Photo by sadaqah/Flickr (Creative Commons)
The Islamic Center of Irvine, a mosque allegedly targeted by the FBI informant
A federal lawsuit filed earlier this week alleges that a former FBI informant, an ex-fitness instructor and ex-convict named Craig Monteilh, violated Muslims' freedom of religion when he spied on Orange County mosques for the FBI between 2006 and 2007.
Monteilh posed as a new convert to Islam, the lawsuit alleges, recording conversations and meetings with a device hidden in his key ring and a camera embedded in a shirt button.
What did some of these conversations entail? According to the complaint, the informant pressed people on the topic of "violent jihad," scaring some at the Islamic Center of Irvine to the point of calling the cops:
Agents Allen and Armstrong had instructed Monteilh to ask general questions about jihad from the beginning of the operation. In early 2007, they instructed him to start asking more pointedly about jihad and armed conflict, then to more openly suggest his own willingness to engage in violence.
Pursuant to these instructions, in one-on-one conversations, Monteilh began asking people about violent jihad, expressing frustration over the oppression of Muslims around the world, pressing them for their views, and implying that he might be willing or able to take action.
In about May 2007, on instructions from his handlers, Monteilh told a number of individuals that he believed it was his duty as a Muslim to take violent actions, and that he had access to weapons.
Many members of the Muslim community at ICOI then reported these statements to community leaders, including Hussam Ayloush. Ayloush both called the FBI to report the statements and instructed the individuals who had heard the statements to report them to the Irvine Police Department, which they did.
The Islamic center sought a restraining order against Monteilh, granted in June 2007. Before it got to that point, however, the spying became very personal, the lawsuit alleges:
Agents Armstrong and Allen instructed Monteilh to pay attention to people’s problems, to talk about and record them, including marital problems, business problems, and petty criminal issues.
Agents Armstrong and Allen on several occasions talked about different individuals that they believed might be susceptible to rumors about their sexual orientation, so that they could be persuaded to become informants through the threat of such rumors being started.
The informant's handlers had the theory that "everybody knows somebody," the lawsuit alleges:
Agents Armstrong and Allen also often spoke with Monteilh about a maxim that "everybody knows somebody." They explained that if someone is from Afghanistan, that meant that they would likely have some distant member of their family or acquaintance who has some connection with the Taliban. If they are from Lebanon, it might be Hezbollah; if they are from Palestine, it might be Hamas.
The FBI has refused to comment on its investigation, stating that the agency investigates individuals based on whether they post a national security threat, not on religion. The Associated Press has reported that Monteilh was released from prison in 2008 after serving eight months for grand theft changes he claimed stemmed from a drug ring investigation. He has sued the FBI over his treatment.