ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - A Muslim family of U.S. citizens on the terrorist watch list claims in a federal complaint that the screening tool has little to do with security.
"Leaked government documents, which are now publicly available, have made clear that the secret federal watch list, of which the No Fly List is a subset, is the product of bigotry and misguided, counterproductive zeal," the 24-page complaint says.
Saadiq Long, a U.S. Air Force veteran and Muslim convert, filed the complaint with his wife and daughter on Dec. 11 - just a week and a half after shooters who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant killed 14 in a terrorist attack on San Bernardino.
As ISIL's threat reach Western shores, Americans and lawmakers have grappled with fear and pressure to improve security.
The complaint alleges, however, that the government does not use the watch list "to enhance aviation and border security, but as a bludgeon to coerce American Muslims into becoming informants."
Gadeir Abbas, an attorney for Long with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, expounded upon this dichotomy in an interview.
"The public perceives the no fly list as an effort to protect aircraft but that's no longer what the government uses it for," Abbas said.
The complaint identifies several instances in which the government agreed to remove people from the watch list if they cooperate with the FBI or become informants.
A 2010 lawsuit
he American Civil Liberties Union filed on behalf of 13 U.S. Muslims on the no-fly list made similar claims about the pressure to inform.
Abbas said "the government is doing something truly unprecedented."
"There is no comparable policy to compare it to ... there is no list to keep people from getting a driver's license or riding trains," he added.
Abbas' client Long was born in Oklahoma but was living in Qatar in 2012 with his family, Juangjan Daves and Leshauna Daves, when he began having trouble flying.
With his mother battling a life-threatening illness in Oklahoma, Long says he tried to board a flight home but was not allowed to fly, according to the complaint.
Long says the ordeal made headlines across the globe, and that FBI agents forced to see his mother's prescription medications before letting him board the plane.
Once in Oklahoma, federal agents allegedly trailed Long and his sister around in unmarked vehicles.
They sought help by driving to police station, where officers greeted them with guns drawn, yanked them out of their car and put them in handcuffs, according to the complaint.
"The driver vehicle that had been following Saadiq and his sister approached them, introduced himself as the FBI, and sarcastically apologized for how difficult it was for Saadiq to return to the U.S.," the complaint continues.
Long says "the FBI agent misled the officers by claiming that he was trying to detain 'fleeing felons.'"
The journey back to Qatar was similarly problematic, Long says, claiming that he had to take a bus to Mexico, fly to South America and then on to Qatar.
In an interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, Long said he had no idea why or how he ended up on the list.
This past October, Long and his family say they flew to Turkey, where Long had served in the Air Force, to explore work opportunities. Because the U.S. flagged their passports for being on the no-fly list, however, the Turkish government detained them, according to the complaint.
A handful of media outlets - among them Fox
- recently reported that Turkey arrested Long for joining a cell of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Long's complaint, and recent reporting
from Glenn Greenwald, indicates, however, that no charges have been filed against any of the plaintiffs by the Turkish government - they are being held for deportation, not for joining ISIL.
The U.S. has apparently agreed to issue a one-time waiver to let Long and his family fly to the United States, but they say it is unclear whether the U.S. will later let them leave by plane.
Long says there were 16 people on the no-fly list in 2001. In 2013, the list contained 47,000 names, the complaint says.
from the inspector general of the U.S. Justice Department meanwhile counted 700,000 people on the government watch list in 2007. Long's lawsuit says the number has risen to 1.5 million.
The Terrorist Screening Center accepts nearly 99 percent of those nominated to this list, according to the complaint.
Those who wrongly end up on the list must live with the stigma of being associated with terrorism, thought of as a "violent menace," and, for those on the no fly list, the inability to fly through U.S. airspace with little to no recourse.
The Attorney General's office and the FBI did not respond to an emailed request for comment for this story.
Long's attorney Abbas noted that the government has other means to achieve airline safety, saying it could arrest dangerous passengers, subject them to intense searches before boarding a flight, or use air marshals.
Because there is no due process involved in the no-fly list, Abbas said "there is no situation where [it] be constitutionally imposed on U.S. citizens."
The government can place people on the list for just being related to someone on a federal watch list, without being charged or convicted of a crime, he said.
Guilt by association "goes against our traditions," he added.
After the San Bernardino shooting, the White House and Democratic members of Congress have shown wide support for banning gun sales to people on the terror watch list, even though these people are not formally charged with or convicted of any crime.
Earlier this month Republican senators shot down a bill that would ban gun sales to people on the terror watch list.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said last Thursday that he would sign an executive order banning people on the terror watch list from buying firearms in the state.
The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized
the terror watch list as unfair, overbroad and secretive, and for offering no meaningful way for people to clear their names or correct errors.
Its 2010 lawsuit remains ongoing.
When a judge in the case held that the government's refusal to tell people why they are on the list or offer a hearing is unconstitutional, the government said in April it would tell U.S. citizens if they are on the list, and maybe offer reasons.
The ACLU has said, however, that the revamped redress process remains
Abbas called it "extremely unlikely that the political braches will ever do anything about watch-listing, which makes this type of litigation very important."
"The judicial branch is the best guardian of the liberty of unpopular minorities," the attorney added.
He said the stakes are high both for the constitutional rights of his clients, and for the rights of all Americans.
"Just like a fear of Muslims and terrorism justified the indiscriminate mass surveillance that allowed the government to monitor emails and texts - as Edward Snowden revealed - the vast infrastructure of terror list watching predominantly affects Muslims now," Abbas said. "But it will inevitably affect everyone soon enough."
Long's lawsuit names as defendants Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey and the Terrorist Screening Center's Timothy Healy.
Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center; Jeh Johnson, head of Homeland Security; and Peter Neffenger, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration round out the list.