct' liberals. they've got their heads buried so far up their asses they have no clue to the realities out there. they would let bin laden and his entourage board, lest they offend him

    • Why stop at banning muslims?

      Ban all male air passengers. Women don't hijack planes. If you're a man then too bad, so sad, you stay on the ground. I suggest that you would have a 99.1% drop in terror over just banning muslims. Statistics don't lie. This will save $11 Billion per year.

      reductio ad absurdum

      • yah but that goes against their right to individuality, and equality

  6. An enigma? I'll say!

    CSIS doesn't want the true details about this guy out in the public domain for security reasons. This guy doesn't want the true details about himself out in the public domain either, to protect his reputation. And we are supposed to accept on his and his lawyer's say-so that he's clean? I don't envy the Canadian security establishment on this one. From this Maclean's report, at least, there was at least some "there" there…

  7. This kind of reminds me of how my grandfather was treated. He had to travel 50 miles every week during WWII to testify he wasn't involved in any activities counter to national security because he had a German last name, and (less frequently) after the war ended, because he was born in Russia. All this despite the fact both Hitler and Stalin had ordered the execution of most of his relatives at some point or another.

    Nice to know we've progressed as a society in the last 70 years . . .

  8. First, when did it become a right to fly?

    Second, Canada also has to consider this on the basis of international relations – sure we could probably take him of our no-fly list, but that doesn't mean he will be able to get anywhere, particularly if he has to fly through another country who may choose not to let him fly.

    So sad, too bad, sucks to be him.

  9. First, when did it become a right to fly?

    Second, Canada also has to consider this on the basis of international relations – sure we could probably take him of our no-fly list, but that doesn't mean he will be able to get anywhere, particularly if he has to fly through another country who may choose not to let him fly.

    So sad, too bad, sucks to be him.

    • Exactly.

    • search every inch of him

    • Canadians have the right to freedom of mobility unless incarcerated. As long as he can afford to pay for his aeroplane ticket and isn't carrying any dangerous or contraband items, he should be able to fly the same as you can.

  10. How about that 15-year-old boy, Alistair Butt, who was — maybe still is — on the no-fly list? And that teacher from B.C., who got herself off it, but it cost $20,000 and a year or two of her life.
    Alistair Butt's parents, you may recall, asked how to get him off the list, and were told, "Change his name." I read about a man from Quebec, I think, who did just that — added a new middle name — and bingo! he was off the list.
    I think the main purpose — certainly the main effect — of all this "security" is to keep the populace in a constant state of anxiety, so we won't question all the "security" measures that are being put in place, and all the money it is costing us.

  11. Have you not heard about the growing crimes of organized stalking and electronic harassment? You will not believe what is going on right here in our own neighbourhoods under the guise of citizen watch groups and “national security” gone, well, nutz. Believe it or not it appears to be a form of domestic terrorism right here in Canada and the United states.
    The National Victims of Crime Center receives thousands of calls per month from average citizens reporting this crime. Further the Tornoto Rape Crisis Center is leading the way by aknowledging and activily supporting these until now, unknown and underserved victims of the community stalking phenominon. Organized stalking is a very real and deadly form of stalking that is just now beginning to come to the public's attention.

    http://catchcanada.net
    http://www.casttv.com/search/DSouza%20family/1
    http://www.raven1.net/targ.htm
    http://www.freedomfchs.com/

    Thanks for your time,
    Justin TI, Ottawa, Canada.

  12. A lot of hate on this blog. Sad..very sad

  13. Western Security Canada USA Allied supremists Aggressionist are People with paranoid schizophrenia.They have superiority complex topped with grandiose mistaken beliefs and delusions about protecting themselves from the plot that they think is against them.Consequently they have squandered world resources with orientation towards securing Muslims resources based treating every single Muslim at their own home as they never have had democracy decency and civilization ever.Once upon time when they were They had trained me to be best educated best skilled anywhere in the world.Since their Paranoia in few decades they have dismandled themselves and heading towards medieval days when their Tall Buildings factories will look old ugly run down and will come down tumbling amid corruption Sodom Gumrah crazy supremist living.

    • then let all the muslims move to Canada!

  14. Security forces up to their old tricks again. He is on the specified person list, should probably not be there, and has to spend his time getting off, and yet you hear stories like this over and over again.

  15. If CSIS and RCMP have enough information to put that name on the list, it's probably for good reasons! If you don't agree, I suggest you fly with that guy!

    • amen

  16. i think that ya they should keep the guy from going on the plane but if u think about it what about all the other people that are put on the no fly list just because they look like they could be a hijacker doesn’t mean that they could be dangerous.
      like the security at the airport can’t hold up everybody and put them on a no fly list just because they look suspisious of being bad. that is going again st ur right to mobility and tha is also unlofle search and seizer which is going against your human rights.

  17. Any Canadian who expresses dissent towards their government is probably on that list , It’s a shame Canada is turning into a police state just look at the US .  ” He who gives freedom up for temporary security will receive neither and lose both ” . Benjamin Franklin 

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