Imagine a man walks into your school, work, place of worship, community—a place you consider a home away from home. He gives you his name, origins and occupation, and assures you he is of your kind but declares he’s new. So you take him under your wing, befriend him and introduce him to your world.
But this man doesn’t appear to be the most reputable of the bunch—you brush off his criticisms of the U.S. as zeal, but soon his words take an increasingly violent turn, and you become more than a little worried. You report the not-so-favorable-man-after-all to the authorities. A few months later, you find yourself behind bars.
Turns out the guy you had earlier befriended and confided in was actually an undercover federal informant, and you were his latest victim. Good times, eh?
The times were anything but pleasant for Ahmadullah Niazi, a 34-year-old Tustin man who suffered a similar experience at the hands of Craig Monteilh. According to Monteilh, the FBI paid him sums ranging from $2,500 a month to as high as $11,200 from July 2006 to October 2007 to infiltrate several different mosques in Orange County, including the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI), which Niazi attended. Monteilh, a self-proclaimed light-skinned African-American, presented himself to members of the Irvine mosque as an immigrant of French and Syrian descent who was interested in converting to Islam, as per the agreement with the FBI, and proceeded down a trail of fabricating spirituality and forging friendships with community members. Among them was Niazi.
When Monteilh, a convicted con artist, began shifting religious discussions to those of “operations” against U.S. military targets, suggesting that he had access to weapons and, according to court documents, trying to recruit people to “join him in a terrorist plot,” community members felt threatened and the mosque obtained a restraining order against Monteilh. Niazi was the one who first approached the FBI regarding a man at ICOI who had been speaking about blowing up buildings.
Niazi reported that FBI officials later contacted him to ask him to be a paid informant. When he refused, he said they threatened to make his life “a living hell.” Niazi was arrested Feb. 20 on charges related to lying on his immigration documents, regarding a possible relative – his sister’s husband – who may have been linked to a terrorist organization.
This incident is alarming to the American Muslim community in Orange County, who had been working hard to establish and maintain good relations with the FBI, according to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and sets the already tender relationship back to square one. So was sending in an undercover informant (and possibly more) to spy on community members and instigate violent rhetoric in mosques while supposedly working diligently to develop a “partnership” with that same community on the surface really the best approach? We beg to differ.
The FBI’s choice for an informant has all the reliability of a toad. Monteilh is openly an ex-convict who was convicted of fraud and grand theft and recently served a prison sentence for swindling two women out of more than $157,000. According to Monteilh, the FBI promised to clear his record of a 2008 grand-theft conviction, so one can bet the man was more than willing to jump on the case. And by offering him a large monthly salary, they surely made themselves prone to some amount of dishonest information from a man with this track record.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “Kenneth Piernick, a former FBI counter-terrorism official who is a consultant in Virginia, said parsing out what’s true and what’s not, even from someone deemed to be a reliable informant, can be challenging. He said informants can be egotistical, manipulative and dishonest. Those who are getting paid, he said, have been known to ‘exaggerate information, or even invent it’ to keep the money flowing.”
Furthermore, Monteilh breached the trust of the FBI by coming out to confess his part as an agent provocateur, which according to him, was because the FBI neglected to remove the restraining order placed on him by the mosque, place him in a witness protection program, give him a final payment of $100,000 and grant other benefits in an exit package, all of which Monteilh says had been promised to him. These apparent violations prove just how reliable Monteilh and the information he provided most likely were.
Moreover, Monteilh’s method of obtaining information from community members was a violation and erroneous. According to the Attorney General’s Guidelines on Federal Bureau of Investigation Undercover Operations Section II.3.b, an undercover employee is prohibited from initiating or instigating any plan to commit criminal acts, unless “There is reasonable indication that the subject is engaging, has engaged, or is likely to engage in the illegal activity proposed or in similar illegal conduct; or the opportunity for illegal activity has been structured so that there is reason to believe that any persons drawn to the opportunity, or brought to it, are predisposed to engage in the contemplated illegal conduct.” Entrapment, when a government agency “implants in the mind of a person who is not otherwise disposed to commit the offense the disposition to commit the offense and then induces the commission of that offense in order to prosecute,” is to be completely avoided.
If these rules hold true, unfortunate as they are in their breaching of civil liberties in the offset, then Monteilh was quite possibly playing very much out of the rulebook in inviting people left and right to “join him in a terrorist plot.” Unless every single person who entered the mosque was a pinpointed suspect of the FBI for possible terrorist connections or a determined threat, and unless it was strongly believed that any of them would, had or was likely to engage in the illegal activity Monteilh was proposing – in this case, as a former Islamic Center president Asim Khan stated, “a 9/11-type operation” – then Monteilh was out of his limits when confronting several community members with possible terrorist schemes.
Furthermore, his behavior inherently violates the right to freedom of speech, since it assumes a passing comment or a less-than-serious response can quite possibly be taken as a declaration of guilt, especially in the hands of an unreliable informant as Monteilh.
For the most part, people appeared quite threatened by what Monteilh was declaring, and thus the restraining order was enforced and Niazi and other community members complained to the FBI that Monteilh was a possible threat. Whether or not you believe Niazi and numerous other people who claimed the FBI had threatened them to enlist as informants (or suffer the consequences), what sort of message does it send when men who have been falsely accused of having terrorist ties fulfill their patriotic duty of alerting the FBI to a possible terrorist threat, only to find that not only does the FBI ignore the report, but that they arrest these very men soon thereafter? Members of the Muslim community know too well the experience of facing suspicion from outsiders about where thier true loyalty lies, thus catapulting them outside of the realm of “Americanness.”
And was this entire operation even successful? We may never know if the FBI reaped any real benefits from this venture, but to our knowledge the man they arrested was charged largely on immigration terms; though it clouded most of the case, he wasn’t even charged with terrorism.
Thus, it appears the FBI achieved little from this months-long project; meanwhile, their breach of the unspoken contract between the Bureau and the Muslim community has led to suspicions and possibly some mistrust among its members, fearful of letting their tongues too loose among newcomers in the fear that their words may be misinterpreted as incriminating. Muslims have experienced a climate of fear due to previous FBI monitoring and their wariness has only increased, according to a board member of the Islamic Center of Norco, and other Muslim leaders testify to a decrease in mosque attendance and donations, in the fear that their money may be linked to what the FBI might deem a terrorist organization.
But more importantly, this incident has yielded to doubts about future relations with the FBI, who ironically just the Monday before Niazi’s arrest had sent a member to the MPAC, where an official stated: “Too often, we run up against a wall between law enforcement and the community — a wall based on myth and misperception of the work we do … Oftentimes, the communities from which we need the most help are those who trust us the least. But it is in these communities that we must re-double our efforts. The simple truth is that we cannot do our jobs without the trust of the American people.”
The FBI should redouble efforts to maintain honest communication with the affected Muslim community. As this incident shows, the American Muslim community, just like all other Americans, has shown it is willing to take part in its patriotic duty and inform the FBI of any suspicious or threatening activity taking place in its mosques or gatherings. Furthermore, reports from the CAIR state that the growing relationship between the FBI and Muslim community had fostered dialogue, partnerships and understanding between the two groups while decreasing any mutual suspicion; community members were more likely to report any criminal activities to the FBI and law enforcement then before. And CAIR had worked with the FBI in the past to call on certain persons of interest to turn themselves in.
Ultimately, the FBI should work to reverse the idea that they continue to view the American Muslim community in Orange County as suspect and fix the dent in their positive relationship with them, sans the undercover agents, because as MPAC’s senior advisor, Maher Hathout, put it, “People cannot be suspects and partners at the same time.”
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