The FBI infiltration that shattered the trust of a California Muslim community after 9/11

In depth: An FBI agent infiltrated an American Muslim community after 9/11, recording conversations and plotting a fake terrorist attack, baffling worshipers to the point that they reported him to the FBI. How does the community feel now?

In 2006, when bald bodybuilder Craig Monteilh arrived at a mosque in Mission Viejo, Southern California about 15 years ago, he was greeted with open arms. The devotees, who had no reason not to believe in his claim as a new convert, invited him to their home, befriended him, and in some cases had a romantic relationship with him. .

Several years later, Monteilh held a press conference in which he admitted that the FBI had paid him as an informant to infiltrate mosques and the Muslim community in Southern California.

“We embraced him, we invited him to our home. Often when people take such a step, their families may not be happy,” said Yassir Fazaga, an imam of a mosque in Mission Viejo, in California. The New Arabic, describing the difficult transition many new Muslim converts face.

“We become their social support system,” he said, noting that the move is often facilitated by a welcoming Muslim community.

“When Monteilh started talking about wanting to commit crimes, describing him as ‘jihad’ in response to US foreign policy, his new community alerted the FBI.”

The key to this new relationship is trust – from the new devotee, who trusts their new community to accept them as one of their own, and from the congregation, who trusts the new member’s motives.

Once that trust is shattered, it is difficult to mend, especially for an already vulnerable community that is already wary of excessive surveillance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

When Monteilh started talking about wanting to commit crimes, calling him a “jihad” in response to US foreign policy, his new community alerted the FBI that one of their members – a convert – had terrorist intentions.

To their surprise, the FBI ignored their concerns and said they should contact local police instead.

Additionally, the two men who reported on Monteilh were later questioned by the FBI and coerced into becoming informants, which they refused to do. It was the first clue of many that something was wrong with Monteilh. At least one mosque he attended took the unusual step of filing restraining orders against him.

“We thought the story was over,” Fazaga recalls.

Monteilh’s confession

Despite some suspicion, members of the community would be baffled when, in 2009, this unusual new convert held a press conference in which he exposed his roughly a year-long infiltration into the Southern California Muslim community.

Although he initially attended several mosques, including that of Fazaga in Mission Viejo, he eventually settled in one in Irvine, where there was a younger crowd that he found more tolerant. One of his tactics for engaging with the faithful was to bring them to the gym to train. He called his project “Operation Flex”.

Monteilh explained in detail how the FBI asked him to spy on mosques, which involved having intimate relationships with worshipers, taking photos of license plates in community parking lots and leaving his car keys (with small recording devices attached) in the bedrooms. to listen to private conversations.

“One of his tactics for engaging with the faithful was to bring them to the gym to train. He called his project ‘Operation Flex’.

This admission, bordering on bragging, did little to comfort the Muslim community infiltrated by Monteilh, who tended to see in his speech nothing more than a man despised by the FBI and who wanted to attract attention.

He was a convicted felon who, possibly for the first time in his life, was doing a well-paying job ($ 11,000 per month) – albeit a failed job – that made him feel important.

The effect of Monteilh on the community

As Fazaga learned more details about the case, his mind returned to times when he had had confidential conversations with members of the community. As a sheikh of the mosque and a licensed psychotherapist, he has long been a person people turn to for advice regarding some of their most intimate challenges.

The idea of ​​recording devices placed in rooms was frightening, not because the community had done something wrong, but because the idea that their personal lives were on display left them feeling vulnerable.

Muslims gather to pray at the Omar al Farouk Mosque in Anaheim, California, one of the mosques infiltrated by Craig Monteilh. [Getty]

Could something they said be misinterpreted? How could they again trust new devotees, especially new converts who might need their support? How could they trust the police, the very people who are supposed to protect them and cooperate in real criminal cases?

“Here’s the thing,” says Fazaga. “For a lot of people, the mosque, synagogue or church is their second home. It was the shrine where people went where they felt like they could talk about anything that was not being watched.”

Now, he said, people got scared, “Not because they said something bad, but because they didn’t know how it would be used against them.

The September 11 attacks sparked an era in the United States – which persists to this day – of mass surveillance of Arabs, Muslims and, in many cases, South Asians and Africans.

“The idea of ​​recording devices placed in rooms was frightening, not because the community had done something wrong, but because the idea that their personal lives were being exposed left them feeling vulnerable.”

In the years since the 9/11 attacks, with the encouragement of the US government, there have been thousands of anonymous denunciations of Muslims as well as mass deportation hearings for immigrants who often only had minor infractions.

In addition to these surveillance policies, the government has given a local face to “the enemy,” said Hatem Abuddayeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network. TNA.

“They had to show that there was a threat at the national level to justify the endless war on terrorism,” he said.

In this case, in Southern California, it was Muslims who tried to report someone making terrorist threats – but to no avail.

“The hero of this story was the Muslim community and the terrorist was the government,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-California, who denounced Monteilh to the FBI.

He says, “This does not solve the real problem of terrorism. If we allow politics and prejudice to guide our work, it means we will not solve this challenge.

In 2011, CAIR and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint against the FBI. Although the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the FBI appealed, arguing that the verdict would reveal state secrets. The case is now before the Supreme Court.

“The hero in this story was the Muslim community, and the terrorist was the government”

While this bizarre episode rocked the Muslim community in Southern California, Fazaga also concedes it could have been a lot worse. No one was killed or detained for months, a relatively good ending compared to many other surveillance cases that Muslims were subjected to in the aftermath of 9/11.

“Our story has a good ending compared to other people,” he says. “But I don’t want to undermine the fact that we were raped.”

Brooke Anderson is The New ArabicWashington DC correspondent, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews

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