As federal authorities press their case against a Tustin man accused of lying about ties to Al-Qaeda, they disclosed this week that some evidence came from an informant who infiltrated Orange County mosques and allegedly recorded the defendant discussing jihad, weapons and plans to blow up abandoned buildings.
On Wednesday, a man who claims to be that informant stepped forward, filing court documents saying that he had served as a confidential informant for the FBI from July 2006 to October 2007 to identify and thwart terrorist operations in the Orange County Islamic community.
The claim by Craig Monteilh, a 46-year-old Irvine resident, that he had been sent by the FBI to infiltrate several Orange County mosques could affect the government's case against Ahmadullah Sais Niazi. His allegations highlight recurring issues about the use of informants by law enforcement agencies and have fanned long-held fears by some Muslim leaders about religious profiling.
Monteilh said in interviews that he had alerted the FBI to Niazi after meeting him at the Islamic Center of Irvine in November 2006 and spending eight months with him. Monteilh said he called himself Farouk Al-Aziz and posed as a Syrian-French American in search of his Islamic roots. Monteilh told the FBI that Niazi befriended him and began to lecture him about jihad, gave him lessons in bomb-making and discussed plots to blow up Orange County landmarks.
"He took me under his wing and began to radicalize me," Monteilh said.
The FBI declined to comment on Monteilh's allegations, which could not be independently verified. Niazi's attorney, deputy federal public defender Chase Scolnick, also declined to comment.
But an FBI agent's testimony in the case Tuesday and interviews with Muslim leaders both appeared to bolster some of Monteilh's assertions about his role in the case.
Special Agent Thomas J. Ropel III testified at a bail hearing for Niazi that the defendant had been secretly recorded by an informant while initiating jihadist rhetoric and threatening to blow up abandoned buildings. Ropel did not name Monteilh but testified that the agency's informant was the same man Muslims had reported to the FBI as an extremist. In June 2007, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported Monteilh to the FBI as a possible terrorist, said Hussam Ayloush, the council's executive director in Anaheim.
Ayloush said he was "100% sure" that Monteilh was the informant in question and expressed anger and disappointment that the FBI would infiltrate mosques. He accused officials of trying to entrap innocent Muslims, noting that Monteilh has been convicted of grand theft and forgery in the past. He said Muslims had worked hard to develop a partnership with the FBI -- and had been assured by J. Steven Tidwell, then assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field office, at an Irvine forum in 2006 that their mosques were not being monitored. Now, Ayloush said, he has doubts about future relations with the FBI.
"This is religious profiling at its worst," Ayloush said about the FBI operation.
The Afghanistan-born Niazi, 34, was arrested last week and is scheduled to be arraigned next month on suspicion of perjury, naturalization fraud, misuse of a passport obtained by fraud and making a false statement to a federal agency. Niazi, who has lived in the United States since 1998 and earned citizenship five years ago, is related by marriage to Amin al-Haq, an Afghan militant who fought the Soviet occupation of the 1980s with a U.S.-backed Islamic resistance force that now is branded an Al Qaeda affiliate. Niazi is accused of failing to disclose those ties during his application for citizenship.
Niazi asserted after his arrest last week that he is an innocent man who is being retaliated against by the FBI for refusing to become an informant.
In Tuesday's bail hearing, Ropel asserted that Niazi was a danger to the community who should be held without bail. But prosecutors offered no testimony regarding the specific plots Monteilh says he told the FBI that he discussed with Niazi, allegedly involving attacks on Orange County shopping centers, military installations and court buildings. Nor was there any testimony about other mosque members allegedly having been involved in those or other terrorist activities, as Monteilh maintains was the case.
Ayloush said he had received numerous complaints from Muslims in 2007 that Monteilh was aggressively promoting terrorist plots and trying to recruit others to join him. Citing such behavior and saying that it made members of the mosque feel threatened, the Islamic Center of Irvine won a temporary restraining order in June 2007 that barred Monteilh from the mosque.