U.S.-Backed Syrian Kurdish Leaders Are on an FBI Watchlist
American troops trust Salih Muslim and Asya Abdullah with their lives. U.S. law enforcement doesn’t trust them to get on a plane.
For almost a decade, U.S. forces have been fighting in northeast Syria alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Muslim and Abdullah head the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish political faction in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Abdullah met with the President of France in 2015, and Muslim’s own son was killed in clashes against al-Qaeda in 2013.
But Muslim and Abdullah would run into trouble at an American airport. Muslim’s name and birthday were listed on the U.S. government’s “No-Fly List,” while Abdullah would be selected for extra screening if she ever boarded an American flight, according to recently leaked documents.
“I think [it] is [an] unfair judgement. And is done to satisfy Turkish [intelligence]. Asya Abdullah and me are meeting U.S. officials often,” Muslim told the Kurdish Peace Institute by text message. “And they know our role in strengthening the relations between the Kurdish people and Americans. I think the [U.S. security] service should be asked about their sources of information about us.”
Turkey opposes the Syrian Kurdish rebels. Some former members of the Turkish parliament with links to the Kurdish movement are also on the watchlist. Some of them played key roles in the Turkish-Kurdish peace process that broke down in 2015.
America and Turkey have each pursued their own “war on terror:” the former aimed at Islamists, the latter at Kurdish guerrillas. The two countries have sometimes cooperated, with Washington offering Ankara intelligence and using American counterterrorism laws against Kurdish parties.
At other times, the campaigns have come into conflict, as U.S. forces build relationships with their Syrian Kurdish counterparts. This has caused sharp contradictions in U.S. policy — like putting Muslim and Abdullah on a counterterrorism watchlist while partnering with them for counterterrorism operations on the ground.
As the Turkish government has grown more repressive, Turkey’s requests from other countries have gotten bolder.
During recent negotiations over allowing Sweden and Finland into the NATO alliance, Turkey demanded that those countries hand over dozens of “terrorists” wanted by Turkish authorities. The list included several civilian political activists and a newspaper editor. Swedish courts refused to allow the editor to be deported because his human rights were at risk.
The watchlist leak raises questions about what safeguards U.S. authorities have around requests from foreign countries like Turkey.
The lists were leaked last week when the budget airline CommuteAir accidentally posted them to a publicly available server. A cybersecurity researcher who goes by the name “maia arson crimew” apparently alerted the company to the data breach. She also saved a copy of the watchlist files and distributed it to journalists and researchers, including the Kurdish Peace Institute.
The files include the No-Fly List and the “Selectee” list. The No-Fly List, as the name suggests, bans passengers from boarding commercial flights within, into, or out of the United States. The Selectee list, which Abdullah was on, nominates people for extra security screening at airports.
The leaked version of the watchlists is from 2019, a spokeswoman for CommuteAir told the Daily Dot, which first reported on the leak. Personal information except for names and birthdays was redacted, and researcher Edward Hasbrouk noted on his blog that this data was being used for software testing.
Although watchlists are a large part of American counterterrorism strategy — and widely feared by travelers — the U.S. government has kept their contents shrouded in secrecy. Travelers may not know they are on a list until they run into problems at the gate of the airport.
The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the watchlist system, claims that entries are based on “specific intelligence-related criteria” and never “guesses or hunches.”
However, authorities do not have to cite “concrete facts” or “irrefutable evidence” in order to list individuals, previously leaked documents show. U.S. officials reportedly listed people who refused to become FBI informants.
Several lawsuits have forced authorities to reform the system. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that the reformed version still violates citizens’ rights. In 2019, a U.S. federal judge found the watchlist system unconstitutional; an appeals court reversed that ruling two years later.
The U.S. government is believed to exchange its watchlist data with foreign states. In 2020, Pakistani intelligence temporarily disappeared and interrogated an American citizen who had been added to the no-fly list, even though he had already cleared his name with U.S. authorities.
It is unclear how Muslim and Abdullah made their way onto the watchlists. In response to a question from the Kurdish Peace Institute, the FBI’s media office declined to comment, except to confirm that it was aware of a “breach of information held by a privately held airline company, including purportedly sensitive government information.”
Because the no-fly list is shared with other countries, adding PYD leaders to it could have been meant as a positive message to Turkey, a former U.S. immigration official told the Kurdish Peace Institute on the condition of anonymity.
The no-fly list is linked to the same databases that immigration officials use to process visa applications, and U.S. authorities have repeatedly denied Muslim a visa to speak in Washington, despite pleas from American members of Congress in both parties to let in the Kurdish leader.
But, as the former official explained, “it’s not the idea that we don’t want him to be here because that would be provocative. It’s saying that ‘we’re not just giving you a policy refusal.’ We’re actively putting you on the No-Fly List because you’re linked to what we consider to be a terrorist organization.”
Turkey has repeatedly demanded the arrest of Muslim, whom it considers to be affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Muslim has denied any “operational links” to the PKK.
The United States and European countries agree with Turkey’s assessment that the PKK is a terrorist organization — in both its civilian and military branches — but treat Muslim and Abdullah’s PYD as a separate organization.
Some Syrian Kurdish revolutionaries have a PKK background. The PKK has claimed both Mazlum Abdi, general of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and Ilham Ahmad, who runs the revolutionary administration, as former members.
But neither Abdi nor Ahmad appear to be on the watchlists.
“I would imagine there’s something on somebody like Mazlum Abdi that’s like, ‘if you encounter this person in a visa application, you need to email DC right f—ing now,’ it’s not going to be the same as the no-fly list,” the former immigration official said. “The people doing counterterrorism are making a point not to look at [PKK veterans fighting alongside U.S. forces], because all of U.S.-Syria policy is trying to…just not look at the thing.”
The no-fly list also names Remzi Kartal and Zübeyir Aydar, representatives of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that includes the PKK and the Democratic Union Party alike, in Europe. Both served as members of Turkey’s parliament before leaving the country and embracing revolutionary politics.
Turkish prosecutors named Muslim, Kartal, and Aydar on an arrest warrant following a March 2016 bombing in Ankara that killed 36 civilians. The Kurdish Freedom Hawks, a splinter group that broke from the PKK, claimed that attack.
Similarly, the Selectee list includes Adem Uzun and Nilufer Koç, members of the Kurdistan National Congress, another Kurdish umbrella group in Europe. These diaspora organizations have been a key conduit for peace negotiations.
The U.S. Treasury imposed financial sanctions on Uzun and Kartal in 2011 on the grounds that they were helping the PKK smuggle drugs. The Kurdistan Communities Union called the drug trafficking allegations “groundless.” French authorities arrested Uzun in 2012 but released him several months later.
In an email to the Kurdish Peace Institute, Uzun wrote that the U.S. authorities were trying to put a “stigma” on Kurdish politicians, portraying them as criminals rather than “politicians [looking] to find a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish question.”
“Me or the other listed persons were not…contacted personally. They publicize it without any warning. All the reasons and allegations they used to justify the list are irrelevant and not true,” Uzun stated, adding that he was speaking for Kartal and Aydar as well.
Uzun speculated that U.S. authorities “are taking their information from the Turkish state,” and noted that he was sanctioned just as Turkey-PKK peace talks broke down in 2011.
Those peace talks eventually started back up. At the same time, the PYD was in talks with Turkey over the situation in Syria, and Muslim even visited Ankara in 2013. However, the peace process broke down again in 2015, and the war has continued since then.
Kurdish politicians are not the only ones who have been swept up in watchlists. Gerry Adams, an Irish politician with alleged links to the Irish Republican Army insurgency, has long complained about security hassles when visiting the United States.
American members of Congress pressured the government to take Adams off its watchlists, due to his role in the Northern Ireland peace process. Officials said they had done so in 2006, but last week’s leak showed that Adams was still on the Selectee list, the Sunday Times reported.
As long as the process is shrouded in secrecy, there is no way to know for certain how these decisions are made — and what role foreign governments play.
(Photo: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)