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"Ali" was wrongly flagged as a potential terrorist by Canadian authorities last year and has now been red-flagged by international agencies despite the fact that Canada has cleared him. (Della Rollins for the globe and mail/Della Rollins for the globe and mail)
"Ali" was wrongly flagged as a potential terrorist by Canadian authorities last year and has now been red-flagged by international agencies despite the fact that Canada has cleared him. (Della Rollins for the globe and mail/Della Rollins for the globe and mail)

Easy for terror suspects to get onto no-fly watch lists, much harder to be taken off Add to ...

He was red-flagged by security agencies last year as a potential terrorist. Now cleared in Canada, he remains on foreign watch lists, his case a stark example of how the taint of suspicion can linger with frightening effect.

In Frankfurt, he was followed. In London, an Air Canada agent told him he'd probably never be allowed to fly home again. In Washington, officials have not responded to his request to take his name off watch lists.

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Last month, a "secret" U.S. cable naming him as a terror suspect surfaced on WikiLeaks. His name was blacked out, but the disclosure threatened to catapult it into the public domain.

"I felt sick to my stomach," he says, speaking in an interview about his predicament for the first time. The Canadian resident, born in Turkey, asked that he be identified only through the pseudonym Ali. He fears his citizenship application, business prospects and children's futures would be jeopardized.

"They are going to grow up here," Ali, 31, said of his two toddlers. "What if they are made to not feel at home because of their father?"

It has been a decade since the Maher Arar affair shone a spotlight on how "persons of interest" who surface on the periphery of Canadian probes can be conflated into top-tier terrorism suspects by other countries. Ottawa put bureaucratic fixes in place to prevent a repeat. Yet Canadian counterterrorism authorities acknowledge a cold reality: Once they pass intelligence south - and they insist they must do so - they have little influence on what follows. And now that the Conservative government is negotiating a shared security perimeter with the United States, there will be more information-sharing in the future.

No officials will speak on the record about Ali, an entrepreneur who runs a cleaning business, though officials will say the situation he describes fits a broader and vexing trend. Once warnings are sent across borders and between agencies, it can be impossible to pull them back.

In January, 2010, Canadian police spotted Ali driving his car down Highway 401. Beside him was a gawky Iranian-Canadian in his 20s. What police knew then, and Ali says he didn't, was that his companion was under surveillance as the No. 1 terrorism suspect in Canada.

Ali had met Hiva Alizadeh years earlier at a halal butchery. Once friends, the two men were made closer by the fact that their wives had converted to Islam together. Their interactions were innocent, Ali says, but the watchful eyes of Canadian security agents took note.

On Feb. 5, 2010, the U.S. embassy in Ottawa cabled Washington urging that Ali's U.S. work visa be pulled and that he be stopped if he tried to cross the border. Why? "His association with Hiva Alizadeh, a Canadian citizen born in Iran who is strongly suspected of posing an imminent terrorist threat," the State Department cable said.

The cable was published on the WikiLeaks website recently, but with identifying information blacked out. Some uncensored copies are in the hands of news organizations. In a total, a dozen people were placed on U.S. watch lists after being seen with Mr. Alizadeh in Canada.

Last August, six months after the U.S. diplomats sent the cable, the Mounties arrested Mr. Alizadeh and two alleged co-conspirators in Ottawa. The three men stand accused of building dozens of detonation devices for an impending terrorist attack.

Ali says he learned of the alleged terror plot on the news, while visiting family in Turkey. A few days later, he was passing through Germany - sightseeing in Frankfurt for a day in a rental car before catching the cheapest flight home, he says.

That was when he was followed, he says. "I know for a fact I was being followed by two or three cars," he says. It was obvious, he says - he'd park his car, stop for a time, and afterwards he'd spot the same vehicle behind him. Ali says he even confronted one of the drivers, but the man denied tailing him.

Problems surfaced at international airports. During that initial return trip home, and one two months later after performing the Haj, Ali had considerable trouble getting back to Canada through European hubs.

Air Transat and Air Canada both appeared to block him at the last minute. One Air Canada duty manager in London even "told me that he didn't think I would ever be able to return to Canada," says Ali. He got back to Toronto only by boarding a last-minute Turkish Airlines flight out of Istanbul.

In the aftermath of the Arar affair, a senior judge told the federal bureaucracy to affix clear and concise "caveats" to any warnings sent south of the border. The aim was to help U.S. agents better discriminate between benign individuals and dangerous ones.

The strictures Ottawa imposed mostly dealt with how Canadian police and spies share information with foreign counterparts. But there are loopholes: Fewer rules constrain conversations involving diplomats.

The U.S. State Department maintains its own counterterrorism database, the consular lookout and support system (CLASS), which is, in turn, mined by other agencies. The leaked cables show Ali's name was input into CLASS as a "P3B" - a code for possible terrorist.

In recent months, he and his wife have arranged repeated meetings with CSIS and RCMP officials in hopes of clearing his name. The counterterrorism agents, they say, admit they broadcast suspicions based on association, and even expressed regret they wasted valuable "legwork" on Ali. Still, they insist they had valid reasons for investigating at the time and that there's not much they can do to clear his name abroad.

"I am not necessarily concerned about continuing surveillance by other countries. I don't think I am under surveillance anymore," says Ali. "My concern is that I cannot take any convenient flights when I travel … all the flights from Toronto go over U.S. airspace."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date on which the U.S. embassy in Ottawa cabled Washington urging that Ali's work visa be pulled. This online version has been corrected.

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