Months of deteriorating relationships between the FBI and major American Muslim organizations came to a head when revelations of a FBI informant posing as a convert in mosques became public in February 2009. The incident, combined with the FBI’s disengagement from communications with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has lead several American Muslim advocacy groups to consider a suspension of ongoing outreach with the FBI. The growing tension was raised during a Senate hearing where FBI Director Robert Mueller was questioned about the Bureau’s conduct about investigating Muslim organizations.

Alleged FBI Informant at California Mosques

The activities of undercover FBI agents at California mosques were discovered during the February 2009 detention hearing of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, a naturalized US citizen from Afghanistan, who is charged with making false statements to obtain his citizenship. According to Niazi, he was arrested because he refused to conduct secret spying operations on other worshippers for an FBI agent. Niazi said the agent told him to cooperate or the FBI would make his life a “living hell”.

During the detention hearing, Thomas Ropel, an FBI special agent, testified that an informant had gone undercover at Niazi’s mosque. It was later learned through media interviews that Craig Monteilh, a California resident with an extensive criminal background, admitted to having been the paid FBI informant. Monteilh, behaving as a recent convert to Islam, reportedly espoused a violent ideology with members of mosques across southern California. He claims to have recorded thousands of hours of conversations “between Muslims in their homes, restaurants and mosques in southern California.” The FBI would neither confirm nor deny that Monteilh was used to spy on California mosques.

Monteilh’s spying ended after Niazi and other members of the Islamic Centre of Irvine grew suspicious of him and contacted the authorities asking for a restraining order against him.  The FBI then began to investigate Niazi and sought his services as an informant, according to the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, which has formally filed a complaint with the FBI. His refusal led to his arrest on immigration issues. Nizai has pleaded not guilty to the charges.  The spying has resulted in a “chilling effect” on worshippers at mosques and their donations. Many Muslims have decided to avoid attending public services and several mosques have reported a decline in zakat donations.

Boycott of FBI Mulled by American Muslim Organizations

The report of the informant is the latest point of contention between American Muslim organizations and the FBI. The troubled relationship worsened after the FBI distanced itself from CAIR in 2008.   The FBI cited “a number of distinct narrow issues” that it has refused to make public as cause for severing relations with CAIR’s 30 field offices in 19 states.   Many in the American Muslim community believe the inclusion of CAIR as one of the 300 Muslim groups or individuals named as “unindicted coconspirators” in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation trial as the primary factor.

On March 17, the American Muslim Taskforce (AMT) released a statement endorsed by the American Muslim Alliance, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim American Society, Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim Student Association, MSA West, and more than 30 other mosques and Muslim groups. The statement said, “recent incidents targeting American Muslims lead us to consider suspending ongoing outreach efforts with the FBI … [The] waning days of the previous administration witnessed a flourishing of anti-Muslim activity … These McCarthy-era tactics are detrimental to a free society.”

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), which did not sign on to AMT’s statement, released its own statement on March 25 that echoes the AMT’ criticism of the FBI but stopped short of calling for a boycott. Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of MPAC, said, “We believe it’s too important for our community’s interest and America’s interest to leave the table. But the damage was done [when the FBI planted the agent]”.

FBI Director Dodges Questions at Senate Hearing

On March 25, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”  Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) asked Mueller if he could “determine and report to this committee whether mosques have been entered by FBI agents or informants…and, if so, how many?” Mueller responded that the FBI does not “focus on institutions, we focus on individuals.” This response contradicts the claims made by the American Muslim groups and by Monteilh.

Mueller was also asked if the attorney general guidelines, implemented on Dec. 1, 2008, had any effect on the relationship between the FBI and the American Muslim community. The guidelines reduced the standards necessary for the FBI to investigate people and groups through covert surveillance, and allow use of religion or ethnicity as cause for investigation,  His response was that the, “Expectation is that our relationships are as good now as before the guidelines…”.

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-LA and an AMT member disagrees with Mueller’s assessment. He said, “The problem is that many in the Muslim community no longer feel confident that the FBI is pursuing an honest dialogue with the Muslim community…Integrity and honesty are the foundation of any relationship.”