The spying game wasn't all it was cracked up to be for Craig Monteilh, a convicted criminal recruited by the FBI to investigate the march of radical Islam into Southern California. His endless talk of violent "jihad" so alarmed worshippers at the local mosque, that they took out a restraining order against him.
Monteilh spent 15 months pretending to be Farouk al-Aziz, a French Syrian in search of his religious roots. He prayed five times a day at the Islamic Centre in Irvine, Orange County, wearing white robes with a camera hidden in one of its buttons, and carried a set of car keys that contained a secret listening device.
The enthusiastic attempt to catch local Muslims discussing terror campaigns backfired, however, when community leaders went to the police with fears that the suddenly devout young man, who got up to pray at 4am, had become a radical in their midst.
The terror case Monteilh had been helping build against Ahmadullah Niazi, the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden's bodyguard, collapsed in September, when the bungling informant revealed that his FBI handlers had instructed him to entrap his potential target and told him that "Islam is a threat to our national security".
Yesterday, as details of his efforts to persuade Niazi to blow up buildings became public, leading US Muslim organisations said they have suspended all contact with the FBI in protest against the excesses of agents who are secretly, and in some cases illegally, monitoring mosques.
"The community feels betrayed," Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella group of more than 75 mosques, told The Washington Post. "They got a guy, a bona fide criminal, and obviously trained him and sent him to infiltrate mosques... It's like a soap opera, for God's sake."
Monteilh, who had previously served time in prison for forgery, says he was recruited on his release in 2006 by FBI agents, who he met in doughnut shops and Starbucks outlets. After being given the code name "Oracle", he was told to root out radicals among the region's 500,000 practising Muslims.
Over the 15 months that he posed as al-Aziz, Monteilh was paid almost $200,000 to pass secret tape-recordings of his conversations with local worshippers to his handlers. He became a regular at a local gym patronised by young Muslim men.
"We started hearing that he was saying weird things," said Omar Kurdi, a Loyola Law School student who trained there. "He would walk up to one of my friends and say, 'It's good that you guys are getting ready for the jihad'."
In May 2007, Monteilh recorded a conversation in which he suggested to Niazi and another young man that they blow up buildings. Niazi appeared to agree with the idea, and the tape was subsequently used as evidence in the terror case against him.
However, it now seems that Niazi had simply been attempting to humour someone he regarded as a dangerous extremist. Indeed, he was so concerned by "al-Aziz's" attempts to plot an attack that he reported it to community leaders, who passed details to police and took out a restraining order to prevent him from entering the Islamic centre.
"Farouk had told them he had access to weapons and that they should blow up a mall," Hussam Ayloush executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said. "They were convinced this man was a terrorist." Soon after the restraining order was obtained, in June 2007, the FBI attempted to cut their ties to Monteilh. Several months later, the former agent was arrested and imprisoned on a separate theft charge.
In January this year, after being released, Monteilh sued the FBI, alleging that the bureau conspired to have him arrested, then allowed his informant status to become known in prison, where he was stabbed. That lawsuit failed in September, prompting him to shop his bizarre story to the media.
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