Terror Suspect Handed Over to American Authorities May Be Deported

A man suspected by U.S. authorities of terrorist ties, who was taken off an airplane in Canada on Sunday, has been handed over to the United States, according to U.S. and Canadian officials.

In an official statement, the Canadian Border Services Agency said that the man, identified as Abdirahman Ali Gaal, had been turned over to U.S. authorities as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, June 1.

Gaal had been on an Aeromexico flight from Paris to Mexico when officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security discovered his name on a no-fly list and banned the plane from entering U.S. airspace, according to four U.S. national-security and counterterrorism officials who, like others quoted for this article, were not authorized to speak on the record about the case. Names are usually put on the no-fly list after first being entered into a classified counterterrorism database called TIDE, based on intelligence allegedly linking an individual to terrorism. Officials said Gaal's name was on the no-fly list—and one confirmed that he was in the TIDE database—because of intelligence that he had been involved with a terrorist group or a significant suspect in Somalia.

But authorities apparently lack hard evidence of terrorist involvement. Gaal, a Somali immigrant to the United States who had established permanent residency here at least two years ago, has been handed over to U.S. immigration authorities and has not been charged with any terror-related offenses, according to two federal officials involved in the case. "Mr. Gaal was returned to the U.S. yesterday where he was questioned by [Homeland Security] officials," Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for Homeland Security, told Declassified in an e-mail message. "In the course of that interview process, he was determined to be inadmissible to the United States, and is currently being detained pending immigration proceedings."

Gaal, currently held at a detention facility in New York state, could not be reached for comment.

Historically, names have been added to the no-fly list only if intelligence indicates that the person in question poses a direct threat to aviation or had posed such a threat in the past. However, in the wake of the failed attempt last Christmas by a Nigerian-born jihadist recruit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to blow up a Detroit-bound transatlantic airline with a bomb hidden in his underpants, the Obama administration began a review of the criteria for who gets put on a watch list. Officials may have loosened the criteria.

If Gaal had been on a U.S.-bound flight, airline officials would have been obliged to prevent him from boarding because he was on the no-fly list. But Gaal's flight was overflying American airspace, not landing here. The current system for vetting passengers for such flights does not require strict preboarding checks against the no-fly list. Nonetheless, American authorities learned about Gaal's presence on the flight before it entered American airspace, enabling them to divert the plane to Canada.

U.S. officials say that under a modernization scheme currently being implemented by Homeland Security and the airlines, government personnel will be responsible for vetting passenger lists for flights that fly over U.S. territory in addition to those that land here, supposedly by the end of this year.

Details of intelligence on Gaal's alleged terrorist connections were not available. A U.S. official said only that Homeland Security was instituting deportation proceedings against Gaal, based on an alleged "admission" that he "committed fraud" when applying for refugee status in Canada in October 2008. At that time, the official said, Gaal effectively gave up his legal permanent residency in the United States by departing the U.S. for a period of more than 10 months and then applying for refugee status in Canada. Because he had confessed to immigration fraud, the official said, Gaal is now deemed to be "inadmissible" to the United Staes and potentially subject to deportation.

As we reported yesterday, authorities have denied that Gaal is the same person as a suspect mentioned in a Homeland Security bulletin, first mentioned last week by Fox News, which advised law-enforcement officials in Texas to be on the lookout for a suspected member of the Somali-based terror group al-Shabaab trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. One official said that there is no indication that American authorities intend to bring any criminal charges against Gaal. Another official said that immigration authorities could hold him indefinitely pending possible deportation.