FBI counter terrorism measures creating mistrust in American Muslim communities

Since the September 11th, 2001 attacks, the FBI has placed an emphasis on preventing further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. To do so, they have focused their energy on preemptive measures, seeking to discover terrorists before their dreams of destruction can be realized.

However, this effort has not been without controversy, as many of the “terrorists” claim foul play and entrapment. These accusations refer to the FBI’s strategy of placing informants within specific communities, in particular the American Muslim community, and having them seek out radical elements for further “assessment.”

Recently, the FBI appears to have conducted blanket surveillance of broad sections of the American Muslim community, leading to a number of foiled terrorist plots. However, a closer look into some of these foiled terrorist attempts reveals that the planning, materials, funding, and even transportation for these attacks have almost all been provided to these disgruntled young men by the FBI themselves.

This raises a very serious question: Would these young men still pose a terrorist threat to the U.S. had the FBI not engaged them, and even provided them with all the resources necessary to commit these acts of violence?

Though the legal definition of entrapment makes it hard to clearly define these cases as such, the methods used by the FBI in recent years create an impression of racial profiling on a scale reminiscent of the oppression of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Apparently, the FBI feels that American Muslims are guilty by association until proven innocent through extensive, and extremely intrusive, surveillance campaigns.

In an article published by The Guardian (UK), Paul Harris interviewed former FBI informant Craig Monteilh, who gave an inside account of the FBI’s domestic counter terrorism efforts. Monteilh, having been an integral part of the hunt for Muslim terrorists, characterized the methods used by the FBI as “…a joke, a real joke. There is no real hunt. It’s fixed.”

Monteilh began working for the FBI as a confidential informant in 2006, participating in an operation referred to as “Flex,” where he posed as a Syrian by the name of Farouk Aziz. By this alias, Monteilh was ordered to spend time in Orange County, California, mosques and Islamic centers until the Muslim community there became comfortable enough to accept him as a fellow member. From there he was tasked with recording any and all conversations he had with members of the community, subtly suggesting radical ideas to those he talked to in hopes of luring out more extreme members.

According to Monteilh, the aim of his investigation was to record members saying specific words or phrases that could justify further investigations. “The skill is that I’m going to get you to say something. I am cornering you to say ‘jihad.’” But that’s not all Monteilh was tasked with doing. He even reports of being told to use private information about members of the Islamic community, such as individuals’ being homosexual or having an affair, as blackmail in order to recruit more informants. In one case he was even told to have sex with women of the community in order to get closer to them. And despite his best efforts to “corner” members into saying the “right” words, or using their religious stigmas towards sexuality against them, Monteilh was unsuccessful in producing any material initiating a serious terrorist investigation. In fact, one of the communities that he was attempting to infiltrate got a restraining order against him and even reported him to the FBI, unaware that he was actually working for them.

Surely, however, this is an isolated incident of misconduct…this couldn’t happen in a nation that respects the constitutionally protected civil liberties of ALL its citizens.

I wish I could say that was the truth.

According to an article written for The New York Times, of the 22 most frightening foiled terrorist plots since the September 11th, 2001 attacks, 14 have been the products of operations very similar to that described by Monteilh.

In 2009, four men were arrested in Newburgh, New Jersey, for planning to bomb Jewish synagogues and shoot down military aircraft with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Referred to as the Newburgh Four, and portrayed as hardcore “Islamic extremists,” these men were all convicted and sentenced to lengthy jail terms. But after reviewing the case, it is hard not to notice that the profiles of these four men didn’t fit those of hardened terrorist masterminds. Rather, their lives were characterized by drug and financial problems, criminal histories (for petty crimes), and in one case schizophrenia.

Furthermore, the fifth man involved in this plot, the one who provided the plans, weapons, transportation, and an offer of $250,000, a free car and vacation to the others, was none other than a well-paid FBI informant. This case has raised serious doubt as to whether these four men would have posed any sort of threat had they not been approached by an FBI agent who offered to pay large sums of money for their cooperation. Considering that one of the four, David Williams, was having trouble raising the money to pay for a much needed liver transplant for his sick brother, these men look more like paid thugs than terrorist masterminds.

Susanne Brody, an attorney representing one of the four, claimed that “We have as close to a legal entrapment case as I have ever seen.”

Unfortunately, the list of cases nearly identical to these goes on, from the Liberty City Six, whose plans never surpassed the discussion stage, to the Fort Dix Five, where one FBI informant’s past included attempted murder and another admitted in court that two of the men convicted were never aware of any terrorist plot (both were sentenced to life in prison). According to Mike German, a former FBI agent now working for the ACLU, “Most of these terrorist suspects had no access to weapons unless the government provided them. I would say that showed they were not the biggest threat to the U.S.” According to German, the FBI has been expanding its tools for carrying out such investigations, something he considers a “terrible prospect.”

But are the tools used in these cases legitimate, even by the FBI’s own standards? According to the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG – FBI, 2008), these tactics are questionable at best. Section four of the DIOG, entitled “[O]n Privacy and Civil Liberties, and ‘Least Intrusive Methods,’” it states that each investigation must have a clearly defined and approved purpose and that this purpose is prohibited from being “based solely on race, ethnicity, national origin or religion.” What’s more telling is, in section 4.2 B, on the exercise of religion, the DIOG states that,

…solely because prior subjects of an investigation of a particular group were members of a certain religion and they claimed a religious motivation for their acts of crime or terrorism, other members’ mere affiliation with that religion, by itself, is not a basis to assess or investigate – absent a known and direct connection to the threat under assessment or investigation.

However, the blanket surveillance of Muslim communities in California described by Monteilh, and the recently uncovered case of NYPD eavesdropping on the entire New York Muslim community, seem to clearly violate these regulations. It has recently become ever clearer that many of these investigations have been initiated solely because these communities happen to be Muslim, with no prior evidence of suspicious behavior whatsoever. Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, head of NYPD’s secret Demographics Unit charged with this task, admitted that after nearly six years of monitoring the Muslim community in New York they were unable to come up with a single investigation.

But it doesn’t stop there.

The DIOG (Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide) places a heavy emphasis on the protection of First Amendment rights, stating that no investigations can be initiated based solely in response to ones expression of these rights, or solely to monitor their expression of them. Of course, however, freedom of speech in the United States does not protect all language.

The DIOG refers to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), where the court ruled that the government may not prohibit the advocacy of force or violence except when such activity is intended to provoke imminent (emphasis added by DIOG) lawless activity, and is likely to do so.

However, according to the testimony given by Monteilh, using the word “jihad” (which has two meanings, the main meaning having nothing to do with “holy war”) was enough to initiate an investigation. But simply using the word “jihad” does not provoke imminent lawless behavior; therefore, being protected under the First Amendment rights that the FBI is prohibited from using as their sole justification for initiating an investigation.

The blanket recording of conversations with members of the Muslim community, all of whom had said absolutely nothing to provoke imminent lawless behavior, is a clear violation of both DIOG regulations and the Brandenburg (1969) ruling.

Lastly, the DIOG also mandates the use of the least intrusive methods possible for conducting intelligence gathering operations and lists the use of wiretaps, electronic surveillance, and informants as “very intrusive.” The fact that the FBI has chosen to use such methods, especially on populations and individuals that have presented no prior evidence of wrongdoing, suggests that this regulation means little to the Bureau.

Though the FBI has played a significant role in keeping America safe from further terrorist attacks, it also seems clear that some of their efforts have been severely misguided, even jeopardizing their ability to do the best job possible. The fact that Monteilh was reported to the FBI by the very community he was trying to infiltrate, suggests that these investigations are an unwarranted waste of valuable resources; and one of the most valuable resources in the counter terrorism efforts of the FBI, according to the DIOG, is “the trust and confidence of the American public.” Ironically, the very next statement in the DIOG is, “…and because that trust and confidence can be significantly shaken by our failure to respect the limits of our power, special care must be taken by all employees to comply with these limitations.”

However, many experts agree that the FBI’s recent conduct regarding such cases has created an atmosphere of distrust within the American Muslim community. According to civil rights groups, American Muslims feel as if they are being unjustly targeted by the authorities for investigations simply because of their faith, “triggering a natural fear of the authorities among people that should be a vital defense against real terror attacks.”

Instead of alienating the Muslim population, whose cooperation is essential to counter terrorism efforts, the FBI should push itself to comply with their own procedures and legal precedent established by the nation’s highest court, and focus their energy on investigating proven threats to society. This would help to rebuild the trust of the American Muslim community, as well as put pressure on the individuals that actually intend to do harm.