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 appreciate 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, 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 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--we 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 had been talking about alleged terror plotters:
As I shifted into scramble mode, trying to get back in touch with Monteilh, Niazi was indicted last week on five fraud and perjury counts. At Niazi's bail hearing, the government also alleged an unnamed informant got e-mails and recordings of the eight-year Tustin resident talking about 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 taught the informant Arabic and was preparing to send him to terrorist training camps in Yemen or Pakistan. Ropel said he could not identify the undercover man.
Then Monteilh outed himself. His story appeared in today's Times. Monteilh repeated something he had told me: He wanted to clear his name. It's obvious Southern California's daily newspaper of record also has their doubts about much of Monteilh's largely unconfirmed story. Here is how he told it to me, 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 bi-racial looks and grasp of spy work and religion, unnamed authorities believed Monteilh "could get into certain areas." He was recruited by the FBI in 2004 and flown to Virginia for counter-terrorism training. There he was taught to read, write and speak Arabic.
"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 and member of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove. After settling in Pakistan, Gadahn joined Al-Qaeda and became "Azzam the American." 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. "The imams and sheiks wanted me to go to Cairo University and learn for the Americans," he said.
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 mosque members went to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose California office is in Anaheim. The Muslim education and human rights group in turn contacted Irvine Police and the FBI to say Farouk Aziz was spreading "jihad" talk around the mosque, which eventually got a restraining order against him.
In press reports at the time, the FBI would neither confirm nor deny an investigation was under way at the Islamic Center.
The August 2007 issue of InFocus, the Southern California Muslim news source, included the story, "Is Big Brother At Your Mosque?" Reporter Abdussalam Mohamed named Niazi as one of the young Muslims who turned in Monteilh. It is actually comical, according to the story, how Niazi figured out the supposed convert might not be who he had claimed to be: Monteilh wrote his real name instead of his fake one on the roll of an Arab language class Niazi taught.
Monteilh told me the InFocus story led to death threats from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and someone in Irvine with ties to the Taliban.
"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 the people he was investigating blew his cover to protect themselves. That's the same argument Ropel used in court Tuesday. The agent acknowledged that Niazi and others at his mosque came forward to turn in a convert who "was scary to them," but that 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 light up with stories of him being a conman, a gold digger, something of a nut and possibly a government informant--with a criminal record extending back to 1987, with charges ranging from forgery to burglary and grand theft. His Orange County rap sheet alone includes 18 charges 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 officials in the government spread stories about him on the Internet to protect the undercover surveillance program. "When you Google me, that's the government," he said.
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 grant 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. Keep in mind this was the prosecution, not his own defense. Monteilh considered this government proof that he was indeed an FBI informant.
He 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. He claimed that in the months leading up to his outing at the mosque, there had been internal debate within the FBI over the entire informant program. A female FBI official Monteilh would not name "hated him" and the program, which many agents wanted to end. Others felt he had been supplying valuable information which, unfortunately for him, remained classified. The faction against the program won, and no one from the bureau intervened on Monteilh's behalf. When we spoke, he said he'd just returned from 16 months behind bars.
Those two charges in Orange County that were not dismissed? Grant theft, for which records show he served 16 months in state prison.
This morning, I sent the FBI everything Monteilh claimed about his role with the bureau.
"The FBI is not commenting," replied Laura Eimiller of FBI Press Relations in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department had no record of Craig Monteilh being an employee, although they did once have an "A. Konteilh." I was transferred to the city jail, which keeps separate records on volunteer chaplains, but a Sgt. Wong told me once a chaplain leaves the Religious Services Department, his or her volunteer badge is retrieved and records are purged--unless the department has reason to believe the volunteer "is one of our problem children." I told Wong Monteilh has an arrest record, so he very well could be. Wong said he would double-check for me. I'm still waiting.
When we met, Monteilh suggested I contact Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Anaheim CAIR office, which I did.
"I have never trusted Monteilh," Ayloush told me. "He is very suspicious."
I explained the source of his suspicion had told me it was in the FBI's best interest and CAIR's best interest if Monteilh was portrayed as a crook.
"I can see why it is in the FBI's best interest to have him be seen as a con man rather than an informant," Ayloush said, "but I am not sure what he meant with it being in CAIR's best interest."
It is, Monteilh claimed, so CAIR can protect Muslims like Niazi.
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"That's interesting," Ayloush responded. "From what was reported to us, a few young Muslims hung around him and held discussions about hot political topics. At the moment he talked about actually committing violence, they called the police on him and asked me to call the FBI on their behalf, which I did. The FBI did not show any interest in taking action, which told me he was an informant--more like a provocateur."
"Hussam Aloush [sic] of CAIR doesn't know for certain," Monteilh wrote me in an e-mail after I'd gone over what Ayloush told me. "He doesn't know the suspected targets and why they are targeted. He doesn't know and may not want to know the level of radicalism in the mosques. I have emails from suspected targets to prove it. I have jihadist websites given to me by radicals."
Before we parted that morning in Irvine, Monteilh had one more thing he wanted to tell me. Motioning toward the parking lot as cars zoomed by, he said, "They're listening to all this, you know?"
There go those hairs on the back of the neck again.