As part of their anti-terrorism efforts, FBI agents monitored popular gyms throughout Orange County to gather intelligence on members of several local mosques, according to a man who claims to have been a key informant in the operation.
Sal Hernandez, director of the FBI's Los Angeles office, declined comment on the matter Monday. Another law enforcement source, however, confirmed that the surveillance occurred, but emphasized that it was a narrowly focused operation that targeted people whom the informant had already implicated in alleged crimes.
The informant is Craig Monteilh, who said he posed as a Muslim convert at the request of the FBI to gather intelligence that might aid anti-terrorism investigators.
Monteilh, a muscular man with a background as a personal trainer, said he was instructed to lure mosque members to work out with him at local gyms. FBI agents, he said, later would obtain security camera footage from the gyms and ask him to identify the people on the tapes and to provide additional information about them. He said he was told that the agents then conducted background checks on the men, looking for anything that could be used to pressure them to become informants.
Disclosures of the FBI's tactics have angered some leaders in the Muslim community in Orange County who saw it as a betrayal of their efforts to assist law enforcement after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The issue has reverberated nationwide.
Last week, a coalition of the nation's largest Muslim organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, issued a statement demanding that the Obama administration address FBI actions, including what they described as the "infiltration of mosques," the use of "agent provocateurs to trap unsuspecting Muslim youth" and the "deliberate vilification" of the council.
"While the FBI does not comment on investigative techniques, it's absurd to suggest that FBI agents are randomly targeting Middle Eastern men or any other ethnic group for investigation," said FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.
Monteilh, 46, is a twice convicted felon who says he was recruited by the FBI in 2006 to go undercover in the Islamic Center of Irvine, where he said he pretended to be Farouk Al-Aziz, a Syrian-French American searching for his Islamic roots. He says he surreptitiously recorded conversations with members of several mosques and provided the recordings to the FBI.
Though FBI officials have declined to discuss Monteilh's alleged role in any investigation, a law enforcement source confirmed that he worked as an informant.
Monteilh (pronounced Mahn-Tay) said the FBI stopped using him as an informant in 2007 when a supervisor questioned his credibility. He has since filed a legal claim against the bureau, accusing officials of reneging on promises to pay him $100,000 and place him in a witness protection program.
In several recent interviews with The Times, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 260-pound Monteilh said he was encouraged to invite members of several mosques to join him for workouts at various fitness centers in Irvine, Tustin, Laguna Niguel and Costa Mesa. Monteilh said he would routinely lead between eight and 15 men in a regimen of weightlifting and cardiovascular exercise. He said a car key operating as an electronic recording device was capturing whatever he and the men talked about.
About a month after the workouts began, Monteilh said one of his "handlers" at the FBI started showing him photos that he was told were still shots taken by video surveillance cameras at the gyms. He said the agent would typically show him between 75 and 100 photos per meeting, which he said were usually at various Starbucks in Orange County.
Monteilh said the agent would ask him to write down the name of the person in each photo, the mosque they attended, their nationality and the names of their associates. He estimated that he identified several hundred men, the majority of them between the ages of 18 and 50. Many were professionals, including doctors and lawyers, he said. Most were students.
Monteilh said he broached the topic of racial profiling, but was rebuffed.
"White little old ladies aren't blowing up buildings and planes," Monteilh quoted one agent as saying. "We're looking at these people based on the fact that there's a terrorist threat in the Islamic community . . . there's no other way."
He said the project was working so well that his handlers were given clearance to use him to open a gym that would cater to men in the Islamic community. It was supposed to have a prayer room next to the workout area and the entire place was going to be wired for audio and video surveillance, Monteilh said. He said the project was scrapped after his cover was blown.
A spokesman for one fitness center where the activities allegedly occurred said the company had no knowledge of the FBI probe. Representatives from other gyms did not respond to inquiries from The Times.
Monteilh's role as a government informant seemed to be supported by the testimony of an FBI agent in February.
The agent, Thomas J. Ropel III, was testifying at a bail hearing in the case of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, who is charged with perjury, naturalization fraud and making a false statement to a federal agency for, among other things, not disclosing that his brother-in-law is Osama bin Laden's alleged security coordinator.
Ropel told the judge in the case that Niazi had been secretly recorded by an informant as he threatened to blow up abandoned buildings. The agent did not name Monteilh but testified that the informant was the same man Muslims had reported to the FBI as an extremist two years earlier. Monteilh was reported to the FBI in June 2007 after members of the Islamic Center of Irvine alleged that he was promoting terrorist plots and trying to recruit others to join him.
Monteilh denies being a terrorist and said anything he said or did at the mosque was in his capacity as an informant for the FBI. He said he was given permission by authorities to engage in terrorist rhetoric, planning and "pretty much anything short of an actual attack" as part of his assignment.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.