By Paul Harris
20 March, 2012
describes how he pretended to be a radical Muslim in order to root out
potential threats, shining a light on some of the bureau's more ethically murky
Craig Monteilh says he
did not balk when his FBI handlers gave him the OK to have sex with the Muslim
women his undercover operation was targeting. Nor, at the time, did he shy away
from recording their pillow talk.
"They said, if it
would enhance the intelligence, go ahead and have sex. So I did," Monteilh
told the Guardian as he described his year as a confidential FBI informant sent
on a secret mission to infiltrate southern Californian mosques.
It is an astonishing
admission that goes that goes to the heart of the intelligence surveillance of
Muslim communities in America in the years after 9/11. While police and FBI
leaders have insisted they are acting to defend America from a terrorist
attack, civil liberties groups have insisted they have repeatedly gone too far
and treated an entire religious group as suspicious.
Monteilh was involved
in one of the most controversial tactics: the use of "confidential
informants" in so-called entrapment cases. This is when suspects carry out
or plot fake terrorist "attacks" at the request or under the close
supervision of an FBI undercover operation using secret informants. Often those
informants have serious criminal records or are supplied with a financial
motivation to net suspects.
In the case of the
Newburgh Four – where four men were convicted for a fake terror attack on
Jewish targets in the Bronx – a confidential informant offered $250,000, a free
holiday and a car to one suspect for help with the attack.
In the case of the
Fort Dix Five, which involved a fake plan to attack a New Jersey military base,
one informant's criminal past included attempted murder, while another admitted
in court at least two of the suspects later jailed for life had not known of
Such actions have led
Muslim civil rights groups to wonder if their communities are being unfairly
targeted in a spying game that is rigged against them. Monteilh says that is
exactly what happens. "The way the FBI conducts their operations, It is
all about entrapment … I know the game, I know the dynamics of it. It's such a
joke, a real joke. There is no real hunt. It's fixed," he said.
But Monteilh has
regrets now about his involvement in a scheme called Operation Flex. Sitting in
the kitchen of his modest home in Irvine, near Los Angeles, Monteilh said the
FBI should publicly apologise for his fruitless quest to root out Islamic
radicals in Orange County, though he does not hold out much hope that will
happen. "They don't have the humility to admit a mistake," he said.
sounds like something out of a pulp thriller. Under the supervision of two FBI
agents the muscle-bound fitness instructor created a fictitious French-Syrian
altar ego, called Farouk Aziz. In this disguise in 2006 Monteilh started
hanging around mosques in Orange County – the long stretch of suburbia south of
LA – and pretended to convert to Islam.
He was tasked with
befriending Muslims and blanket recording their conversations. All this
information was then fed back to the FBI who told Monteilh to act like a
radical himself to lure out Islamist sympathizers.
Yet, far from
succeeding, Monteilh eventually so unnerved Orange County's Muslim community
that that they got a restraining order against him. In an ironic twist, they
also reported Monteilh to the FBI: unaware he was in fact working undercover
for the agency.
Monteilh does not look
like a spy. He is massively well built, but soft-spoken and friendly. He is 49
but looks younger. He lives in a small rented home in Irvine that blends into
the suburban sprawl of southern California. Yet Monteilh knows the spying game
By his own account
Monteilh got into undercover work after meeting a group of off-duty cops
working out in a gym. Monteilh told them he had spent time in prison in Chino,
serving time for passing fraudulent checks.
It is a criminal past
he explains by saying he was traumatised by a nasty divorce. "It was a bad
time in my life," he said. He and the cops got to talking about the
criminals Monteilh had met while in Chino. The information was so useful that
Monteilh says he began to work on undercover drug and organised crime cases.
Eventually he asked to
work on counter-terrorism and was passed on to two FBI handlers, called Kevin
Armstrong and Paul Allen. These two agents had a mission and an alias
ready-made for him.
Posing as Farouk Aziz
he would infiltrate local mosques and Islamic groups around Orange County.
"Paul Allen said: 'Craig, you are going to be our computer worm. Our guy
that gives us the real pulse of the Muslim community in America',"
The operation began
simply enough. Monteilh started hanging out at mosques, posing as Aziz, and
explaining he wanted to learn more about religion. In July, 2006, at the
Islamic Center of Irvine, he converted to Islam.
Monteilh also began
attending other mosques, including the Orange County Islamic Foundation.
Monteilh began circulating endlessly from mosque to mosque, spending long days
in prayer or reading books or just hanging out in order to get as many people
as possible to talk to him.
"Slowly I began
to wear the robes, the hat, the scarf and they saw me slowly transform and
growing a beard. At that point, about three or four months later, [my FBI
handlers] said: 'OK, now start to ask questions'."
Those questions were
aimed at rooting out radicals. Monteilh would talk of his curiosity over the
concepts of jihad and what Muslims should do about injustices in the world,
especially where it pertained to American foreign policy.
He talked of access to
weapons, a possible desire to be a martyr and inquired after like-minded souls.
It was all aimed at trapping people in condemning statements. "The skill
is that I am going to get you to say something. I am cornering you to say
"jihad"," he said.
Of course, the chats
In scenes out of a
James Bond movie, Monteilh said he sometimes wore a secret video recorder sewn
into his shirt. At other times he activated an audio recorder on his key rings.
Monteilh left his keys
in offices and rooms in the mosques that he attended in the hope of recording
conversations that took place when he was not here. He did it so often that he
earned a reputation with other worshippers for being careless with his keys.
The recordings were passed back to his FBI handlers at least once a week.
He also met with them
every two months at a hotel room in nearby Anaheim for a more intense debriefing.
Monteilh says he was grilled on specific individuals and asked to view charts
showing networks of relationships among Orange County's Muslim population.
He said the FBI had
two basic aims. Firstly, they aimed to uncover potential militants. Secondly,
they could also use any information Monteilh discovered – like an affair or
someone being gay – to turn targeted people into becoming FBI informants
None of it seemed to
unnerve his FBI bosses, not even when he carried out a suggestion to begin
seducing Muslim women and recording them.
At one hotel meeting,
agent Kevin Armstrong explained the FBI attitude towards the immense breadth of
Operation Flex – and any concerns over civil rights – by saying simply:
"Kevin is God."
attitude evolved into something very similar. "I was untouchable. I am a
felon, I am on probation and the police cannot arrest me. How empowering is
that? It is very empowering. You began to have a certain arrogance about it. It
is almost taunting. They told me: 'You are an untouchable'," he said.
But it was not always
easy. "I started at 4am. I ended at 9.30pm. Really, it was a lot of work …
Farouk took over. Craig did not exist," he said. But it was also well
paid: at the peak of Operation Flex, Monteilh was earning more than $11,000 a
But he was wrong about
Far from uncovering
radical terror networks, Monteilh ended up traumatising the community he was
sent into. Instead of embracing calls for jihad or his questions about suicide
bombers or his claims to have access to weapons, Monteilh was instead reported
to the FBI as a potentially dangerous extremist.
A restraining order
was also taken out against him in June 2007, asking him to stay away from the
Islamic Center of Irvine. Operation Flex was a bust and Monteilh had to kill
off his life as Farouk Aziz.
But the story did not
end there. In circumstances that remain murky Monteilh then sued the FBI over
his treatment, claiming that they abandoned him once the operation was over.
He also ended up in
jail after Irvine police prosecuted him for defrauding two women, including a
former girlfriend, as part of an illegal trade in human growth hormone at
fitness clubs. (Monteilh claims those actions were carried out as part of
another secret string operation for which he was forced to carry the can.)
What is not in doubt
is that Monteilh's identity later became public. In 2009 the FBI brought a case
against Ahmad Niazi, an Afghan immigrant in Orange County.
The evidence included
secret recordings and even calling Osama bin Laden "an angel". That
was Monteilh's work and he outed himself to the press to the shock of the very
Muslims he had been spying on who now realised that Farouk Aziz – the radical
they had reported to the FBI two years earlier – had in fact been an undercover
Now Monteilh says he
set Niazi up and the FBI was trying to blackmail the Afghani into being an
informant. "I built the whole relationship with Niazi. Through my coercion
we talked about jihad a lot," he said. The FBI's charges against Niazi
were indeed later dropped.
Now Monteilh has
joined an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the FBI. Amazingly,
after first befriending Muslim leaders in Orange County as Farouk Aziz, then
betraying them as Craig Monteilh, he has now joined forces with them again to
campaign for their civil liberties.
That has now put
Monteilh's testimony about his year undercover is at the heart of a fresh legal
effort to prove that the FBI operation in Orange County unfairly targeted a
vulnerable Muslim community, trampling on civil rights in the name of national
The FBI did not
respond to a request from the Guardian for comment.
It is not the first
time Monteilh has shifted his stance. In the ACLU case Monteilh is now posing
as the sorrowful informant who saw the error of his ways.
But in previous court
papers filed against the Irvine Police and the FBI, Monteilh's lawyers portrayed
him as the loyal intelligence asset who did sterling work tackling the forces
of Islamic radicalism and was let down by his superiors.
In those papers
Monteilh complained that FBI agents did not act speedily enough on a tip he
gave them about a possible sighting of bomb-making materials. Now Monteilh says
that tip was not credible.
Either way it does add
up to a story that shifts with the telling. But that fact alone goes to the
heart of the FBI's use of such confidential informants in investigating Muslim
FBI operatives with
profiles similar to Monteilh's – of a lengthy criminal record, desire for cash
and a flexibility with the truth – have led to high profile cases of alleged
entrapment that have shocked civil rights groups across America.
In most cases the
informants have won their prosecutions and simply disappeared. Monteilh is the
only one speaking out. But whatever the reality of his year undercover,
Monteilh is almost certainly right about one impact of Operation Flex and the
exposure of his undercover activities: "Because of this the Muslim
community will never trust the FBI again."
Source: The Guardian,