PARIS — A former prisoner in Guantanamo said he was prevented from boarding a flight in France on Thursday for conferences in Canada because the aircraft would fly through U.S. airspace.
Mourad Benchellali, who addresses youth groups in Europe in a bid to dissuade them from jihad, was prevented from boarding the Air Transat flight from Lyon to Montreal.
The Canadian airline said because the flight flies through U.S. airspace "our personnel had to, and duly applied the provisions of a U.S. security program known as Secure Flight, as all airlines must."
The Secure Flight program checks passengers against the U.S. No Fly list.
Benchellali, 33, who was released from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in July 2004, said in a telephone interview he was unaware he was on the U.S. list. He has flown to other destinations in Europe and beyond, but this was the first time he planned a trans-Atlantic flight.
Benchellali was to attend a conference on peace and another on the phenomenon of radicalization of Western youth who have headed by the thousands to Syria.
"I wasn't going on vacation. I was going for prevention," he said in the interview.
At check-in, he said he was informed that "there is a problem because the plane crosses American airspace."
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration receives flight manifests for any commercial flight that will either land in the United States or fly over U.S. airspace as part of the Secure Flight program. Airlines can opt to rebook a passenger to a flight that doesn't cross U.S. airspace, re-route the flight to make sure it doesn't come into U.S. airspace or cancel the passenger's ticket.
Conference organizers expressed shock that their guest was banned from his flight. Police and university researchers were to take part in a conference organized by the Observatory of Radicalization in addition to a conference entitled "48 Hours for Peace."
Benchellali uses his experience at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan as a lesson for youth tempted by the Islamic State group's savvy recruiting campaign for jihad.
Rob Gillies in Toronto and Alicia Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.