Craig Monteilh, the iron-pumping convicted con artist who spied on Orange County Muslims for the FBI, is now a movie star. Unfortunately for him, it's not as a comic book action hero in a Hollywood blockbuster, but rather an Al Jazeera documentary that has just been released online.
The film, titled "The Informants" and produced by Al Jazeera's Investigate Unit, profiles a trio of informants, including Monteilh, who built flimsy terrorism cases against unsuspecting Muslims. Monteilh has the unique distinction of being the only one who failed to win a single terrorism conviction against anyone–and for ultimately becoming a huge liability for the feds. In the film, he tries to take a stand as a "whistleblower" against his former employer, however he seems more interested in talking about his own prowess as a liar than anything else.
As Al Jazeera points out, the FBI employs some 15,000 informants nationwide, many of whom are engaged in spying on Muslims. One of them who is profiled in the new film is Elie Assad, nicknamed "The Closer," because he says the FBI paid him to fix cases that the bureau had messed up. Others, including Rory McMahon, a private investigator who worked on one of those cases, call Assad an inveterate liar. Darren Griffen, an African-American Iraq war vet, became an informant after becoming a drug addict. Unlike Monteilh, both men managed to build cases against Muslims who are now behind bars for agreeing to participate in terrorist acts concocted by the FBI.
Posing as a convert named Farouk Aziz, Monteilh showed up at an Irvine mosque in 2006. He quickly befriended several members, often inviting them to workout sessions out at a nearby gym. Over the next year, Monteilh earned thousands of dollars from the bureau. But when he started talking "jihad' with fellow congregants, they informed the FBI of their concerns and filed a restraining order against him.
The bureau, which had already promised it wasn't spying on mosques (you can see yours truly in a shot of a meeting where this promise was made at 16:18 into the film) arrested one of his targets, whom Monteilh had recorded praising bin Laden, for passport fraud. After the bureau refused to help Monteilh evade punishment for grand theft in an unrelated case, he sued the FBI, thus exposing his status as an informant. Monteilh later had a change of heart regarding the Muslims he once claimed were terrorists, and actually joined them in an unsuccessful federal civil rights lawsuit against the feds.
The Al Jazeera film provides a compelling account of the sordid work of spying on Muslims, and it's sobering to watch. But Monteilh seems to have been included for comic relief as much as anything else. He looks like a pasty version of the Incredible Hulk, except with deep worry wrinkles in his bulging, usually sweat-beaded forehead. At the gym, he shows off his 30-inch guns. Even the name of the undercover operation Monteilh carried out is entertaining: "Flex."
At one point, Monteilh likens the federal government's spying on Muslims to what happened in East Germany or Cuba during the Cold War, where neighbor spied upon neighbor. "It's completely out of control," he says. That may be true, and the film is a testament to that. And Monteilh himself will surely go down as one of the biggest embarrassments the FBI may ever suffer as a result of that effort.
As Monteilh himself says: "The FBI thought I was the greatest informant on the planet Earth."
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).