US Apologizes to Billionaire Added to Terror No-fly List

Gilbert Chagoury says he still doesn't know 'why I was branded a terrorist.'

ByABC News
March 19, 2010, 1:41 PM

May 21, 2010 — -- The United States has issued a written apology to a jet-setting billionaire businessman with close ties to former President Bill Clinton whose name was added to the no-fly list in the wake of the attempted Christmas day bombing of an American passenger plane.

Gilbert Chagoury, 64, a Nigerian citizen of Lebanese descent, was pulled off a private jet Jan. 15 at Teterboro airport in New Jersey and detained for more than four hours after federal agents discovered his name was on the then-recently updated no-fly list.

The private jet crew of two and four other passengers were detained for four-and-a-half hours while agents questioned Chagoury. He and the others were ultimately allowed to continue their trip to Paris.

"I think a huge mistake is an understatement," Chagoury said in a phone interview with and the Center for Public Integrity.

"I cannot accept being labeled a terrorist when I am known all over the world as a person who loves peace. It really hurt," he said.

It took Chagoury, a well-known philanthropist and an ambassador to the United Nations educational office, more than four months and thousands of dollars in legal fees to get the U.S. government to offer an apology and to give him a waiver to fly freely across U.S. airspace.

"Let us apologize for any inconvenience or unpleasantness you have experienced," wrote Jim Kennedy of the Department of Homeland Security's Traveler Redress Inquiry Program in an April letter obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.


"Please understand that in order to detect those international travelers involved in illicit activities, we must, at times, unfortunately inconvenience law-abiding travelers," the DHS official wrote to Chagoury in April.

The formal waiver allowing him, his family and private jet pilots to travel again to the U.S. was finally granted last week.

There was, however, no explanation of why Chagoury's name had ended up on the no-fly list in the first place.

"I don't know why me. I look at myself as a friend of America, I've always loved your country," said Chagoury.

Chagoury said he had regularly traveled to the United States without incident until this January.

Given the timing, it appears Chagoury was ensnared by changes in the criteria for the antiterrorism list after the failed bombing attempt.

The accused bomber grew up in Chagoury's homeland of Nigeria, and Chagoury said he was acquainted with the suspect's father, a Nigerian banker.

"He has always been a great banker and a very nice gentleman," said Chagoury of Abdulmutallab's father, who had gone to the U.S. Embassy to sound an alarm about his son's possible recruitment as a terrorist.

One of the ACLU's clients, Steven Washburn, 54, a former Air Force officer from New Mexico, said he had been stuck in Ireland for three months, unable to return home because he appeared on the no-fly list sometime after his last U.S. trip in November.

Washburn told the Center for Public Integrity in an interview he worked as a security expert at a company in Saudi Arabia for the last couple of years but wanted to return home with his wife, a Spanish citizen, in February after a brief visit in Ireland with his stepdaughter and new grandchild.

Washburn said he was halted from boarding a direct flight to the United States in February and told he was on the no-fly list. He was interviewed by FBI agents, who told him they had no concern about him and even suggested Washburn get around the no-fly list by flying to Mexico then driving across the border, he said.

Washburn took their advice and boarded a flight to Mexico City. Three hours into the flight, the pilot was ordered to return to London's Heathrow Airport, where Washburn said he was detained, fingerprinted and tested for DNA by Scotland Yard officials. Washburn said he learned the plane was forced to return because it would briefly enter U.S. air space as it approached Mexico, triggering the no-fly restriction.

Washburn, his family and his lawyer said the FBI questioning gave some hints of what might have landed him on the list: the agents discussed his conversion to Islam after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, his recent work in Saudi Arabia, his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fact that he hailed from New Mexico where the Yemeni-American imam Anwar al-Awlaki -- linked by US. officials to the failed Christmas Day terror plot -- once taught years ago.

Washburn told the Center he loves America, has never supported extremism, has never committed a crime and served honorably in the Air Force. He has yet to get an explanation from the U.S. government and has lost thousands of dollars in airline tickets.