MINNEAPOLIS – With ticket in hand and friends at his side, Abdirizak Ali went to the Minneapolis airport in 2012, eager to make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca. Instead, he was turned away at the ticket counter, escorted outside by security and — without explanation — told he couldn't fly.
"If I knew I was up to something, I would have understood it. But the fact that I was innocent, that I didn't do anything wrong ... that killed me," Ali said, crying as he talked about the ordeal more than three years later.
Scores of Muslims with no ties to terrorism have had similar issues in Minnesota, and on Sunday, a mobile team from the Department of Homeland Security will visit Minneapolis in an effort to resolve their concerns as quickly as possible.
It's an idea borne of a wide-ranging Department of Justice pilot project to counter terrorism recruiting in Minnesota, which has the nation's largest concentration of Somali residents. More than 22 young men have left the state over the last decade to join the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia, and in recent years about a dozen Minnesotans have left to join jihadist groups in Syria.
U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said it's the first time such a team — called a mobile redress team — has traveled to a U.S. city.
Luger heard many stories like Ali's as he met with Somali community members last year. In one case, he said, a man's file was held up because his photo ID appeared fuzzy. The problem was quickly resolved once the man got one-on-one attention from the Transportation Security Administration, Luger said.
That's the goal of the mobile team: personal attention with a goal of resolving issues for as many people as possible.
A flier about the meeting says it will provide an opportunity for people to apply for "redress," a process where they can resolve travel screening issues. The meeting will also give Somali community members a chance to ask questions about security screening, border crossing or making the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of every Muslim who can afford and physically make the journey.
Ben Petok, a spokesman for Luger, said his office is thrilled at a "really important" effort to confront the issue.
"Whatever problems that can be resolved will be resolved. The folks at TSA are really good at this," he said.
TSA officials had no comment on the mobile redress team. But agency data give some perspective on the number of people who run into problems. The agency got 19,500 applications for redress in the last fiscal year to resolve issues pertaining to air travel, border crossings and visas, among other things.
The TSA said 98 percent of the aviation cases stemmed from misidentification, in which someone who wants to fly has the same or similar name and birthdate as a person on the terrorism watch list. When redress cases involve TSA only, they can often be resolved in just over a week.
Ali, now 52, didn't find relief so quickly. He said he tried to fix his problem, but got a letter 45 days later that said he wasn't able to travel. He called it one of the most devastating moments of his life. His friends made the trip without him and now won't talk to him because they think the government was after him, he said.
Last year, he began working one-on-one with a TSA official and he finally got a letter saying he can travel freely.
Omar Jamal, a community advocate who worked with Ali, said government bureaucracy created unnecessary human suffering in this case. Jamal said Drew Rhoades, TSA's assistant director for mission support in Minneapolis, met with Ali many times and was instrumental in getting the issue resolved.
"We need to see people like Andrew connect with the community on a person-to-person level. To get down to earth and connect with them and develop relationships and trust," Jamal said.
Rhoades confirmed that he helped Ali, but he referred further questions to headquarters.
"I hadn't been able to sleep until I got that letter," Ali said through Jamal, who was interpreting. Being denied travel, he said, was "like someone being sent to prison without telling them why he's in prison."
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