The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear about an Islamic spying case in Orange County. In 2007, the FBI paid an informant to infiltrate mosques throughout southern California. The mission revealed the opposite of what they’d expected to find. Yet it is the revelations from this lawsuit that are the most problematic for the FBI.
The spy mission went wrong
Each day, Craig Monteilh arrived at the mosque parking lot before sunrise. He was in full white robes, with a tiny camera hidden in his button. Before entering the mosque, he spoke into a recorder on his keys, documenting each upcoming session. Months earlier, he’d approached a mosque, telling them he wanted to convert to Islam, which he did.
He was told to attend local religious services and get to know the other attendees. He was welcomed and accepted by the community and was known to them as Farouk al-Aziz. The FBI sent him to build a case about a mosque member who was on their watch list. The case never came to anything.
Monteilh was a criminal, who’d been convicted of forging checks and grand theft auto. He was chosen by the FBI because of his ability to navigate organized crime in and out of prison. They promised to clear him of his criminal record and give him witness protection.
What happened inside the mosque
Craig Monteilh quickly developed a reputation for being very forgetful, leaving his keys and phone at the mosque. These items actually had secret recording devices installed on them.
He developed friendships, as he was instructed to, with mosque members and started socializing with them outside of service. He made increasingly troubling remarks, suggesting they check out extremist websites the FBI gave him. The entire goal was to lure out jihad sympathizers.
Despite a mountain of data, he was getting no leads. He increasingly mentioned his affection for violence towards America. Planning fake terror attacks is an old counter-terrorism strategy to identify suspects. Much like a fake drug sale, they get them close to the act, planning it, and even arriving at a location in some cases, only to be arrested.
Unfortunately for the FBI's plans, members of the Islamic Center of Irvine were so troubled by Monteilh’s behavior that they called authorities on their own informant, suggesting he was a risk. They also got a restraining order against him. The FBI discovered that the Muslims in attendance weren’t actually fans of terrorists either. Two years later, it was revealed that Monteilh was sent to spy. The mosque members were rightfully infuriated and initiated a lawsuit that was long held up in lower courts.
The government’s spotty position
The FBI claims they don’t target Muslims, despite accounts of informants like Monteilh, who frequented mosques in a region and never happened to stop by any churches or synagogues. He was paid $177,000 untaxed over the course of 15 months.
As the case works its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a number of damning confessions have come out. One, that his FBI handlers told him it was OK to have sex with the Muslim women, saying it would help with intelligence gathering. Monteilh admitted to going through on this suggestion. Two, he is on record as saying his handler told him, “Islam is a threat to our national security.” Even worse, he planted recording devices in the homes of several Islamic members without the authority to do so.
What is happening next?
There have clearly been several oversteps, violations of privacy, possible entrapment, and the heightening of Islamaphobia through the FBI's policies.
There are more than 15,000 informants at work as we speak. With due credit, they are very effective at rooting out criminals — but at the cost of invading privacy, and exposing communities to other risks. Many of the informants themselves are hardened criminals, looking for a way to negotiate out of convictions. Where informants are at work, there’s a familiar trend of minorities and at-risk communities finding themselves in the crosshairs.
This Muslim spying case will be taken up by the Supreme Court before the end of 2021. They examine claims of entrapment, and violations of the 4th Amendment (protection against unjust search and seizures).
Humans have a historical tendency to overcompensate after major events and tragedies. A notable example being the punishing of Germany after World War I, which laid the seeds of bitterness from which the Nazi Party grew. This entire situation is a product of the post-9/11 fervor that saturated the country which, to some extent did help reduce terrorism.
I can’t help but wonder what sort of things Monteilh was saying in these Mosques, “So how about we go make some bombs and kill people? Sounds fun right?” Only to get cold stares from everyone around him.
Regardless, it’s generally a bad idea to police and investigate based on religion, or any categorization. It further feeds into a culture of division. Hopefully, we’ll learn from this one and move on.