A Note from the Editors – November 9, 2021:
We first published this award-winning story in 2012. The case now appears before the U.S. Supreme Court, who must decide whether to block the claims of three Orange County men, who accuse the FBI of illegally conducting surveillance on them based on religious discrimination. The ruling is due by June of next year.
The FBI assigned Craig Monteilh to infiltrate the Islamic Center of Irvine as part of the fight against terrorists. It’s hard to imagine how it could have gone any more wrong.
One day in July 2006, a stranger came to the Islamic Center of Irvine, one of the largest Muslim congregations in California. He identified himself as Farouk al-Aziz, a man of French and Syrian descent whose mother was from a small town outside Damascus, and who wanted to get back in touch with his roots. “Are you willing to accept Islam in front of 300 people?” a top official of the mosque asked him.
In a ceremony the next day at the center, above, al-Aziz made the declaration of belief, or shahadah, which is all that is required to convert to Islam. “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” he declared in Arabic. The congregation accepted him unconditionally as one of its own. “When a person accepts the faith, the community doesn’t judge whether the person is in good faith,” says Ameena Mirza Qazi, deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations regional office in Anaheim.
At 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, and possessing the physique of an NFL linebacker, al-Aziz was easy to spot among the worshippers. He learned the rituals of Muslim prayer and recited verses from the Koran. Proclaiming himself an eligible bachelor, he dated women from the center as part of the process of finding a wife in the faith, and spent time at other Orange County mosques. “The community opened their arms to him,” says Mirza.
But Farouk al-Aziz was not the man he seemed. His given name was Craig Monteilh [pronounced MON-tay], a convicted felon and married man with an uncanny knack for assuming phony identities. Colombian, Eastern European, Franco-Syrian—you name it, he could fake it. His chameleonlike abilities appealed to the FBI, which had embedded him in Orange County’s Muslim community as an undercover informant. His mission: assist the U.S. government in its post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts.
Monteilh illegally planted electronic listening devices at the Islamic center and secretly recorded conversations he had with members of the mosque, often encouraging them to express their views on jihad. The FBI paid him more than $100,000 for his services.
It was, most now agree, an enormous waste of money. Suspicious that Monteilh actually might be a terrorist, the center went to court for a restraining order against him in June 2007, bringing his undercover work to an abrupt end. Not a single Orange County Muslim has been charged with terrorist offenses, and the spying fiasco may have damaged, beyond repair, the relationship between the FBI and the local Muslim community.
And that’s just part of the problem.
In a $10 million lawsuit scheduled to be heard in June in federal court in Santa Ana, Monteilh—who is representing himself—alleges the FBI conspired with the Irvine Police Department to have him arrested on false grand-theft charges as a way of silencing him after his cover was blown. Without the FBI’s protection, he served eight months in prison for bilking two female acquaintances out of more than $150,000 while he was spying in the mosques. Separately, three members of Orange County mosques have sued the FBI in a class action, claiming the bureau illegally targeted Muslims for surveillance because of their religion. Their star witness against the FBI could be Monteilh.
The entire imbroglio raises troubling questions about means and ends, about the federal government employing a known criminal as the linchpin of a sensitive national security operation—a man who may have become “Farouk al-Aziz” not so much to serve his country, but to satisfy a deep need to be someone else, someone other than Craig Monteilh.
Orange County has become something of a magnet for Muslims. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California is home to more than 500,000; Orange County, with a Muslim population of 120,000, is second only to Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. Local Muslims worship in more than a dozen mosques, the largest being the Islamic Center of Irvine, which has a congregation of about 3,000. Anaheim has become the hub of Muslim-owned halal grocery stores and restaurants.
Like others of their faith throughout the country, Southern California Muslims suffered in the backlash that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “There was a dramatic increase in [the number of] hate crimes directed at Muslim Americans,” says Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, which includes Orange County. In one incident in Anaheim a few weeks after 9/11, several Asian men allegedly assaulted and shouted ethnic slurs at a man of Indian descent whom they believed was Middle Eastern. The FBI has jurisdiction over hate crimes, but the local Muslim community distrusted the agency amid complaints that it targeted its members for counterterrorism operations, often sending agents unannounced to their homes and workplaces to interview them about their religious practices.
To ease tensions, Southern California Muslims formed a partnership with the FBI in 2004. That Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee met every quarter, but Mirza says the relationship started deteriorating within two years as visits to Muslim homes continued and news organizations reported that the bureau was spying on Muslim student groups on college campuses. Muslim activists were so concerned that they filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records of FBI surveillance activities since January 2001.
In May 2006, Pat Rose, an FBI agent specializing in al-Qaida counterterrorism, fanned fears by telling an audience at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach that “there are a lot of individuals of interest right here in Orange County.” The Orange County Register reported that Rose “talked about planting bugs and closed-circuit TV cameras, and examining computer use and e-mail.” Weeks later, J. Stephen Tidwell, the FBI’s assistant director in Los Angeles, tried to reassure members of the Islamic Center. The agency, he said at a meeting, would not send covert informants into mosques. “We still play by the rules,” he insisted.
But a court document filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that, by the time Tidwell reassured the center, he already had approved the recruitment of an informant to infiltrate Orange County’s mosques as part of a major counterterrorism effort. The FBI had chosen someone who was more than willing to help.
Monteilh greets a visitor to his tidy Irvine home in polo shirt, knee-length shorts, and sandals. The muscles in his calves bulge and his shoulders slope at an acute angle from his neck—testimony to his years of lifting weights and working as a fitness trainer. He’s light-skinned, and has no obvious ethnic identity. You might never guess, in fact, that he actually is African American.
Monteilh, now 49, has struggled with the confusion between his skin color and his ethnicity since he was a child growing up in South Los Angeles and West Covina. In the schoolyard, he recalls in his raspy voice, black kids taunted him for not being “black enough,” calling him “white boy.” When he looked at himself in the mirror, he didn’t see an African American. But he says his father insisted—to the point of physical violence—that he was. “My father beat the black in me,” he says. The technique was “Smack! ‘You’re black.’ ”
By the time Monteilh graduated from West Covina’s Edgewood High School in 1980, he had learned how to overcome his conflicted racial identity by taking on fake personas. “I would tell people I was Caribbean, from a small town outside [the French city of] Marseilles,” he says. When people believed him, he felt powerful. “I did find comfort in taking assumed identities, in being whoever I wanted to be and no one having a question about it. It’s psychologically thrilling. … There’s nothing like it.”
Monteilh put these skills into professional scamming, ripping off Colombian drug dealers in the San Gabriel Valley. He’d arrange cocaine deals, using “flash money” to show he had a large amount of cash on hand. When it came time to consummate a transaction, he would tell the dealer to wait while he fetched the cash. Then he’d drive off without paying, the drugs in the trunk of his car.
In January 1986, a Colombian dealer caught up with Monteilh after he ripped off a kilogram of cocaine, allegedly abducting him at gunpoint and threatening to kill him. According to police reports cited by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Monteilh managed to escape after convincing the Colombian he could still get the $36,000 he had agreed to pay for the drugs.
Monteilh went straight for a while. He got married, had three children, and, by frequenting gyms, established himself as a personal trainer. But while going through a “real bad divorce,” he became “bitter and jaded” and returned to drug-dealer rip-offs and other scams. After serving eight months in prison for forging checks, he was working out in a Costa Mesa gym in 2003 when he met some police officers assigned to a narcotics task force. Would he be interested in sharing information, they asked him? “I’m very skilled in sharing information,” he replied.
That launched Monteilh’s career as an informant. One of the task force officers was an FBI agent who recommended him to a supervisor. On one investigation for the FBI, he posed as a white supremacist, having made connections with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang while behind bars. Other cases involved steroid trafficking, murder for hire, and bank robberies. In March 2006, Monteilh says in his lawsuit, he was working on a drug sting when he was asked to join Operation Flex, a national security program. According to the suit, he was told he would be used to “take down high-priority targets,” including Osama bin Laden.
Monteilh says it was his idea to infiltrate mosques. He thought the assignment “would be my swan song. It doesn’t get any higher than counterterrorism.” One of his FBI handlers also was enthusiastic. He says she told him, “If you do that, you would be gold.”
The FBI has a long history of employing criminals as informants. (See related story, next page.) Perhaps most infamously, Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger and his No. 2, Stephen Flemmi, supplied information to the agency about the Boston Mafia, allegedly in return for the FBI looking the other way as the two ran the Winter Hill Gang using murder and intimidation. Their handler, Special Agent John Connolly, was convicted of murder in two Winter Hill-related deaths; Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica last June after 16 years on the run.
According to Monteilh, his arrangement with the FBI included “transactional immunity,” meaning he would be protected from prosecution for any offense—or “transaction”—related to his work as an informant. “Whoever complained about anything … you are untouchable,” he says. “It was the ultimate high! It’s extremely empowering.”
Monteilh is a man who fairly ripples with energy. His words come out in punchy, emphatic blasts, and during a two-hour interview at his kitchen table, he never even pauses for a drink of water. As Farouk al-Aziz, he immersed himself in his role with Robert De Niro-like intensity. “My responsibility was 24/7,” he recalls. “I was not going to the mosque and then having a hamburger with my family. For over a year, I was a Muslim. I was Farouk al-Aziz; Craig Monteilh didn’t exist.”
The FBI outfitted Monteilh with high-tech listening devices implanted in key fobs to record conversations in the mosques. He’d leave sets of keys around the mosque so they would be taken to the office of the imam, or mosque leader. People at the Irvine Center “joked about Monteilh frequently forgetting his keys, and for having his keys out during lectures and conversations,” the class-action suit says. Monteilh also had a video camera hidden in a shirt button. None of this surveillance, the lawsuit alleges, was done with a search warrant. “National security is different,” an FBI agent allegedly told Monteilh.
Monteilh says his duties also included collecting the cell phone numbers, email addresses, and other personal data of mosque members, and that the information was added to a database the FBI uses to monitor the Muslim community. “Muslims right now are controlled … they are strangled by the government,” he says. He socialized with Muslims outside the mosques, playing X-Box games with them, and, even though he had remarried in 2005, dated Muslim women.
According to the class-action lawsuit, the goal of Monteilh’s conversations in the mosques was to “obtain compromising information that his handlers could use to pressure the Muslims with whom Monteilh interacted into providing information or become informants.” In early 2007, the suit says, his handlers—identified as Special Agents Kevin Armstrong and Paul Allen of the FBI’s Orange County Joint Terrorism Task Force—told him to be more aggressive in asking about jihad and armed conflict, and even suggest that he was willing to engage in violence. Typically, Monteilh recalls, he would say something like, “I’m getting really bitter about Muslims being slaughtered. What do you think we should do?” Among the verses from the Koran that the FBI gave him to quote was one that reads, “And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah.”
But Monteilh’s talk of jihad—he even said he had access to weapons—made mosque members so uncomfortable that they started to avoid him. “He had crossed the line,” Mirza says. Some members reported his statements to community leaders, one of whom, Council on American-Islamic Relations executive director Hussam Ayloush, warned the FBI’s Tidwell that Monteilh might be a terrorist. On June 14, 2007, the Islamic Center filed for a restraining order in Orange County Superior Court. Farouk al-Aziz was now persona non grata in the mosques.
Confidential informants are supposed to remain confidential, their identities forever hidden from the public. Monteilh signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI. But far from being silenced, he disclosed in February 2009 that he was the FBI’s man in the mosques and has been on a publicity blitz ever since, filing his lawsuit in January 2010, creating a Facebook page called “Don’t Trust the FBI,” and giving interviews to journalists. “I’m sending a message to the FBI that says: Craig Monteilh doesn’t take your crap,” he says.
Not long after Monteilh was barred from the mosques, Irvine police arrested him on grand-theft charges. He allegedly had conned two victims by agreeing to provide them with human growth hormone and steroids, then pocketed their cash without fulfilling his end of the deal. It sounds like a reprise of his old Colombian drug-dealer scam, but Monteilh insists he was working on a steroid sting for the FBI. The agency broke its promise to make the grand-theft charges go away, he says, forcing him to plead guilty and spend eight months in prison “for work done at the direction of the FBI.”
“I was separated from my sons,” Monteilh says, describing his imprisonment. “They had to bear the agony of seeing me in prison.” While in Wasco State Prison, he says, he was attacked several times by inmates, word having gotten out that he was a snitch.
Monteilh was released in August 2008 after serving half his 16-month sentence. On Feb. 24, 2009, FBI Special Agent Thomas J. Ropel III testified at a bail hearing for Ahmadullah Niazi, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard who had been arrested on charges of lying about his ties to terrorist groups. An informant, Ropel said, had infiltrated Niazi’s mosque and recorded him talking about blowing up buildings, buying weapons, and sending money to the Afghan mujahideen.
The very next day, Monteilh publicly identified himself as that informant. Ropel’s admission, he says, had given him “an open door” to protect himself from retaliation by the FBI and the Muslim community. Muslims might have harbored ill will toward him for “defiling” their mosques. He was still on parole for the steroid con, he notes, and the FBI could have tried to have him thrown back in prison for a parole violation.
Monteilh also figured that by going public, he could embarrass the FBI. “I knew it would grow into something,” he says. “I just didn’t know what.”
The Niazi case ultimately came to nothing, with the government dropping all charges in September 2010. Still, Monteilh not only pursued his lawsuit asking for $10 million in damages, but also assisted the Muslim community—the same community he once spied on—in its class-action suit. “Our community was doing everything it could to work with the FBI,” says Mirza, who also is Los Angeles’ Council on American-Islamic Relations’s staff attorney and co-counsel for the class plaintiffs. “To know that all the time they were sending in this provocateur … it’s just unfathomable.”
FBI spokeswoman Eimiller declined to comment specifically on Monteilh’s allegations. “The accusations appear to be desperate attempts by Mr. Monteilh to personally benefit at the expense of law enforcement officers and the Muslim American community,” she said in a prepared statement. The FBI certainly could argue a don’t-trust-Craig-Monteilh defense, that his work as Farouk al-Aziz was just another scam. “His con would be to convert [to Islam], con the Muslims into believing him, and con the FBI out of their money,” one of his alleged grand-theft victims, identified only as Danielle, told OC Weekly. “That’s what he does.”
But Monteilh insists that “you don’t scam the FBI.” As evidence of his credibility, he displays a medallion that he says the agency gave him in gratitude for his service. In addition, he says that even after he was arrested in the steroid con, the FBI used him as a jailhouse informant in an investigation of the Romanian mob, in which he posed as a Hungarian-French immigrant. “If I’m this criminal, how come the FBI still rehired me?” he asks.
Danielle’s attorney, Jihad M. Smaili of Santa Ana, is a member of Orange County’s Muslim community. He’s trying to collect about $80,000 that Monteilh owes Danielle in restitution penalties, and he describes Monteilh as “a pretty shady guy.” But he still believes that the government has “tried to prod, taunt, and convince law-abiding [Muslims] to commit or conspire to commit crimes when they were not predisposed to do so. That’s why they sent this guy to the Irvine mosque.
“If he’s going to help out [the Council on American-Islamic Relations], I’m all for it,” Smaili says. “But they should be quite cautious. He could turn against them, just like he did with the FBI.”
Monteilh says he is not for or against the council. “I am pro-Monteilh family. I don’t care about educating the public [about the FBI’s counterterrorism activities]. What I care about is getting justice for the Craig Monteilh family, and that’s all.”
Whatever happens, Monteilh may to some degree have found himself. He insists his days of assuming fake personas, of being anyone else but himself, are behind him. “I’ve already done it all,” he says. Having reached the “pinnacle” by being Farouk al-Aziz and working as an informant in a national security operation, he can just be Craig Monteilh. “It’s not in my system any more,” he says. “It’s gone.”
Craig Monteilh is only one example of an informant who became a thorn in the FBI’s side
James “Whitey” Bulger, right
The notorious mobster informed on the Boston Mafia. His FBI handler was convicted of helping him eliminate rivals.
The Black Panther informant’s testimony helped convict Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt of killing a woman during a 1968 robbery in Santa Monica. The murder conviction was overturned when an appeals court found prosecutors had failed to disclose that Butler was an informant.
The former U.S. Army sergeant worked as a counterterrorism informant while concealing his role training Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards and helping plan the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
He took part in Ku Klux Klan violence while working as an informant in a Birmingham, Ala., Klan chapter from 1959 to 1965. “If he happened to be with some Klansman and they decided to do something, he couldn’t be an angel and be a good informant,” his handler testified.
Gregory “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa
The ruthless enforcer for the Colombo crime family committed numerous murders while an informant in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. His FBI protection ended during a war between two Colombo factions.—M.H.
Craig Monteilh says his FBI handlers provided him with specific verses from the Koran to quote when he spoke to Muslims about jihad. Here are some examples.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.