Maeve Higgins: How young Adama’s life crumbled after 9/11

In 2005, Adama Bah became the youngest person, and the first woman, to be arrested and accused of terrorism by the US in their in-country ‘War on Terror’. The case was bogus and she was never charged.
Maeve Higgins: How young Adama’s life crumbled after 9/11

Last month, Adama Bah found herself back in 26 Federal Plaza. Now, instead of being a terrified, handcuffed teenager accused of plotting an attack on America, she was a glamorous and smiling woman in a golden dress, there to pledge allegiance to the US flag as part of her citizenship ceremony. 

TODAY, at sunset, two beams of light will shoot up from lower Manhattan, and will be visible for miles across New York City as it remembers what happened on this day 20 years ago.

The twin lights represent the Twin Towers. The lights are impossible to miss, haunting the sky and forcing a reckoning with what happened on September 11, 2001 and everything that came afterward. 

At home and abroad, the reaction to the actions of the 9/11 bombers reverberates. That day irrevocably changed the course of many New Yorkers’ lives, in ways impossible to quantify or know. 

One such life is that of Adama Bah, a 33-year-old immigrant rights advocate, who knows more than most about the repercussions. 

If 9/11 never happened, this would have never happened to us. Most people forget that we are victims, too.

In 2005, Adama became the youngest person, and the first woman, to be arrested and accused of terrorism by the US in their in-country ‘War on Terror’.

The case was bogus and she was never charged: Adama was targeted because she was Muslim, she was black, and she was an immigrant. 

We spoke this week and she recalled the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the changing mood of the nation. 

The whole thing, we were all mourning as a country. Then, we went from mourning to targeting, to targeting people who were innocent.

We spoke about the architecture of US government surveillance that grew exponentially and which targeted an unknown number of Muslim Americans under the auspices of the ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11. 

These were decent people, with no connection whatsoever to terrorism, profiled as suspects because of their religious faith. 

Anecdotal evidence from targeted Muslims — of civil and human rights abuses — was mounting for years before the combined efforts of community groups, FBI whistleblowers, and investigative reports in the media confirmed that lawmakers and federal agencies had ramped up racial and religious profiling, and increased domestic spying, in their cack-handed pursuit of imagined enemies inside their own borders.

Put into a cell alone, without access to a phone, a family member, or a lawyer, Adama was questioned about her immigration status and about her links to terrorism.
Put into a cell alone, without access to a phone, a family member, or a lawyer, Adama was questioned about her immigration status and about her links to terrorism.

On the morning of March 24, 2005, 16-year-old Adama, her parents, and her little sister and brothers slept, oblivious to the armed forces outside their apartment door. Then, the men barged in: Some had FBI jackets, and others were from the New York Police Department and the DHS (Department of Homeland Security). The officers were yelling threats at the family and Adama’s father was handcuffed.

Adama says: “It was the scariest thing you could ever see: I had never seen my father so powerless.” 

Then, she, too, was handcuffed and driven with her father to 26 Federal Plaza, a massive building in downtown Manhattan and home to many federal offices, including those of the FBI, DHS, and ICE (Immgration and Customs Enforcement). 

Put into a cell alone, without access to a phone, a family member, or a lawyer, she was questioned about her immigration status and about her links to terrorism. Both of these lines of questioning stunned the teenage Adama.

She knew her father had issues with his immigration status, but like many undocumented children, she wasn’t aware that she was not legally in the country.

Even more shocking to her was the realisation that the FBI was accusing her of being a potential suicide bomber, telling her that she and another girl from her mosque were on a list of radical Islamists. 

Again, this was not true and she was never charged with anything like it. 

Yet Adama was kept in detention for more than six weeks and subjected to racist comments and repeated strip searches by her guards. 

She was released on condition that she wear an ankle monitor and obey a curfew. 

The only charge against her was of overstaying her visa, which she had done as a two-year-old, having emigrated from Guinea.

It is difficult to grasp how the US authorities did this to Adama without understanding the context and the time.

Even Adama bought into the narrative they created. “In the past, if I heard on the news that we caught a terrorist, I believed it. Little did I know that they were just targeting people, arresting them, accusing them of terrorism, and then deporting them. 

"They plastered their stories all over the news and you think, ‘Oh, I’m glad that they did that, I’m glad they caught this bad guy.’ Then, it happens to you and you think, ‘Wait a minute, they weren’t bad all along?’ They were creating a negative narrative just to scare us, and they were targeting innocent people.”

Adama’s father was deported, and the family fell into poverty. Adama left school to find work and support her mother and siblings.

Lawyers working pro bono helped her to apply for asylum, on the grounds that if she were deported to Guinea she would be faced with genital mutilation, as her female relatives had been.

She won her asylum case and began the slow, hard road to getting US citizenship. 

Last month, Adama found herself back in 26 Federal Plaza and it could not have been more different to her first time there.

Now, instead of being a terrified, handcuffed teenager, accused of plotting an attack on the US, she was a glamorous and smiling woman in a golden dress, there to pledge allegiance to the US flag as part of her citizenship ceremony.

“That was the irony for me,” Adama says. “In the same building I was arrested in, interrogated in, at 16? That was the same building I was given the highest status in this country. I was excited, but it was such a long journey.

I really wanted to scream; there were different emotions going on, because I was held and interrogated in that building. So, I wanted to go to the floor I was interrogated in and say, ‘Eff you guys, I got my citizenship’.

Adama begins to laugh at the memory. “And I don’t curse, but I was ready to curse that day.”

I asked her about the dress she wore for the citizenship ceremony, which I’d seen on her social media. “I was trying to stand out on purpose. I fought so hard for this! I wanted to hit pots and pans, but, you know, I wondered if that would be a federal crime.”

Laughing again, she says: “I didn’t want to commit a felony, so I thought, ‘OK, let me just wear a bright dress’.” 

That choice she made, to wear a bright dress in a place that caused her so much misery in the past, is emblematic of how she chooses to spend her days. 

Adama’s work now is with her community, helping immigrants to navigate a perilous system and campaigning for immigration reform.

“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” Adama says. “I feel like I have a long way to go before I can say that my work is done.”

Adama is just one person in a vast and varied community of Muslims in the US, people who have been ruthlessly surveilled by their own government, placed on terrorist watch lists and no-fly lists, innocent people targeted, detained, and even deported, despite not having done anything.

It’s been 20 years since the terrible morning of September 11, but for many, it is not over yet.

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