The Canadian “no-fly” list is such a sensitive document that the federal government won’t even disclose how many names it contains. Instead, Transport Canada has simply assured the public that the top-secret list, in effect since 2007, is based on “reliable and vetted” intelligence collected from trusted sources. Translation: if you’re on it, authorities have good reason to believe you are an aspiring hijacker. Or worse—another Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a U.S. jet on Christmas Day.
Though classified, the Canadian list contains one name for sure: Hani Ahmed Al Telbani. As first reported in Maclean’s, the 28-year-old Muslim—an engineering grad who allegedly surfed extremist websites using the online alias “Mujahid Taqni” (Technical Jihad)—is the only person to ever be denied boarding as a result of the so-called Passenger Protect Program, which springs into action when a blacklisted individual arrives at the check-in counter. A Palestinian immigrant, Telbani tried to catch a flight from Montreal’s Trudeau Airport to Saudi Arabia on June 4, 2008, but instead of a seat number, the airline agent handed him an “Emergency Direction” from Transport Canada. “You,” it proclaimed, “pose an immediate threat to aviation security.”
But 18 months later, with airport safety once again at the top of the agenda, the evidence against Hani Al Telbani has been called into question—and with it, the credibility of the entire no-fly list. As the American government scrambles to figure out how its own maze of anti-terror watch lists failed to thwart a potential catastrophe, Canadian officials have been forced to consider a very different question: does our no-fly list include some names that don’t belong there?
According to an internal government report obtained by Maclean’s, a team of independent investigators has concluded that Telbani is not too dangerous to fly. Commissioned by Ottawa, the report is especially critical of the country’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. It was CSIS that convinced Transport Canada to ground Telbani, relying on evidence that was “decidedly vague and incomplete.”
The report urges Ottawa to not only delete him from the database, but to reassess all the evidence used to justify each entry on the list. After all, if the only person ever stopped by the no-fly program has been wrongfully targeted, how reliable is the rest of the list?
For a man desperate to clear his name, the findings read like a victory. In the eyes of Transport Canada, however, the results mean absolutely nothing. Rather than follow the recommendations, senior officials met behind closed doors, re-examined his CSIS file—including secret new details not disclosed to the independent advisers—and stuck to their original conclusion.
A permanent resident whose application for Canadian citizenship is pending, the Quebec man is now locked in a series of court battles with the feds, including a civil lawsuit demanding $550,000 in damages for the “stigma, humiliation, contempt, hatred and ridicule” he has endured. He claims the no-fly list (known officially as the “Specified Persons List”) violates his Charter rights to free movement and due process because it gives bureaucrats the power to brand someone a terrorist and ban him from the skies without any chance to challenge the evidence. Simply put, Telbani is stuck in national security limbo: deemed too dangerous to fly, though not dangerous enough to arrest.
The case raises troubling questions about civil liberties in a post-9/11 world, but it also raises just as many questions about the mystery man at the centre of the fight. Exactly why CSIS considers him so dangerous is still a state secret, but the fact that pages and pages of court documents are blacked out certainly suggests that the spies believed they had sufficient—if not urgent—reason to be monitoring Telbani’s online chatter.
Those censored allegations are apparently so incriminating that Telbani’s lawyers are now asking a judge to seal them from public view in the hopes of salvaging what’s left of his reputation. Telbani, who insists he is not a threat, says in a sworn affidavit that keeping the CSIS material confidential “is essential to prevent me from suffering irreparable harm to my safety, dignity, reputation, private life [and] right to work.”