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.

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