The FBI agent who broke the trust of a Muslim community
In 2006, when Craig Monteilh, a bald bodybuilder, arrived at a mosque in Mission Viejo in Southern California around 15 years ago, he was welcomed with open arms. The congregants, who had no reason not to believe his claim as a new convert, invited him into their homes, befriended him, and in some cases, became romantically involved 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 homes. Many times, when people take such a step, their families might not be happy," Yassir Fazaga, an Imam at a mosque in Mission Viejo, California tells The New Arab, describing the difficult transition many new Muslim converts face.
"We become their social support system," he said, noting the move is often made easier by a welcoming Muslim community.
"When Monteilh started talking about wanting to commit crimes, describing it 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 congregant, who trusts his new community to accept him as one of their own, and from the congregation, that trusts the motives of the new member.
Once that trust is broken, it is difficult to repair, particularly for an already vulnerable community already wary of overreaching surveillance in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
When Monteilh started talking about wanting to commit crimes, describing it as "jihad" in response to US foreign policy, his new community alerted the FBI that one of their members - a convert - had terroristic intentions.
Yes! Because Islamophobia often isn’t a spontaneous or natural response, it’s manufactured by people in power. The Islamophobia industry has had plenty of time to push this narrative since 9/11. https://t.co/STf81ch9e3— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) September 7, 2021
To their surprise, the FBI was dismissive of their concerns and said they should instead contact the local police.
Moreover, the two men who reported on Monteilh were then questioned by the FBI and pressured to become informants, which they refused to do. This was the first hint among 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.
Despite some suspicions, members of the community would be taken aback when, in 2009, that unusual new convert held a press conference in which he spilt the beans on his approximately year-long infiltration of Southern California's Muslim community.
Though he initially attended multiple mosques, including Fazaga's in Mission Viejo, he eventually settled on one in Irvine, where there was a younger crowd that he found more accepting. One of his tactics for engaging with congregants was to bring them to the gym to work out. He called his project "Operation Flex".
Monteilh went into detail about how the FBI had asked him to spy on mosques, which entailed engaging in intimate relationships with female congregants, taking pictures of license plates in community parking lots, and leaving his car keys (with small recording devices attached) in rooms to listen in on private conversations.
"One of his tactics for engaging with congregants was to bring them to the gym to work out. He called his project 'Operation Flex'"
This confession, which appeared to border on bragging, provided little comfort to the Muslim community that Monteilh had infiltrated, who tended to see his speech as nothing more than a man scorned by the FBI who wanted attention.
He was a convicted felon who, likely for the first time in his life, was doing a well-paying ($11,000 per month) job - albeit a bungled job - that made him feel important.
Monteilh's effect on the community
As Fazaga learned more details about the case, his mind returned to moments when he'd had confidential conversations with members of the community. As the mosque's sheikh and as a licensed psychotherapist, he has long been someone that people have gone to for counsel regarding some of their most intimate challenges.
The thought of recording devices placed in rooms was chilling, not because the community had done anything wrong, but because the idea of their personal lives being exposed left them feeling vulnerable.
Could something they had said be misconstrued? How could they trust new congregants again, particularly new converts who might need their support? How could they trust law enforcement, the very people meant to protect them and cooperate in real criminal cases?
"Here's the thing," says Fazaga. "For many people, the mosque, the synagogue, or the church is their second home. It was the sanctuary where people went where they felt like they could talk about anything unguarded."
Now, he says, people have become afraid, "Not because they had said anything wrong, but because they did not know how it would be used against them."
"The thought of recording devices placed in rooms was chilling, not because the community had done anything wrong, but because the idea of their personal lives being exposed left them feeling vulnerable"
In the years following the 9/11 attacks, with the encouragement of the US government, there were of thousands of anonymous tips about Muslims as well as mass deportation hearings for immigrants who often had only minor infractions.
In addition to these surveillance policies, the government put a local face on the "enemy", Hatem Abuddayeh, Executive Director at Arab American Action Network, tells TNA.
"They needed to show there was a threat domestically to justify the unending war on terror," he says.
In this case in Southern California, it was the Muslims who were trying to turn in someone making terrorist threats - but to no avail.
"The hero in this story was the Muslim community, and the terrorist was the government," Hussam Ayloush, CAIR-California's executive director, who was the one who reported Monteilh to the FBI.
He says, "This doesn't address the real issue of terrorism. If we allow politics and biases to drive our work, it means we will not resolve that challenge."
In 2011, CAIR along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the FBI. Though the court ruled in the plaintiff's favour, the FBI appealed, arguing that the verdict would reveal state secrets. The case is now headed to the Supreme Court.
"The hero in this story was the Muslim community, and the terrorist was the government"
Though this bizarre episode rattled the Southern California Muslim community, Fazaga also concedes that it could have been much worse. No one was killed or detained for months, a relatively good ending compared with many other instances of surveillance that Muslims have been subjected to in the aftermath of 9/11.
"Our story has a good ending compared with other people," he says. "But I don't want to undermine the fact that we were violated."
Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.
Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews