By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Talkin’ Jihad With Craig Monteilh
Ex-convict, con man, convert—an early conversation with the man who says he spied on the Islamic Center of Irvine on behalf of the feds
A location scout for a spy movie could not have picked a better location for my late-December meeting with Craig Monteilh: a table outside a restaurant in a bustling Irvine shopping center. A lensman would have appreciated the shadow-erasing clouds hovering overhead on the warm winter morning. And central casting could not have found a better leading man: Monteilh is tall, intense and talkative, with a shaved head and the kind of cut body one would expect from someone who is now a fitness instructor. All that was missing was the story, which Monteilh was just itching to tell.
“I’m looking forward to getting my name back where it should be,” he said.
The gist of the 46-year-old’s tale: that he had taped Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis espousing radical ideas and, in some cases, plotting terrorism in Orange County. Not quite trusting the source—for a variety of reasons, which will soon become clear—the Weekly sat on his story.
Then, at dawn on Feb. 20, federal agents arrested 34-year-old Afghan native Ahmad Niazi at his Tustin home. Something about the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the arrest sounded familiar.
Looking at my Monteilh interview notes with fresh eyes, I saw that I only scribbled down one name as he talked about alleged terror plotters:
As I shifted into scramble mode, trying to get back in touch with Monteilh, Niazi was facing five fraud and perjury counts. At his Feb. 24 bail hearing, the eight-year Tustin resident was alleged to have talked in an unnamed informant’s e-mails and recordings of initiating jihad, getting weapons, blowing up buildings, sending money overseas to the Afghan mujahedin and even calling Osama bin Laden “an angel.”
Thomas J. Ropel III, an FBI special agent and Marine-trained counter-terrorism specialist assigned to the Orange County Joint Terrorism Task Force, testified that Niazi was preparing to send the informant to terrorist-training camps in Yemen or Pakistan.
Then Monteilh outed himself. His story appeared first in the Times’ Feb. 26 morning edition, on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog that evening and pretty much everywhere else thereafter. Monteilh kept repeating what he told me: He wanted to clear his name. But the whole way he presented his story to me only sowed doubts. Here is how he told it, nearly two months ago:
He was a chaplain for six years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where he also dabbled in the intelligence division. Because of his biracial looks and grasp of spy work and religion, he was recruited by the FBI in 2004 and flown to Virginia for counterterrorism training. “The FBI knew there were suspicious activities happening in mosques,” particularly in Southern California, Monteilh said. One famous case was that of 30-year-old Adam Gadahn, the former resident of Santa Ana’s Floral Park neighborhood, onetime member of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove and now Al-Qaeda’s jihad-spewing “Azzam the American” in Pakistan. Monteilh said his assignment was to infiltrate mosques in Irvine, Tustin, Anaheim, Culver City, West Covina and San Pedro. His contact on the outside was an “FBI Agent Armstrong.” Monteilh was certain others were sent to infiltrate Southern California mosques as well.
He arrived at the Islamic Center of Irvine in 2006 and befriended members, using the name Farouk Aziz, always wearing robes and, though he has no facial hair now, growing a long beard. But about a year in, an incident he would not describe—other than saying it was unrelated to what he was doing at the mosque—caused people he’d been spying on to wonder about him. To test their suspicions, these young Muslims went to the Islamic Center’s leader, who contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose California office is in Anaheim. The advocacy group in turn contacted Irvine police and the FBI to say “Aziz” was spreading “jihad” talk at the mosque, which eventually got a restraining order against him.
In Southern California Muslim news source InFocus’ August 2007 story on the incident (“Is Big Brother At Your Mosque?”), Niazi is identified as one of those who turned in Monteilh. In that and other press reports, the FBI would neither confirm nor deny an investigation was under way.
This exposure, Monteilh said, led to death threats against him from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and someone in Irvine with Taliban ties. “They ruined my reputation,” he said. “I need to be known for what I did. They have me as a terrorist or a potential terrorist. The Islamic community has a restraining order against me because of my ‘jihadist views.’ I was carrying out a direct order.”
He claimed people he was investigating blew his cover to protect themselves. Ropel used that same argument at Niazi’s bail hearing. The agent acknowledged their suspect came forward to turn in a convert who “was scary,” but the bureau believed Niazi figured out the convert was an informant and filed the report to protect himself.
If Monteilh’s tale did not cause the hairs on the back of your neck to stiffen, just Google his name. Like a Christmas tree, the Internet lights up with stories of him being a con man, a gold digger, something of a nut and possibly a government informant. His criminal record extends back to 1987, with charges ranging from forgery to burglary and grand theft. His Orange County rap sheet alone includes charges for 18 separate crimes allegedly committed between January 2006 and November 2007. But here is the strange part: all but two were dismissed on the same day.
Confronted with his online infamy, Monteilh claimed that after he’d been exposed, unnamed government officials spread damning stories about him on the Internet to protect the undercover surveillance program.
So how could he prove he was a government spy? He produced stapled photocopies of what he claimed was a court document that a judge in West Covina would later go on to seal. He said it was the disposition of a grand-theft-auto case in which he was found guilty. He pointed to a section on the last page that stated, beneath the sentencing part, that the Los Angeles County prosecutor asked the judge to cut short Monteilh’s probation because he is an FBI informant who an Agent Armstrong says is doing good undercover work.
Monteilh went on to tell me he tried to get a similar assist after he later got caught up in a crime related to an Irvine drug bust but was hung out to dry amid internal debate within the FBI over the value of the operation to infiltrate mosques. When we spoke, he said he’d just returned from 16 months behind bars. His Orange County rap sheet confirms he served 16 months in state prison on two grand-theft charges.
The dealing soon began. Monteilh said if the Weekly printed an initial story clearing his name, he would share with us his e-mails and recordings. “Uh, let me ask my editor about this,” I sheepishly said. Sensing my lack of excitement, Monteilh talked of taking his story to a larger publication and let it drop he was meeting next with Times Orange County editor Steve Marble.
When I told him it would take some time to check out his story, he suggested I contact Hussam Ayloush, CAIR’s executive director in Anaheim, which I later did. “I have never trusted Monteilh,” Ayloush told me. “He is very suspicious.”
It was getting mighty squishy. Then came Niazi’s arrest. I hastily contacted the FBI about Monteilh’s claims. “The FBI is not commenting,” replied bureau spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.
As for his claim of having been a chaplain, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department had no employee records for a Craig Monteilh. The city jail keeps separate records on chaplains, but badges are retrieved and records are generally purged once the volunteers leave Religious Services.
Before we parted that morning in Irvine, the ex-con conman “convert” motioned toward the parking lot and said, “They’re listening to all this, you know?”
There go those hairs on the back of the neck again.