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The Informants

The FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic attack. But are they busting terrorist plots—or leading them?

Nonetheless, Domain Management quickly became the foundation for the FBI's counterterrorism dragnet. Using the demographic data, field agents were directed to target specific communities to recruit informants. Some agents were assigned to the task full time. And across the bureau, agents' annual performance evaluations are now based in part on their recruiting efforts.

People cooperate with law enforcement for fairly simple reasons: ego, patriotism, money, or coercion. The FBI's recruitment has relied heavily on the latter. One tried-and-true method is to flip someone facing criminal charges. But since 9/11 the FBI has also relied heavily on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with which it has worked closely as part of increased interagency coordination. A typical scenario will play out like this: An FBI agent trying to get someone to cooperate will look for evidence that the person has immigration troubles. If they do, he can ask ICE to begin or expedite deportation proceedings. If the immigrant then chooses to cooperate, the FBI will tell the court that he is a valuable asset, averting deportation.

A well-muscled 49-year-old with a shaved scalp, Craig Monteilh has been a versatile snitch: He's pretended to be a white supremacist, a Russian hit man, a Sicilian drug trafficker, and a French-Syrian Muslim.

Sometimes, the target of this kind of push is the one person in a mosque who will know everyone's business—the imam. Two Islamic religious leaders, Foad Farahi in Miami and Sheikh Tarek Saleh in New York City, are currently fighting deportation proceedings that, they claim, began after they refused to become FBI assets. The Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center has filed similar complaints on behalf of seven other Muslims with the Department of Homeland Security.

Once someone has signed on as an informant, the first assignment is often a fishing expedition. Informants have said in court testimony that FBI handlers have tasked them with infiltrating mosques without a specific target or "predicate"—the term of art for the reason why someone is investigated. They were, they say, directed to surveil law-abiding Americans with no indication of criminal intent.

"The FBI is now telling agents they can go into houses of worship without probable cause," says Farhana Khera, executive director of the San Francisco-based civil rights group Muslim Advocates. "That raises serious constitutional issues."

Tidwell himself will soon have to defend these practices in court—he's among those named in a class-action lawsuit (PDF) over an informant's allegation that the FBI used him to spy on a number of mosques in Southern California.

That informant, Craig Monteilh, is a convicted felon who made his money ripping off cocaine dealers before becoming an asset for the Drug Enforcement Administration and later the FBI. A well-muscled 49-year-old with a shaved scalp, Monteilh has been a particularly versatile snitch: He's pretended to be a white supremacist, a Russian hit man, and a Sicilian drug trafficker. He says when the FBI sent him into mosques (posing as a French-Syrian Muslim), he was told to act as a decoy for any radicals who might seek to convert him—and to look for information to help flip congregants as informants, such as immigration status, extramarital relationships, criminal activities, and drug use. "Blackmail is the ultimate goal," Monteilh says.

Officially, the FBI denies it blackmails informants. "We are prohibited from using threats or coercion," says Kathleen Wright, an FBI spokeswoman. (She acknowledges that the bureau has prevented helpful informants from being deported.)

FBI veterans say reality is different from the official line. "We could go to a source and say, 'We know you're having an affair. If you work with us, we won't tell your wife,'" says a former top FBI counterterrorism official. "Would we actually call the wife if the source doesn't cooperate? Not always. You do get into ethics here—is this the right thing to do?—but legally this isn't a question. If you obtained the information legally, then you can use it however you want."

But eventually, Monteilh's operation imploded in spectacular fashion. In December 2007, police in Irvine, California, charged him with bilking two women out of $157,000 as part of an alleged human growth hormone scam. Monteilh has maintained it was actually part of an FBI investigation, and that agents instructed him to plead guilty to a grand-theft charge and serve eight months so as not to blow his cover. The FBI would "clean up" the charge later, Monteilh says he was told. That didn't happen, and Monteilh has alleged in court filings that the government put him in danger by letting fellow inmates know that he was an informant. (FBI agents told me the bureau wouldn't advise an informant to plead guilty to a state criminal charge; instead, agents would work with local prosecutors to delay or dismiss the charge.)

The class-action suit, filed by the ACLU, alleges that Tidwell, then the bureau's Los Angeles-based assistant director, signed off on Monteilh's operation. And Tidwell says he's eager to defend the bureau in court. "There is not the blanket suspicion of the Muslim community that they think there is," Tidwell says. "We're just looking for the bad guys. Anything the FBI does is going to be interpreted as monitoring Muslims. I would tell [critics]: 'Do you really think I have the time and money to monitor all the mosques and Arab American organizations? We don't. And I don't want to.'"
 

Shady informants, of course, are as old as the FBI; one saying in the bureau is, "To catch the devil, you have to go to hell." Another is, "The only problem worse than having an informant is not having an informant." Back in the '80s, the FBI made a cottage industry of drug stings—a source of countless Hollywood plots, often involving briefcases full of cocaine and Miami as the backdrop.

It's perhaps fitting, then, that one of the earliest known terrorism stings also unfolded in Miami, though it wasn't launched by the FBI. Instead the protagonist was a Canadian bodyguard and, as a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, newspaper put it in 2002, "a 340-pound man with a fondness for firearms and strippers." He subscribed to Soldier of Fortune and hung around a police supply store on a desolate stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, north of Miami.

Howard Gilbert aspired to be a CIA agent but lacked pertinent experience. So to pad his résumé, he hatched a plan to infiltrate a mosque in the suburb of Pembroke Pines by posing as a Muslim convert named Saif Allah. He told congregants that he was a former Marine and a security expert, and one night in late 2000, he gave a speech about the plight of Palestinians.

"That was truly the night that launched me into the terrorist umbrella of South Florida," Gilbert would later brag to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Nineteen-year-old congregant Imran Mandhai, stirred by the oration, approached Gilbert and asked if he could provide him weapons and training. Gilbert, who had been providing information to the FBI, contacted his handlers and asked for more money to work on the case. (He later claimed that the bureau had paid him $6,000.) But he ultimately couldn't deliver—the target had sensed something fishy about his new friend.

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