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What gives? Another American in Libya no-fly limbo

Mustafa Elogbi, 60, a U.S. citizen of Libyan origins, poses for pictures with children from a refugee camp during a visit to Libya in 2011.

Remember Jamal Tarhuni, the U.S. businessman whom msnbc.com reported on last week because he was denied boarding on his flight home from North Africa and summoned to the U.S. Embassy for questioning by the FBI? It turns out a second American is in the same security limbo in Tripoli — also a Libyan-born businessman from Portland, Oregon. In some ways, the story of Mustafa Elogbi, 60, is even more harrowing.

Now both are in limbo in Tripoli, saying they don’t know why they were targeted, nor whether they will be allowed to proceed home.

"My husband has been traveling (to Libya) for the last three years, regularly," Elogbi’s wife, Annie Petrossian, said in a phone interview from Portland. "Now suddenly the regime changes in Libya, and it becomes an issue. How come it was not an issue just three months ago before the regime changed in Libya? And now it became a problem?"

The secrecy that surrounds security investigations makes them extremely difficult to assail. But civil rights activists say these cases suggest a troubling pattern — or two of them — that the federal government should address.

The nonprofit Muslim civil rights group Council on American Islamic Relations is calling for the Department of Justice to investigate "a pattern of unconstitutional activity emanating from the FBI's Field Office in Portland."

The Libyan League for Human Rights says it is looking into a pattern "of American citizens of Libyan descent who traveled to Libya during the revolution (and) have been detained and interrogated by the FBI, TSA, and CBP in recent months …. The individuals in question were asked about their activities in Libya as well as their political and religious leanings."

Elogbi, like Tarhuni, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and longtime Portland resident. He first came to the United States as a student in the 1970s. Elogbi met and married his wife in Portland, and they have raised five children there, while running a small retail business.

US aid worker: US bars my return

A few years ago, toward the end of the decades-long dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, when Washington and Tripoli improved ties, Elogbi finally returned to Libya to visit family, Petrossian said.

"It was his father (in Libya) who was always saying, 'Don’t come back, don’t come back, there are no rights here,'" said Petrossian. "It had been about 30 years since he had been to Libya before he went to visit."

During the revolution to topple Gadhafi in 2011, Elogbi got involved in humanitarian work in Libya, traveling there several times over the past year, visiting hospitals and refugee camps.

UK officials and 'Brian' from Portland
This time, Elogbi boarded a flight from Tunisia to London on Jan. 8 after spending more than two months in Libya. He planned to spend a one-night layover with relatives in London before flying to Portland.

But when Elogbi stepped off the plane at London’s Heathrow Airport, he was met by four British agents who told him to hand over his passport and cell phone.

"They said, 'The order is coming from your own home country,'" said Petrossian.

He then spent several hours being detained, questioned, photographed and searched. The UK asked him questions about what he was doing in Libya, the whereabouts of his siblings in and outside Libya, and with whom he spent time on his last day in Libya. Petrossian said the last day of her husband’s trip happened to overlap with that of a friend from Portland, so they spent it together. Security officials wanted to know that man’s job.

"(The officials) said that they weren’t going to let him fly back to the U.S., and that protocol was that he was to be sent back to Tunisia," she said.

Elogbi reportedly spent three days locked up in Colnbrooks— an immigration removal center near Heathrow Airport — before he was put on a flight back to Tunis.

"They transported him in the back of a truck; it was nighttime and it was a very frightening situation," said Petrossian. "He was being treated … like some sort of a criminal. It was really, really traumatizing. He was stripped of his rights. It was horrific."

From Tunis, Elogbi returned to Tripoli to be with relatives, and has remained there since. When someone who identified himself only as "Brian" repeatedly called Elogbi on his cell phone saying he wanted to interview Elogbi, and that he should go to the embassy in Tunisia, he refused.

It later became clear that Brian was an agent from the FBI field office in Portland — one of three agents who had flown in to question him and Tarhuni.

Elogbi did not go to Tunis, about a one-hour flight from Tripoli, for what was being billed as an interview.

"He wasn't well enough to travel," according to Petrossian, who said her husband had a bad case of bronchitis. "And he wondered why he should be interviewed by the FBI outside the United States … and why they would send three agents across the world to see him. Interesting. My husband is somebody who is always available when he’s in Portland."

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Is mosque the nexus?
The lack of information on these cases and others like them has the families, civil rights advocates and lawyers grasping for an explanation.

For Portland Muslims, it’s easy to characterize the Tarhuni and Elogbi cases as an extension of FBI focus on their community, and on the As-Saber Mosque, where many of them worship, in particular.

Lina Tarhuni, 23, subscribes to this theory to help explain her father’s ordeal.

"(The FBI) is running into a dead wall. … They just want to find just one person so they can say look we caught a bad guy … went to this mosque. They have no more information here … now the only way to do it, is by saying that we need to tap into people who are traveling."

Some of the Portland Seven, who were indicted in 2001 on allegations that they were plotting to work with al-Qaida and wage war against the United States, had attended As-Saber.  

Another terrorism suspect, "Christmas Tree bomber" Mohamud Osman Mohamud, was known to pray at the mosque.

The FBI tracked Mohamud, a Somali-American teenager, for several years and then swooped in and arrested him when, at 19, he allegedly tried to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas tree lighting event in Portland on November 2010. The bomb was a fake provided by an FBI undercover agent posing as a member of a ring of Islamist extremists.

When the case goes to trial in April the prosecution is expected to lay out Mohamud’s alleged efforts to contact al-Qaida and his radical beliefs. The defense will argue that the FBI used entrapment to net the young Mohamud.

Another As-Saber worshipper is Brandon Mayfield, a Portland attorney whom the FBI erroneously linked to a 2004 bombing in Spain that killed 191 people. Mayfield, a convert to Islam, was held as a material witness in a Portland detention center for two weeks without charges on the chance that he might have information about the bombings. Ultimately, a court dismissed the case, and the FBI apologized and admitted to faulty fingerprinting.

Michael Migliore, a Muslim convert who attended the mosque, found he was — apparently — on the government’s no-fly list when he tried to leave Portland to visit his mother in Italy. Migliore took a train to the East coast, then boarded a cruise ship to London, because he could not fly. Even then he was questioned by British authorities and detained for about 10 hours before being allowed to travel on.

The FBI is cornering subjects like Elogbi and Tarhuni overseas, where they are under pressure to talk without legal counsel or become informants because their passage home is at stake, according to Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney for CAIR who has worked on many no-fly cases.

"It’s a way to get consent to an FBI interrogation that otherwise would not be forthcoming," said Abbas, who has had dozens of cases involving Muslim Americans who were detained and questioned overseas and, in a number of cases, denied the right to fly home to the United States.

Interrogating by proxy sometimes also has advantages for U.S. investigators, he said.

"In this case, British customs officials have been enlisted to do what the FBI would not be allowed to do in the United States — to detain Mr. Elogbi without due process and to intimidate him into giving up his constitutional right to silence," he argued.

Are Libyan Americans a new target?
There may be another trend represented by Tarhuni and Elogbi’s plight, according to Yasmeen Ar-Rayani, the North American spokeswoman of the Libyan League for Human Rights.

"I think the tactic that CAIR is highlighting is most likely being employed here,” said Ar-Rayani. "But the motives they have for employing it are different than in other cases."

"The U.S. has a real strategic interest in controlling the outcome of the Libyan revolution. One way of exerting that control is to find ways of intimidating problematic people in the community … or to infiltrate these problematic circles with informants."

After Tarhuni’s daughter posted his plight on line two weeks ago, the human rights league started receiving reports from other Libyan Americans of seemingly similar encounters with security officials in recent months — at borders, some when visited by agents in their homes, and some where the subject was prohibited from flying. They are exploring about 15 complaints to see if they support a strong hunch.

Initially, at least, Ar-Rayani says questioning seems to focus on the political affiliations, contacts and religious persuasions: With whom did they spend time with in Libya, where are their siblings, what role did they play in the revolution, did they have contact with Islamist parties or extremist groups such as al-Qaida, did they have contact with or see the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya?

Testing the water
Elogbi and Tarhuni have booked new tickets and are scheduled to board a flight back to the United States on Feb. 13, arriving in Portland on Feb. 14. Their Portland attorney, Tom Nelson, is traveling to the region so he can accompany them on the flight.

The two men do not know whether they are included on the U.S. government’s secret no-fly list. As per government security policy, the FBI will not confirm or deny it.

The FBI field office in Portland also declined comment on the case involving the Portland men.

Thus they do not know if they will be prevented from boarding in Tunis, or in Paris or Amsterdam, where they change planes. They say that Mike Sweeney, consul at the U.S. Embassy, in Tunis told them, to go ahead and book their flights home, making sure to inform of their itinerary.

Sweeney responded last week that he could not comment on the cases of Tarhuni or Elogbi, out of privacy concerns. He did not respond to further queries about the travel status for the two men.

They do not know if they face FBI questioning if they get to Portland, nor whether they will be barred from further air travel, said Petrossian, Elogbi's wife.

"I don’t know what to expect until they are on that very last flight,” she said. “Even when they land here, what is going to happen next? We really don’t know what to expect."

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