Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 9, 2006

The no-fly list and airspace overflight: the case of Sami Kahil

Filed under: Aviation Security,International HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2006

The Canadian media reported this weekend on the case of Sami Kahil, a Canadian man of Lebanese origin who flew with his family from Canada to Mexico last week, and was detained upon arrival in Acupulco due to his name appearing on the U.S. ‘no-fly list’. He was put in custody, spent the night in a Mexican jail, and then flown back the next day to Canada on a private jet accompanied by RCMP officers. The story also notes that his initial flight was shadowed by F-16’s after American authorities learned he was on the plane.

It’s hard to know what to make of this story. The legal rationale for action is explained in this USA Today story from May 2005, which details new TSA regulations for airspace overflight and the ‘no-fly list.’ And there very well could be a good reason why Kahil belongs on the ‘no-fly list’. The articles mention the fact that Kahil has at least one acquaintance who is suspected (although not convicted) of connections to terrorist activities. But the stories also note that Sami Kahil is a very common Arabic name, and there is no question that the name-based watch list is a very flawed security tool. DHS’s certitude on this question is definitely disingenuous….

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security dismissed claims Kahil’s name shouldn’t have been on the list.

“I can assure you that if your name is on a U.S. no-fly list, it is not put there in any willy-nilly fashion. This is not a case of mistaken identity,” spokesperson Brian Doyle said.

…in light of the watch list’s many foibles, most recently the case of the four-year old who showed up on it.

But while the general truth of the story is inconclusive to me so far, a few things are clear:

If this is going to be a security regulation, then it needs to be set up so that decisions can be made before planes take off. Otherwise it’s a useless and costly regulation. (How much does it cost to send up two F-16s for 2-3 hours each?)
It was completely unnecessary for the US not to permit his return flight – where he was escorted by two RCMP officers on a private plane – to fly through US airspace (presumably it had to fly up the Pacific coast to Vancouver and then head east). The regulation should be amended to allow such escorted flights through US airspace.
It’s an outrage that authorities in Mexico took mug shots of his 8 and 6 year old sons.

Update (1/16): Canadian news sources are now reporting that Kahil has 15-year old ties to Hezbollah.

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