A potentially significant terrorist case in California is being exploited by radical Islamist groups to mount a campaign against FBI efforts to collect intelligence on suspected terrorists.
The case involves Ahmadullah Niazi, who has been indicted on immigration charges. His brother-in-law has served as Osama bin Laden's security coordinator. During a February bond hearing, an FBI agent testified that Niazi referred to bin Laden as "an angel" and provided an informant with taped sermons from an imam considered to have been a spiritual advisor for two September 11th hijackers.
Rather than praising law enforcement for rooting out a would-be terrorist from their community, Islamist groups are casting FBI efforts - the use of an informant inside mosques - as an assault on the civil liberties of all Muslim Americans.
On April 20 and 21, reporters at the Los Angeles Times, St. Louis Post Dispatch and Detroit News published similar accounts of the community's concerns with the FBI. They quoted Islamist group members who feel betrayed and intimidated by the FBI and who aren't sure whether they want to continue dealing with the federal law enforcement agency.
- "But even as relations warmed [between the FBI and Muslim groups], a series of revelations -- including allegations that the FBI sent an informant into a mosque in Orange County, surveilled community leaders and sent an agent to UC Irvine -- caused some to begin questioning the FBI's real intentions," The Times reported.
- "[CAIR spokesman Ibrahim]Hooper cited recent instances of Muslims in Minnesota being interrogated by agents on college campuses, worshippers in Michigan being asked to spy in their mosques and the FBI's use of a paid informer to infiltrate mosques in California," The Post Dispatch reported.
- The Detroit News reporter offers a set of brief vignettes: "Those who say they were contacted to become informants express alarm at what they call intrusion in places of worship and private lives without reasonable cause. They say the federal initiative is bruising feelings and making Muslims fearful of cooperating with federal officials."
The stories offer few details about the Niazi case and the reporters seem to accept the complaints without any skepticism. So a tip of the hat to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and its allies for a stellar success in a deceptive public relations campaign. Its officials were quoted sticking up for the little guy; at the same time reporters failed to challenge CAIR on the veracity of the charges or to ask embarrassing questions about the organization itself.
The three articles mark the second wave in an aggressive campaign to discredit the Niazi prosecution before any testimony is heard or exhibits displayed in open court and to pressure law enforcement to stop collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists.
The campaign dates back to Niazi's February arrest for allegedly lying on his naturalization application, obtaining a passport through fraud and lying to federal investigators. Niazi, a naturalized citizen born in Afghanistan, drew FBI attention because of his brother-in-law Amin al-Haq's work for bin Laden. Al-Haq, was named a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2001. Niazi is accused of failing to disclose his links to designated terrorist organizations when he submitted his application for naturalization in 2004 and of lying to officials about his travels to Pakistan, where he met with al-Haq in 2005.
A search warrant affidavit also indicates Niazi is suspected of illegally structuring financial transactions to avoid law enforcement detection.
To find out more about Niazi, FBI agents in California sent an informant into an Irvine mosque to record conversations with Niazi and others. It was the informant who tried to stir up trouble, the Islamist groups claim. In a sermon given March 6 at an Anaheim mosque, CAIR-Los Angeles Executive Director Hussam Ayloush argued Niazi had done nothing to warrant such scrutiny:
"So in a court hearing the FBI finally admitted that this person was an ex-con actually, finally admitted that this ex-con, this criminal who was in the past charged with grand theft, with narcotics, with fraud, actually was paid by the FBI to go on a fishing expedition, not because of any suspicion, fishing expedition to the mosques in Mission Vallejo, in Irvine, in our Farouk, in Tustin, in Garden Grove, in Culver City, basically all the mosques maybe, on a fishing expedition to spy on what is happening, as if we have anything to hide, but not only that, but to instigate and try to get some Muslims to say or engage in things that are illegal."
FBI agent Thomas Ropel III testified at Niazi's February 24 bond hearing. But he said nothing close to what Ayloush told a packed mosque. Ropel testified that Niazi initiated conversations about jihad, which he told the informant was a duty to perform. The two also discussed sending the informant to training camps in either Yemen or Egypt.
Ropel spoke with Niazi in June 2007. Prosecutors in New York had announced the indictment of four men who plotted to blow up fuel lines at JFK Airport. Reporting on the arrests showed an informant played a key role in developing the case. Two days later, Niazi and another man contacted Irvine police and the FBI seeking a restraining order against the informant working with Niazi.
Niazi lied during the conversation, Ropel testified. Among the examples cited, Niazi claimed that he and the informant had discussed jihad once or twice, when agents already possessed "at least 15 to 20 such conversations."
The following exchange took place between Ropel and Magistrate Judge Arthur Nakazato:
Agent Ropel: "We had discussed conducting terrorist attacks and blowing up buildings. We had discussed Mr. Niazi or anybody talking about sending money overseas and Mr. Niazi said none of those things were ever discussed between himself and this individual. And we had personally listened to recordings in which Mr. Niazi had instigated these conversations with that individual."
Judge: "He instigated the conversations?"
Agent Ropel: "Yes, Mr. Niazi did, specifically regarding these statements."
Niazi's defenders say the FBI tried to turn Niazi into an informant, promising to make his life "a living hell" if he refused. Niazi's arrest, they argue, is the FBI following through on its threat. In a series of statements and news conferences, a coalition calling itself the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT) said its members were considering a boycott of communications with the FBI. Like Ayloush's sermon, they portray the FBI's use of informants as fishing expeditions prompted by religious profiling.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee March 25, FBI Director Robert Mueller said religious institutions are not off-limits in a criminal investigation and denied the FBI would send informants without due deliberation:
"I will say that we do not focus on institutions, we focus on individuals. And I will say generally if there is evidence or information as to individual or individuals undertaking illegal activities in religious institutions, with appropriate high-level approval, we would undertake investigative activities, regardless of the religion." [Emphasis added]
CAIR officials have been front and center throughout the debate over the Niazi case. In January, the Investigative Project on Terrorism reported that the FBI had cut off its contacts with CAIR, citing "certain issues" the organization's leaders must address before ties can be restored.
CAIR was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Hamas-support trial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) in Dallas. Evidence showed CAIR's founders were part of a U.S.-based support network created by the Muslim Brotherhood to help Hamas politically and financially. The FBI's case agent called CAIR a front for Hamas.
CAIR's cut-off, along with the Niazi case, is among the task force's grievances with the FBI. The AMT's initial statement cites the co-conspirator status as the reason CAIR was frozen out. That claim is unsubstantiated by AMT officials and contradicted by FBI statements.
"Our concerns relate to a number of distinct narrow issues specific to CAIR and its national leadership," FBI spokesman John Miller told CNN. The FBI hasn't provided any details as to what those "distinct narrow issues" may be, but trial evidence showed CAIR's founders participated in a secret 1993 meeting of Hamas supporters in Philadelphia where the group discussed ways to derail U.S.-led peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. Unaware that the FBI could hear their deliberations, the group openly discussed ways to mislead Americans about their political objectives and support for terrorists.
The unindicted co-conspirator list included more than 300 individual and group names. If mere presence on that list was enough to prompt a law enforcement quarantine, the Islamic Society of North America - another unindicted co-conspirator - would be frozen out, too. In an email exchange with the IPT, Miller succinctly denied the FBI has cut off anyone else:
IPT News: So the question is a 'yes or no' one: Has the FBI similarly altered its communication with any entity other than CAIR which is named as an unindicted co-conspirator on the HLF case?
Interestingly, ISNA has been critical of the FBI investigation but has not signed on to the AMT boycott.
While Niazi enjoys a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the information available in the indictment and in search warrant affidavits shows that he has ongoing personal and financial ties to someone close to bin Laden. The sworn testimony of the FBI case agent indicates a trial will feature a series of taped exhibits of Niazi advocating violent jihad.
CAIR and its fellow task force members insist they condemn terrorism and support law enforcement efforts to stop it. Their deceptive and hyperbolic response to the Niazi indictment says otherwise.