The Cable

Justice Department Moves to Revoke U.S. Citizenship From Man Convicted in 2003 Terror Plot

Prosecutors say the Pakistani-American’s citizenship can be stripped because he lied in the immigration process and was affiliated with a terrorist group.

NEW YORK - JULY 01:  Water flows down Denmark-born artist Olafur Eliasson's newly unveiled public art installation 'The New York City Waterfalls' at the Brooklyn Bridge July 1, 2008 in New York City. Four massive waterfalls using water pumped from the river have been installed along the East River through mid-October 2008.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JULY 01: Water flows down Denmark-born artist Olafur Eliasson's newly unveiled public art installation 'The New York City Waterfalls' at the Brooklyn Bridge July 1, 2008 in New York City. Four massive waterfalls using water pumped from the river have been installed along the East River through mid-October 2008. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Almost 14 years ago, the U.S. government locked up Pakistani-American Iyman Faris for providing material support to terrorists, and all but threw away the key.

Now the Trump administration is seeking to go further and do something extremely rare: strip Faris of his citizenship.

In 2003 Faris, originally born in Pakistan and naturalized in in 1999, pleaded guilty to plotting with senior al Qaeda operatives to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. Faris had also traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan and met with Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the September 11 terror attacks, according to prosecutors.

On Monday night the Department of Justice filed a civil suit to revoke Faris’s citizenship. The move is set to spotlight one of President Donald Trump’s signature contentions during the camping trail: that America’s immigration system is wide open to abuse from would-be terrorists.

The U.S. case hangs on evidence that Faris, 47, lied during his naturalization process and unlawfully procured U.S. citizenship in the first place. They say he fraudulently used another person’s passport when he entered the United States and didn’t disclose his past involvement in military combat in Kashmir and Afghanistan or his connections to jihadist groups. They also argue that his involvement with al Qaeda soon after he became a citizen proves he violated his oath of U.S. allegiance when he was naturalized.

In the 2003 case, prosecutors alleged Faris provided material support to al Qaeda leaders by processing their airline tickets, researching ultralight airplanes on their behalf, and delivering a bag of money and cellphones. They also said phone logs and intelligence reports provide evidence he took several steps towards destroying the Brooklyn Bridge, though he ultimately backed down.  

Threatened with the possibility of ending up in detention for life in Guantánamo Bay, Faris plead guilty and was given a lighter sentence of 20 years, scheduled to end in 2023. Before his sentencing he tried to withdraw his plea, insisting he was innocent and had lied in an FBI interrogation to get a book deal. Around that time he was taking antidepressants and antipsychotic medication, his lawyer said.

Stripping a U.S. national of citizenship is rare, but not impossible. American-born U.S. citizens cannot lose citizenship unless they choose to relinquish it themselves. But in some cases, the government can revoke foreign-born naturalized citizenship, especially if they lied about important facts in the immigration process or became members of terrorist organizations within five years of naturalization. Faris’s case apparently fits both of those criteria.

But it is rare to focus on this case 14 years later. “We have a new Department of Justice and a new approach to terrorism and immigrants. I think it is in the interest of this administration to try to highlight at this time criminal activity of people who came into this country originally seeking asylum,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Faris initially applied for asylum inside the United States but eventually married a U.S. citizen and received a green card.

The suit was filed by Trump appointee Chad Readler, acting assistant attorney general and a former lawyer for Trump’s presidential campaign. He portrayed the denaturalization suit as an effort to root out immigration abuses and support the rule of law.

“The U.S. government is dedicated to strengthening the security of our nation and preventing the exploitation of our nation’s immigration system by those who would do harm to our country,” Readler said, vowing to pursue similar cases of suspected terrorists who fraudulently became citizens.

Goitein said she would be watching to see of the Trump administration attempts to stretch the laws that permit denaturalization to apply to less clear-cut cases, or to even include stripping citizenship from U.S.-born citizens.

On Feb. 14, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) reintroduced a 2014 bill to allow even American-born citizens who join or assist terrorist groups to be stripped of their citizenship. 

Photo credit: MARIO TAMA/Getty Images

Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. @ksurana6

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