On a January morning in 2005, Rahinah Ibrahim, a Stanford University doctoral student, prepared to board a Hawaii-bound plane at San Francisco International Airport with her 14-year-old daughter. A Malaysian national, Ibrahim, wearing a traditional Muslim hijab, was headed to an academic conference in Kona.
But Ibrahim's routine trip to the airport took a detour that day, sending her on a nearly eight-year odyssey through the American court system -- and transforming an esteemed architectural scholar into a crusader against the U.S. government's secretive system of each year placing thousands of people, mostly foreigners, on "no-fly" lists targeting suspected terrorists.
Ibrahim has disavowed any terrorist connections, yet wound up on such a list. And she has been fighting to clear her name ever since.
On Monday, she will take on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in an unprecedented trial expected to peel back the curtain on how the government assembles the no-fly lists, used to heighten airline security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. For Ibrahim and civil liberties advocates, the trial also provides a chance to challenge how difficult it can be to get removed from the lists even when the government may have made a mistake in identifying someone as a national security threat.
Ibrahim will be fighting the U.S. government in absentia, denied the right since 2005 to return to this country from her native Malaysia and therefore unable to attend the trial in federal court in San Francisco. But the 48-year-old college professor, who was permitted to fly home after her SFO detention, has provided detailed accounts of her ordeal, including a lengthy statement contained in court documents.
"I would tend to cry whenever I described to friends my traumatic experience," Ibrahim said in one statement, describing her airport detention in front of her teenage daughter and dozens of waiting airline passengers.
In recent court papers, Ibrahim's lawyers called the system of secretly creating no-fly lists and failing to explain to people how they wind up on them "an attack on our collective identity as Americans."
"She doesn't want this to happen to other people -- to be wrongfully included on these lists that haunt them for years and years," said Elizabeth Pipkin, a San Jose lawyer who represents Ibrahim.
A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the case. In court papers, the government has not publicly revealed why Ibrahim was placed on a no-fly list, arguing that she should not even be able to take her case to trial because it could jeopardize national security secrets on how the Homeland Security program works. Federal officials have defended the importance of the program for years.
In November, government lawyers urged U.S. District Judge William Alsup to scratch the trial, arguing that it poses an "unacceptable risk" of disclosing classified information. But Alsup, who is hearing the trial without a jury, has ordered Ibrahim's case to move forward, even though the details are heavily redacted in thousands of court documents.
Before the 2005 incident, Ibrahim had been a regular traveler to the U.S. since the early 1980s, calling it her "second home," according to court papers. She met her husband in the U.S., marrying in Seattle in 1986. Her first child is a U.S. citizen.
After returning to Malaysia, Ibrahim founded the architectural department at a Malaysian university, but returned to this country to get her doctorate at Stanford in 2000. Her saga took an ominous turn in 2004, when she was interviewed by FBI agents, who asked about her religious affiliations, as well as any connections she or her husband had with Malaysian terrorist organizations. Court papers show she repeatedly denied any knowledge of any terror groups.
But she nevertheless was arrested at the airport in 2005 and told she had been branded a terrorist suspect in government databases. Ibrahim later settled separate legal claims for $225,000 against San Francisco police and others linked to her arrest, but has pressed on with efforts to get her name off the no-fly lists, which also resulted in her visa being revoked. She had to finish her Stanford doctorate remotely.
It has not been a clear path to trial. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice allowed her case to move forward after government lawyers challenged her legal right to proceed. In a ruling two years ago, that court observed: "Her contention is not implausible, given the frequent mistakes the government has made in placing names on these lists."
Several similar lawsuits are unfolding in other courts, including a major challenge to the lists pending in Oregon that is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. But Ibrahim's claims, which center on allegations that she's been unfairly targeted based on religious beliefs, are the first to reach the public spotlight.
"No one knows how the targets get on the lists," Pipkin said. "The government has never contested this case on the merits. We don't think they have a defense."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz