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The Truth About Terror Watch Lists

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Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 1.10.42 PMToday, three more suspects were taken into custody in connection with the attack on the Boston Marathon. While there is little information about the new subjects,  we recently learned that suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on a government watch list. In a system where infants may end up on the No Fly List, this leaves us wondering how a suspected terrorist was able to travel out of the country.

The reality: In addition to the notorious No Fly List, there are several different types of terrorist watch lists, each of which offers varying levels of security and scrutiny.


The problem is bigger than you might think. First of all, there are about six terrorist watch lists, all consisting only of names. Often there are different spellings or aliases, since many of these can come from foreign tip-offs. If someone carries out a terrorist attack in another country, the U.S. is informed, and they’re added to the largest database, which is known as TIDE.

TIDE stands for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, and it is maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Tsarnaev and his mother were both placed on this list after recommendations from the Russian government. Recent news has also shed light on how U.S. officials view tips from Russia: since Russia’s watch lists can include human rights activists or political dissidents, their recommendations are not always fully considered.

When the names are entered into the database, they’re in good company—TIDE includes over half a million names. It is a highly classified list, and less than five percent of it consists of U.S. citizens.

Terrorist Screening Database

Names from TIDE then feed into the Terrorist Screening Database, which includes information about domestic terrorists from the FBI. The information in the TSD helps to compile eleven other lists, including the No Fly List, Selectee List, and others such as the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File and Interpol Terrorism Watch List.

Selectee List

The Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS), also known as the Selectee List, causes travelers to be searched multiple times when traveling at an airport. If you’ve been marked SSSS, airlines will not let you check in for your flight online or print a boarding pass from a kiosk. Once your boarding pass is printed, you’ll know for sure if you’ve been marked—SSSS will be posted on it. Then there will be multiple security checks, including a search through your luggage by hand.

As of December 2009, the Selectee List had about 14,000 names. The qualifications for making this list are not always available, and you don’t necessarily have to be listed in TIDE. Some activities can arouse suspicion, however, such as only flying one way, paying for a flight in cash, or booking a flight on the same day. It’s not based on ethnicity, race, or if a name simply sounds foreign.

No Fly List

Being on the No Fly List is more serious. It is a concentrated list of 10,000 names, 500-1,000 of which are U.S. citizens, and it focuses on those considered to be serious threats. These people cannot fly to or within the U.S., including U.S. airspace.

Since names can be very common, often the wrong people are told they cannot fly. When this happens, the person’s identification is looked at carefully until it is proven they are not the suspect. If this happens to a traveler multiple times, they can fill out an application for the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP), after which they are given a Redress Control Number. This can be used to confirm identity on upcoming trips and make traveling much easier.

Disposition Matrix

Finally, there is the Disposition Matrix. This list includes information from many government agencies, including the CNTC, FBI and CIA. It is a database that includes information on how to find, capture, and possibly kill terrorist threats.

While all the other lists were developed by the Bush Administration and continued, this one was developed by the Obama Administration. It includes biographies, locations, affiliates, and associations of terrorists, along with the best methods for capture.

Even though many different agencies weigh in on the facts in this database, the decision to kill is ultimately made by the President. Thus far, the most common method has been through the use of drones, particularly if the targets are in other countries.

For more information about your travel safety, check out the Terrorism & the Security archives.

By Stephanie Ervin for