Already missing their flight to Canada, Zainab Merchant held her then 6-month-old baby inside a cold room in an airport in September of 2016 while she waited for her husband’s screening to be over after her family was detained for a random security check by Transportation Security Administration agents.
Merchant said her family was stopped for one reason; because she’s Muslim.
“At that moment, I honestly feared for us, because when I think the three-hour mark hit, you’re just sitting there waiting,” Merchant told ABC News. “We don’t know what’s going on with us. I just remember being very fearful about what was going on. It’s a few officers and yourself, and nobody is there. No other person was there with us. So just [a] very lonely, cold, dark experience.”
Merchant, an American citizen, is among the many people on America’s terrorist screening watchlist, a database containing information about individuals targeted as known or suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, according to the FBI.
The watchlist was created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, and since then, has collected over 1.6 million identities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. There’s no due process for people added to it, nor any official way to find out who has been added, according to human rights lawyers.
The random security checks started happening more frequently after her first detainment, according to Merchant. Hourslong detentions, fear and extensive questioning have become a familiar experience for Merchant and her family when traveling.
“[Since the Canada trip], we had always been detained, we’d always been questioned and it stopped being random when you knew that every time you travel, my entire family, including the children, were asked to step aside, escorted by the TSA officers,” she said. “It just ended up becoming this traumatic thing for us to ever fly again.”
Unlike the “no-fly” list, the watchlist still allows people to fly. They are, however, subject to extra security, extensive questioning and hourslong detentions when flying or crossing the border.
Merchant said she was not aware she was added to the watchlist until the screenings and processes became even more frequent, and she knew that, regardless of where they were headed, the whole family would be pulled aside.
She said that even her three small children were being targeted and taken away from them during the screening process.
“They were being treated as criminals, no matter how little they were. It wasn’t just my husband and I. They were also screening these little children,” she said.
“I remember just guiding them through it and teaching them … ‘this is what’s going to happen. You have to cooperate, smile, just be friendly.’ Imagine teaching a young toddler this way; you don’t even know how toddlers are going to react.”
Such screenings would happen whenever the family traveled, Merchant says, but the situation became even more intense when the FBI allegedly contacted her with a proposal.
A few months after that initial detention, Merchant was allegedly contacted by FBI agents seeking information about her mosque and community. She said they offered a chance to be removed from the list if she agreed to be an informant.
“I said, ‘absolutely not. You know, I’m a mom. I’m not a spy. I don’t care if I’m going to be on this [a long time]. I’m just not going to do this,'” Merchant said.
In response to an ABC News request for comment, the FBI said the Terrorist Screening Center could neither deny nor confirm whether an individual is on the watchlist.
After the conversation, Merchant said the situation got progressively worse.
“There was a time when they took my laptop and they released the whole bomb squad on me at the airport. There was a time when dogs were unleashed on me. They took out a whole team of dogs to search me,” Merchant said.
The most traumatic and humiliating experience for Merchant, however, was at the Boston Logan International Airport – when she said she had her period and the TSA officers forced her to remove her pants during a private screening.
“That day, they were trying to strip me of my dignity when they didn’t believe that I was on my period. Even though I went on through the scan, everything was clear,” she said.
“I said my final prayers as a Muslim … I had nowhere [to go], no one to call and no one to say anything to stop feeling of utter helplessness. I was ready to die. They removed my pants and they saw the blood everywhere. And they quickly just scurried out of the closet.”
Merchant, however, is not the only one. Many others are on the watchlist without knowing the reason behind it.
Abdulkadir Nur, who goes by Eno, is a 69-year-old U.S. citizen from Somalia who said he is also on the watchlist.
Nur travels often due to his humanitarian work with the United Nations, but every time he leaves the country, he said he undergoes extensive questioning and screening.
“You know, when I fly worldwide, I’ve never had any problems,” Nur said. “Actually, I’m being respected and welcomed everywhere. But when I’m coming to my country, the U.S., I feel like I’m [a] criminal.”
While the TSA says a typical enhanced screening process takes 10 to 15 minutes, both Nur and Merchant said they had to miss multiple flights due to secondary questioning at airports.
With all of the challenges faced, Nur has filed a lawsuit against the FBI with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, in hopes to have his name removed from the watch list. The process, if successful, could take years, according to his lawyer.
Merchant says she was able to get her name off the list after she confronted TSA and FBI officers during a closed-door meeting she was invited to in Orlando in 2018.
Now, Merchant hopes to use her experience to help others and shine a light on the issue.
“I don’t fear this anymore,” she said. “It built me up to be that voice for people who don’t have any. Even though I might be off the system, I am not really free until every one of them gets justice.”