Jurisprudence

What It’s Like to Worship While the FBI Is Watching

The FBI seal
The FBI seal is seen outside its in D.C. on July 5, 2016. Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images

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For decades, American Muslims have been under surveillance by the federal government—the NYPD embedded informants in mosques after 9/11, to take just one example. One particular case from 2006, in California, involves an FBI informant sent by the bureau to 10 mosques under the auspices of learning more about the faith. This person converted and then tried to goad his new friends into plotting violence with him. But no one at the mosque wanted anything to do with his radical talk. In the end, the only person who was convicted of anything was the informant himself. That’s why some of the people who were targeted in this operation sued the FBI. Last week, that lawsuit made it all the way to the Supreme Court, after stops and starts in lower courts due to the government’s claim that litigating the case would unveil “state secrets.” The question now facing SCOTUS: Can the government continue to claim that “national security” trumps the civil rights of Muslim Americans? I spoke about the case, its backgrounds, and the implications with Rowaida Abedlaziz, who reports on immigration and Islamophobia at HuffPost, on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: The plaintiffs in this case are three men named Yassir Fazaga, Ali Malik, and Yasser AbdelRahim. Fazaga was an imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Southern California. Malik and AbdelRahim were congregants at mosques nearby. Muslims in Orange county were worried that the federal government was spying on them and had a town hall with the head of the FBI for Los Angele, who reassured them they were not being surveilled. Just a few months after, the FBI placed an undercover informant in that mosque, and others nearby, to spy on congregants. His name was Craig Monteilh.

Rowaida Abedlaziz: Craig Monteilh himself started working for the FBI after he was caught in a drug investigation, and the FBI gave him two options: become an informant, or go to prison. He became an informant and served that role for more than two decades. It wasn’t until 2006 when agents with the FBI, specifically in the counterterrorism unit, told him about his new assignment where he would go to Southern California and pose as a Muslim Syrian convert. He did exactly that, made friends with congregants, and started making himself well known. He met with various members of the Muslim community, including all three plaintiffs in one way or another.

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The operation was called Operation Flex because Monteilh was a bodybuilder for a really long time. The plaintiffs have said one of the first things that caught their attention was how physically big this guy was and how much he loved working out. That was the way he gained trust—a younger Muslim man would be like, “Let’s go to the gym together, chat, and hang out.” So that’s what they did for several months, all while he was secretly recording tons of conversations.

He talked to the imam, too. My understanding is he even put a recording device in the imam’s office.

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That’s correct. And the red flags started coming when Monteilh started asking some questions that all of the plaintiffs deemed to be problematic, like about which imams supported violence. Every time, either Malik or the imam or AbdelRahim would tell him that this was incorrect, that this was not of the faith. Monteilh became more and more bold, and it terrified every single one of them.

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One of the plaintiffs in this case actually confronted him and basically said, You’ve got to stop talking about jihad in this way. It’s not what Islam is about, and I need to know where you’re learning it so I can push back against whatever it is you’re talking about here.

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When I was speaking to Malik not too long ago, he mentioned at first he thought Monteilh was getting this misinformation online, because of the Islamophobia present there. All of these plaintiffs had such good intentions and did not think ill of this man because they thought, This is a new member of the community, this is someone who we want to befriend, this is someone who is probably r innocent and just doesn’t know where he’s getting his information from. I think all of that adds to the shock and violation and betrayal they all felt.

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How was the FBI’s surveillance ultimately uncovered?

After Craig started asking particularly problematic questions about violence in the Muslim community, the community ended up going to the local leadership at the mosque. And then the mosque called the FBI itself, warning it about Craig and his rhetoric. They found that the federal government had a very lukewarm response and didn’t press for further information. This is when suspicion started to really arise, and soon, Craig Monteilh himself came out publicly and said he was a paid informant.

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How did the community respond?

One of the plaintiffs told me he temporarily stopped going to the mosque because he was so fearful. Others described to me a sense of paranoia: the sense of looking over your shoulders when you’re walking, when you’re talking to someone and you don’t know if that person is genuine in their interactions. The intimacy within the community was violated and cemented a belief that some people were second-class citizens and Muslim Americans were never going to be treated as equal in the eyes of the law.

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Has the FBI ever acknowledged how badly this operation went?

We haven’t heard much from them, but they continue to maintain they weren’t singling any community member out, that they weren’t targeting these Muslim Americans for their religious beliefs, and that they were doing their jobs.

Monteilh never publicly uncovered any kind of terrorist activity during his stint as an informer. But he did send hours and hours of covert recordings back to his FBI handlers, which the plaintiffs say they want destroyed. When did the community decide to file a suit?

The three plaintiffs first filed in 2011. They are hopeful about seeking some sort of accountability. They want justice in the eyes of the law and the day in court to say that their lives have been affected forever because of what had happened to them. And they want to see justice in terms of the federal government not just acknowledging what it did but also acknowledging that it violated religious freedoms and the Constitution.

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The important thing to understand about this case is that, now that it’s reached the Supreme Court, it’s not actually a matter of deciding whether the FBI did anything wrong, but whether the lawsuit can proceed at all. That’s because the FBI is invoking a defense that shields the bureau from revealing its operations and motivations, as long as it claims that revealing these details could endanger national security. The contentious nature of state secrets is one reason this case has been in process for so long. When the suit was first filed, a federal district court judge accepted the government’s argument and dismissed the case. Then, in 2019, an appeals court reversed that decision and reinstated the plaintiffs’ claims against the FBI. That decision then got appealed by the Justice Department, landing the case in front of the nine justices last week. Walk me through the arguments each side made when they finally got in front of the justices.

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The government essentially argued that it couldn’t defend itself in this case without revealing state secrets and has since moved to dismiss the case as it has done over the past two years. The FBI also maintains that the case doesn’t doesn’t have any merit and that the government doesn’t target anyone solely due to their ethnicity or their religious background. The plaintiffs. argued about the issues of freedom of religion, privacy, and unchecked government power. They mentioned that their lives were essentially damaged because of these surveillance programs, that harm was already caused, and that their religious freedoms should trump the “state secrets” privilege because of the impact it’s had thus far. They’re concerned that they will never be able to seek justice and the federal government will never be held accountable for their actions.

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Is there any case from the past that either side is invoking to bolster their case?

There is one particular case the plaintiffs have mentioned: Tanzin v. Tanvir, for which the Supreme Court ruled in December 2020 that three Muslim men who sued the government—particularly the FBI, because they alleged the FBI put them on the no-fly list in attempts to coerce them into becoming informants, and these men refused. In this case, the court ruled in their favor, saying these men were entitled to seek damages from the federal law enforcement officers.

Was the government claiming national security risk then the same way it is for this case?

Yes, the fact that the court ruled in their favor quite recently has these plaintiffs particularly hopeful.

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And this Supreme Court is sympathetic to religious freedom arguments?

That’s what they’re hoping for.

I wonder a little bit if, for many Muslims, this lawsuit is seen a bit as a proof of concept—like, this is pretty much as bad as FBI surveillance could be.

For Muslim Americans, it is a proof of concept. It is putting pen to paper and letting folks know that this isn’t just the paranoia, that this isn’t something that they’ve just made up. They also hope that by cementing this experience, a wrong can be documented and eventually righted.

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