By Clarissa Rios and Michele Chadwick
ORANGE COUNTY, CA – Leila Rafei, a content strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union, recently authored an article about the FBI ordering an individual to spy on Mosques by posing as a Muslim convert in 2006 in Orange County, CA.
The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case surrounding the spying this week.
Rafei said Craig Monteilh was the undercover agent and confessed about his role and the work he was doing during the month of Ramadan.
Monteilh took the name of “Farouk” and befriended members of the community, making them believe that he was really devoted, explained Rafei.
According to the article, Monteilh had been secretly recording conversations and filming in various locations such as peoples’ homes, businesses, mosques, and had even hidden devices.
Rafei drew attention to two individuals in particular who were involved in Monteilh’s FBI spying efforts; Sheik Yassir Fazaga, the imam of the Orange County Islamic Foundation (OCIF), and Ali Uddin Malik and Yasser Abdelrahim, congregants at the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI).
In 2011, these two individuals sued the FBI for their unlawful targeting of the Muslim members which violated their constitutional rights of religious freedom and privacy, according to Rafei.
In an attempt to combat this, the FBI argued that further proceedings would possibly reveal state secrets. However, Rafei’s article explained that in 2019, an appeals court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. This prompted the FBI to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will be hearing the case this week.
According to Rafei, the plaintiffs joined At Liberty, a podcast, to discuss FBI surveillance and how it impacted them and their communities. Additionally, they also discussed the harmful effects of the FBI surveillance and how they still linger 15 years later.
In Rafei’s article Sh. Fazaga stated, “Generally speaking, when a person converts to Islam, they really are taken into the community as new members. So the tendency is that people will embrace them, literally embrace them. You get lots and lots of hugs when people come in. . .the assumption here is that people have made a lot of sacrifices and potentially they have lost their social support system. So the community tries to compensate for that.”
Rafei explained that back in 2006, Monteilh contacted Sheik Fazaga to express his interest in converting to Islam. Monteilh had given him background information including that he was of both Syrian and French descent.
Rafei explained Monteilh’s background was what motivated him to convert, as it would allow him to embrace his roots. It was only a few days later that Monteilh announced his conversion during a Friday prayer at a mosque. Soon afterwards, he took on the name of Farouk and started regularly attending prayers, Rafei said.
In Rafei’s article, Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – California (CAIR-CA) stated, “6 a.m. all the way to 10 p.m. That’s a lot of dedication to come to these prayers. Very impressive.”
Rafei’s article explained that the word had spread about the new convert within ICOI along with other mosques in the Orange County area.
Because of this, Monteilh was faced with various congregants reaching out to him for introductions, to purchase Islam-based books for him, to take him out for dinners or tea, etc. According to Rafei, congregants had even extended invitations to Monteilh for home dinners where he would meet other families and friends.
While these casual scenarios did frequently take place at first, they eventually died out as Monteilh began to discuss violence, Rafei explained. Monteilh had expressed a unique interpretation for the word jihad, which refers to any sort of internal or external struggle that an individual or community comes face to face with.
According to Rafei, younger congregation members such as Malik and Abdelrahim began to notice Monteilh’s peculiar shift in thought, but gave him a free pass. However, this did not last long. In one particular circumstance, the congregants attempted to explain to Monteilh that Islam does not condone violence- which Monteilh pushed back against.
In Rafei’s article, Ali Malik stated, “He just wanted to talk about [jihad] the whole time. And I was like, this is really awkward, you know? And I gave him what I learned about jihad, which is like the spiritual struggle, you know, and the fight against one’s own desires and caprice and whatnot. And he didn’t buy it. He just wanted to know about violence.”
According to Rafei’s article, Abdelrahim was encountered by FBI agents in a parking lot on his way out from a chiropractor’s appointment. Abdelrahim stated, “Obviously, I was a little shocked. A lot of questions [were] going through my mind. Number one, how do you know I’m here?”
Rafei explained that the FBI agents had taken Abdelrahim to a nearby Starbucks where they proceeded to question him on his thoughts towards terrorism. Eventually, Abdelrahim realized he had been spied on.
Rafei’s article reports that the congregation soon realized that this convert was lying and potentially a danger. Congregants reported Monteilh to community leaders, then police and finally the FBI.
However, the congregation did not realize his true intentions and identity until two years later, when he was publicly identified and spoke openly about the operation.
The congregation reportedly learned that between 2006 to 2007, Monteilh indiscriminately gathered names, phone numbers and email addresses. Additionally, they learned that Monteilh secretly filmed and recorded congregants in various locations including homes, mosques and businesses.
According to Rafei’s article, Monteilh “used hidden cameras and recording devices to spy on community members even when he was not physically present.”
One trick to record private conversations he used was losing his keys that contained a hidden audio recorder. When the keys were found in the prayer hall, they were brought to the imam’s office. Once in the office the keys could record confidential conversations between the imam and those who sought his guidance.
According to Rafei, Sheik Fazanga believes the recording of his meetings to be illegal, unethical and unconstitutional. Additionally, Sheik Fazaga said “it puts a lot of people’s lives in jeopardy and their well-being and their rights of privacy.”
Rafei’s article claims that the FBI has been surveilling Muslims in Southern California since late 2001. Additionally, with the information gathered from this surveillance, agents would often show up unannounced at individual’s homes and interrogate them about their religious practice without reason.
The lead attorney on the case, Ahilan Arulanantham, said “FBI agents told [Monteilh] to focus on people who are more devout, like Ali Malik, who was wearing religious clothing, and like Sheik Fazaga because he was a religious leader.”
This is foundational to the case, according to Arulanantham because “once we learned that information, we filed a lawsuit challenging the FBI’s conduct on constitutional and federal statutory grounds.”
Even after Monteilh left their community, his impact was reportedly widespread and enduring.
“The distrust the community felt towards the FBI was tremendous. They looked us all in the eyes and assured us unequivocally that they were not spying on us,” said Sheik Fazaga. “We trusted them. But they lied, and our sacred community was shaken to its core.”
Rafei claims in her article that “since 9/11, the government has frequently abused the ‘state secrets privilege’ to escape accountability.” She claims they shut down lawsuits of torture survivors, end litigation of unlawful government surveillance and covered up misconduct and other abuses “in the name of national security.”
Lead attorney Arulanantham believes that “The government cannot hide behind state secrets to pretend everything is national security” and an independent entity should determine whether evidence constitutes state secrets or not.
While the federal district court accepted the FBI’s state secrets argument and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims of unlawful targeting based on religious discrimination, the Ninth Circuit of Appeals disagrees and instructed the district court to consider the religious discrimination claims under procedures mandated by Congress in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act specifies how courts should handle cases involving surveillance conducted for national security purposes.
The FBI appealed the case and the Supreme Court agreed to hear it. Oral arguments began Tuesday.