Transcript

471:

The Convert
Transcript

Originally aired 08.10.2012

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/471

Prologue.

Ira Glass

At this point, lots of people have heard that mosques and Muslim businesses around New York City have been watched by undercover officers and informants. The Associated Press won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles documenting the extent of the surveillance by the New York Police Department-- 53 mosques, 8 Muslim student groups, and 263 so-called hot spots.

And people feel surveilled. Ramzi Kassem, a law professor who does workshops for Muslims to know their legal rights, says that when he gives the workshops at a mosque, often there's a sermon first. And occasionally--

Ramzi Kassem

That sermon kicks off with a preface that is explicitly intended for the informants in the room, where the spiritual leader is saying, if you're with the NYPD or you're with the FBI, welcome. We know you're here. We hope that you'll benefit and grow spiritually as a result of this sermon.

Ira Glass

One Saturday night in Queens in a Muslim community center, the handwritten sign outside says, "Know Your Rights." Three dozen people show up. Their kids run around before it starts. Coffee in the back. It's a workshop run by Kassem and another lawyer, Diala Shamas, who work with a project called CLEAR from the City University of New York law school to give free legal aid to Muslims who get caught up in counter-terrorism surveillance investigations.

Ramzi Kassem

What we are here to talk about today is what many of you have either experienced or heard about, and that's the situation where you have officers from the NYPD Intelligence division that show up, for example, at your home dressed in plainclothes, or FBI agents that show up at your home, at your masjid, at your place of work. And they start asking you questions about who you know, what the imam said at the mosque on Friday, what your political views are, what websites you visit.

Ira Glass

Kassem and Shamas told me that sometimes they ask for a show of hands at these workshops, and they learn that every single person in the room has either been visited by law enforcement like this or know somebody who has.

Ramzi Kassem

So what we want to do today is nothing controversial. We just want to arm you with the knowledge of your rights so that you know how to respond when you find yourself-- if you find yourself, [SPEAKING ARABIC]-- in that really uncomfortable situation where you have an FBI agent at your door or an NYPD detective at your workplace, asking to talk to you.

Ira Glass

The two attorneys start with a demonstration of what happens in one of these encounters. Diala Shamas plays the plainclothes FBI agent who comes to the door. Kassem plays the guy at home.

Ramzi Kassem

We're first going to do it the wrong way. This is how this interaction should not happen.

Diala Shamas

Knock, knock.

Ramzi Kassem

Yes? Hello.

Diala Shamas

Hi. Is this Ramzi Kassem's house?

Ramzi Kassem

Yeah, this is me.

Diala Shamas

Great. Can I just come in?

Ramzi Kassem

Sure. Of course. Yeah, come in, please.

Diala Shamas

Thanks.

Ramzi Kassem

Who are you? I'm sorry, I didn't--

Diala Shamas

Oh, I'm-- My name is Diala. I'm with the FBI. I'm just here to ask you a couple questions.

Ramzi Kassem

Oh, wow. FBI. OK. Sure.

Diala Shamas

Nothing to worry about. Just a standard, you know, we're getting to know the neighborhood. I'm new here, so--

Ira Glass

Later, in the discussion afterwards, the audience points out that this was a mistake. He should have asked for ID before letting the FBI agent into his home. And he doesn't have to answer any questions. He could have even asked for a warrant. The crowd also points out that he seems very nervous-- another mistake.

Diala Shamas

So do you go to that mosque down the street?

Ramzi Kassem

Yes, [? Dardal ?]?

Diala Shamas

[? Dardal? ?] Yeah. Yeah. OK, and who's the imam there?

Ramzi Kassem

Um, what-- why are you--?

Diala Shamas

Oh, I'm just curious. You know, it's part of my-- I just want to make sure that I say the right thing when I meet the right people.

Ramzi Kassem

Oh, OK. Yeah, he's been the imam there for a number of years, and he's from Egypt. I can't remember his name.

Diala Shamas

OK. You can't remember his name?

Ramzi Kassem

Yeah. Yeah.

Diala Shamas

Oh, OK. So is it [? Mr. Abu Jamil ?]?

Ramzi Kassem

Um, no-- I don't think that's him. He's one of-- he's one of the leaders. He's one of the organizers there.

Ira Glass

The agent asks who else lives in the house. She asks, what does he think about the political situation in Egypt?

Diala Shamas

Do you-- do you have an ID?

Ramzi Kassem

Yeah. Yeah, sure. Sure, here's my ID.

Ira Glass

They talk a little more about politics. The agent thanks him for his cooperation, says she may come back with more questions.

Ramzi Kassem

OK.

Diala Shamas

Thank you.

Ramzi Kassem

Thank you, Agent.

Diala Shamas

Have a good day.

Ramzi Kassem

You too.

Diala Shamas

Now--

[APPLAUSE]

Ramzi Kassem

You should not be applauding that performance.

[LAUGHTER]

Diala Shamas

What went wrong in this?

Audience Member

[INAUDIBLE] there was a lot of volunteering information [INAUDIBLE].

Ramzi Kassem

So the brother's pointing out that there was a lot of volunteering of information.

Diala Shamas

So it's difficult, right? Because I was being sort of friendly. And why wouldn't you volunteer that information if you don't think that you've done anything wrong? I was just asking a couple of seemingly benign questions, just trying to get to know the neighborhood.

Ira Glass

And the only problem with that, the two lawyers tell the crowd, is that the more you say, the more you could accidentally be incriminating yourself. Especially dangerous, they say, were those moments in the demonstration where Kassem was nervously stumbling around, not sure what to say, trying to remember.

Ramzi Kassem

--more specific. Under federal law in the United States, lying to a federal agent is a federal offense. It's a crime. And it's a crime that's being charged since 9/11 disproportionately against Muslims.

So the moment that you have that interaction with the federal agent-- let's say I didn't remember something. Diala asks me a question-- oh, you're friends with Cyrus? Where were you last Tuesday? And I say, oh, I think we were camping.

But maybe she spoke to Cyrus before, and Cyrus said something different. So all of a sudden, there's a discrepancy. Either I'm in trouble or Cyrus in trouble. And so even having that very basic conversation--

Ira Glass

Because of this, he tells the group over and over, he says this-- if the FBI or NYPD comes around asking these general questions, it is best to get a lawyer.

Ramzi Kassem

We're not saying never talk to them. That's not what we're saying. What we're saying is do it in a way that is responsible. And the only way you do that is by bringing in someone that can help you even out the balance of power, so you don't do it at a disadvantage. You're not an untrained civilian talking to trained FBI interrogators who know the law and you do not know the law.

Ira Glass

This lesson does not go down easily with everybody here. Somebody brings up the question of what to do when an officer on the street asks to search your handbag. A man says, well, if you have nothing to hide, let them do it. A woman says, if I say no, it'll just make them more suspicious of me. Another man says, in these situations he doesn't want to do anything that might antagonize them.

Audience Member

[INAUDIBLE].

Ramzi Kassem

What the gentleman here was saying is, these are basically really tense situations and you don't want to aggravate the agent, you don't want to offend them, you don't want to be-- you don't want the situation to escalate. So be polite, but be firm.

Don't be like me. As you all saw, I wasn't confident. I was very nervous. I let her run all over me.

But you can be polite, you can be firm, and you can exercise your right. And it's nothing controversial. It's what Martha Stewart does. When she was approached by the FBI, she didn't talk to them directly. She retained lawyers. When President Clinton was under investigation, he had a team of lawyers.

So that's the safe, responsible way to do it. And it's not being uncooperative. It's actually the most American thing to do.

Ira Glass

It's an uneasy time between some Muslim communities and law enforcement right now. Kassem and Shamas do a whole workshop on what to do if you think that there's an undercover informant infiltrating your mosque or student group. They say maybe 10 times this past year, some group has come to them with that worry.

It's hard for some people not to feel a little paranoid. And if you can't imagine how somebody gets to that point, what the experience is that drives you there, we have a story today about what happened at one mosque where an undercover informant went in and things seemed to go very badly wrong. Not just from the point of view of the congregation. The informant is not happy about how it worked out, and we presume the FBI can't be too pleased, either. They've alienated the very people in the Muslim community who wanted to work with them. Beyond all that, it's a compelling and very weird case.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Gym Rat.

Ira Glass

Act one-- Gym Rat. So a caveat before we start this-- although the tactics used by the FBI in this story are tactics that they use in other cases, this story is not about how things typically go in an FBI investigation. This is an outlier. It is a cautionary tale. Is a case where we can watch everything go wrong.

It happened in California, in Orange County, in 2006. And at that point, at least one homegrown terrorist had come out of an Orange County mosque and gone to work with Osama bin Laden, was on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list. And relations between the FBI and Muslims in Orange County, California were already on edge before this story began.

So on edge that the head of the FBI for Los Angeles, Stephen Tidwell, decided they should do a town meeting at a mosque in Orange County. It was the Islamic Center of Irvine, where he said emphatically that the FBI was not monitoring Muslim student groups in the area or the mosque itself. The crowd did not buy this. Somebody in the audience told Tidwell that it would be naive for them to believe that the FBI was not monitoring the mosque. Everyone should understand that they were being monitored, he said. Tidwell interrupted-

Stephen Tidwell

Look-- one. No, you're not.

[LAUGHTER]

Stephen Tidwell

If we're going to come to mosques to come to service, we will tell you we're coming to service.

MAN 1: You will send your agents without anybody knowing.

Ira Glass

The man in the audience replied, you will send your agents without anybody knowing.

Stephen Tidwell

But what I'm saying, FBI, we will tell you we're coming, for the very reason we don't want you to think you're being monitored.

Ira Glass

That was June 5, 2006. As best as we can determine from people at the mosque and from testimony in court, two months after Tidwell reassured them that the FBI would not monitor them without telling them, the FBI placed an undercover informant in the mosque. And this is where our story begins. Sam Black is our reporter.

Sam Black

The informant in this story is named Craig Monteilh, and like a lot of people who go undercover to catch criminals, he used to be a criminal himself. He's done time for forging checks, embezzlement, and grand theft. At one point, he made a living stealing cocaine from drug dealers. As I reported this story, people who know him described him as a snake, a chameleon, a thug scam artist, and quote, "a piece of [BLEEP]."

And Craig says some pretty far-fetched things, like this list of aliases. He told me he used all of these in undercover stings.

Craig Montielh

Italian drug dealer Vincent Donado. A Russian hitman by the name of Ivan Chernyenko. Colombian drug dealer Pedro Hernandez. A Bulgarian drug dealer by the name of Sergei Gurd. Also, I went by Polish names. One was Lech Vlesky.

Sam Black

It's unclear if any of these are real. But some of the unlikely things Craig says do check out, like the fact that he worked on a counter-terrorism operation for the FBI. The Bureau has confirmed this. In 2006, the FBI enlisted him to go undercover to catch people who were recruiting and training terrorists.

Craig says it all began at a strip mall Starbucks, where he met with two FBI agents, Paul Allen and Kevin Armstrong. He says they told them they wanted him to go undercover. They'd pay him to infiltrate the Muslim community in Orange County. Which is a funny thought, because Craig's not the most inconspicuous guy.

Craig Montielh

I'm 6'2", 260 pounds. It's not fat. It's lean body mass. I bench 500 pounds. I have 21 and 1/2-inch arms.

Sam Black

But according to Craig, the FBI wanted to use his lean body mass to their advantage.

Craig Montielh

I was to lure Muslim males into the gym using my physique to see what actually is the real pulse of the Muslim community. They told me what I did was vital to America's national security, and to do exactly what they said.

Sam Black

And did they have particular targets in the Muslim community in mind?

Craig Montielh

No. They said the targets would come to me.

Sam Black

The FBI wouldn't talk to me for this story because the operation is still classified and because it's the subject of a lawsuit. But the FBI later confirmed in court that Craig was an undercover informant. A district attorney also stated in court that Craig did work with Agent Kevin Armstrong, and that Craig had given the FBI, quote, "very, very valuable information." The FBI also confirmed one other thing-- the name of Craig's operation.

Craig Montielh

Operation Flex. F-L-E-X.

Sam Black

One Thursday in August 2006, Craig showed up at the Islamic Center of Irvine, one of the biggest mosques in Orange County, and met with the imam there. Craig told him that he wanted to convert to Islam. The next day after Friday prayers, Craig stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and declared that he was now a Muslim, with a new Muslim name-- Farouk al-Aziz. People who were in the mosque that day remember it well, the first time they saw this new convert, Farouk.

Man 2

Picture, like, a 300-pound linebacker that has a ridiculously wide frame and then huge, massive legs.

Man 3

His biceps were just, like, my whole thigh, basically. He was a big guy.

Man 4

At the beginning, I was kind of, you know, kind of scared from him. [LAUGHS] He was kind of scary, to me, looking.

Sam Black

Over the next few weeks, Craig started showing up at the nearby 24 Hour Fitness, a gym where a lot of the guys from the Irvine Mosque would work out. And when he wasn't at the gym, he was at the mosque. He attended prayer five times a day. One of the people who noticed Craig was an Egyptian guy named Ayman. He asked that I not use his last name.

Ayman

Every day you would see him in the mosque. Every day you would see him. But he would be sitting alone. You don't know if he has friends or if he's struggling to understand what's going on. You feel bad. This guy, he's new to Islam. Probably either he's afraid or curious or something. I don't know. You don't know. You just want to be as friendly as you can.

Sam Black

Ayman lived in a house just around the corner from the mosque with a few other Egyptians. One day, he decided to introduce himself to Craig.

Ayman

I believe it was after the Dhuhr prayer, which is the one at 1 o'clock. I went to him and I said, hey, salaam alaikum, peace upon you, basically. And, hey, my name's Ayman.

Craig Montielh

He says, it's been about four weeks, right? You're still here.

Sam Black

Craig remembered this too.

Craig Montielh

I said yes. He said, well, usually people just, new converts, after a few weeks they leave. They fall by the wayside. I said, well, not me. I'm a real Muslim.

Ayman

And I told him, here's my number. And I wrote my number on a piece of paper. If you have any question about anything, like in your head about the religion, or if you need anything that I can help you with, I would love to.

Craig Montielh

He said, well, we're Egyptian. We get together after prayer on Fridays and during the weekends, and we all barbecue, have food together. Maybe you can come by and we'll talk to you more about your faith and how you can grow as a Muslim. From there, when I went home, I thought, I'm really in.

Sam Black

Craig's new friend Ayman lived with four unmarried Egyptian men, all in their late 20s or early 30s. One was an accountant. Another worked for a logistics company. There was a guy who worked in pharmaceuticals and an IT consultant. They each traveled occasionally, sometimes for work or sometimes back home to Egypt. Craig says his FBI handlers suspected the roommates might be a terrorist cell that would radicalize him, so he arrived at their house ready for anything.

Craig Montielh

Well, first of all, they made some Egyptian food, which was very good. Delicious food. And we sat on the couch for about maybe a couple of hours, just had conversation. And they would play their Xbox while we're having conversation in a very competitive way.

Ayman

I was engaged at the time, but I used to play more Xbox than spending time with my fiancee. It's, like, 80% Xbox, and everything else comes second.

Sam Black

That's Ayman again. He and his friends were ridiculously obsessed with Xbox. They'd play tournaments for five hours a day, and they only played one game.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

FIFA Soccer. That was the only thing. We played a lot of FIFA. We still play a lot of FIFA.

Sam Black

Yassir Abdel Rahim was one of Ayman's roommates, a tall athletic guy who worked as a tech consultant. He'd lived in the US for about 10 years. Yassir and Ayman considered their house a brotherhood, but as he told me and my producer Brian Reed, not really the militant terror cell kind Craig was looking for.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

We'd all just hang out together, and a lot of my friends would actually kind of come in and say, this is kind of like the frat house, right? But obviously, we didn't drink, so--

Sam Black

A frat house without alcohol.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

A kosher frat house, yes. [LAUGHS]

Sam Black

Craig's plan worked. Yassir and Ayman started inviting him over more and more. They'd hang out together, get coffee, go to the movies. When Craig got sick, they went to his house to keep him company. They bought him books about Islam and brought him back gifts from their trips to Egypt. Here's Ayman and then Yassir.

Ayman

He was a super cool guy. You know, he'd initiate conversation, we'd talk about stuff.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

But he was very comfortable around us. He was very cool around us. He would joke around. He would tell us about what he did, some of the issues that he was going through. He said he was going through some rough patches from a family perspective, going through a divorce.

Ayman

We tried not to speak in Arabic as much when he was around, because we didn't want to give him any feeling that he's uncomfortable, anything like that.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

We talked about the gym. We went and worked out together.

Ayman

You know, obviously, when you see a big bulky guy, you know what I mean, that's just, like, very cool. I barely can lift five pounds.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

We watched TV or sometimes we'd watch Arabic movies, because he'd be interested in actually seeing some of that.

Ayman

We never treated him as an outsider.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

He seemed like one of the boys.

Sam Black

But Craig was at work-- watching, taking notes, and recording with a hidden microphone.

Craig Montielh

It'd be on the whole day. I would get into my car in my garage, I would turn on the device, and I would say something like, Farouk Al-Aziz, May 4, 2012, 5:45 AM, and I am hot. Meaning, it's beginning.

Sam Black

The FBI has publicly confirmed that Craig recorded audio and video during this operation. That means, presumably, the smack the Egyptians talked during Xbox tournaments, the discussions of movies and their personal lives, the exercise tips that Craig gave them at the gym.

The Egyptians would play pickup soccer on the weekends with a bunch of other Muslim guys. Craig went to some of these games, but he never played. Instead, Craig says he used the opportunity to jot down license plate numbers and film the game so his handlers could see who associated with whom. According to Craig, he also brought his handlers things from the Egyptians' house that might have their DNA or fingerprints.

Craig Montielh

They instructed me to get, because Ayman smoked, a cigarette butt from his ash tray in his room, and certain items from his bathroom, like a toothpaste tube.

Sam Black

So you would sneak around their house and steal these things from their rooms?

Craig Montielh

Yes.

Sam Black

Meeting Ayman and Yassir, it was hard to imagine why the FBI was monitoring them. They just seemed like normal guys. The FBI, of course, wouldn't talk about the case. And they wouldn't even talk in a general way, separate from this case, about how they choose who they're going to investigate.

So I called Trevor Aaronson to help me make sense of Operation Flex. He's an investigative journalist who's analyzed over 500 FBI terrorism convictions, looking at how informants are used to find suspects, surveil them, and build cases. I told Trevor what Craig said, that the FBI went into the Muslim community without any specific suspects. Trevor said that's possible, but it's also possible that Craig wasn't told who the targets were.

Trevor Aaronson

It's possible that the FBI had information that Craig isn't aware of. In the cases we've looked at, it's really uncommon that the FBI would spend lots of time with someone who was so unfruitful. If they're spending months and months and all they're doing is playing soccer, the FBI will move on. If Craig was spending that much time with them, it's worth noting that most likely they had enough for what they call a predicate, which is a reason that they were investigating them. You know, that there was a phone call that was overheard, or there was some kind of correspondence with someone overseas that the FBI is monitoring that made the FBI agents suspicious of this particular group.

Sam Black

In addition to Trevor, my producer and I talked to five longtime FBI agents, now retired, who all oversaw informants. They couldn't comment on Operation Flex specifically, and none of them knew first-hand about these Egyptian guys, but they gave us similar theories. Basically, they said if the FBI has even the smallest reason to suspect you, a reason you might not even be aware of yourself, they have to check you out.

Maybe you happened to phone someone the FBI is monitoring. Maybe they got a bad tip. One of the ex-FBI agents said to me, "Do innocent people get investigated? Sure, every day. They can't weed them out without looking at them." Though one agent said it was possible that this was a case that just went awry, that was badly managed and didn't follow FBI protocols.

Months passed. People noticed that Craig was acting more devout. He began reciting prayers aloud, dressing in traditional robes, and showing up so early for 5:00 AM prayers that he'd get there before the person who unlocked the mosque every morning. They also noticed something else.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

Slowly and surely enough, during some times when we were having coffee, came the question of jihad.

Sam Black

Yassir, one of the Egyptians, had actually been asked questions about jihad before. Non-Muslims bring it up with them sometimes. Like, he'll be on a plane and the person next to him will ask about it. So he and his friends told Craig what they always tell people-- that jihad isn't what you see on the news. Jihad is really about each person's internal striving to be a good Muslim. It's not holy war. Here's Ayman.

Ayman

The reality is, if I'm new to Islam, I would be very curious about this stuff too. I would be very curious about this stuff. That's what the media talks about all the time. So he must be very curious, you know.

I think there was a survey. If you mention Islam, the second thing you think about, in the American psyche, was "terrorist." So you know, for me it was somehow normal, if you look at it from a curiosity viewpoint. But it wasn't normal how obsessed he was with it, until we started being, you know, this guy is-- there is something very, very [BLEEP] up about this person. He just would bring these odd things in the middle of the conversation, out of nowhere.

Sam Black

For instance, the guys would be talking about food or sports.

Ayman

But yet, he would always bring politics into conversation. Ah, jihad, suicide bomber. So what do you want-- for example. I'm being sarcastic. What do you want to eat, Farouk? "So what do you think about Hosni Mubarak?" You know what I mean? Just out of nowhere.

Sam Black

Craig talked to his Arabic teacher, Mohammad Elsisy, about his new obsession too.

Mohammad Elsisy

He invited me once to lunch, yes. And he focused the topic in the lunch about jihad. And I keep turning his attention into the essence of Islam. And he keeps, again, bringing it back to jihad. And he kept asking about jihad over and over and over. And I told him, Farouk, get over it, get over it, get over it.

Sam Black

It alarmed all of them. At one point, Yassir confronted Farouk-- that is, Craig.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

I even told him. I'm like, Farouk, this needs to stop, because this is not the right direction. This is not what Islam's about. So if somebody's teaching you this, let me know, because we need to correct that immediately, right?

Sam Black

And did he seem receptive?

Yassir Abdel Rahim

He did. He did. And I told him, at this point, people are starting to wonder about what's going on, where you're learning this stuff from. So we need to kind of understand. And he was like, yeah, I'm not going to talk to anybody about this. I don't know. Maybe I was reading some incorrect stuff.

Sam Black

But Craig didn't listen. He didn't stop talking about jihad. He says this is what the FBI wanted, because, he says, he was great at it.

Craig Montielh

I would have to, in a very strategic way, get their views on jihad. And I got so good at it, in their view, that they wanted to enhance it. So I was to speak to, I think, 10 Muslims a day regarding jihad.

Sam Black

Since the FBI isn't commenting, I ran this by Trevor Aaronson, the journalist who's examined about 500 counter-terrorism cases, to see if it was possible. He said that in all of those hundreds of cases, he's never heard of a quota like this. The ex-FBI agents I spoke with hadn't either. Though Trevor says that once a sting operation gets going, it's common for undercover agents and informants to bait suspects by asking them about jihad.

Trevor Aaronson

That happens in almost every undercover sting operation. I can tell you that in many of the cases I've looked at, that's mentioned in the criminal affidavit in some way. And I think when that's submitted at trial, that's a really damning piece of evidence for juries today.

Sam Black

Craig took this strategy and ran with it. Mohammad, the Arabic teacher, heard complaints from his friends.

Mohammad Elsisy

It was to the limit that one of them told me, he keeps calling him by phone and keeps saying to him, "Jihad, jihad." I was like, you know, wait a minute.

Sam Black

He would whisper "jihad" into the phone?

Mohammad Elsisy

Yeah, into the phone.

Sam Black

I asked Craig, did that happen?

Craig Montielh

Probably. I'm not denying it. I may have been-- we had a conversation or something, and I had done something ridiculous like that. But I don't deny it. I'm sure I probably did, OK?

Sam Black

What were you trying to accomplish with that?

Craig Montielh

Whatever individual heard that and they didn't quickly report me, they're automatically a suspect. Every single conversation is a conversation that the FBI or prosecutor can say, well, you heard him say this numerous times and yet you didn't do the following.

Sam Black

And so that's what you were trying to do?

Craig Montielh

Of course.

Sam Black

If you didn't think Craig could get any less subtle, here's another tactic he would try.

Craig Montielh

I'd say, let's meet tomorrow afternoon at the gym. We'll work out together. I'll teach you some things on how to get your forearms shaped a little better, your biceps stronger or bigger. And at these workouts, I would ask very sensitive questions regarding Islam. For example--

Ayman

So what do you think about Osama bin Laden?

Sam Black

Ayman was working on his biceps when Craig asked him this.

Ayman

I'm like, dude. OK. Osama bin Laden is a bad guy. He's a mother-[BLEEP]. You know what I mean? All that we are suffering from right now is because of Osama bin Laden. And your question right now is because of Osama bin Laden. You know what I mean? All of these new laws that they start acting about, just searching and sticking their finger in your butt, is because of Osama bin Laden. So you tell him, yeah, Osama bin Laden is the bad guy.

Sam Black

One day, a guy named Riaz Surti showed up at the gym with a friend. Riaz had owned a halal KFC/Taco Bell nearby. Craig hopped off a stationary bike and introduced himself to Riaz as a fellow Muslim. Here's Riaz.

Riaz Surti

Then I left to go stretch out, and then I came back. And then he leans to us, and then he says, I met the sheikh in Afghanistan.

Sam Black

The sheikh?

Riaz Surti

The sheikh, yeah. I met the big guy or the sheikh in Afghanistan.

Sam Black

What did you think when he said that?

Riaz Surti

Oh, we knew that he was referring to Osama bin Laden. He was bragging. He was smiling that he met the sheikh. It just became very clear to us.

Sam Black

Craig told us he has never been to Afghanistan. But he was trying to see if these guys at the gym, who he'd never met, thought it would be cool to hang out with Osama bin Laden. They didn't think that would be cool. So instead, Riaz says, he wanted to get Craig to leave him alone. So every time he saw him, he would tell him the dirtiest jokes he could come up with.

Riaz Surti

I didn't want him to think I was a good Muslim. I just felt like his goal was to get us involved in something that we weren't involved with.

Sam Black

What did you tell him?

Riaz Surti

Like, did you hear about the doctor who was having sex with his patients? And he said no. And I said, he's a very interesting doctor. And then he looked at me. It was a veterinarian.

Sam Black

It worked. Craig left him alone after that.

About eight months into Operation Flex, Craig says his handlers told him to start talking to people about an actual terrorist plot, a plan to blow up buildings in Southern California. That happens in lots of FBI stings. The informant suggests the plot to the suspect, not the other way around, according to Trevor Aaronson again, who studied hundreds of terrorism convictions.

Trevor Aaronson

Of about 500 terrorism cases since 9/11, about 50 defendants have been involved in cases where the informant came up with the idea and provided all of the means.

Sam Black

But ex-FBI agents I talked to said that in a well-run operation, the informant is not supposed to suggest the plot out of the blue. First, the suspect would have to declare his intention to commit an act of violence. Without that, the whole case could get thrown out of court as entrapment.

The person Craig suggested his plot to was a guy named Ahmad Niazi Niazi is the only person we know of that Craig helped catch, the only person the FBI arrested as a result of Operation Flex. Craig had met Niazi one night at the Irvine mosque. Mohammad, Craig's Arabic teacher, introduced them.

Niazi was a family man, very different from the Egyptian Xbox players. He had a wife and two young kids and taught at a nearby language school. Niazi grew up in Afghanistan, but he'd lived in California for eight years. He and Craig went out for coffee, and they hit it off. They started hanging out a lot, sometimes with Mohammad.

One Friday, the three of them were driving to a mosque where Mohammad was scheduled to give a sermon. Niazi didn't want to do an interview for our story, but here's Mohammad.

Mohammad Elsisy

Niazi was sitting in the backseat and Farouk was sitting in the passenger, and I was driving.

Sam Black

And here's Craig, AKA Farouk.

Craig Montielh

And I started to bring up, what should we really do as Muslims now that our brothers and sisters are being blown up in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Mohammad Elsisy

And I told him, Farouk, we are living in Irvine, the most peaceful city in all America. [LAUGHS] He was like, I just don't like the way that American government is handing situations outside and stuff. And I was like, OK, and what?

Craig Montielh

Are we supposed to just stay here, watch our national championship games, play Xbox, and everything else, while our brothers are being killed?

Mohammad Elsisy

And he started talking about some jihad.

Craig Montielh

I mean, I became very aggressive.

Mohammad Elsisy

And I told him, Farouk, what are you trying to get into, exactly?

Craig Montielh

I said, we should carry out a terrorist attack in this country, because I'm tired of just staying around doing nothing. I've got access to weapons. I know how to do things. We should bomb something.

Mohammad Elsisy

Silence was out there in the car. I didn't say a word until we arrived to the mosque. I refused to talk at all. The first thing that came into my mind, I thought that he's a straight-shot terrorist. And at that point, I felt kind of scared from him. He scared me.

Sam Black

Mohammad glanced into the rearview mirror and saw Niazi staring back at him. He looked shocked. Craig's head was down. He was now playing with his phone. No one said anything for the remaining 20 minutes of the ride to the mosque. The drive back home was the same.

After they parted ways with Craig, Mohammad and Niazi talked about what had just happened. They decided they had to do something, so they did what all Americans are supposed to do in this situation, what law enforcement officials tell us we should do when someone says he has access to weapons and wants to use them. They reported Craig to the FBI as a potential terrorist.

Ira Glass

Coming up, what happens, exactly, when you turn in someone to the FBI who is working for the FBI? Sam Black's story continues in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two.

Sam Black

So Mohammad and Niazi wanted to report Craig to the FBI, but they weren't sure who to call or how to do it. They reached out to Hussam Ayloush. Hussam is director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Southern California, known as CAIR, along with the ACLU, and a well-known member of the Muslim community there. Just hours after the car ride, he got a phone call from Mohammad. Here's Hussam.

Hussam Ayloush

He was terrified. The guy didn't know what to do. He was so nervous. He told me, I know you deal with the FBI and I know you work with police. What do I do now?

Sam Black

Mohammad was with Niazi. They were both afraid that if Craig went ahead with his plot, they would somehow be responsible.

Hussam Ayloush

He passed the phone to Niazi, and he was also panicking like crazy. I mean, both of them, they didn't know what to do. I told them, don't worry about it. Calm down. You're not responsible for anything. You're doing the right thing. You're calling the authorities. So even if the guy is planning on anything, you have nothing to worry about. You're not accomplices.

Sam Black

So what did you think was going on when you got this call?

Hussam Ayloush

There were three possibilities. Either he is recruited by al-Qaeda, or he's a lone wolf doing things on his own, or he's doing this for somebody else as an entrapment. Either way, it's bad news.

Sam Black

Hussam told Muhammad and Niazi that he would call the FBI. For years, he'd been attending monthly meetings with agents who hoped to build a good relationship with the Muslim community. And he was friends with Steve Tidwell, the head of the FBI's LA office.

Hussam had actually organized the outreach meeting you heard about earlier, the one where Tidwell promised that the FBI wouldn't send people into mosques unannounced. So Hussam called Tidwell on his cell phone and told him what had happened to Mohammad and Niazi. They thought this guy in the car might be serious. Again, here's Hussam.

Hussam Ayloush

He said, well, you know, thanks, Hussam. You're doing the right thing. Thank these gentleman. This is exactly why we're so proud of working with the Muslim community.

And I did mention it. I said, he's a white guy, a white convert in Irvine. He said, oh. That's what he said. Oh, OK. Thank you, Hussam. That-- that's great information. And we'll-- we'll let you know what happens.

I said, wait, wait. Don't you need his name? Because I had his name and I had his address, because they knew where he lived.

He said, well, you know, don't worry about it. We work closely with Irvine PD, and we'll take care of it from here. Don't worry about it. That's when my doubts started playing in my head. I felt there was something strange.

Sam Black

Tidwell wouldn't speak to me for this story, so I don't know what he thought when his own informant was reported to him as a terrorist. But not long after this phone call, the FBI launched an investigation into Craig, which no matter how you look at it was a very strange undertaking. FBI agents were going around asking questions about an FBI informant, treating him as an actual suspect they were investigating.

FBI special agents not only interviewed Mohammad and Niazi, they also questioned other people who'd been hanging out with Craig. I talked to five people who willingly took part in these interviews. At the time, they thought they were helping catch a dangerous person. Mohammad and Niazi even went in front of a judge in Orange County Superior Court and got a restraining order against Craig so that he couldn't come within 200 yards of the mosque.

But looking back, the people the FBI interviewed told me there was something weird about the way the agents were acting through this whole ordeal. They just didn't seem that concerned. Yassir, one of the Egyptians, said it wasn't what he imagined would happen when you call in the feds on a possible terrorist.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

My picture in my head is, if you go and bring that up, it's on. Let's go. Let's find this person. Let's make sure we're stopping him. They would be at his door immediately. 30 cars, movie-style, kind of like, break in, let's get this guy. That wasn't the reaction. That wasn't the reaction we were getting.

Sam Black

The agents did ask questions about Craig. How often did he come to the mosque? Who else did he hang out with? What kinds of things did he say?

But with Yassir and others, they gradually began to ask more personal questions. How many times did you talk with Farouk about jihad? What do you think jihad means? When did you come to the United States? Again, Yassir.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

These guys knew exactly what was going on. They knew he was their informant. I think it was just another way for them to kind of get us in and talk to them.

Sam Black

Some people were visited by the FBI more than once, like Mohammad. One day, FBI agents surprised him at his house. He asked them how the investigation into Farouk was going. They told him Farouk was a dangerous guy and he would be in trouble soon. But Mohammad says the agents were there to talk about someone else.

Mohammad Elsisy

They asked me a couple of questions about Ahmad Niazi, how much information I know about him. And I told them, I don't know anything about Ahmad Niazi, except that he is a person that comes and prays in the mosque, and I know him through the community. I didn't know him before that, and I don't know very much information about him.

They said, you know, we just wanted to collect more information about that person. I told them, I told you what I know about him. That's all.

Sam Black

This was strange for Mohammad. Niazi was the one who'd help him report Craig. Why were the FBI agents asking about him?

By the spring of 2007, the FBI had honed in on Niazi. It's unclear exactly why, but court records reveal one thing that got their attention. One of Niazi's sisters was married to a man named Amin al-Haq. Al-Haq was designated as a terrorist by the US government. He'd allegedly served as a security coordinator for Osama bin Laden.

And Niazi also said things to Craig that concerned the FBI. None of Craig's recordings have been released, so we don't know what exactly they talked about. But Craig gave us dozens of emails Niazi sent him.

They're mostly articles and links to videos. Some of these are conspiracy theories, like how 9/11 was an inside job. Others criticized the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes calling for Muslims to rise up against their enemies. This YouTube video is the most extreme thing my producer and I found in the emails. It's an imam talking about how he supports Osama bin Laden.

Imam

If he's terrorizing the terrorists, if he's terrorizing America the terrorist, biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that, if he's terrorizing a terrorist, he's for Islam.

Sam Black

In case you didn't get that, he said, "Every Muslim should be a terrorist." Niazi sent this video to an undercover FBI informant-- Craig.

Craig Montielh

They said that I hit a jackpot with Niazi. They called it a jackpot.

Sam Black

Even after Niazi turned Craig in, for nearly a year, the FBI continued to surveil Niazi. Finally, two agents came to talk to him. After they left, Niazi immediately called Hussam Ayloush at CAIR.

Hussam Ayloush

He actually was crying. I mean, he was crying like a little kid, very fearful, and he kept repeating, I'm the one who called the FBI. I'm the one, and now they're turning on me?

Sam Black

The lead agent who met with Niazi was Thomas Ropel, who handled his case inside the FBI. Niazi said Ropel threatened him, told him that the FBI had something on him, told Niazi that he'd lied to them-- which is a federal crime-- at an earlier meeting with FBI agents, one of the meetings where Niazi thought he was there to help the FBI catch Craig. Here's Hussam. Some

Hussam Ayloush

And the agent actually told him, based on our interviews with you, you have made comments that are not accurate, and this would be perjury. And I feel bad for you, but you know, it's in your hand. You can change all that if you cooperate with us. They said, you speak Arabic, Pashto, and Dari, and you could be a great asset in helping us protect the country.

He said, well, that's what I did. I don't need to work for you. When I saw something bad, I'm the one who picked up the phone and reported it. Well, we need you here and we need you in Afghanistan. They offered him to be in Afghanistan. And they offered him money.

He said, I'm not going to go and spy on my people. I told you. If I see something bad, I'll report it. And then the guy told him, I hope you think about it, because if you don't, we can make your life a living hell.

Sam Black

That's what they said to him?

Hussam Ayloush

That's exactly the quote he gave me, because I wrote it down as he was talking to me.

Sam Black

Thomas Ropel confirmed in court that this meeting happened, though he did not say that he pressured Niazi to work for the FBI. But ex-FBI agents my producer and I talked to said it's common to leverage people like this. Again, they weren't commenting on Niazi's case, but one retired agent who had more than 20 years experience in the Bureau said there are people all over the country being approached by the FBI and pressured with things they said on tapes.

He laughed when we asked him about it. It was like asking a plumber if he used a wrench. He says it happens at every level of law enforcement.

He told us, quote, "it sounds like a terrible thing, guys, but it's the way business is done. It's the way the American people get protected. You've got to find people who can lead you to the bad guys."

Thomas Ropel returned with a group of agents and a search warrant. They raided Niazi's house, taking computers and financial documents. Months later, Ropel returned again and arrested Niazi.

Reporter 1

For the second time, federal authorities move in on this Tustin home. Their target? The 34-year-old owner.

Reporter 2

Tonight this local home looks empty, but today it was the scene of an FBI raid. The suspect? A man with alleged ties to terrorists.

Sam Black

The government charged Niazi with immigration fraud and making false statements. They said that when Niazi applied for US citizenship, he didn't mention that his sister was married to Amin al-Haq, even though you're required to disclose if you have any ties to a designated terrorist. They also charged him for using inconsistent versions of his full name on official forms and for not disclosing two trips he'd made to Pakistan years earlier.

But what's interesting about Niazi's arrest is what he wasn't charged with. He wasn't charged with associating with terrorists himself. He wasn't charged with plotting an attack. And he wasn't charged for anything he'd ever said to Craig over the course of months of recorded conversations. Still, at Niazi's bail hearing, the prosecutor argued that he was a danger to the community. To prove that, she called Agent Thomas Ropel to the stand.

Prosecutor

Will you please state your full name for the record?

Agent Thomas Ropel

Special Agent Thomas J. Ropel III.

Prosecutor

How do you spell your last name, please?

Agent Thomas Ropel

R-O-P-E-L.

Prosecutor

Thank you.

Sam Black

Ropel testified that a confidential informant had recorded Niazi talking about jihad between 15 and 20 times. In addition, he said--

Agent Thomas Ropel

There were some recordings that I had personally listened to regarding Mr. Niazi discussing gaining access to weapons and discussing blowing up buildings. And--

Sam Black

As Ropel went on, the judge asked him to clarify who had brought up these conversations-- Niazi or the informant?

Prosecutor

Mr. Niazi has instigated these conversations with that individual.

Judge

He instigated the conversation?

Agent Thomas Ropel

Mr. Niazi did, yes. Correct.

Sam Black

Of course, the individual he supposedly instigated conversations with was Craig Monteilh. I asked Craig about it.

Sam Black

Did Niazi ever instigate this kind of conversation with you?

Craig Montielh

No. No, I did. Every time.

Sam Black

Craig has changed his story on this. When Niazi was arrested in 2009, he basically said the complete opposite. He said Niazi recruited him for a terrorist operation. But Craig says now he's telling the truth. He says what really happened is that he went after Niazi more aggressively than anyone. Niazi wanted a friend, and he tolerated Craig's jihad talk more than most.

Craig Montielh

The thing about Niazi was he'd try to impress me. He's, like, 5'5" or so, and I was somewhat intimidating to him. So he kind of just went along with what I said. He didn't say he wanted to be a part of this. But he didn't say to me, no, I don't. That's a very bad thing to do when you're being recorded.

Sam Black

Did you feel like, I've got this guy who's ideologically leaning towards jihad?

Craig Montielh

What I thought was, I can bring him there. He was afraid. He looked like he was scared, which is where I wanted him to be. And my handlers told me to reel him in more. And he was just kind of mesmerized by me.

Sam Black

I talked to people who know Niazi, and they backed this up. Niazi mentored Craig, but at the same time he was enthralled by him, at least until the moment when he and Mohammad decided to turn Craig in to the FBI.

The government kept Niazi under house arrest for more than a year, with a curfew and an ankle bracelet. When I reached out to Niazi for this story, he sent me a statement. It says in part, "When the FBI agent threatened to make my life a living hell unless I became an informant, which I refused, the FBI made true its promise and really did make my life a living hell. In the past few years, my family and I have been struggling very hard to piece back together our lives."

The government eventually decided it didn't want to pursue Niazi's case. It filed a motion to dismiss all of the charges. Operation Flex ended without a single known conviction.

One person did go to jail, though-- Craig Monteilh. Six months after Craig was reported as a potential terrorist, the Irvine police arrested him for a bizarre unrelated crime. It turned out that during Operation Flex, he'd been running a side hustle, conning two women out of more than $150,000 in a scheme to traffic human growth hormone. He met the women at the same gyms where he was monitoring Muslims. He went to prison for eight months.

Craig sued the FBI over this, claiming the whole thing was part of an FBI drug sting and that his handlers conspired to have him arrested after he became useless in Operation Flex. A judge recently threw the case out.

You can probably imagine what Operation Flex and its aftermath did to relations between the FBI and the Muslim community in Orange County. Hussam Ayloush, the head of CAIR in Southern California, remembers the moment at Niazi's bail hearing when the FBI revealed that Craig was an undercover informant. Hussam was in the courtroom.

Hussam Ayloush

It's almost like a dagger in my back. I felt betrayed. The whole community, not just me.

We felt betrayed, because we talk about a partnership. If you see something, report it. If you suspect criminal behavior, call the police.

People were saying, why should we do it? We're going to be the target of the investigation. The reality is, they never thought of us as partners. For them, we were always suspects. We were always deemed as suspects or potential terrorists.

Sam Black

Operation Flex didn't just make people suspicious of law enforcement. It made them suspicious of each other. So many people I talked to say they stay away from new converts now. They have a hard time believing people are who they say they are. Here's Ayman, the Egyptian guy who first befriended Craig.

Ayman

Really, what they did is they made everybody in the mosque not trust everybody. Nobody would talk about it, but nobody-- you would see some weird looks, you know what I mean? People are looking at each other weird. I don't know. Maybe I was sensitive, but I can tell that the way they looked at me was just different.

Sam Black

In one of the most awkward developments of this story, the Muslim community is now teaming up with Craig Monteilh. The Council on American Islamic Relations, CAIR, is suing the FBI over Operation Flex. The government is arguing in response that allowing the case to go forward would reveal state secrets and harm national security.

Craig is CAIR's primary resource in the case. He's now helping the people he used to spy on. And he's been apologizing to some of them, too. He sees them often because he still lives around the corner from the Irvine mosque and works out in the same gym. He made a special point of calling Yassir Abdel Rahim, one of the first people he got close to.

Yassir Abdel Rahim

Um-- [SIGHS HEAVILY] you know, I definitely appreciate the fact that he called and that he apologized for it, but the damage is done. I don't know what to do. I really don't. I now have a fear that I'm being monitored all the time. I don't know how you can change that.

Sam Black

Craig's not the only one apologizing. After Niazi's charges were dismissed, he went to the courthouse to retrieve some of the property that the FBI had seized from his house. Thomas Ropel was there. They talked for about 20 minutes.

Remember, Ropel is the agent who allegedly threatened Niazi, who later arrested him, and who then testified in court that he was a danger to society. I spoke to the court employee who accompanied Niazi to this meeting. Before they left, Ropel went over to Niazi and shook his hand. He told Niazi that mistakes had been made. We're all human, he said. I'm sorry.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Sam Black. He's a documentary filmmaker in New York. Our program today is produced today by Lisa Pollak with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menhivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our office manager. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddes. Production help from [? Tarek Fouda ?].

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Trevor Aaronson, the journalist Sam interviewed about the 500 FBI cases, has a book about those cases, The Terror Factory. It's coming out in January.

We finished mixing and assembling today's radio program on what has been a terrible day for all of us here at This American Life. Today we learned that our friend David Rakoff died. Regular listeners have heard him many, many times on our show. His voice is one of the defining voices of our program, and he's been with us almost from the beginning.

We knew that his death was coming. For months, he's been saying that he wouldn't live past August. So none of this is any surprise. But as anybody knows who's been in this situation, even when you know it's coming, it's still somehow a shock when it actually happens. It's a shock that he's gone. So here's a moment to remember him.

So we will be back next week with some of his great funny stories. And I hope you tune in for that. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who-- you may know this-- he wakes up early each morning, throws off the covers, looks at the alarm clock, takes a deep breath, and tells the world--

Craig Montielh

5:45 AM and I am hot.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.