Xinhua : Report: Popular gyms monitored by FBI

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Report: Popular gyms monitored by FBI

April 29, 2009

LOS ANGELES, April 28 (Xinhua) -- As part of their anti-terrorism efforts, FBI agents monitored popular gyms throughout Orange County near Los Angeles to gather intelligence on members of several local mosques, it was reported on Tuesday.

The FBI used informants to gather intelligence that might aid anti-terrorism investigators, the Los Angeles Times said, quoting a man who claims to have been a key informant in the operation.

The informant, Craig Monteilh, who said he posed as a Moslem convert at the request of the FBI to gather intelligence that might aid anti-terrorism investigators.

Monteilh said he was instructed to lure mosque members to work out with him at local gyms. FBI agents, he said, later would obtain security camera footage from the gyms and ask him to identify the people on the tapes and to provide additional information about them.

The agents then conducted background checks on those people, looking for anything that could be used to pressure them to become informants, according to Monteilh.

Disclosures of the FBI's tactics have angered some leaders in the Moslem community in Orange County, who saw it as a betrayal of their efforts to assist law enforcement after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to the paper.

Last week, a coalition of the nation's largest Moslem organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Moslem Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, issued a statement demanding that the Obama administration address FBI actions, the paper said.

Such actions included what they described as the "infiltration of mosques," the use of "agent provocateurs to trap unsuspecting Moslem youth" and the "deliberate vilification" of the council, said the paper.

Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim, Los Angeles, said he viewed the most recent disclosure as a form of religious profiling that "reflects a deeply rooted mindset that was promoted by the Bush Administration."

"I'm not surprised," he said. "It confirms our worst fears."

Sal Hernandez, director of the FBI's Los Angeles office, declined to comment on the matter. Another law enforcement source, however, confirmed that the surveillance occurred, but emphasized that it was a narrowly focused operation targeting people whom the informant had already implicated in alleged crimes, according to the paper.

Editor: Mu Xuequan

St. Louis Post-Dispatch : Somali Muslims call FBI outreach 'coercion'

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Somali Muslims call FBI outreach 'coercion'

BY Phillip O'Connor | ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH | April 21, 2009

ST. LOUIS — Concerns about racial profiling and other questionable tactics used to investigate the possible terrorist recruitment of Somalis living in the United States are prompting some Muslim leaders in St. Louis and elsewhere to limit their cooperation with the FBI.

Across the country, federal agents are intensifying efforts to make connections within the Somali community amid growing concern that some are being radicalized by al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists.

Over the past two years, about two dozen teenagers and young men have disappeared, most from the Minneapolis area, and returned to the Horn of Africa to possibly train with terrorist groups, according to the FBI. In October, one of the men became what is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide attack when he blew himself up near Mogadishu killing 30 people.

"We've talked to a lot of people, we've asked them to come forward and we're going to continue to do that," said E.K. Wilson, spokesman for the FBI office in Minneapolis, home to the largest concentration of Somalis in the U.S.

But some critics say that what the FBI calls community outreach at times involves the use of coercion, threats and intimidation.

"The Somali Muslim community in particular feels they are under siege by law enforcement," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Islamic civil rights and advocacy group.

Hooper cited recent instances of Muslims in Minnesota being interrogated by agents on college campuses, worshippers in Michigan being asked to spy in their mosques and the FBI's use of a paid informer to infiltrate mosques in California.

Elsewhere, he said, imams have had their immigration status threatened if they failed to cooperate with investigators.

In St. Louis, a CAIR official said he was contacted in September by a Somali business owner in Missouri who said he had been threatened by FBI agents.

"It was a carrot and stick where they were promising him rewards for spying on people in the community," said Jim Hacking III, a legal consultant for CAIR in St. Louis. "When he rebuffed those requests, they turned around and used the stick and threatened to keep him from seeing his children and 'burying' him."

On the night before President Barack Obama took office, Hacking said he was contacted by FBI agents who told him they needed to immediately find three Somalis who lived in the St. Louis area.

"One of the agents mentioned the inauguration and said it was very important that they verify the physical location of these people," Hacking said. "As we always would on a matter of national security, we helped them and put them in contact with the people they were looking for."

Despite such cooperation, CAIR itself has come under FBI scrutiny. The council once provided diversity training to the FBI, but the FBI ended the relationship after CAIR was named as one of about 300 unindicted co-conspirators in a terrorist-funding case in Texas.

CAIR officials deny any connection to terrorist organizations and say the allegation is part of a government effort to marginalize mainstream Muslim organizations.

Hooper, Hacking and others say such actions are driving a growing wedge between law-abiding Muslims and law enforcement.

"Our preference would be to have very positive relations with law enforcement agencies at all levels of the government," Hooper said. "We hope to return to that in the near future. But it's a two-way street. We need to feel there is some trust, some mutual respect and these kind of inappropriate activities are not going to continue."

FBI officials defend their practices saying the agency is trying to break through misconceptions and mistrust some in the American Somali community have about the FBI and the federal government.

"Every conversation we've had is voluntary," said Wilson of the FBI. "Nobody's been forced to talk to us. They're not compelled to talk to us. We hope they will because it's a common concern that has us asking them to come forward."

Earlier this month, FBI agents served search warrants on three money transfer businesses in Minneapolis seeking information about cash sent to a handful of African countries. The warrants were filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri.

It's unclear whether the warrants are related to the missing Minnesota men, or another investigation based in Missouri. An FBI spokesman in St. Louis declined to comment, saying the warrants were part of an ongoing investigation.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, FBI agents have met frequently with Muslim groups, including in St. Louis where agents often spoke at local mosques.

Most recently, two agents met with about 20 Muslim leaders on Christmas Eve to share information about the Minnesota disappearances and seek cooperation. St. Louis is home to an estimated 2,500 Somalis, some of whom move between homes here and in Kentucky or Tennessee.

"They want some constant contact who will tell them news frequently, what's going on in the community, who's doing what, if there are any guests coming doing fundraising," said an official with Masjid Bilal, a mosque on West Pine Boulevard. The official, who asked that his name not be used out of fear it could harm his business, said he declined an FBI request earlier this month for another meeting.

"Why is there a need to be seeing these people again and again to talk to them? There's no good in it," he said.

The official said he was concerned that such contact sowed suspicion within the Muslim community. "People are looking at you with dubious eyes. If you're the one coordinating this for the FBI, they're going to be doubtful about you," he said.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri plan to visit St. Louis-area mosques in coming months to discuss racial profiling, civil rights and how to deal with government interrogations.

"This has been a concern for quite some time," said John Chasnoff of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. "It hasn't gone away."

Chicago Tribune : Federal prosecutor seeks reports of mosque spying

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Federal prosecutor seeks reports of mosque spying

By JEFF KAROUB | Associated Press Writer | April 30, 2009

DEARBORN, Mich. - The top federal prosecutor in Detroit on Thursday encouraged Muslims to report allegations the FBI hired informants to infiltrate mosques and spy on leaders and worshippers.

U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg told Arab- and Muslim-American community leaders during a round-table discussion in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn that such allegations have not been brought to his attention. But he said his office takes allegations of domestic spying "extremely seriously."

"Bring it to us. Tell us," Berg said at the meeting, which included other local, state and federal law enforcement officials as well as members of the Detroit area's large Arab and Muslim community. "If there's misconduct going on, we'd like to know what it is."

The meeting, called by the Dearborn-based Congress of Arab American Organizations, was the first such gathering since Michigan Muslims in April asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate several complaints to civil rights groups related to spying on Muslims.

The most complaints, they have said, came from people with pending Immigration issues being approached by agents to monitor mosques in exchange for help in resolving their citizenship cases.

Reports have grown in the Detroit area after an agent testified in February that an informant infiltrated mosques in Orange County, Calif., and befriended Ahmadullah Niazi, brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden's bodyguard. Niazi was charged with lying about his ties to terrorist groups on his citizenship and passport applications.

A federal judge in California last week said he would review records of FBI inquiries into several Muslim groups and activists claiming they have been unfairly spied on and questioned. Judge Cormac J. Carney ordered the FBI to turn over more than 100 pages of documents to determine whether the information should be released to the public or protected.

Some Islamic leaders have called it a "fishing expedition" -- a phrase repeated Thursday by community members -- a characterization the FBI denies.

"I'm not a fisherman," said Andrew Arena, special agent in charge of the FBI in Detroit. "The FBI doesn't go on a fishing expedition, period."

Arena said the agency works with informants on numerous fronts but isn't targeting mosques or entering any institution unlawfully or without justifiable cause. He said he was disappointed that complaints haven't been brought to his attention, particularly given his work with community groups and relationships with local Arabs and Muslims.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he was glad to hear Arena say "he has nothing to hide," and hopes for an investigation to "clear the air." Likewise, he said, mosques are open to the FBI and the community at large.

A dispute between the national headquarters of the FBI and CAIR also was discussed. The Washington-based group, which has offices in 20 states, was one of hundreds of Muslim individuals and groups named as unindicted coconspirators in a terrorism-financing trial in Texas. CAIR is fighting the label in court.

The unresolved dispute has led the FBI headquarters to cut ties with CAIR, a call Arena heeded when he kept Walid off the invitation list at recent meeting of law enforcement, community and civil rights leaders held at the FBI's Detroit office.

Despite the discord between the organizations, Arena said he has nothing personal against Walid and they shook hands after the meeting.

Walid finds the disengagement disappointing. He said many Muslims now have an unfavorable view of the FBI, which he said is "bad for law enforcement, bad for civil rights organizations and bad for Americans."

Osama Siblani, spokesman for the Congress of Arab American Organizations and publisher of the Arab American News, said his community has "difficult issues" with some federal agencies but told attendees that discussions should continue.

"You need to know you have a partner to make our country safe," he said.

OMB Watch : Court Orders Review of FBI Records on California Muslim Organizations as New Complaints Emerge in 2 States

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Court Orders Review of FBI Records on California Muslim Organizations as New Complaints Emerge in 2 States

April 30, 2009

Responding to claims that Muslim organizations have been illegally spied upon in southern California, a federal judge said on April 20, 2009 he will conduct a review of the FBI records. The decision comes after nearly three years of legal efforts by the ACLU and American Muslim groups to obtain information that they say would demonstrate illegal surveillance by the FBI. The FBI will have 30 days to deliver approximately 100 pages of related surveillance memos and the files on the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and its leaders to the judge.

Judge Cormac J. Carney said after he receives the FBI files he will determine which, if any, can be released to the public and what must remain protected under federal law. In 2007 six Muslim groups and five individuals sued the FBI and the Department of Justice alleging the agency failed to turn over records requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) a year earlier. The FBI had released largely redacted documents, claiming the information contained in the files were beyond the scope of the FOIA request.

Applauding the judge's decision, ACLU attorney, Jennie Pasquarella said, "There's a reason why they don't want to disclose this information. It will show why they've surveilled people and we think it might show they're surveilling people based on their religion."

This ruling comes in the wake of a steady decline in relations between the FBI and American Muslim groups. In March 2009, the American Muslim Taskforce, a coalition of Islamic groups, said they may boycott cooperation with FBI investigations after learning that a paid FBI informant was discovered in a southern California mosque.

More Revelations of FBI Surveillance Targeting Muslim Organizations

Concerns over the FBI informant in the California mosque have raised a red flag for many American Muslim groups and individuals who feel the FBI is targeting them for their religious beliefs. "The Somali Muslim community in particular feels that they are under siege by law enforcement," explained a spokesman for CAIR, describing the situation for Somali Muslims in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Repeated government intrusions of local Somali owned businesses, racial profiling and the use of "questionable" tactics to investigate a possible terrorist recruitment plan had made many American Muslim advocacy groups and local Somali Muslims feel threatened by the FBI.

Approximately 2,500 Somali Muslims live in the St. Louis area. Several have reported to local and national American Muslim advocacy groups that they have been contacted by the FBI to share information about fellow community members or threatened with immigration problems if they do not cooperate with FBI investigations. "They want some constant contact who will tell them news frequently, what's going on in the community, who's doing what, if there is are any guests coming along doing fundraising," said an official for the Masjid Bilal mosque in St. Louis.

In Michigan, American Muslim leaders asked U.S. Attorney general Eric Holder to investigate claims that the FBI sought out community members to spy on Islamic leaders and local congregations. Many of the complainants say the FBI promised to help resolve their immigration problems in exchange for their monitoring of mosques. Dawud Walid, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of CAIR, said that there is no justification for the recent contacts made by the FBI into the American Muslim population and their actions amount to a "fishing expedition." "If there was a specific imam who they felt was telling people to support Osama bin Laden, that's a different story – we wouldn't have a problem with that," said Walid.

Orange County Register : Court asks FBI for Muslim surveillance files

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Court asks FBI for Muslim surveillance files

Muslim organizations are angry over reports of spying in Southern California mosques.


SANTA ANA – The widening rift between the FBI and the Islamic community has drawn the American Civil Liberties Union into the fray, with the organization's lawyers declaring victory in their efforts to force the release of government surveillance records on Southern California Muslims.

A federal district court judge Monday gave the FBI 30 days to make available for review 48 pages of surveillance memos pertaining to Southern California Muslim organizations that had previously been released only in heavily redacted form, 47 pages of previously withheld memos, and FBI files on the Council of American Islamic Relations and Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the group's Southern Californian Chapter, ACLU staff attorney Jennie Pasquarella said.

Ayloush and Shakeel Syed, the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, joined Pasquarella in the courtyard of the federal courthouse in Santa Ana minutes after the judge's ruling, declaring the decision a victory for Muslim organizations.

"We are exercising our first amendment rights, and we are running out of patience," Syed said.

FBI representatives forwarded requests for comment to Department of Justice officials, who could not be immediately reached for comment. Federal officials have previously denied charges by several national Islamic organizations that the government has taken part in "fishing expeditions" by sending informants to ensnare Muslims at area Mosques.

A coalition of Islamic organizations known as the American Muslim Taskforce last month threatened to cut ties with the FBI, accusing the agency of using "McCarthy-era tactics."

The announcement came on the heels of Irvine resident Craig Monteilh's public admission that he spent more than a year pretending to embrace Islam at various local mosques as part of an FBI-backed effort to uncover terrorist threats.

Monteilh claimed his work played a key role in the arrest of Ahmadullah Niazi, a Tustin-resident and member of the Islamic Center of Irvine, on several immigration-fraud charges.

But Islamic leaders claim the FBI violated the sanctity of the Islamic religion by sending in Monteilh, a felon who previously served a prison term for conning two women out of more than $150,000.

"While we were led to believe we were partners, we learned we were also under surveillance," Syed said.

The FBI previously declined to comment on the specific allegations brought by the Islamic groups, but pledged to continue outreach efforts with the Muslim community and warned against "limiting honest dialogue, especially when complex issues are on the table."

Muslim leaders say the rift between the FBI and the larger Islamic community has also widened because of the agency's deteriorating relationship with the Council of American Islamic Relations.

In the months following the 911 attacks, the group's officials say they helped the FBI reach out to Muslims and with cultural sensitivity training.

But the group in 2007 came under fire when it was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorist funding case against the Holy Land Foundation.

The FBI recently announced that it has ended its own formal partnership with the council, whose leaders have denied any terrorist links.

Ayloush said he hoped this week's court ruling could spark a "healing phase" between the Muslim community and the FBI.

"We're hoping this will begin the process of undoing this climate of fear," Ayloush said.

Contact the writer: 949-553-2911 or

Orange County News : A Look at Craig Monteilh, Who Says He Spied on the Islamic Center of Irvine for the Feds

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Look at Craig Monteilh, Who Says He Spied on the Islamic Center of Irvine for the Feds

Talkin’ Jihad With Craig Monteilh

Ex-convict, con man, convert—an early conversation with the man who says he spied on the Islamic Center of Irvine on behalf of the feds

By MATT COKER | March 4, 2009

A location scout for a spy movie could not have picked a better location for my late-December meeting with Craig Monteilh: a table outside a restaurant in a bustling Irvine shopping center. A lensman would have appreciated the shadow-erasing clouds hovering overhead on the warm winter morning. And central casting could not have found a better leading man: Monteilh is tall, intense and talkative, with a shaved head and the kind of cut body one would expect from someone who is now a fitness instructor. All that was missing was the story, which Monteilh was just itching to tell.

“I’m looking forward to getting my name back where it should be,” he said.

The gist of the 46-year-old’s tale: that he had taped Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis espousing radical ideas and, in some cases, plotting terrorism in Orange County. Not quite trusting the source—for a variety of reasons, which will soon become clear—the Weekly sat on his story.

Then, at dawn on Feb. 20, federal agents arrested 34-year-old Afghan native Ahmad Niazi at his Tustin home. Something about the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the arrest sounded familiar.

Looking at my Monteilh interview notes with fresh eyes, I saw that I only scribbled down one name as he talked about alleged terror plotters:

Ahmad Niazi.

As I shifted into scramble mode, trying to get back in touch with Monteilh, Niazi was facing five fraud and perjury counts. At his Feb. 24 bail hearing, the eight-year Tustin resident was alleged to have talked in an unnamed informant’s e-mails and recordings of initiating jihad, getting weapons, blowing up buildings, sending money overseas to the Afghan mujahedin and even calling Osama bin Laden “an angel.”

Thomas J. Ropel III, an FBI special agent and Marine-trained counter-terrorism specialist assigned to the Orange County Joint Terrorism Task Force, testified that Niazi was preparing to send the informant to terrorist-training camps in Yemen or Pakistan.

Then Monteilh outed himself. His story appeared first in the Times’ Feb. 26 morning edition, on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog that evening and pretty much everywhere else thereafter. Monteilh kept repeating what he told me: He wanted to clear his name. But the whole way he presented his story to me only sowed doubts. Here is how he told it, nearly two months ago:

He was a chaplain for six years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where he also dabbled in the intelligence division. Because of his biracial looks and grasp of spy work and religion, he was recruited by the FBI in 2004 and flown to Virginia for counterterrorism training. “The FBI knew there were suspicious activities happening in mosques,” particularly in Southern California, Monteilh said. One famous case was that of 30-year-old Adam Gadahn, the former resident of Santa Ana’s Floral Park neighborhood, onetime member of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove and now Al-Qaeda’s jihad-spewing “Azzam the American” in Pakistan. Monteilh said his assignment was to infiltrate mosques in Irvine, Tustin, Anaheim, Culver City, West Covina and San Pedro. His contact on the outside was an “FBI Agent Armstrong.” Monteilh was certain others were sent to infiltrate Southern California mosques as well.

He arrived at the Islamic Center of Irvine in 2006 and befriended members, using the name Farouk Aziz, always wearing robes and, though he has no facial hair now, growing a long beard. But about a year in, an incident he would not describe—other than saying it was unrelated to what he was doing at the mosque—caused people he’d been spying on to wonder about him. To test their suspicions, these young Muslims went to the Islamic Center’s leader, who contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose California office is in Anaheim. The advocacy group in turn contacted Irvine police and the FBI to say “Aziz” was spreading “jihad” talk at the mosque, which eventually got a restraining order against him.

In Southern California Muslim news source InFocus’ August 2007 story on the incident (“Is Big Brother At Your Mosque?”), Niazi is identified as one of those who turned in Monteilh. In that and other press reports, the FBI would neither confirm nor deny an investigation was under way.

This exposure, Monteilh said, led to death threats against him from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and someone in Irvine with Taliban ties. “They ruined my reputation,” he said. “I need to be known for what I did. They have me as a terrorist or a potential terrorist. The Islamic community has a restraining order against me because of my ‘jihadist views.’ I was carrying out a direct order.”

He claimed people he was investigating blew his cover to protect themselves. Ropel used that same argument at Niazi’s bail hearing. The agent acknowledged their suspect came forward to turn in a convert who “was scary,” but the bureau believed Niazi figured out the convert was an informant and filed the report to protect himself.

If Monteilh’s tale did not cause the hairs on the back of your neck to stiffen, just Google his name. Like a Christmas tree, the Internet lights up with stories of him being a con man, a gold digger, something of a nut and possibly a government informant. His criminal record extends back to 1987, with charges ranging from forgery to burglary and grand theft. His Orange County rap sheet alone includes charges for 18 separate crimes allegedly committed between January 2006 and November 2007. But here is the strange part: all but two were dismissed on the same day.

Confronted with his online infamy, Monteilh claimed that after he’d been exposed, unnamed government officials spread damning stories about him on the Internet to protect the undercover surveillance program.

So how could he prove he was a government spy? He produced stapled photocopies of what he claimed was a court document that a judge in West Covina would later go on to seal. He said it was the disposition of a grand-theft-auto case in which he was found guilty. He pointed to a section on the last page that stated, beneath the sentencing part, that the Los Angeles County prosecutor asked the judge to cut short Monteilh’s probation because he is an FBI informant who an Agent Armstrong says is doing good undercover work.

Monteilh went on to tell me he tried to get a similar assist after he later got caught up in a crime related to an Irvine drug bust but was hung out to dry amid internal debate within the FBI over the value of the operation to infiltrate mosques. When we spoke, he said he’d just returned from 16 months behind bars. His Orange County rap sheet confirms he served 16 months in state prison on two grand-theft charges.

The dealing soon began. Monteilh said if the Weekly printed an initial story clearing his name, he would share with us his e-mails and recordings. “Uh, let me ask my editor about this,” I sheepishly said. Sensing my lack of excitement, Monteilh talked of taking his story to a larger publication and let it drop he was meeting next with Times Orange County editor Steve Marble.

When I told him it would take some time to check out his story, he suggested I contact Hussam Ayloush, CAIR’s executive director in Anaheim, which I later did. “I have never trusted Monteilh,” Ayloush told me. “He is very suspicious.”

It was getting mighty squishy. Then came Niazi’s arrest. I hastily contacted the FBI about Monteilh’s claims. “The FBI is not commenting,” replied bureau spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.

As for his claim of having been a chaplain, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department had no employee records for a Craig Monteilh. The city jail keeps separate records on chaplains, but badges are retrieved and records are generally purged once the volunteers leave Religious Services.

Before we parted that morning in Irvine, the ex-con conman “convert” motioned toward the parking lot and said, “They’re listening to all this, you know?”

There go those hairs on the back of the neck again.

Orange County News : The FBI, the Islamic Center of Irvine and Craig Monteilh: Who Was Conning Whom?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The FBI, the Islamic Center of Irvine and Craig Monteilh: Who Was Conning Whom?

Who Was that Mosqued Man?

Craig Monteilh insists he was hot on the trail of terrorist plots at OC mosques. Count the victims of his earlier con games among the skeptics

By NICK SCHOU | April 29, 2009

If there’s a precise moment when the FBI first began to have a sinking feeling about Craig Monteilh, it likely occurred sometime in the spring of 2007, when his handlers read a small detail buried in one of his surveillance reports. Monteilh had been spying on the Islamic Center of Irvine and other mosques for several months. He’d earned the friendship and trust of a small group of Muslims, all of whom, he claims, were actually terrorists bent on carrying out violent attacks in Orange County. Their targets included shopping malls such as Fashion Island, South Coast Plaza and the Irvine Spectrum and, somewhat improbably, abandoned buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

According to his report, Monteilh was walking into a mosque in Tustin with a couple of the terrorists whose cell he’d infiltrated when he noticed a group of young Middle Eastern-looking men unloading several barrels from a van and hauling them into the mosque. At the time, Monteilh insists, he didn’t really think too much about what he saw. He was too busy focusing on the terror plot that he and the terrorists planned to discuss at the mosque that day.

“I looked at them like this, really quick, ‘Salaam aleikum,’” Monteilh recalls two years later in an interview at his house in Irvine, re-enacting the casual sideways glance and standard Islamic greeting—“Peace be unto you”—that he says he uttered that spring day. “I kept walking because we had other business. But I put it in my report that I observed six to eight young Middle Eastern Muslims loading barrels in the back of the mosque.”

But when Monteilh’s FBI handlers read his report, he claims, they began arguing about whether or not he was a liar. “They went, ‘What the hell is this?’” Monteilh recalls. “‘He’s lying.’” The FBI refuses to comment on anything Monteilh says, so assuming any of this happened the way Monteilh says it did, one could easily imagine what went through his handlers’ minds when they read his report: Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to hire a convicted felon and con artist to spy on Orange County’s Muslim community after all.

* * *

Craig Monteilh’s self-declared status as an FBI informant first became public three months ago, shortly after the bureau arrested a 34-year-old Afghan immigrant named Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, charging him with perjury and passport fraud for allegedly lying about previous trips to Pakistan and the fact that his brother-in-law was a high-ranking member of a Taliban faction allied with al-Qaeda. In his sworn affidavit against Niazi, Special Agent Thomas J. Ropel III stated that, in a tape-recorded conversation, Niazi had referred to Osama bin Laden as “an angel.” On Feb. 21, the day after Niazi’s arrest, Monteilh told the LA Times that he was the informant who gave the FBI that tape and that the FBI had paid him to spy on Orange County mosques.

Although the FBI never responded to the latter claim, a week after Niazi’s arrest, Ropel testified in Niazi’s bail hearing that Monteilh had in fact provided the FBI with the tape recording. Ropel’s admission didn’t surprise the leadership of the Islamic Center of Irvine, of which Niazi had been a member. In June 2007, Niazi and another mosque member had reported Monteilh to the FBI, claiming that Monteilh was espousing terrorist rhetoric and trying to draw them into a plot to blow up shopping malls and abandoned buildings. When the FBI refused to investigate, the congregants suspected Monteilh might have been an agent provocateur; the Islamic Center sought and won a restraining order barring Monteilh from entering the mosque. (See Matt Coker’s “Talkin’ Jihad With Craig Monteilh,” March 5.)

Ropel’s admission that the FBI had been working with Monteilh all along led to a firestorm of controversy among Muslims in Orange County and beyond. It flew in the face of a June 2006 promise by J. Stephen Tidwell, an assistant director with the FBI, in a speech before an angry crowd at the Islamic Center of Irvine, that the bureau would never spy on mosques. That promise followed an Orange County Register story that quoted an FBI agent telling a group of Republicans in Newport Beach that the bureau was monitoring “extremists” affiliated with UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union. (See Derek Olson’s “Against the Wall,” Oct. 19, 2007.)

The only confirmed cases of Orange County residents joining al-Qaeda involve Khalil Deek, a Palestinian exile, and Adam “Yahiye” Gadahn, a Jewish American teenager, both of whom fled to Pakistan before 9/11. Deek spent time in a Jordanian prison for his alleged role in a terrorist plot there but was freed months later. He has since disappeared and is believed to be dead. (See “So I Married a Terrorist . . .” April 20, 2007.) Gadahn, also known as Azzam the American, has appeared in several al-Qaeda videos and is rumored to be hiding out near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslim groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American Muslim Task force on Civil Rights and Elections have been working to provide the FBI information about potential terrorist actions on U.S. soil. But after the bureau’s relationship with Monteilh became public, both groups called for Muslim Americans to consider calling off any cooperation with the government. As the outrage spread, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hauled FBI Director Robert Mueller to Capitol Hill to explain his bureau’s policy with regard to spying on mosques.

“We do not focus on institutions; we focus on individuals,” a defensive Mueller responded at the March 25 hearing, adding somewhat optimistically that he fully expected the controversy to blow over. The Muslim community, he insisted, “has been tremendously supportive and worked very closely with [the FBI] in a number of instances around the country.” Meanwhile, despite Monteilh’s claim that he’s a hero who helped thwart advanced-stage terrorist plots in Orange County, the FBI hasn’t arrested anyone except Niazi, who claims that the bureau tried to turn him into an informant, threatening that if he didn’t cooperate, they’d turn his life into a “living hell.”

* * *

Roughly a year before his FBI handlers apparently began to doubt him, someone else was starting to experience a sinking feeling about Craig Monteilh. On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006, Danielle—she asked to be identified only by her first name—was working out at a 24 Hour Fitness Center in Irvine when she saw Monteilh pedaling away on an exercise bike. She recalls that he was throwing unsubtle glances her way. “Who is this slimeball?” she thought.

After a few minutes, Monteilh approached her with a friendly smile and inquired why a nice young lady like her was alone at such a late hour. “My first impression was that he was a creep,” Danielle recalls. “He wasn’t attractive to me at all. I like guys who have hair on their head.” Monteilh quickly picked up on the fact that she wasn’t receptive to his efforts at flirtation. Adopting a businesslike tone of voice, he complimented her workout regimen and explained that he was a fitness consultant and could help her achieve her goals. “You don’t need a personal trainer,” he said. “I’ll help you out for free.” When Danielle asked him for a business card, she recalls that his response seemed almost too rehearsed. “My body is my business card,” he said. “My body is my certification.”

Over the next hour, Monteilh explained how he could help Danielle. As a fitness consultant, he had special access to health supplements such as ephedra and human growth hormone, he said, which he provided to famous athletes who paid a handsome price for his services. In fact, Monteilh said, he was doing so much “consulting” that the demand for his talents far exceeded his ability to supply his customers. “All my money is tied up right now,” he said. “If you will front me some money now, I will pay you back with huge returns.” Specifically, if Danielle could write Monteilh a check for $18,100, he would return the cash—and a profit of $12,900—within two weeks.

“I was dumb enough to write him a check,” she says. “When people ask me for help, I’m a sucker. Part of it, I will admit, was greed.”

On the day Danielle was supposed to get her money, Monteilh told her he had some wonderful news: He had another client who needed some ephedra immediately, and if she could give him another $6,000, her total profit would exceed $42,000. The following Monday, when Monteilh promised her the cash, he failed to return her telephone calls. Finally, Monteilh agreed to meet her at the Irvine gym. He explained that the cash was being held up because the “pharmaceutical cartel” he was working with needed a way to make their payment to her look legitimate. If Danielle would simply write another check for $9,000, they’d pay her a total of $53,000 within two hours.

On Sept. 18, 2006, Danielle met Monteilh in the parking lot of a Bank of America branch on Culver Street in Irvine and gave him a $9,000 cashier’s check. He promised to return a few hours later with her money. She waited for him until late that afternoon. At the last minute, he called and, apologizing profusely, invited her to meet him for dinner at Chili’s. While they ate, Monteilh told her that his associates had given him the slip, but he’d secured a promise they’d have her money by the end of the week, he said. Danielle told him that if he failed to deliver this time, she’d file a fraud complaint with the bank.

Even after that, Monteilh managed to coax another $15,000 from Danielle, a good-faith showing on her part that would smooth the way for her to double her rate of return and be paid $91,000 by that weekend. That never happened. Just as before, Monteilh apologized and promised her the money was on its way. Once again, he failed to deliver the cash, and Danielle realized he’d bilked her of $54,256 that she’d never see again. She called the Irvine Police Department, but the detective who took her call told her that she had no more legal standing against Monteilh than a person who gave a drug dealer money but was never delivered the drugs.

Danielle also posted a complaint against Monteilh on the Internet, detailing his fraud and accusing him by name. One person who read the post was “Carla”—which is not her real name—a previous Monteilh victim. She had met Monteilh in February 2006 at Twin Towers Fitness in Irvine. “We actually started dating,” she says. “He was actually the worst lay of my life, not very romantic. If it wasn’t for the money I gave him, I never would have kept dating him. But I was stuck.” Just as Monteilh later did with Danielle, he introduced himself as a fitness consultant who was looking for an investor who wanted to earn massive profits. Between February and August, Carla gave Monteilh a total of just more than $100,000—and never received a single penny in return. She even bought Monteilh a Samsung plasma flat-screen television, which Monteilh said he’d give to the president of the “pharmaceutical cartel” in a bid to ensure she’d receive even more money in return for her investment.

“When I met him, he was driving an old Lexus sedan,” she says. “After I gave him about $20,000, he purchased another car, a new Chrysler 300. After a few months, he was making all these excuses about why I couldn’t get paid. He would always talk about this money being invested in other countries at a high rate of interest and that his phone calls were being monitored. He had me living in fear that if I said anything to anyone, it would interfere with my payout.”

Monteilh told Carla he was involved with Eastern European businessmen who he often had to meet early in the morning, which was why he never spent the night at her apartment. “Obviously, I didn’t know he was married,” she says. (By his own admission, Monteilh was indeed married at that time.) Carla found out about his wife only after she read Danielle’s Internet post and realized she wasn’t the only person Monteilh had conned. Together, she and Danielle hired a private investigator, who told them about Monteilh’s marital status and the fact that he’d served prison time for writing bad checks. “Looking back, I feel stupid, but the man was so good at manipulating,” Carla concludes. “This gentleman is extremely good at what he does and can actually convince you to believe anything he says.”

In January 2007, after hearing each other’s horror stories about Monteilh, both Carla and Danielle walked into the Irvine Police Department’s headquarters, determined to find someone who would listen to them. They met with Sergeant Terry Head and Detective Ronald Carr, who promised to follow up on their accusations. Carr has since retired and could not be located; the police department refused to make either officer available for an interview.

But a September 2007 police report obtained by the Weekly shows that Carr questioned Monteilh about the two women at his house. “The first thing I noticed was a large-screen Samsung plasma television mounted on the wall of the living area,” Carr wrote. When Carr asked Monteilh about Carla, he claimed she had made up lies about him because of their “dating relationship.” Monteilh’s wife was in the room, and when Carr asked her if she knew Monteilh was dating other women, she said she “knew everything about him.” Monteilh denied any wrongdoing, but Carr left the house determined to see him put behind bars for numerous counts of grand theft. “Based on this investigation,” he wrote, “I am requesting an arrest warrant for Craig Frederick Monteilh.”

* * *

By the time Carr’s grand-theft investigation brought him to Monteilh’s house in Irvine, the target of his probe had already received tens of thousands of dollars in payments from the FBI in return for spying on mosques. At least, that’s how much Monteilh conservatively estimates the FBI paid him from early 2006 through late 2007, when Carr’s investigation sent him back to state prison. Monteilh claims his work as an informant actually began with his first stint behind bars in 2002, when he spent a year at Chino State Prison for writing bad checks.

While at the prison, Monteilh claims, he ran with the PEN1 Death Squad, a white-supremacist prison gang. “If you are reasonably intelligent, you can learn their doctrine. ‘We must secure the existence of our race and the future of our white children.’ If you memorize that, along with certain key precepts, you’re pretty much in, and if you memorize all of it, you are leadership. That’s what I did.”

After being released in March 2003, Monteilh says, he was working out at a gym in Costa Mesa when he fell into conversation with a couple of police officers who said they worked for the Regional Narcotics Suppression Program. He told the cops that he’d been an ordained minister with Calvary Chapel in Compton who counseled Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies at the Twin Towers jail in downtown LA as well as a station in San Dimas before going to prison. (An investigator who looked into Monteilh’s claim for Calvary Chapel says there is not now nor ever has been a Calvary Chapel in that city, and the LA Sheriff’s Department has no record of ever having employed Monteilh.)

The cops invited him to meet some of their colleagues at Sam Yoo’s, a Chinese restaurant in Irvine. “In the course of the conversation, they said, ‘Would you mind sitting down with us and telling us about activities going down in Orange County? You can even be paid doing this,’” Monteilh recalls. “I said sure, and that’s where this started.”

Over the course of the next few years, Monteilh says, he helped the FBI arrest several white-supremacist and Russian-mafia figures.

Monteilh claims his next operation involved “the illegal distribution of HGH [human growth hormone] and anabolic steroids,” but that in the middle of his investigation, the FBI invited him to do “national security work.” Because he wanted to help to defend his country, Monteilh says, he had to abruptly cease his HGH probe. In Monteilh’s telling, Danielle and Carla—the two women he ripped off—were actually targets of his investigation. “There were people we had focused on,” he says. “They gave me money. . . . They were very pissed off that I left. They wanted me to continue providing HGH to them.”

According to Monteilh, an FBI agent met with him at a Starbucks in Costa Mesa and invited him to spy on local mosques in the name of national security. Monteilh claims he then met with two FBI agents, who asked him to name various Middle Eastern current heads of state and every Russian leader since Czar Nicholas. Monteilh rattled off all the names without hesitation. “They looked at each other and said, ‘You’ve already passed,’” he says. “‘We’re going to take what you already know, incorporate it with other things, and make you into a weapon of intel.’ I said, ‘Okay.’”

From there, Monteilh claims, he was taken to a training center, the location of which he refuses to divulge, and was provided with basic Arabic instruction and a refresher course on Islam, which included memorizing the Koran. Monteilh would enter the mosque under his own name but ask to be called Farouk Aziz. He would falsely claim to be of mixed French-Syrian ancestry. “The plan,” he says, “was to enter the ISOI [Islamic Center of Irvine], to begin very slowly, start with Western clothes, Italian suits, and in the process of my studies, shed off all Western [clothes] at the direction of Muslims . . . and to make this transformation as real as possible.”

After converting to Islam—or pretending to—in a public ceremony at the mosque, Monteilh began regularly attending prayers there in August 2006. The mosque’s imam, Sadullah Khan, is a widely respected moderate who grew up in South Africa and was involved in the struggle against apartheid. (He declined an interview request for this story, citing the mosque’s ongoing legal efforts to enforce a restraining order against Monteilh.)

Monteilh also claims he fell in with a group of Egyptians, all of whom were secretly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that when the group invited him to visit their houses and attend their meetings, the FBI increased his pay.

In late September 2007, Monteilh claims, one of the Egyptians told him that a Muslim “brother” wanted to meet him and teach him how to make bombs. Monteilh told his handlers. “At the time, we were negotiating my monthly payments,” he says, so the FBI supervisor thought he was lying in order to boost his pay. Monteilh offered to tape-record the Egyptians talking about bombs. A few days later, he accompanied the Egyptians to the It’s a Grind coffee shop on Culver Street. While the rest of the group went inside to buy tea and coffee, Monteilh taped himself thanking the man who’d told him about the bomb instructor. “I am honored that you would trust me in that way,” he said.

“Farouk,” Monteilh claims the man replied. “We’re brothers. I trust you with everything now. I don’t mind telling you about a brother that wants to help you make a bomb.”

Soon thereafter, Monteilh says, he met Ahmadullah Sais Niazi. Over the course of the next few months, Monteilh says, he spent an increasing amount of time with Niazi, discussing jihad. While eating dinner at a Chinese Islamic restaurant in May 2007, they discussed the recent death of an Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Dadullah. According to Monteilh, he secretly recorded Niazi praising Dadullah and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

“The other one is even greater,” he claims Niazi stated.

“Who’s that?” Monteilh asked.

“The tall skinny one,” Niazi replied.

“Osama bin Laden?” Monteilh asked. “He said, ‘Shhh.’” Then, Monteilh says, Niazi boasted that when bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996, he was there to welcome him. Niazi then offered to provide Monteilh with speeches by bin Laden.

“He is an angel,” Niazi concluded. That quote, Monteilh explains, is the one that FBI agent Ropel later cited in his affidavit against Niazi.

Monteilh didn’t just secretly record Niazi, but he also kept what he claims are copies of all his e-mail communications with him, which he provided to the Weekly. Most of the messages are simply links to various websites and YouTube video clips with subject titles such as “Check this out.” Many of the links no longer work, but the ones that are still valid direct viewers to everything from Arabic instructional websites to clips of such 9/11-conspiracy movies as Loose Change, which posits that the infamous attacks were an inside job. Although many of the e-mails contain essays that are paranoid, distasteful, anti-Semitic and pro-radical-Islam, none of them even comes close to being evidence of any kind of a terrorist plot.

But Monteilh insists that such evidence does exist because he recorded Niazi and other Muslims—none of whom has been arrested nearly two years later—discussing a plot to blow up buildings in Orange County. “We talked about sites, places that were going to be targets: OC malls, Fashion Island, South Coast Plaza, the Spectrum, and the Superior Court and federal court buildings in OC,” he says. “Abandoned buildings in LA and military installations, including recruitment sites.”

It was at about this time that Monteilh typed up the surveillance report in which he claimed to have seen a group of young Middle Eastern-looking men carrying several barrels into the back door of a mosque in Tustin. After his handlers argued over whether he had made up the incident to justify the money they were paying him for three weeks, Monteilh says, the FBI finally sent a radiological team to snoop inside the mosque, using a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant, which allows agents to search homes or buildings without their owners’ permission or knowledge. The results of the radiation tests, he says, were inconclusive. While there’s no evidence other than Monteilh’s word that the barrels ever existed or that the FBI took his claim seriously, the FBI has acknowledged, in response to a 2005 U.S. News & World Report story, that since 9/11, it has conducted radiation tests at mosques in the United States.

* * *

The FBI’s surveillance of Orange County Muslims hit a snag on May 14, 2007, when an agent who was trailing a member of the Muslim Student Union at UCI nearly ran over his target with his car after the student, who realized he was being watched, tried to take the agent’s picture. Monteilh says he learned of the incident through one of his handlers, who called him with the news and warned him that mosque officials would likely become suspicious of any recent converts. “I got a phone call saying they are suspicious of [me] because of what happened,” he says, adding that the agent told him that several mosque officials had discussed him at the Islamic Center. “Our youth are being openly surveilled,” one allegedly fumed. “What about that guy Farouk? How well do you really know him?”

In Monteilh’s telling, the UC Irvine incident led to his cover being blown, thus short-circuiting his spy operation. Assuming that Monteilh isn’t fabricating the conversation he says took place, the only way the FBI would know this dialogue had happened would be if the bureau wiretapped the center. Asked if that were the case, Monteilh nodded. “I don’t know,” he said. Asked if he had bugged the office himself, he nodded again. “You know, I really don’t know.”

But there is another explanation of how Monteilh was exposed. In early June 2007, Niazi and another member of the Irvine mosque told Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR’s Southern California chapter, that they were riding to a mosque in Culver City with Monteilh when he began espousing jihad, saying he wanted to blow up buildings. “At that point, Niazi and the driver of the car realized the guy has gone crazy or is about to do something,” Ayloush says. “They were worried this guy was going to do something and they would be considered accomplices since they knew him.”

Ayloush, who’d been working with the FBI since 9/11, immediately called Tidwell, the official who a year earlier had promised the crowd at the Irvine mosque that the bureau would never spy on mosques. “I am calling to report a possible terrorist,” Ayloush told the assistant director. “He is a white convert in Irvine.” As soon as Ayloush uttered those words, he says Tidwell cut him off. “Okay,” he reportedly replied. “Thanks for letting us know.”

Ayloush offered to provide the FBI with the man’s name and address, but, he says, Tidwell told him to give the information to the Irvine P.D., which he promptly did. “Neither the FBI nor the Irvine P.D. ever bothered to talk to the guy after he was reported,” Ayloush says.

When the Irvine mosque sought and obtained a restraining order against him, Monteilh began sending angry e-mails to Niazi, Ayloush and others, blasting them for being “weak Muslims” and “traitors” for talking to the FBI—a ploy Monteilh says he used to try to maintain his cover.

In June 2008, Ayloush says, Niazi came to CAIR’s office in Anaheim and complained that the FBI had accused him of perjury when he testified for the restraining order against Monteilh and threatened to send him to prison for years if he refused to become an informant. Among other things, he says, the FBI confronted Niazi with their knowledge that his sister was married to Amin Al Haq, an Afghan mujahedin leader who went on to become involved with a militant Taliban faction allied with al-Qaeda, a fact that Niazi had failed to mention in his immigration paperwork. Niazi told Ayloush that he couldn’t pick his in-laws and he did not wish become an informant. “He started crying,” Ayloush recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t want anything to happen to me. I came to America thinking this was a free country and I’d be treated with dignity and humanity.’”

In September 2007, Irvine police finally followed up on Danielle’s and Carla’s complaints, and after working out a plea deal that avoided a jury trial, Monteilh went to jail for conning the two women out of more than $150,000. Although he could have spent more than five years behind bars, prosecutors agreed to lower his sentence to 16 months, of which Monteilh served only eight. The district attorney’s office refused to comment on Monteilh’s claim that he received a reduced sentence after the FBI intervened on his behalf. “We formulated the state prison sentence based upon the amount of theft and the facts and circumstances and proof in the case,” says DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder. “That’s all we’re going to say about it.”

His victims aren’t being so quiet, especially when it comes to the question of whether the FBI should believe anything Monteilh told them while working as an informant. “When I read about the mosque thing, I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Carla. “His con would be to convert [to Islam], con the Muslims into believing him, and con the FBI out of their money. That’s what he does.”

Danielle agrees. “It would not surprise me if he bullshitted the FBI,” she says. “‘I’m going to prevent another 9/11! Give me your money, and I’ll do that.’ Shame on them for believing him.”

Not surprisingly, in Monteilh’s version of events, he’s both the victim and the hero of this story. He’s preparing a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the FBI. “They allowed Irvine P.D. to arrest me,” he says. “They didn’t live up to the exit strategy. I still have a restraining order against me, and if I violate it, I go back to prison for three months. Does that sound to you like the FBI lived up to its end of the bargain?”

If Monteilh is angry at the FBI, he’s certainly not alone. “The fact that the sanctity of our mosques has been totally violated shows the total disrespect the FBI has toward Muslims,” says CAIR’s Ayloush. “For the past eight years, CAIR and other groups have been engaged in a campaign to build a relationship with the FBI, and at the same time, their instigator was trying to get innocent Muslims to become terrorists. We feel like we were stabbed with a huge dagger in the back.”

Shortly before President George W. Bush left office, the FBI broke off its relationship with CAIR, citing the fact the group was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a case against the Holy Land Foundation, which was convicted in November 2008 of funneling cash to Hamas. The FBI’s decision rankled Tareef Nashashibi, former chairman of the Orange County Arab American Republican Club, which has been active in helping to advise the FBI on its relationship with Muslim Americans. “I wasn’t happy with that,” Nashashibi says. “But what really bugs me is all the trouble coming out of the Orange County office. We saw a threat [Monteilh] and automatically called the police and the FBI, as good citizens should do. And guess what? Our people are getting prosecuted for it. We are doing the best we can to safeguard this country, and we get shot in the foot for it.”

Nobody is less surprised that the FBI supposedly used Monteilh to spy on mosques than Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. “This has reinforced our suspicions and fears all along that we carried,” he says. In May 2006, just before the FBI’s Tidwell insisted the bureau would never spy on mosques, Syed and several other Muslim leaders, including Imam Sadullah Khan, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI, demanding records of any surveillance operations against them. When the FBI handed over only 50 pages of heavily redacted material, the ACLU filed a lawsuit and ultimately won hundreds of pages—most of them blacked-out—showing that the FBI had indeed been monitoring them. The FBI continues to withhold numerous records on national-security grounds, but on April 20, a federal judge ordered the FBI to hand over those records.

According to Monteilh, Syed’s FOIA request could turn up quite a scandal. Although he refused to elaborate, he claims the FBI wasn’t just spying on mosques. “This is way bigger than that,” he says. “If you think this was racial profiling, you haven’t even heard the beginning.” When asked why the FBI hasn’t arrested anyone other than Niazi if he really thwarted a terrorist plot, Monteilh insists that the FBI is just biding its time for the controversy over his infiltration of the mosques to blow over. “With all that is going on now, maybe it’s best to hold on,” he says. “When they start arresting people, who’s going to be the hero?”

Detroit News : FBI limits work with Muslim civil rights group amid dispute

Thursday, April 30, 2009

FBI limits work with Muslim civil rights group amid dispute

Some vow to stop cooperating with agency amid dispute

Gregg Krupa | April 27, 2009

The FBI has suspended much of its work with the nation's largest civil rights organization for Muslims after cooperating for years on the training of agents and outreach to Muslims.

A host of Muslim and Arab organizations have threatened to stop cooperating with the FBI until the dispute over the Council on American Islamic Relations is resolved.

The issue, which is playing out amid large Muslim and Arab populations in Metro Detroit and nationally, is eroding relations between Muslims and law enforcement, Muslim leaders say. FBI officials also express concern about the impact on those relationships, which both consider integral to protecting national security and civil rights.

"The FBI has had to limit its formal contact with CAIR field offices until certain issues are addressed by CAIR's national headquarters," said Assistant FBI Director John Miller, concerning action that was taken, but not announced, last autumn. "CAIR's leadership is aware of this. Beyond that, we have no further comment."

Officials of CAIR, which has 35 field offices in 19 states, say they have not been informed of the concerns. But at a trial in Dallas last year of a major Muslim charity, the prosecution presented evidence that two CAIR officials participated in a 1993 meeting about how to represent Hamas in the United States.

Establishing CAIR may have resulted from that effort, an FBI agent suggested in her testimony. And CAIR was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, a designation it has contested in court.

While FBI officials would not say publicly why it has ended most cooperation with CAIR, privately they say the FBI would be hard-pressed to explain why it would continue to engage as a partner an organization with two leaders who attended such a meeting.

CAIR officials deny the organization is a front for Hamas, or that it was organized as a result of the conversation the FBI recorded in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton did not designate Hamas as a terrorist organization until 1995.

"Our work has been overwhelmingly based upon issues directly affecting Muslims, from giving diversity trainings, empowering Muslims through civic engagement trainings and in taking discrimination cases," said Dawud Walid, the executive director of CAIR-Michigan. "Probably not even 1 percent of CAIR's work in the past 15 years has been related to the grievances of Palestinians. This does not reflect the work of an alleged front group for people in the Gaza Strip."

Officials of CAIR and defense lawyers in the Muslim charity case say no evidence was presented that CAIR intended to work on behalf of Hamas or that it was established as a result of the recorded conversation.

While the U.S. and other governments consider Hamas a terrorist group, many Muslims and Arabs consider it a resistance group, and say Palestinians have a right to resist Israel.

The prosecution sought to establish that 18 Hamas sympathizers attended the meeting. One is identified only as "Nihad." The FBI said it identified the man as Nihad Awad, the current executive director of CAIR, by the sound of his voice.

Awad did not return calls seeking comment. In a sworn deposition in a separate case, Awad said he did not recall attending the meeting.

Omar Ahmad, a founder and board member of CAIR, also is identified as a participant. Ahmad did not respond to requests for an interview.

However, the link between the meeting and the founding of CAIR remains unclear. The stated purpose of the participants in the recorded conversation was to establish a low-profile group, not readily identified with Muslims, which would work quietly to promote the concerns of Hamas in 1993.

"How can we possibly be the group described when from the very start the word 'Islamic' in the name Council on American Islamic Relations has identified us as a Muslim group and when we are the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States?" said Corey Saylor, the legislative director of CAIR.

Meanwhile, the FBI said it will continue to review civil rights complaints filed by CAIR. (313) 222-2359

UPI : Informant says he lured Muslims to gyms

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Informant says he lured Muslims to gyms

April 29, 2009

LOS ANGELES, April 29 (UPI) -- A convicted criminal and personal trainer says he was recruited by the FBI to pose as a Muslim convert and talk to Muslim men at gyms in Southern California.

Craig Monteilh told the Los Angeles Times he used the name Farouk al-Aziz and went to mosques claiming to be of Syrian-French descent. Agents told him to encourage young men he met to join him for workouts, which were secretly recorded.

Monteilh said he was recruited in 2006 and dropped in 2007. He told the Times the goal of the operation was for the FBI to look for information that could be used to pressure Muslim men into becoming informants.

A law enforcement source told the Times the FBI operation had a narrow focus, investigating men already identified as possible terrorists.

© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

OMB Watch : Frustration Toward FBI Boils Over for American Muslim Groups

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Frustration Toward FBI Boils Over for American Muslim Groups

by Suraj Sazawal | April 15, 2009

Months of deteriorating relationships between the FBI and major American Muslim organizations came to a head when revelations of a FBI informant posing as a convert in mosques became public in February 2009. The incident, combined with the FBI's disengagement from communications with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has lead several American Muslim advocacy groups to consider a suspension of ongoing outreach with the FBI. The growing tension was raised during a Senate hearing where FBI Director Robert Mueller was questioned about the Bureau's conduct about investigating Muslim organizations.

Alleged FBI Informant at California Mosques

The activities of undercover FBI agents at California mosques were discovered during the February 2009 detention hearing of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, a naturalized US citizen from Afghanistan, who is charged with making false statements to obtain his citizenship. According to Niazi, he was arrested because he refused to conduct secret spying operations on other worshippers for an FBI agent. Niazi said the agent told him to cooperate or the FBI would make his life a "living hell".

During the detention hearing, Thomas Ropel, an FBI special agent, testified that an informant had gone undercover at Niazi's mosque. It was later learned through media interviews that Craig Monteilh, a California resident with an extensive criminal background, admitted to having been the paid FBI informant. Monteilh, behaving as a recent convert to Islam, reportedly espoused a violent ideology with members of mosques across southern California. He claims to have recorded thousands of hours of conversations "between Muslims in their homes, restaurants and mosques in southern California." The FBI would neither confirm nor deny that Monteilh was used to spy on California mosques.

Monteilh's spying ended after Niazi and other members of the Islamic Centre of Irvine grew suspicious of him and contacted the authorities asking for a restraining order against him. The FBI then began to investigate Niazi and sought his services as an informant, according to the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, which has formally filed a complaint with the FBI. His refusal led to his arrest on immigration issues. Nizai has pleaded not guilty to the charges. The spying has resulted in a "chilling effect" on worshippers at mosques and their donations. Many Muslims have decided to avoid attending public services and several mosques have reported a decline in zakat donations.

Boycott of FBI Mulled by American Muslim Organizations

The report of the informant is the latest point of contention between American Muslim organizations and the FBI. The troubled relationship worsened after the FBI distanced itself from CAIR in 2008. The FBI cited "a number of distinct narrow issues" that it has refused to make public as cause for severing relations with CAIR's 30 field offices in 19 states. Many in the American Muslim community believe the inclusion of CAIR as one of the 300 Muslim groups or individuals named as "unindicted coconspirators" in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation trial as the primary factor.

On March 17, the American Muslim Taskforce (AMT) released a statement endorsed by the American Muslim Alliance, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim American Society, Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim Student Association, MSA West, and more than 30 other mosques and Muslim groups. The statement said, "recent incidents targeting American Muslims lead us to consider suspending ongoing outreach efforts with the FBI … [The] waning days of the previous administration witnessed a flourishing of anti-Muslim activity … These McCarthy-era tactics are detrimental to a free society.”

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), which did not sign on to AMT’s statement, released its own statement on March 25 that echoes the AMT' criticism of the FBI but stopped short of calling for a boycott. Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of MPAC, said, "We believe it's too important for our community's interest and America's interest to leave the table. But the damage was done [when the FBI planted the agent]".

FBI Director Dodges Questions at Senate Hearing

On March 25, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) asked Mueller if he could "determine and report to this committee whether mosques have been entered by FBI agents or informants…and, if so, how many?” Mueller responded that the FBI does not "focus on institutions, we focus on individuals." This response contradicts the claims made by the American Muslim groups and by Monteilh.

Mueller was also asked if the attorney general guidelines, implemented on Dec. 1, 2008, had any effect on the relationship between the FBI and the American Muslim community. The guidelines reduced the standards necessary for the FBI to investigate people and groups through covert surveillance, and allow use of religion or ethnicity as cause for investigation, His response was that the, "Expectation is that our relationships are as good now as before the guidelines…”.

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-LA and an AMT member disagrees with Mueller's assessment. He said, “The problem is that many in the Muslim community no longer feel confident that the FBI is pursuing an honest dialogue with the Muslim community…Integrity and honesty are the foundation of any relationship.”

Daily News : FBI agents watched Orange County gyms in anti-terror probes

Thursday, April 30, 2009

FBI agents watched Orange County gyms in anti-terror probes

Daily News Wire Services | April 28, 2009

SANTA ANA - FBI agents watched Orange County gyms to gather intelligence on members of several local mosques, a man who claims to have been a key informant in the operation said.

The head of the FBI office in Los Angeles confirmed the surveillance occurred but declined further comment.

Southern California Muslim leaders issued a statement, demanding the Obama administration investigate the tactics, which Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Anaheim-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said "reflects a deeply rooted mind-set that was promoted by the Bush Administration."

"I'm not surprised," Ayloush said. "It confirms our worst fears."

Craig Monteilh said he posed as a Muslim convert at the request of the FBI to gather intelligence that might aid anti-terrorism investigators. He said he identified several hundred men for agents.

Monteilh, who has a background as a personal trainer, said he was instructed to lure mosque members to work out with him at local gyms.

FBI agents, he said, later would get security camera footage from the gyms and ask him to identify the people on the video and to provide additional information about them. He said he was told FBI agents did background checks on the men, looking for anything that could be used to pressure them to become informants.

While the disclosure upset Muslim leaders, an FBI spokeswoman said it was "absurd to suggest that FBI agents are randomly targeting Middle Eastern men or any other ethnic group for investigation."

Monteilh, 46, is a twice-convicted felon who says he was recruited by the FBI in 2006 to go undercover in the Islamic Center of Irvine, where he said he pretended to be Farouk Al-Aziz, a Syrian-French-American searching for his Islamic roots.

He says he secretly recorded conversations with members of several mosques and provided the recordings to the FBI.

Monteilh said the FBI stopped using him as an informant in 2007 when a supervisor questioned his credibility. He has since filed a legal claim against the bureau, accusing it of reneging on promises to pay him $100,000 and place him in a witness protection program.

LAT : FBI monitored members of O.C. mosques at gyms, alleged informant says

Thursday, April 30, 2009

FBI monitored members of O.C. mosques at gyms, alleged informant says

By Scott Glover | April 27, 2009

As part of their anti-terrorism efforts, FBI agents monitored popular gyms throughout Orange County to gather intelligence on members of several local mosques, according to a man who claims to have been a key informant in the operation.

Sal Hernandez, director of the FBI's Los Angeles office, declined comment on the matter Monday. Another law enforcement source, however, confirmed that the surveillance occurred, but emphasized that it was a narrowly focused operation targeting people whom the informant had already implicated in alleged crimes.

The informant is Craig Monteilh, who said he posed as a Muslim convert at the request of the FBI to gather intelligence that might aid anti-terrorism investigators.

Monteilh, a muscular man with a background as a personal trainer, said he was instructed to lure mosque members to work out with him at local gyms. FBI agents, he said, later would obtain security camera footage from the gyms and ask him to identify the people on the tapes and to provide additional information about them. He said he was told that the agents then conducted background checks on the men, looking for anything that could be used to pressure them to become informants.

Disclosures of the FBI's tactics have angered some leaders in the Muslim community in Orange County who saw it as a betrayal of their efforts to assist law enforcement after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The issue has reverberated nationwide.

Last week, a coalition of the nation's largest Muslim organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, issued a statement demanding that the Obama administration address FBI actions, including what they described as the "infiltration of mosques," the use of "agent provocateurs to trap unsuspecting Muslim youth" and the "deliberate vilification" of the council.

Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim, said he viewed the most recent disclosure as a form of religious profiling that "reflects a deeply rooted mind-set that was promoted by the Bush Administration." "I'm not surprised," he said. "It confirms our worst fears."

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said, "While the FBI does not comment on investigative techniques, it's absurd to suggest that FBI agents are randomly targeting Middle Eastern men or any other ethnic group for investigation."

Monteilh, 46, is a twice convicted felon who says he was recruited by the FBI in 2006 to go undercover in the Islamic Center of Irvine, where he said he pretended to be Farouk Al-Aziz, a Syrian-French American searching for his Islamic roots. He says he surreptitiously recorded conversations with members of several mosques and provided the recordings to the FBI.

Though FBI officials have declined to discuss Monteilh's alleged role in any investigation, a law enforcement source confirmed that he worked as an informant.

Monteilh (whose name is pronounced Mahn-Tay) said the FBI stopped using him as an informant in 2007 when a supervisor questioned his credibility. He has since filed a legal claim against the bureau, accusing officials of reneging on promises to pay him $100,000 and place him in a witness protection program.

In several recent interviews with The Times, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Monteilh said he was encouraged to invite members of several mosques to join him for workouts at various fitness centers in Irvine, Tustin, Laguna Niguel and Costa Mesa. Monteilh said he would routinely lead between eight and 15 men in a regimen of weightlifting and cardiovascular exercise. He said a car key operating as an electronic recording device was capturing whatever he and the men talked about.

About a month after the workouts began, Monteilh said one his "handlers" at the FBI started showing him photos that he was told were still shots taken by video surveillance cameras at the gyms. He said the agent would typically show him between 75 and 100 photos per meeting, which he said were usually at various Starbucks in Orange County.

Monteilh identified the agent by name, but his identity is being withheld by The Times at the request of an FBI official who cited his involvement in covert activities unrelated to the case that Monteilh said he was involved in.

Monteilh said the agent would ask him to write down the name of the person in each photo, the mosque they attend, their nationality and the names of their associates. He estimated that he identified several hundred men, the majority of them between the ages of 18 and 50. Many were professionals, including doctors and lawyers, he said. Most were students.

Monteilh said he broached the topic of racial profiling, but was rebuffed.

"White little old ladies aren't blowing up buildings and planes," Monteilh quoted one agent as saying. "We're looking at these people based on the fact that there's a terrorist threat in the Islamic community . . . there's no other way."

He said the project was working so well that his handlers were given clearance to use him to open a gym that would cater to men in the Islamic community. It was supposed to have a prayer room next to the workout area and the entire place was going to be wired for audio and video surveillance, Monteilh said. He said the project was scrapped after his cover was blown.

A spokesman for one of the fitness centers where the activities allegedly occurred said the company had no knowledge of the FBI probe. Representatives from other gyms did not respond to inquiries from The Times.

Gyms have played a role in the formation of terrorist cells, experts said. According to the British government's report on the bombings in London on July 2005, three of four terrorists became connected at gyms. One of the British gyms was dubbed the "Al Qaeda gym" because it was known as a hotbed for extremists, the report stated. The 9/11 terrorists and Madrid bombers also bonded at gyms.

Monteilh's role as a government informant seemed to be supported by the testimony of an FBI agent in February.

The agent, Thomas J. Ropel III, was testifying at a bail hearing in the case of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, who is charged with perjury, naturalization fraud and making a false statement to a federal agency for, among other things, not disclosing that his brother-in-law is Osama bin Laden's alleged security coordinator.

Ropel told the judge in the case that Niazi had been secretly recorded by an informant as he threatened to blow up abandoned buildings. The agent did not name Monteilh but testified that the informant was the same man Muslims had reported to the FBI as an extremist two years earlier.

Monteilh was reported to the FBI in June 2007 after members of the Islamic Center of Irvine alleged that he was promoting terrorist plots and trying to recruit others to join him.Monteilh denies being a terrorist and said anything he said or did at the mosque was in his capacity as an informant for the FBI. He said he was given permission by authorities to engage in terrorist rhetoric, planning and "pretty much anything short of an actual attack" as part of his assignment.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

Penn Live : Personal Trainer Says FBI Used Him as Muslim-Community Informant

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Personal Trainer Says FBI Used Him as Muslim-Community Informant

Los Angeles Times | The Associated Press | April 27, 2009

(AP) — As part of anti-terrorism efforts, FBI agents monitored popular gyms in Orange County, Calif., to gather intelligence about members of several area mosques, according to a man who claims to have been a key informant in the operation.

Sal Hernandez, director of the FBI's Los Angeles office, declined to comment on the matter Monday. Another law-enforcement source confirmed that the surveillance occurred but emphasized that it was a narrowly focused operation targeting people whom the informant already had implicated in alleged crimes.

The informant is Craig Monteilh, who said he posed as a Muslim convert at the request of the FBI to gather intelligence that might aid anti-terrorism investigators.

Monteilh, a muscular man with a background as a personal trainer, said he was instructed to lure mosque members to work out with him at local gyms. FBI agents, he said, later would obtain security-camera footage from the gyms and ask him to identify the people on the tapes and provide additional information about them. He said he was told that the agents then conducted background checks on the men, looking for anything that could be used to pressure them into becoming informants.

Disclosure of the FBI's tactics angered some leaders in the Muslim community in Orange County who saw it as a betrayal of their efforts to assist law enforcement after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The issue has reverberated nationwide.

Last week, a coalition of the nation's largest Muslim organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, issued a statement demanding that the Obama administration address FBI actions, including what they described as the "infiltration of mosques" and the use of "agent provocateurs to trap unsuspecting Muslim youth."

"While the FBI does not comment on investigative techniques, it's absurd to suggest that FBI agents are randomly targeting Middle Eastern men or any other ethnic group for investigation," FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.

Monteilh, 46, is a twice-convicted felon who says he was recruited by the FBI in 2006 to go undercover in the Islamic Center of Irvine, Calif.. where he said he pretended to be Farouk Al-Aziz, a Syrian-French American searching for his Islamic roots. He says he surreptitiously recorded conversations with members of several mosques and provided the recordings to the FBI.

Although FBI officials have declined to discuss Monteilh's alleged role in any investigation, a law-enforcement source confirmed that he worked as an informant.

Monteilh (pronounced Mahn-Tay) said the FBI stopped using him as an informant in 2007 after a supervisor questioned his credibility. He has since filed a legal claim against the bureau, accusing officials of reneging on promises to pay him $100,000 and place him in a witness-protection program.

In several recent interviews with the Los Angeles Times, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Monteilh said he was encouraged to invite members of several mosques to join him for workouts at fitness centers in Irvine, Tustin, Laguna Niguel and Costa Mesa, Calif. Monteilh said he routinely led between eight and 15 men in a regimen of weightlifting and cardiovascular exercise. He said a car key operating as an electronic recording device captured whatever he and the men talked about.

About a month after the workouts began, Monteilh said one his "handlers" at the FBI started showing him photos that he was told were still shots taken by video surveillance cameras at the gyms. He said the agent typically showed him between 75 and 100 photos per meeting.

Monteilh identified the agent by name, but his identity is being withheld by the Times at the request of an FBI official who cited his involvement in unrelated covert activities.

Orange County News : Against the Wall

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Against the Wall

Praying, eating and bowling with the most hated student group at UC Irvine

DEREK OLSON | October 18, 2007

With a brief red flash, the sun disappears behind the trees at Aldrich Park in the center of the UC Irvine campus as I pray.

"Pray as if this is your last prayer," instructs a man standing in front.

I place a digital recorder on the ground. A dark-skinned man at my side says, "Follow my lead." We bow and then lie prostrate on cooling cement. I stand at the end of a row of 30 men, shoulder-to-shoulder. Behind us, another row has nearly the same number of women. All the women wear hijabs, or scarves over their hair and neck. We bow in unison.

The man at the front is named Kareem Elsayed; he's 21. He leads the prayer with a musical and mournful verse. His cracking voice invokes an abysmal melancholy. I have no idea what he's saying, but the suras—chapter of the Koran—flow meditatively, centering and calming the Muslim Student Union (MSU) of UCI. Suddenly, familiar words: "Allahu Akhbar." Followed by several beats of silence. "Allahu Akhbar."

God is Greatest.

The phrase, in its most reverent use, is a parallel of the Judeo-Christian "Hallelujah" (Praise to God). But the words "Allahu Akhbar," repeated melodically, strike a cold chord. A simple statement of belief that has become, to many non-Muslims, synonymous with extremism, a jihadist battle cry. Much like the group that now utters it, the phrase has become indelibly linked in many minds with intolerance.

The prayer ends. I dust off, feeling content and serene. I haven't prayed in months. The Muslim prayer seems as good as any other, I guess.

It's dusk, and the students begin ambling toward a picnic table near Ring Road, a narrow walking and biking road encircling the park. They are hungry. It is late September, and the holy month of Ramadan is in full swing. The students break their sun-up-to-sundown fasting regimen—no food, water, sex—with a sweet date.

I eat a date, too; it's good. Elsayed tells me that dates are high in glucose, providing an instant rush of energy and potassium for rehydration. The perfect appetizer for a thirsty, starving Muslim.

The women and the men of the group eat at separate tables. It's part of tradition, one of the students tells me. Like the conservative dress of the women, eating separately is a way to avoid the distractions of physical attraction so one can focus only on God.

I pile delicious lamb and some kind of spicy rice on a plate and move to a table full of solemn faces. "Mind if I sit down?" I ask with a smile.

They neither object nor invite. They barely look at me, instead staring at their plates. Three thin freshmen and a man in his 40s who looks like an Arab Tony Soprano sit at the table. Not a word is said for several minutes. One of the young men is somewhat sloppily eating with his hands; the rest use plastic cutlery.

"So," the Soprano look-alike asks me, "how long have you been a Muslim?"

"I'm not a Muslim," I answer.

He raises his eyebrows and turns his attention back to his food. He seems to regard me suspiciously, not surprising considering the MSU is likely the most hated––and feared––student group at the university.

* * *

Critics call the MSU an anti-Semitic hate group that supports the destruction of Israel with terrorism. Bloggers, from local activists to Jewish hate-watch websites, track every public move of some prominent MSU members, sometimes dedicating entire pages to profiling individuals.

The controversies began when most of the MSU's oldest current members were still in high school. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times wrote that members of the group participated in a flag-football tournament for Muslims using team names such as "Mujahideen, Intifada and Soldiers of Allah." In 2004, the group made headlines again by wearing green "shahada" armbands to UCI's commencement ceremony, bands some associate with Hamas, but which the MSU contends are simple declarations of their faith. In 2004, someone painted a Star of David dripping with blood, an act that the Zionist Organization of America has tried to tie to the MSU.

In 2006, a controversial event put on by the College Republicans that displayed the infamous Danish cartoon of the prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him, as a Muslim would say—wearing a bomb-turban spurred administrators to seek such intensive security measures as rooftop snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors at building entrances and 15 to 20 police officers. In January, the MSU staged a protest and walkout of a pro-Israel campus group's invited speaker, Daniel Pipes, a man who believes Muslim Arabs in Palestine cannot be reasoned with and must undergo the "crucible of defeat."

The FBI has basically admitted to—and later denied—watching them. In 2006, when asked if the MSU at UCI posed a threat, FBI agent Pat Rose, head of the agency's Orange County al-Qaida squad, said to a group of business people at the Pacific Club, "That's a tough question to answer," according to an article in The Orange County Register. The vague answer led to speculation the group was under FBI surveillance.

Last May, a confrontation between an MSU student and an FBI agent confirmed in many people's minds the group was being watched. The student confronted a man who had been following him in a Ford Taurus with tinted windows. The man, whom the FBI later confirmed to be an agent, revved the engine and, according to MSU witnesses, almost ran the student down. Another student allegedly threw a cinderblock at the car as it sped off. An FBI spokesperson later denied the agency was watching the Muslims.

Because of the MSU's outspoken ways, UCI has been painted as a hotbed of radical Islam and anti-Semitic activity by national media figures on the political right such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity of Fox News.

"(Many people) feel that we are an extremist, hardcore, loud, in-your-face kind of organization," current MSU president Omar Zarka says. "That's very understandable given the kind of coverage we get, especially with the blogs and other free media."

The 30 or 40 students who will make up the group this year, largely first- and second-generation Americans in their late teens to early 20s, will decide what path the group takes from here. These sons and daughters of immigrants from India, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Uzbekistan or one of the dozens of countries called home by more than a billion Muslims of the world plan to continue delivering their controversial messages at UCI, regardless of what others say.

In many ways, the MSU is a typical college club. They help one another with studies, match younger members with mentors, and organize fund-raisers and other philanthropic endeavors. Members lament that most of that goes unnoticed: What people talk about is their "Anti-Oppression Week." During this weeklong event, the MSU erects a wall on campus in representation of what it refers to as the "apartheid wall." The facsimile wall, the first version of which was burned down by vandals in 2004, represents a system of concrete walls and electric fences throughout the northern West Bank, Jerusalem and Bethlehem that separates Palestinians from Israelis.

Students and outside groups have criticized the "apartheid wall"—which is decorated with graphic photos of violence and statistics about the lives and deaths of Palestinians in Israeli military-occupied territories—as using "shock tactics," being racist and inaccurate.

MSU members defend the wall—and the group's often-criticized stance on Israel—by saying it provides a much-needed counterbalance to a media landscape that picks its facts based on prejudices, alliances and agendas.

Heated words and mad-dog eyes might be commonplace exchanges between students on both sides of the debate, but no violence has been documented.

* * *

Some college peers have accused the MSU of being difficult to approach, standoffish and a bit scary. I'm starting to understand why, but that first step into an unknown culture is the most difficult. Things should get easier.

Before going back to spend more time getting to know the MSU, I meet with Brock Hill, the former president of UC Irvine College Republicans, and the current president, Cameron Galbraith, at a Starbucks in Costa Mesa.

Hill and Galbraith say their relationship to the MSU is one of mutual distrust and apprehension.

"The second we walk through the door, they stare at us," Hill says. "They know exactly who we are, and we know exactly who they are."

In 2006, the College Republicans organized an event with another conservative campus group, a panel discussion titled "Domestic Organizations: In Support of Terrorism or Not?" The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) declined to attend, saying the event was biased.

The group intended to discuss and show the infamous Danish caricature that stirred uproar in the Islamic world. The cartoon depicts the most revered man in the Muslim world wearing a bomb with its fuse lit in his turban. In the incendiary drawing, the Muslim prophet has a sort of brutish and crude countenance. Since depicting Muhammad in any way is considered sacrilege, bringing it up for panel discussion was a provocative move.

Hill and Galbraith say they didn't see why discussing the caricature was such a problem considering the MSU has invited such provocateurs as radical activist Amir Abdul-Malik Ali, whom, Galbraith says, "referred to Israel as the Fourth Reich, called the Constitution a fascist document and justified suicide bombing."

The two Republicans say any criticism volleyed at them from the MSU amounts to a "double standard."

Once word leaked to the media about the event, Hill says, school administrators panicked. The group was told it had to raise money to pay for security measures, they said. Administrators even tried to get the two groups to broker a truce.

"We thought we were going into a meeting with the administration only," Hill says. "Well, it ended up that they had tricked us into coming into a meeting with us on one side of the table and the officers of the Muslim Student Union on the other side of the table.

"We said, 'Thank you for trying to set up this meeting, but no thanks,' and we walked out of the room."

The night of the event, protesters at the campus' Crystal Cove Auditorium totaled more than 1,000—according to signatures gathered by MSU. The scene deteriorated as protesters on both sides exchanged their version of the "N-word": Anti-MSU protesters called the MSU "Nazis" for their alleged antisemitism; pro-MSU protesters called the College Republicans "Nazis," comparing the Danish cartoons to the dehumanizing ways Jews were portrayed leading up to the Holocaust.

According to Hill, some of those protesting against the Muslims co-opted the event for their own agenda, leaving him and others with regrets.

"The whole thing just got blown out of proportion," he says. "People inside the auditorium were yelling obscenities at the Muslims outside. It was . . . It was bad. That was not how we wanted it to go down at all.

"Most of the people outside were not students," he says. "They took it way too far. I was embarrassed of these guys. They were out there holding American flags, kind of using them as rhetoric tools. They were saying, 'You guys are a disgrace to America—get out. Go back to your own country.'

"You know, this probably is (the MSU students') home country. To say something like that, it completely renders our argument useless. It did us more of a disservice."

Whatever regrets they have about the event, Galbraith says, it was never meant to be insulting, only to open discussion. The MSU cites the same reason for their more controversial events, but, Galbraith says, their delivery makes other students just "roll their eyes." Galbraith believes more students would listen to the MSU, whether they agree with them or not, if they turned down the volume of their rhetoric.

"Their overall disposition is one of hostility. . . . It's 'The evil Western imperialists have come in and destroyed everything we know, so retaliate,'" he says. "I really resent the cries of racism and (you're an) Islamophobe.

"It's not a question of whether they're Muslim; it's what they're advocating."

* * *

After coffee with Hill and Galbraith, I meet up with Marya Bangee, 20, current MSU vice president and last year's official spokeswoman for the group. For the past few years, because of all of the media and blog pressure, the group has had a spokesperson talk to the media and generally asked members to defer to that person. Her role has its drawbacks, she says, including one blog page that was dedicated entirely to her. The page featured her picture, her status as a UCI student and MSU member, and several quotes she described as out of context.

"Almost any quote can be taken out of context and make someone look bad," she says. "A lot of our members feel they have been misquoted or quoted out of context."

We are standing at their recruitment booth during the first week of classes, and I ask if I can join a bowling trip she's organizing for just the women of the MSU.

Bangee asks some of the other girls, and they agree to allow me to tag along.

Around 3 in the afternoon on a weekday, 19 Muslim women and I enter Irvine Lanes. About half of them wear hijabs. Among those, some also wear traditional Muslim dress. Others wear jeans and a shirt. Some of the women are dressed entirely in contemporary styles.

The Muslim women rent four lanes, with five players per lane. They laugh giddily and run from rack to rack, finding bowling balls to fit their hands.

When the balls start rolling—to varying degrees of success—the fun begins. There are some early strikes, but the gutters see their share of action. Two little kids stare curiously at the spectacle of the Muslim women crying out and stamping in frustration when they gutter, high-fiving and laughing when they hit spares and strikes.

Hijab-wearing Elhamm Shahh asks me if I know how to become a movie producer. I tell her, "Well, I think first you need a lot of money and experience in the movie business." She looks momentarily disappointed, but not deterred. She wants to make a movie "kind of like 300," she says, a battle film about a small band of Spartan warriors who fight to the death against numerically superior Persian invaders, but different.

She doesn't get time to explain which historical battle she would like to focus on because when I ask if I can record the conversation, Bangee taps my shoulder.

"I'm sorry," she says, "but Omar asked that you don't do any more interviews until after he speaks with you this afternoon."

I ask Shahh if I can interview her later, after I talk to Omar. I reach out my hand to shake hers.

"Muslim women don't shake hands," she says shyly.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't know," I fluster.

Without the option of working, I'm left to concentrate on my bowling game.

* * *

The MSU's first meeting of the year is scheduled after the bowling outing. About an hour later, I arrive outside UCI's Cross Cultural Center.

A man is speaking to a group of male MSU members outside the building. He appears vaguely Middle Eastern and dresses in a hip-hop style with an old-fashioned plaid golf hat and a matching oversized beige coat. I listen from a distance, as walking into the huddle seems somewhat inappropriate.

From what I can gather, the man is discussing the recently announced release from Iranian prison of Ali Shakeri, a prominent member of UCI's Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. Shakeri was put in prison for four months when he returned to Iran to visit his mother, who died while he was there, according to the Associated Press.

The man is telling the group they should be careful if any media ask about Shakeri. Almost anything the group says could be turned against them, the man says, and people will likely be very sensitive about the event.

Then, in the middle of this powwow, the man stops and looks directly at me.

"What?" he asks confrontationally.

I look over my right shoulder and see no one. I look over my left shoulder—no one. I poke myself in the chest with my thumb. "Me?"

"Do you need something?" he asks.

"No, I'm just listening," I put up my hands and shrug my shoulders.

He finishes talking to the group and begins to walk away. He looks older than them, probably in his early 30s.

I jog a few steps over to him. "Excuse me," I say. "I was just wondering: Are you an instructor here?" He turns to face me but walks backward to make it clear we are not having a conversation.

"I'm just hanging out," he says.

"Hanging out? You mean you're a student," I say.

"I'm just hanging out." He continues facing me until he's about 10 feet away, and then he turns and walks away with a shoulder-rolling gait.

The male MSU members have gone into the Cross Cultural Center and sit on some couches in the foyer. When I walk in, they turn to look at me and don't say a word. "So, who the heck was that guy?" I ask. They don't answer. Later, I find out he's friends with some MSU members, but not a member himself. I never find out if he's a student.

MSU president Zarka arrives, and the students get off the couch and start walking to another building for their meeting. I ask Zarka what he needed to talk to me about.

"Some of the group members are not comfortable with you," he says.

Zarka is about 6 feet tall, with a deep voice, a confident smile and a non-aggressive posture. He wears a black T-shirt, brown work Dickies and flip-flop sandals. Along with the scruffy beard with no mustache, he has the slightly rumpled and disheveled college-student aesthetic down to a science.

"They're just a little nervous," he assures me. "I don't think they were aware that you were going to be spending so much time with us. And they also are uncomfortable with the tape recorder. I would like to ask you to leave, just until we can discuss what's going on a little more. I guess I probably didn't do a good enough job of letting people know what's going on. Just call me tomorrow, and everything should be fine."

* * *

Hussam Ayloush, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations branch in Anaheim, says the MSU members' skepticism is probably because almost any interaction between a Muslim and the media is a losing proposition.

"There is an attempt to place Muslims under siege, intellectually and spiritually, by the daily bombardment of anti-Muslim messages," he says. "In some people, that leads to self-isolation, but for others, it leads them to fighting back. You go the extra mile to establish and assert who you are, through religious and political activism."

But the outspoken attitudes of some members of the group have only served to increase the negative attention for the entire group, he says.

Reut Cohen, a former member of the Anteaters for Israel—a pro-Israeli group at UCI—has maintained a blog about the MSU for about a year. She follows all of the latest claims against the group and archives their events, including videos, photographs and news reports. She says she was inspired to start it based on her interpretation of the MSU's events as "disgusting." The decidedly anti-MSU blog ( receives between 300 and 600 visitors on an average day, Cohen says, some of them from the Middle East.

"It's kind of cool to see that people from the Arab world are reading up on this," she says.

Cohen, who graduated in September, says she could not have graduated soon enough. She felt intimidated by MSU members on campus, she says, and she believes the FBI is watching them.

"This group has sponsored things that are against America," she says. "There's a reason why the FBI has been to the campus in the past. I can understand why [the MSU] are being monitored."

Cohen also said the negative attention from the media might be playing right into the group's hands.

"I think they are very aware that there are many people in the media who are watching them . . . but that might be another reason for them to step it up a bit," she says. Other sites that have kept tabs on the UCI Muslims include and

Ayloush labels as "shameful" attempts by local bloggers and activists to intimidate the students into not speaking out by insinuating they are "terrorist sympathizers." Once they are out of college, society will likely pressure them into silence, so why not let them speak their mind while they are young? It is part of the same process of self-discovery all students go through, he says.

"There is a time when they will leave the campus and go into the world, and society will exert those limitations and restrictions on them," he says. "I think if we deny students this right, it would be a great injustice."

This year's Anteaters for Israel president, Isaac Yershalmi, says he and other group members met over the summer with the MSU, in hopes of co-sponsoring an event. The Muslim Student Union suggested a debate between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine guest speakers.

But a debate didn't seem like the right choice of events, Yershalmi says. "I feel like a debate sort of separates people rather than brings them together."

Instead, Yershalmi suggested the two groups have a social event to just get to know one another. The MSU refused.

Zarka said the MSU's priority is getting its message heard, rather than making peace with other campus groups they feel do not respect their religion. "We've gotten a lot of attacks religiously . . . and then somebody wants to come and shake our hand. It's like, 'I'm going to talk trash on you, and then I want to work with you.'"

Yershalmi believes the MSU doesn't necessarily want to improve relations. "I don't want to speak for them, but maybe easing the tension is not part of their purpose," he says. "Maybe they're so focused on what they're doing that they want to ignore all of the externalities."

Although he hasn't changed his views, Yershalmi says he does have a broader understanding of the conflict because of the MSU. "I can't say that they have influenced me," he says. "But one thing I have to give them credit for is giving people something to think about."

* * *

After a night of uneasy sleep, I make another attempt with the MSU. The group plans to hold its new-student orientation in a large meeting room. Through glass doors, I see probably around 100 Muslims, most of the men with beards and most of the women wearing hijabs. I recognize most of them now, which adds to my anxiety. The seed has been planted in my mind that some of them don't want me around.

When I enter, some of the women from the bowling trip smile and wave. That settles my nerves. I enter a room where chairs are set up in two sections, one for the men and one for the women.

I find Omar, who says he spoke to whoever raised concerns and all should be fine. Some of these students are the children of immigrants who escaped dictatorships, he explains. They have an almost ingrained mistrust of media—and especially recording devices.

Inside, the meeting room is buzzing. The group presents a short comedy skit for a group of jittery transfer students and freshmen who have come to learn about the MSU. The students giggle throughout. It's a self-deprecating parody in which a naïve college student convinces his thickly Middle Eastern-accented father he will stay away from those "dirty" Muslims he saw on the news.

After the skit, Elsayed, a recent graduate, speaks to the group about the MSU's reputation. Whatever their message, he says, Muslims in America are considered the "other." A distinction that many minorities have had to endure throughout the country's history. But, he says, that shouldn't make them afraid.

"You would think that with everything that's being said—about the Muslims at UC Irvine in particular—that the Muslims would be so scared," he says. "'Oh, my God, they're saying all of this stuff about us; we can't do this anymore. We have to, like, hide, you know, and let's put our heads in the sand. Let's not do anything, or let's not say anything. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.'

"But it's the complete opposite. We have self-confidence and self-esteem. We know what's the right thing to do, and we do it. We're not scared of anything or anyone, or whatever anyone can say," Elsayed says. "Some people said the FBI is watching us. The FBI is not watching us; Allah is watching us. That's what we think."

When the meeting ends, the group heads to a courtyard in front of UCI's new Student Center. Some students are bringing large pans of food for the Iftar, the breaking of the fast. First, the students must pray.

Elsayed leads the prayer again, while foot traffic heads in every direction.

"Pray as if this is your last prayer," he says before beginning the suras in a heartbroken melody.

Some students walk by and stare at the Muslims. They are lined up in three rows, with the men in front and the women behind.

Some students ignore the scene. Some stop and watch. Some walk almost directly into the middle of the group as if they're blind or just don't care. One young man sips a large soda and looks askance at a buddy walking beside him. They snicker.

The Muslims don't notice. They bow and pray in unison.