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L.A. area Muslims say FBI surveillance has a chilling effect on their free speech and religious practices

Orange County mosques became a focal point after revelations that the FBI sent informants there to collect evidence against Ahmadullah Sais Niazi.

March 01, 2009|Teresa Watanabe and Paloma Esquivel

The Islamic Center of Irvine is a beige stucco building that blends into the rows of office buildings surrounding it. But last week, it became the most publicized mosque in California with disclosures that the FBI sent an informant there to spy and collect evidence of jihadist rhetoric and other allegedly extremist acts by a Tustin man who attended prayers there.

The revelations dismayed mosque members like Omar Turbi, 50, and his 27-year-old son who shares his name. After Friday prayer service last week, while hundreds of others scurried back to work, the pair stood with their backs to a wall and mulled over the news.

"It gives you a little bit of apprehension about who you trust," the elder Turbi said. "Makes you think twice about what you say; what if people misunderstand you?"

Turbi's fears were echoed by other Muslims throughout Southern California last week. Some say a climate of suspicion toward them, fueled by 9/11 and underscored by the latest disclosures of FBI surveillance, is inhibiting their freedoms of speech and faith.

According to Muslim leaders, some people are avoiding mosques, preferring to pray at home. Others are reducing donations to avoid attracting government attention or paying in cash to avoid leaving records. And some mosques have asked speakers to refrain from political messages in their sermons, such as criticism of U.S. foreign policy, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim.

"Some average Muslims interested only in praying are avoiding mosques for fear of somehow being monitored or profiled," Ayloush said. "Everybody is afraid, and it is leading to an infringement of the free practice of our religion."

The latest anxiety wave was triggered by an FBI agent's testimony last week that an informant was sent into several Orange County mosques and helped collect evidence against Ahmadullah Sais Niazi. The Afghanistan-born Niazi, 34, is scheduled for arraignment this month on charges of perjury, naturalization fraud and other acts related to lying about ties to Al Qaeda.

A man claiming to be that informant, Irvine resident Craig Monteilh, said last week in interviews and court documents that he served the FBI as a paid informant from July 2006 to October 2007 and used concealed audio and video equipment to record thousands of hours of conversations with Muslims in homes, restaurants and mosques in Irvine, Tustin, Mission Viejo and elsewhere.

But Ayloush and other Muslim leaders said that FBI scrutiny of the Muslim community -- and efforts to recruit informants -- began years ago. The FBI declined to comment.

Both Ayloush and Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization of 68 area mosques, said numerous Muslims have reported to them attempts by the FBI to recruit them as informers. In virtually all cases, they said, the Muslims in question had immigration and other legal problems or were applying for green cards. "We will make your problems vanish if you cooperate," Syed said the FBI told Muslims.

Suspecting widespread surveillance of their community, several American Muslim organizations and their leaders filed a Freedom of Information Act request, followed in 2007 by a lawsuit against the federal government, demanding the release of all information collected on them.

Muslims have also complained of FBI interrogations about their charitable contributions, asking why were they donating and who was receiving their money. At one Los Angeles-area mosque, nearly every donor was quizzed by the FBI, and the mosque subsequently experienced a steep decline in donations, Ayloush said.

Leaders at other mosques also say their contributions are down, although most attribute much of the decline to the recession. The Islamic Center of Corona Norco, for instance, has experienced a decline in donations of 30% to 50% in the last three to four years, which board member Rafe Husain attributed both to the economy and what he called a climate of fear. "People feel tense and uncomfortable," Husain said. "I've talked to some people who try to avoid mosque activity."

Since 9/11, federal authorities have also shut down at least six of the Muslim community's major charitable organizations, accusing them of involvement in terrorist financing. The actions have impeded Muslims from fulfilling the duties of their faith, Syed said, because charitable giving is not a voluntary act in Islam but a religious obligation.

The latest tensions have further frayed relations between the FBI and Muslims.

Since 9/11, the two sides had worked to develop a partnership, forming a Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee to meet monthly.

But the FBI unilaterally broke off ties with the American-Islamic council a few weeks ago, issuing a cryptic statement that the agency would limit contact until "certain issues" were addressed by CAIR's national headquarters in Washington.

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