Questions about entrapment have dogged counter-terrorism cases for some time, most recently in the case of the Oregon man charged with trying to blow up a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony. Now, from The Washington Post, comes the story of Craig Monteilh, a self-proclaimed FBI informant who was so aggressive in his quest to find potential terrorists at a California mosque that the community got a restraining order against him.
The fallout so far includes the unraveling of one terror case, the fraying of FBI-Muslim relations in California, and a lawsuit brought against the FBI by Monteilh, who says the agency conspired to have him arrested.
The Post reports that Monteilh, an ex-con once convicted of forging bank notes, started working as an FBI informant in 2003. Anonymous law enforcement sources told the Post that “Monteilh was promoted from drug and bank robbery cases because his information was reliable and had led to convictions.” In 2006, he was asked to infiltrate the Islamic Center of Irvine, which draws as many as 2,000 people for Friday prayers. From the Post:
Law enforcement sources said that the FBI trained Monteilh and that he aided an existing investigation. Monteilh, however, said he was ordered to randomly surveil and spy on Muslims to ferret out potential terrorists. Agents, he said, provided his cover: Farouk al-Aziz, a French Syrian in search of his Islamic roots. His code name was “Oracle.”
Just months before Monteilh arrived at the mosque, the then-head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office spoke at the mosque and reassured members that the Bureau would not monitor them without notice.
“If we’re going to mosques to come to services, we will tell you,” J. Stephen Tidwell told the congregation. “The FBI will tell you we’re coming for the very reason that we don’t want you to think you’re being monitored. We would come only to learn.”
But Monteilh says he was sent in unannounced. Mosque members told the Post that Monteilh’s “Western clothes gave way to an Islamic robe.” He attended prayers five times a day, and waited in the parking lot before 5 am prayers. People noticed that he often left his car keys lying around the mosque. Inside the car remote on the key chain was a recording device. Monteilh claims the FBI told him to date Muslim women if it would help discover information.
In May 2007, Monteilh recorded a conversation in a car with worshiper Ahmadullah Sais Niazi and another man, in which Monteilh suggested blowing up buildings and Niazi agreed. A federal grand jury would later indict Niazi, but just a few days after the conversation, he and the unnamed third man contacted Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“They said Farouk had told them he had access to weapons and that they should blow up a mall,” Ayloush recalled. “They were convinced this man was a terrorist.”
Ayloush reported the FBI’s own informant to the FBI. He said agents interviewed Niazi, who gave them the same account, but the agency took no action against Monteilh.
Still, Monteilh’s mission was collapsing. Members of the mosque told its leaders that they were afraid of Monteilh and that he was “trying to entrap them into a mission,” according to Asim Khan, the former mosque president. The mosque went to Orange County Superior Court in June 2007 and obtained a restraining order against Monteilh, court records show.
After that, Monteilh says agents wanted to “cut me loose.” He then threatened to go public, and says an FBI supervisor threatened him with arrest. At a later meeting, Monteilh says he signed a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for $25,000.
In December 2007, Monteilh, who says he made a tax-free $177,000 over a 15 month span working for the FBI, was arrested on a grand-theft charge and went to jail for 16 months. In January 2010, Monteilh sued the bureau, claiming the Irvine police and the FBI conspired to have him arrested, and also let his informant status slip in prison, where he was stabbed. A judge tossed Monteilh’s original suit, but then allowed him to file an amended complaint, which is still pending.
In February 2009, Niazi was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of lying about his ties to terrorists on immigration documents, according to the Post.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deirdre Eliot said: “Frankly, there is no amount of bail or equity in a home that can protect the citizens of this community [from Niazi].” Sources told the Post much of the evidence against Niazi came from Monteilh.
Then Monteilh went public with his role as an informant. He even sought out Niazi’s attorneys. Finally, on Sept. 30, prosecutors moved to dismiss the case.
“They got a guy, a bona fide criminal, and obviously trained him and sent him to infiltrate mosques,” Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, told the Post. “And when things went sour, they ditched him and he got mad. It’s like a soap opera, for God’s sake.”
Read the rest here.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com