As the FBI continues its perfect streak of successfully thwarting every terrorist plan
it has conceived and put in motion itself (a few of which have been covered here), details of an unintentionally hilarious (and particularly horrendous) "terrorist plot" conjured up back in 2006 have emerged, thanks to an NPR expose and a lawsuit filed against the FBI by some of the unwilling participants
Dubbed "Operation Flex" in deference to its main participant, this 2006 FBI project attempted to uncover a terrorist cell in a group of Orange County Muslims, even if it had to invent that cell itself. The FBI's man on the inside was Craig Montielh, who likely cut an incongruous figure at the mosque at 6'2", 260 lbs... and white. A bodybuilder with a sketchy past, Montielh was instructed to make contact with the supposed jihadists during his frequent visits to an Irvine gym where many of the Muslim men worked out.
To Montielh's credit, he sunk himself into the role. His FBI contacts suspected his new friends might be a terrorist cell because, well, they were four, unmarried Egyptian men living under one roof. But his enthusiasm for the job was constantly thwarted by his "targets," who preferred playing FIFA Soccer on the Xbox to discussing terrorist plots.
At first, they treated Montielh (who was going by the name "Farouk") as one of them, a new acolyte in need of guidance. But as time went on and Montielh became desperate to show results, his desire to turn idle revolutionary chat into action began to worry his companions. Montielh's first move was to amp up his personal relationship with Allah.
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.
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.
With Montielh trying and failing repeatedly to get these California Muslims to warm up to his own personal jihad, the FBI decided it was time for phase two. Montielh was told to start talking up an actual terrorist plot to blow up buildings in Southern California. After Montielh aggressively broached the subject to his friends during a car ride, they decided to do what anyone would have done in that situation:
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.
Mohammed and Niazi had Hussam Ayloush, the director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, make the call for them. He spoke to Steve Tidwell, the head of the FBI's California branch. Tidwell didn't even ask for a name or last known address of this white Muslim terrorist and assured Hussam that the FBI would take it from here. And the FBI did, launching what, for all intents and purposes, looked like an actual terrorist investigation.
But instead of wholeheartedly pursuing its own man, the FBI agents were more interested in repeatedly questioning everyone Montielh had talked to. They honed in on Niazi, whose sister was married to Amin al-Haq, designated as a terrorist by the US government. The FBI agents used this as leverage in an attempt to get Niazi to become a paid informant and go to work for them in Afghanistan. When he refused, the FBI had him arrested for "immigration fraud and making false statements."
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.
At Niazi's trial, Agent Thomas Ropel repeatedly told the prosecutor that Niazi had instigated the conversations related to the so-called "terrorist plot." This isn't the way Montielh (or his tapes) remembers it:
Sam Black - Did Niazi ever instigate this kind of conversation with you?
Craig Montielh - No. No, I did. Every time.
Despite not being charged with anything more serious than immigration fraud and "making false statements," Niazi was placed under house arrest for more than a year. He represents all of the arrests or indictments made as a result of Operation Flex. And even this didn't stick. The US government filed a motion to dismiss all charges against Niazi.
Another home-built terrorist operation and not even a single conviction to show for it. In fact, the FBI is arguably worse off now than if it had never begun the investigation. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has brought a lawsuit against FBI over Operation Flex, claiming the investigation violated their First Amendment rights by targeting them for their religious beliefs, as well as subjecting them to searches and monitoring without a warrant. The botched operation has also done damage to the Muslim community in California:
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.
In addition to making themselves look like a bunch of government agents creating their own busywork to stay employed, the FBI has taken yet another serious hit to its credibility. Early on in the transcript, it's noted that Stephen Tidwell (head of the FBI in Los Angeles) made an earlier approach via a town meeting at the Islamic Center of Irvine. He assured everyone attending that the FBI was not
monitoring the mosque and that they would be informed if anyone from the FBI was planning to visit. That was June 5, 2006. Operation Flex began roughly two months later.
Then there's this troubling statistic, courtesy of investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson, who's studied hundreds of terrorism convictions:
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.
Finally, the worst, but least surprising, news of all: in an update to the story, NPR points out that US District Judge Cormac Carney has dismissed the lawsuit brought by CAIR
, stating that allowing the the suit to proceed would "significantly compromise national security."
Carney's self-serving statement casts him (and a large part of the government's various secretive services) as an ancient Greek hero:
In struggling with this conflict, the Court is reminded of the classic dilemma of Odysseus, who faced the challenge of navigating his ship through a dangerous passage, flanked by a voracious six-headed monster, on the one side, and a deadly whirlpool, on the other. Odysseus opted to pass by the monster and risk a few of his individual sailors, rather than hazard the loss of his entire ship to the sucking whirlpool. Similarly, the proper application of the state secrets privilege may unfortunately mean the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of national security.
I know the Greeks laid the foundation for modern democracy, but perhaps we shouldn't base our decisions on their epic tragedies.