(Dec. 6) -- When Farouk al-Aziz allegedly tried to incite members of a California mosque to blow up a mall, they reported him to the FBI, but nothing happened.
Apparently, that's because al-Aziz was actually Craig Monteilh, a paid FBI informant and ex-convict sent to infiltrate the mosque and expose a potential terrorist. But the FBI's attempt to spy on the mosque was exposed instead, in a case that has imperiled relations between the agency and American Muslims.
It has also sparked tough questions from critics who say the FBI's tactics in Muslim communities can sometimes amount to entrapment.
Reed Saxon, AP
"The question is this: Would these alleged 'plots' have taken place without active FBI involvement?" Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told AOL News today. "And too often we're seeing that they are really manufactured by the FBI and used as a way to draw in people who may not otherwise have chosen to do any kind of action on their own."
In the California case, reported by The Washington Post this weekend, the FBI paid Monteilh -- a convicted forger -- $177,000 over more than a year to help build a terror case against Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, a member of an Irvine mosque. But the case fell apart when Niazi and others in the mosque became so concerned by Monteilh's comments about violent jihad that they reported him to the FBI and even sought a restraining order against him.
"They said Farouk had told them he had access to weapons and that they should blow up a mall," Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations -- Los Angeles, told the Post. "They were convinced this man was a terrorist."
In September, the Justice Department dropped the case against Niazi, who allegedly had been caught on tape by Monteilh agreeing to blow up buildings, according to the Post. And now, to make matters worse for the agency, Monteilh is speaking out publicly about his story, claiming FBI agents taught him how to entrap Muslims and made offensive statements about Islam.
The FBI declined to comment specifically about the Monteilh case but said accusations that the agency is targeting Muslim communities are false.
"The FBI does not investigate religion," Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles, told AOL News today. "To suggest that the FBI initiated an investigation based on an ethnicity or a religion is ludicrous."
But Alicia McWilliams, whose nephew David Williams was one of the four men convicted this year in a plot to bomb synagogues in the Bronx, N.Y., said the FBI uses entrapment against people from vulnerable parts of society. McWilliams said FBI informants targeted her nephew because he was young, black, "down on his luck" and impressionable, and offered to pay for his brother's liver transplant if he agreed to take part in a plot.
"You can't go bearing gifts into impoverished communities," she told AOL News today. "They're using criminals to create criminals."
Robert Turner, a law professor at the University of Virginia and the associate director of the school's Center for National Security Law, said the FBI likely had reason to believe that Naizi was up to something and asked Monteilh to monitor him, not the entire mosque.
Turner said the FBI is aware of how important it is to have good relationships with American Muslims. "The FBI knows that patriotic Muslims are in a situation in which they may help us prevent the next 9/11," he told AOL News.
He said Monteilh -- who was arrested on grand-theft auto charges after the FBI cut its ties with him -- is probably lying about the FBI's views on Islam. "It sounds to me that [Monteilh] said, 'What can I say that will really embarrass the FBI?' I don't find this at all credible."
Still, the FBI's tactics have continued to attract controversy. Last month, for example, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali-born American, was arrested for allegedly driving a van full of explosives -- supplied by FBI agents -- to a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore. And already, Mohamud's attorneys have said they will likely use entrapment as a defense.
Lynne Jackson, the co-founder of Project Salam, a legal advocacy group for Muslims, said the use of covert informants in Islamic communities has become a civil liberties issue akin to the Red Scare during the Cold War.
"It's prejudice against Muslims. It's like the 1950s, except that instead of communism it's Muslims," she said. "The government is going after Muslims because of what they think even when they haven't done anything."
CAIR's Hooper said the FBI's use of informants is eroding trust between American Muslims and law enforcement.
"The bottom line is that the FBI needs to have open lines of communication to the American Muslim community so we can work together against anybody who may threaten our nation's safety and security," he said.
But, he added, "as long as American Muslims feel that they are being singled out as an entire community for suspicion, it chills the atmosphere."