On August 23, 2011, 46-year-old Marcus Dwayne Robertson, the imam of an Orlando, Florida mosque, was arrested, imprisoned and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He pleaded guilty.
Almost four years after his initial arrest, Robertson, also known as “Abu Taubah,” is still behind bars awaiting sentencing for that crime, as well as for a separate count of conspiracy to file a fraudulent tax refund claim. He could be released on time served based on those charges, but the U.S. government is now seeking a “terrorism enhancement” that could result in him serving an additional 20 years in prison.
Part of what makes the case unusual is that Robertson has never actually been charged with planning or committing any terrorist acts. Instead, prosecutors are trying to use his possession of Islamic literature as proof of his terrorist intent. Citing statements a young acquaintance of Robertson’s made to a government informant, in addition to passages from a number of e-books found in Robertson’s possession after his arrest, prosecutors are arguing that the imam is “an extremist seeking to promote violent jihad.”
Robertson, for his part, alleges that he has been a target of entrapment and malicious prosecution. More spectacularly, he also claims that he was a covert government operative who came under scrutiny after refusing to perform certain tasks requested of him by the CIA. While this claim may seem fantastical, a sentencing memorandum issued by his lawyers in late April states that the government has confirmed a number of Robertson’s claims regarding past clandestine activities he conducted on the government’s behalf.
True or not, Robertson’s life has taken a series of improbable turns, from being a U.S. marine, to a member of a New York City street gang, to finally transforming himself into a putative religious leader. Robertson’s most recent transformation from gang member to imam began in 1991, when he was sent to prison for a string of robberies and violent incidents targeting police officers and government installations. In the government’s sentencing memorandum, the prosecution claims that during his membership in a gang known as the “Forty Thieves,” he “murdered several individuals; participated in assassination attempts; used pipe bombs, C-4, grenades, other explosives, and automatic weapons.” The government also claims that the Forty Thieves “stockpiled weapons and explosives in preparation to fight against the perceived threat of interment of Muslims by the United States.”
Speaking to The Intercept from a Florida jail, Robertson said that many of these government allegations were false, but conceded that during the early 1990s he was part of an organization in New York City called the Forty Thieves, which he described as part criminal gang, part vigilante group. “During that time in Brooklyn we were dealing with the ongoing crack cocaine epidemic, as well as with pimps and violent drug dealers destroying the social fabric of our neighborhood. We formed the Forty Thieves to clean up our area, and many times the police were on our side in this effort,” Robertson said in a phone interview.
Nonetheless, he added, “We were young, we made foolish decisions, and sometimes we were inadvertently used by people for other agendas. Sometimes our behavior crossed a line.”
Robertson testified for the prosecution at the eventual trial of several Forty Thieves members and was released after serving four years in prison.
Once out of prison, Robertson’s life apparently changed course. He adopted the teknonym “Abu Taubah” (a reference to a passage of the Quran dealing with repentance for sins), became an imam, and, according to his own account, worked periodically as a covert operative for the CIA and FBI. Robertson, who had previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps, claims to have been a government operative for several years over the past decade, helping conduct domestic terrorism investigations as well as foreign “espionage” operations. The U.S. government, according to a defense memorandum, “acknowledges that Robertson has provided extensive assistance to the authorities.”
While Robertson declined to discuss the specifics of his alleged operations, citing ongoing legal restrictions in his case, the same defense memorandum states that the government has acknowledged that between 2004 and 2007, Robertson worked under the direction of the FBI as “an extraterritorial confidential source … sent to Mauritania performing a role that can only be defined as ‘espionage.’” The memorandum goes on to state that Robertson “served as a confidential source in domestic terrorism investigations from Atlanta to Los Angeles, wherein he was provided with actual authority to, inter alia: possess firearms in order to maintain his cover and fulfill the objectives set for him by the [FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force] JTTF.”
Robertson’s latest legal troubles started sometime after he ceased to be a government operative in 2007, according to the defense.
In late 2010, an acquaintance of Robertson’s, 26-year-old Jonathan Jimenez, traveled from New York City to stay at Robertson’s home in Orlando. Robertson had promised to help Jimenez — who had a history of mental illness and drug abuse — straighten out his life and further his study of Islam, according to the defense. He raised the possibility of arranging for Jimenez to travel to Mauritania to study Islam, as he had arranged for other young men in the past.
Robertson also helped Jimenez file a false tax return; Jimenez was refunded $5,587, ostensibly to help him cover his travel expenses.
While he was staying with Robertson, Jimenez was befriended by a government informant, with whom he began discussing the possibility of fighting and dying abroad. Jimenez, who had been checked into mental institutions on five separate occasions and had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication, told the informant that he was “getting ready for that grave, baby,” and that Robertson had been providing him with martial arts and firearms training so that he could go abroad and fight.
Prosecutors have alleged that the $5,587 earned through the fraudulent tax return was intended to send Jimenez to Mauritania to commit acts of terrorism. Jimenez also made statements to the informant suggesting that Robertson was managing “a travel facilitation network … that sends individuals overseas to commit violent jihad.” Jimenez would later deny having made such statements in subsequent interviews with FBI agents, and in 2012, pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials about his discussions with the informant. Jimenez is presently serving a 10-year sentence, in which the terrorism enhancement applied, for false statements to officials and conspiracy to file the fraudulent tax return.
During the time when Jimenez was in touch with the informant, the government was also separately conducting surveillance on Robertson, who was recorded discussing the possibility of sending Jimenez abroad to Mauritania, but was never heard on tape discussing a plan for him to engage in terrorism. In many of the surveilled telephone conversations leading up to his arrest, Robertson expressed skepticism about Jimenez’s maturity and the possibility of rehabilitating him from his drug abuse problem.
In multiple conversations in July 2011, Robertson is recorded saying that Jimenez had been hanging out with “crackheadass niggas,” and that although he had repeatedly tried to help Jimenez straighten out his life, he “acts like a teenager,” and would only cause problems if sent to Mauritania.
In 2011, following the execution of a search warrant at his home, Robertson was charged with possession of a handgun (which was owned by the security director of his mosque), and has remained behind bars in Florida ever since. While incarcerated on this gun charge, Robertson was subsequently charged with the separate count of conspiracy to file a fraudulent tax return, which he was convicted of in January 2014 following a bench trial.
Now, to demonstrate that Robertson’s tax charges merit a terrorism enhancement, the government has cited a number of books and other documents owned by Robertson that allegedly extoll extremist beliefs. Robertson, who is recognized as an Islamic scholar, owned a library which included roughly 10,000 e-books, a small number of which are alleged by the government to have contained passages deemed controversial.
The government hasn’t provided evidence to demonstrate that Robertson endorsed, let alone acted upon, any of the passages cited in these books, the defense counters. “There is nothing contained in the prosecution’s memorandum which connects Mr. Robertson to any actual conspiracy to commit terrorism,” Robertson’s attorney Daniel Broderson said. “He is an Islamic scholar who owned thousands of books, and they are trying to pull select passages from a handful of books he owned to try and make the case that he’s an extremist.”
Robertson’s book collection and the statements of Jimenez make up the primary evidence the government has put forward to substantiate the claim that Robertson’s charges have any connection to terrorism.
In the meantime, his case has grown even murkier.
In a 2012 lawsuit Robertson filed from jail — ultimately dismissed on grounds of being improperly filed — Robertson claimed to have been targeted by the government for malicious prosecution after refusing to conduct an overseas operation requested by the CIA. In a suit filed against the prosecuting attorney in his case, then-Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as against eight FBI agents whom he specified by name, Robertson alleged that for many years after his 1991 arrest, he worked as an informant for both the FBI and CIA, until a dispute in 2007 led to a falling out with both agencies. Robertson alleges the government then began seeking legal retribution against him, culminating in his entrapment and malicious prosecution on gun possession and tax charges.
Robertson’s 2012 lawsuit further claimed that the FBI agents named in his filing were conducting surveillance and infiltration of American-Muslim communities, justified solely on their religious background.
While he claims to have worked with the government on terrorism investigations, Robertson says he balked at conducting indiscriminate spying. “I did work with the government in cases related to counterterrorism, but I was never a ‘spy’, nor did I ever spy on Muslim communities,” Roberston said. “There’s a difference between pursuing legitimate terrorism investigations, which we as Muslims support, and profiling and infiltrating entire communities.”
Robertson’s claims of past government service are reminiscent of a litigation tactic known as “graymailing,” used by defendants in cases that may force the government to discuss classified issues. “Traditionally, graymail has been used by defendants who know and threaten to disclose classified information as part of their defense,” says legal expert Josh Dratel. “The amount of leverage the defendant has with respect to information about his prior assistance to the government will be measured by the government response. It may offer a lenient resolution of the case, which is a common result when such leverage exists, or it may even be compelled to dismiss it outright, based on the amount of leverage.”
In Robertson’s case, it’s unclear whether he does indeed have information the government regards as classified. In its own court filings, the government has not responded to his claims specifically, but has generally described them as either false, unsupported or otherwise irrelevant to his sentencing.
In addition to his book collection and claims of past service, the conditions under which Robertson has been held in jail have also been a source of controversy. According to his attorney, for roughly two years between 2012 until 2014, Robertson was held in solitary confinement. During this time, he was shackled at all times whether inside or outside his cell, to the point where the skin around his ankles had rubbed off. In October 2014, following complaints by his attorney to the U.S. Marshall’s office, the conditions of his incarceration were somewhat relaxed, though he remains in isolation.
On April 30, Robertson was allowed to testify in a closed hearing about the clandestine cooperation he says he provided as a covert operative. In early June, the presiding judge in the case decided that Robertson would be sentenced on the gun and tax charges separately, a ruling that makes the tax charge the only count eligible for the terrorism enhancement. This decision will have the likely effect of reducing his total possible sentence when hearings resume later this month.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Tampa Bay FBI office both declined requests to comment for this story.
Robertson, for his part, believes his case could have have far-reaching ramifications for other defendants.
“The government is trying to use my case to establish a legal precedent, where even if a person is not charged with actual terrorism offenses they can still try them as a ‘terrorist’ using the sentencing adjustment,” Robertson says. “This is not just about prosecuting my case specifically, it’s about creating a precedent whereby the government can simply go through the books you own and use them to frighten people into believing that you’re a terrorist.”