The unjust fate of an American ‘terrorist’

Muhammad Salah’s “internal banishment” sentence is even more severe than those imposed in South Africa, writes Silver.

Muhammad Salah (centre) is the sole person residing in the US who is labelled a "terrorist" [EPA]

Before Hamas was designated a “terrorist organisation” in the United States, it wasn’t.

And before Sami al-Arian, The Holy Land Five, and the countless other Palestinian Americans whose lives have been wrung through harrowing immigration and counter-terrorist proceedings for their connections – however slight – to Gaza, there was Muhammad Salah. 

It’s useful to view the shift in the US relationship to Hamas alongside the story of Muhammad Salah, a Palestinian-born citizen of the United States, who was seized in 1993 by Israel when he was on his way into the Gaza Strip to distribute humanitarian aid. The aid had been raised in the wake of Israel’s mass deportation of 415 men from Gaza to South Lebanon in the dead of winter in 1992. 

In 1993, Salah was a grocer in the suburbs of Chicago; a husband and father of four children. He was described as soft-spoken and keen on community volunteer work. 

Today, Salah is the sole person residing in the US who is labelled a “terrorist”. The status, assigned to him in 1995, has rendered his every movement, purchase, transaction and life decision – from the mundane to the substantive – subject to review by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

“He is, essentially, internally banished. He cannot engage with anyone, and no one can engage with him,” said David Cole, an attorney with the Centre for Constitutional Rights, who is representing him in his recently filed suit against the federal government. 

Internal banishment

“Internal banishment” is a form of punishment in which the government determines with whom the sentenced is permitted to speak. It gained notoriety by its wide use under South Africa’s apartheid regime. 

Matt Piers, who has represented Salah since 1998, believes the conditions of Salah’s sentence are even more severe than those imposed in South Africa: “The regulations are so vague and broad that no one could survive if it was strictly complied with.” 

“Internal banishment is a form of punishment in which the government determines with whom the sentenced is permitted to speak.”

Furthermore, Salah has never been told why he was placed on the list. “This man has never been convicted of anything and he has an eternal sentence of internal banishment,” said Piers, who points out that since returning to the US Salah has been under constant surveillance. 

Long gone are the days when Salah could act on an impulsive desire to purchase a bouquet of roses for his wife or grab a novel from the shelves of a bookstore. Salah has not been able to hold a bank account because, as the only bank with which he fleetingly held an account told him, “It is not cost-effective to maintain an account relationship with you [due to the arduous regulatory requirements associated with it]”. 

It has been like this for 17 years. 

All of this, in spite of the fact that Salah was acquitted by a Chicago court in 2007 of trumped-up charges of racketeering and aiding terrorism brought against him in 2004 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. 

Last week, on September 5, Salah filed a lawsuit to lift this surreal siege on his life – a siege so total it has prevented even civil rights organisations from contacting and helping him access his legal rights.  

“Muhammad’s case raises one of the most profound systematic denials of civil liberties I’ve ever seen,” said Piers, a civil liberties lawyer for the past thirty years. 

Cole asserts that Salah and his lawyers are “completely in the dark” as to why Salah was added to the US list of terrorists. “All we know, is that in 1995 the Treasury added him to the list. They didn’t give him notice or any reason, and never disclosed anything about why he was added,” said Cole. 

In 1995, President Bill Clinton issued a broadly worded executive order that added those persons and entities accused of interfering or threatening the “Middle East peace process” to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. 

The Treasury Department then drew up a list of “specially designated terrorists” that included foreign entities as well as individuals believed to serve the interests of those entities. Hamas, which arguably became popular within the Occupied Territories precisely because of its opposition to the US/Israel controlled “peace process”, was added to that list. 

Salah, along with Anwar al-Awlaki, is one of a handful of US citizens on the list and the only one residing in this country. Al-Awlaki was assassinated by a targeted US drone attack in Yemen last year. 

Salah was convicted by a widely-criticised Israeli military tribunal for assisting Hamas in 1995. It seems that following that conviction the US added him to their new list of terrorists. 

Piers emphasises that even if one accepted the Israeli government’s argument that Salah was distributing money to Hamas, at the time Salah was arrested it was not a crime to do so in the US. It would be nearly two years after his arrest when the US stance and policy regarding Hamas were reversed.  

Hamas as terrorist organisation

In 1993, Hamas was barely six years old and held a slender, if growing, fraction of popular support. Far from being ostracised as a terrorist organisation, Hamas was in contact with the US State Department during the early 1990s. 

However, the arrest of Muhammad Salah triggered a vigorous Israeli campaign to convince the US that Hamas was as much of an American “problem” as it was an Israeli one. 

The Israeli government quickly ramped up its PR, arguing that Salah was part of a complex “nerve centre” of Hamas military operations whose leadership was based in the United States. The Israeli military held a press conference during which it described Salah as the “World Commander of Hamas Military Wing”. 

“The arrest of Muhammad Salah triggered a vigorous Israeli campaign to convince the US that Hamas was as much of an American ‘problem’ as it was an Israeli one.”

The GOI then distributed an ostensibly self-evident diagram of Hamas’ command structure, placing its alleged US operatives at the top with menacing lines tracing them to Middle East countries. (For more details, read this excellent 2008 article by Michael Deutsch and Erica Thompson in the Journal of Palestine Studies.) 

US intelligence officers initially dismissed Israel’s claims, and stoutly stood up for Salah in the first months after his arrest and subsequent brutal interrogation. However, US state support for him dwindled before making a complete reversal. 

In the meantime, in March 1993 the State Department announced it was ending all talks with Hamas. 

During the time he was detained in Israel, Salah was subjected to excruciating torture, the grisly details of which can (and should) be read in Deutsch and Thompson’s piece. After a year and nine months of a merciless interrogation, Salah finally pled guilty before an Israeli military court in January 1995. He was sentenced to five years in prison, including the two years he had already spent incarcerated. That same month, the US added Hamas to its newly minted list of “terrorist organisations”. 

In July, six months after his sentencing, the US classified Salah as a “terrorist”, a branding that would pave the way for his subsequent and ongoing ordeal that began when he returned to the States in November, 1997.  

The capricious US stance towards Hamas is exemplified by a comparison of two drafts of a Report to Congress, the first published in May 1993 and titled, “Hamas: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?” and the revised draft – put out just a few months later in October – titled, “Hamas: The Organisations, Goals and Tactics of a Militant Palestinian Organisation“. 

Deutsch and Thompson explain that the original report published in May had affirmed the right of residents of the US to donate to Hamas. More important, the original report acknowledged the validity of Hamas’ position, stating, “It is fighting to free the ‘Palestinian homeland’ under the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter”. 

However, that bold section of the report – along with all references made to US doubts surrounding Israel’s case against Salah – was retracted after the Anti-Defamation League organised a campaign alleging the report contained “anti-Semitic” language. 

Then-New York Congressman, Charles Schumer, a member of AIPAC and a staunch supporter of Israel and the war on Iraq, was happy with the changes and stated, “I am gratified to note that CRS revisions addressed all the points brought to their attention by the Anti-Defamation League in its analysis of the report. The result is a more in-depth and accurate characterisation of both the Hamas organisation and US policy.” 

Muhammad Salah is now in his sixties. His eldest son just graduated from medical school. Once Salah spoke directly to the press; today he does not speak to reporters. His lawyers explain that he is seriously ill and wishes to focus his energies on his impending medical treatments. 

Salah’s lawsuit calls us to reflect on just one of the lives crushed by the political machinations of the “War on Terror”, and how far the execution of this war has taken us: from wanton criminalisation of Muslims at home to sending drones to kill people in countries where all military age men are labelled “combatants”.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco and the West Bank. She is a graduate of Stanford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CharEsilver