Yassir Fazaga, one of the plaintiffs, speaks during a news conference. (Katie Falkenberg / For the…)
An FBI operation violated the 1st Amendment rights of hundreds of Muslims by using a paid informant to illegally monitor several Southern California mosques based solely on religion, a federal lawsuit filed this week alleges.
Filed on behalf of three Muslim plaintiffs, the lawsuit accuses the FBI and seven employees, including Director Robert Mueller, of paying Irvine resident Craig Monteilh to go undercover, infiltrate mosques and record conversations in order to root out potential terrorists.
Legal experts describe the case, filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as an uphill battle that pits national security interests against religious freedom.
Over the course of 14 months beginning in 2006, the FBI used Monteilh to "indiscriminately collect" personal information on possibly thousands of Muslim Americans, the lawsuit alleges.
The FBI declined to comment on the case. Spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said in an e-mail, however, that the FBI does not target houses of worship or religious groups, but does focus on "people who are alleged to be involved in criminal activity, regardless of their affiliations, religious or otherwise."
Monteilh, who has served prison time for forgery, has previously told The Times that he was recruited by the FBI in 2004 to infiltrate drug-trafficking groups. In 2006, Monteilh said, he was asked to assume the identity of a French-Syrian man newly converted to Islam in order to identify extremists and gather intelligence. His new name was Farouk Al-Aziz. His code name: "Oracle."
His involvement prompted the arrest of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi of Tustin in February 2009 on charges of perjury and naturalization fraud. He was accused, among other things, of failing to disclose that his brother-in-law is a close associate of Osama bin Laden. The charges were dismissed last October.
Last year, Monteilh filed suit personally against the FBI, accusing his law enforcement handlers of endangering his life and violating his civil rights. His claims of working for the FBI in some capacity were confirmed in 2009 when a West Covina judge unsealed court records that showed the agency intervened in 2007 to terminate Monteilh's parole on a theft charge early.
In order to win the lawsuit, the ACLU must prove that the FBI randomly targeted Muslims, legal scholars say. But it must also show that the agency had no overriding national security concerns compelling it to act. If the FBI refuses to disclose pertinent information, the case "becomes quite difficult to prove," said Norman Abrams, a terrorism law expert at UCLA.
ACLU lawyer Peter Bibring said members of the Muslim community grew suspicious after Monteilh habitually asked invasive questions about their religious beliefs, political views and loyalties and became "increasing aggressive about denouncing U.S. foreign policy."
"Ironically, the operation ended when members of the Muslim communities of Southern California reported the informant to the police because of his violent rhetoric and ultimately obtained a restraining order against him," the lawsuit alleges.
One of the plaintiffs, Ali Malik, 26, said he was asked to guide Monteilh in the basic tenets of his new faith at his mosque, the Islamic Center of Irvine, but became increasingly concerned about Monteilh's bizarre behavior. At one point, Malik said, the man asked how the imam would react to someone interested in becoming a suicide bomber in the name of Islam.
"I told him it was in no way justified in the religion, and the imam would think he was crazy," Malik said.
Malik, who is a U.S. citizen, said he has been contacted several times by the FBI since his interactions with Monteilh and has sharply curtailed his visits to his mosque out of unease.
"This has affected how the mosque welcomes new members," he said. "Every new person, people think 'Could he be with the FBI?'"