Who Was that Mosqued Man?
- The FBI, the Islamic Center of Irvine and Craig Monteilh:
Who Was Conning Whom?
By NICK SCHOU
April 29, 2009
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
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 ourtreach efforts 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 by a pseudonymwas 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 cashand a profit of $12,900within 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 namea 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 $100,000and 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 Carlathe two women he ripped offwere 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 Islamor pretending toin 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 Muslimsnone of whom has been arrested nearly two years laterdiscussing 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."
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 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 pagesmost of them blacked-outshowing 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?"
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW
Need some good karma? Appreciate the service?
Please consider donating to WVNS today.
Email ummyakoub@... for instructions.
To leave this list, send an email to: