By Jennifer Medina
At the Islamic Center of Irvine, some members look at each new person who walks into the Los Angeles area mosque with suspicion. They worry that their conversations are being recorded or that law enforcement officers are watching, simply because they are Muslim.
The fears were stoked by charges that the FBI paid an informant to infiltrate their mosque and others in Southern California, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations say in the suit that the informant, Craig Monteilh, violated members’ civil rights and subjected them to “indiscriminate surveillance” because of their religion.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that the case represents just one of countless complaints they hear from Muslims in Southern California, who say they are routinely singled out for questioning. They hope the case will encourage other Muslims who believe they have been unfairly monitored to come forward.
“We hear about this kind of targeting by the FBI without basis again and again from all over,” said Ameena Mirza Qazi, the deputy director and staff attorney for CAIR Los Angeles. “This is the perfect test case because we have evidence that there was surveillance.”
FBI officials said they could not comment on the lawsuit, but said they base any investigation on allegations of criminal activity. They said they did not single out specific religious or ethnic groups.
Monteilh, who has a criminal history that includes forgery, has said publicly that the FBI told him to monitor several mosques in Orange County in 2006 and 2007, using a hidden camera and tape recorder. After he began to talk at the mosque about jihad and violence, members contacted the FBI. He ultimately helped the bureau build a case against one member of the mosque, but it was dismissed.
The suit also charges that FBI agents “explicitly told Monteilh that Islam was a threat to America’s national security.”
Monteilh has also sued the FBI, saying that it failed to protect him from charges of grand theft that he says were related to his work in a drug-ring operation. The class-action lawsuit seeks a court order for the FBI to destroy or return the information Monteilh obtained.