NOT LONG AFTER the U.S. Department of Justice announced terrorism charges in February against a group of Brooklyn men who allegedly plotted to join the Islamic State in Syria, a defense lawyer for one of the men received an unusual phone call. It was from Craig Monteilh, a former FBI informant who is positioning himself as a for-hire expert witness and defense consultant.
Monteilh offered a cocksure proposition — he could help derail the government’s case, which relied on an FBI informant to help facilitate the alleged plot. In fact, Monteilh volunteered, he’d already helped to undermine one counterterrorism prosecution. He could do it again, he promised.
With a clean-shaven head and imposing figure, Monteilh hardly looks the part of paid defense consultant. He’s 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 278 pounds. His biceps measure 23 inches around. His cadence is slow and deliberate, as if he weighs words carefully in his mind before delivering them.
A longtime informant for the FBI, the fair-skinned Monteilh, who is African-American, has proved to be an effective chameleon. He says he has portrayed himself as a Russian hit man, a Sicilian drug trafficker and even a white supremacist. In 2009, Monteilh went public with a jaw-dropping story during a press conference hastily assembled in his living room: He told the news media that he had spent months undercover in Southern California’s Muslim community on orders from the FBI, posing as a French-Syrian convert named Farouk al-Aziz and on the lookout for would-be terrorists.
He admitted that he was a convicted criminal, and despite a non-disclosure agreement he’d signed with the agency, alleged that FBI agents sent him into mosques with no reason at all to be suspicious of their targets other than that they were Muslim. Monteilh even said that FBI agents told him to have sex with Muslim women in order to gather pillow-talk intelligence.
Monteilh’s story made national and international headlines. This American Life even came to town to document this weird slice of post-9/11 Americana. Monteilh alleges that, at the behest of the FBI, he once pleaded guilty to stealing $157,000 from two women as part of a undercover informant operation that involved buying and selling of human growth hormone. The FBI, according to Monteilh, reneged on its promise to scrub that from his criminal record and sued the agency for having led him into the legal mess despite “immunity” that is supposed to be granted to informants. (Monteilh says the case ended in a confidential settlement, but, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, Monteilh’s suit against the agency was dismissed.)
Information Monteilh exposed also led the American Civil Liberties Union and others to file a class-action lawsuit that accused the FBI of targeting Muslim Americans for surveillance because of their religion. That lawsuit was hobbled after the Department of Justice asserted the state secrets privilege.
The former FBI informant has always been in the game for money. During his FBI counterterrorism work, which was part of a project called Operation Flex, he was pulling in more than $10,000 in cash per month. After burning the FBI and going public with his story, he expected to find a new payday — a book contract, perhaps, maybe even a movie deal. But the Hollywood agents never called.
Instead, in early 2014, Monteilh received a call from Victor Torres, a private investigator working for a court-appointed lawyer in Riverside County. Torres was working for a defense attorney representing Ralph Deleon, a citizen of the Philippines, and his team was in touch with lawyers representing one of Deleon’s codefendants named Sohiel Omar Kabir, an Afghanistan-born U.S. citizen. Both defendants were living in California’s Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, and they were two of four men nabbed in an FBI sting in which they allegedly plotted with an undercover informant to travel to the Middle East and attack U.S. military personnel.
Informant-led stings, intended to catch would-be terrorists before they strike, are among the FBI’s favorite tactics in domestic counterterrorism. In the decade after 9/11, the government prosecuted 158 defendants following stings, most involving undercover informants.
In the Riverside County case, Kabir had gone to Afghanistan, though little evidence suggested he met with anyone dangerous there, and the three others were all talk, having never left California during the plot. The FBI’s informant, Mohammad Hammad, paid key expenses for the four men — including for multiple trips to a shooting range — and acted as a primary instigator for the plot.
Hammad, like most FBI counterterrorism informants, has a checkered past. In 2007, Hammad was found guilty of aiding a conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. FBI agents later sprung Hammad from the custody of immigration authorities to become an informant.
Lawyers with the men’s defense teams knew that Hammad, who was paid handsomely for his work as an agent provocateur, was instrumental to the government’s case. If they could impugn the informant’s credibility, they could strike a blow to the prosecution’s argument. Torres, the investigator, recommended Monteilh for a job as an expert and consultant for the defense. Over several months, Monteilh explained to the defense lawyers how the FBI uses and pays informants.
“We didn’t understand pay for snitches before working with Craig,” says Angela Viramontes, an attorney with the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Riverside who represented Kabir.
Monteilh explained that FBI informants and agents enter into a deal both sides know is corrupt. Payments to informants are described as expenses to the public and to juries. Informants make up or inflate expenses for reimbursement, and agents turn a blind eye because they know they can conceal their payments to a future jury as nothing more than expense reimbursements, Monteilh told them. The more money an informant is paid, and the more he appears to be in the FBI’s pocket, the less credible he may seem to a perceptive jury.
“I was able to open their eyes to how informants pad their expense account, meaning taking certain receipts that they didn’t really pay for in the first place, overspending on certain items and overinflating prices,” Monteilh says. “I demonstrated that to them so they could see how the informant was actually puppeteering the whole sting based on getting paid.”
In terrorism sting trials, defense lawyers often call into question payments made to informants. Even without Monteilh, the defense lawyers would have explored this issue — but Monteilh helped by explaining in depth how the FBI structures payments and expense reimbursements to informants. Defense lawyers were able to hit the informant hard on money during the trial — to reveal that so-called expenses represented the informant’s only income source.
“The FBI payments are really important to you, right?” defense lawyer Jeffrey Aaron asked Hammad during cross-examination.
“Yes,” the informant replied.
“They help you maintain your lifestyle, right?” Aaron followed.
“It’s how you support yourself and your family, right?”
“The bigger — would you agree with me, the bigger the FBI payments are as a percentage of your income, the more important they are to you, right?”
Monteilh, with years of experience working undercover for the FBI, believed right away that the case he was working on, now from the other side, was one of entrapment. “If you remove the informant, there is no case, there is no operation, there is no jihad,” Monteilh says. “There’s only talk about American foreign policy — and that’s all you get. The informant enhanced everything by 1,000 percent.”
Aaron was able to get the informant to admit that some of the most incriminating evidence and actions, including visits to a shooting range, were made possible only because of the FBI’s behind-the-scenes financing. Hammad had paid for visits to the shooting range even after FBI agents specifically instructed him not to cover the costs. Aaron also asked the informant about whether he’d paid taxes on any of the money received from the FBI; during trial, the defense attorney indicated those payments had totaled some $380,000. “I’m pleading the Fifth Amendment,” Hammad answered.
Following a six-and-a-half-week trial, Deleon and Kabir were convicted of several counts, including charges of conspiring to murder members of the U.S. military. But, for Deleon, the jury hung on two of the most serious charges: providing material support to al Qaeda and conspiring to receive military training from al Qaeda. A hung jury is extraordinary in trials involving counterterrorism stings, for which the Justice Department has a near-perfect record of conviction since the 9/11 attacks.
“Because of my help, I got the jury to hang on two counts,” Monteilh says. “That’s unheard of in a five-count indictment. I know how to do it because I know how to impeach that informant.”
The defense team that hired Monteilh supports that assertion. “All the stuff in the transcript about what the informant was paid, and what paid for what, was a result of Craig,” Viramontes says.
Monteilh was paid $27,759.40 for his work as an expert. Because the court-appointed attorney had enlisted his help, the checks came from the U.S. government — just like the cash payments he received for being an FBI informant. He appreciates the irony.
“The beauty of it is that it’s government money,” Monteilh says.
For the former FBI informant, this case is just the beginning of what he expects to be a new career. Now, every time a new FBI sting case is announced, Monteilh calls the defense lawyers to offer his expertise. He’s in talks now to join a new case, he says.
“I am the only one out here who can do this,” Monteilh says. “I think defense lawyers need me to give their client a fighting chance.”
Photo: Reed Saxon/AP