The FBI’s secretive spy plane program targeted a man in Florida last year with nearly constant surveillance, logging more than 400 hours in the air with a fleet of Cessna aircraft registered to what appear to be front companies.
This aerial surveillance, described in a filing made Monday in federal court, reveals for the first time the FBI’s enormous capacity to target a single individual inside the United States for prolonged monitoring using aircraft. The fleet of FBI planes, often small aircraft, are outfitted with high-tech video cameras and tracking devices known as “cell-site simulators” that trick mobile phones into connecting to the FBI’s device rather than to a legitimate cellphone tower.
The revelations came in the case of Muhammed Momtaz Alazhari, an alleged supporter of the Islamic State, who federal prosecutors said was plotting a terrorist attack in the Tampa Bay area. Alazhari pleaded not guilty to one count of providing material support to terrorists and two firearms charges. The filing outlined the extraordinary aerial surveillance in a motion to suppress all evidence derived from the FBI’s activities in the air.
Samuel Landes, a federal public defender, argued in the filing that the FBI’s aerial surveillance was an illegal, warrantless search and that information obtained from this surveillance may have been used to recruit informants and justify search warrants as well as authorize highly invasive monitoring under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“The search was unreasonable because it was conducted without a warrant,” Landes wrote. “Finally, the government cannot show that any derivative evidence — whether in the form of in-person surveillance, new investigative leads, or FISA or traditional warrant searches — was not tainted by the illegal aerial surveillance.” (The FBI did not respond to a request to comment on its aerial surveillance of Alazhari or how frequently the bureau uses such persistent aerial surveillance against suspects.)
“Getting a warrant, when you have such an intense surveillance of one individual, is a very minimal burden before going ‘Enemy of the State’ on this guy.”
While law enforcement agencies are not required to obtain a warrant to surveil a criminal suspect using a car, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that any surveillance involving technology that allows police to monitor the entirety of a suspect’s movements requires a search warrant. As a result, the legal challenge in Florida could have repercussions for the FBI’s ability to use secret spy planes in future investigations.
“Getting a warrant, when you have such an intense surveillance of one individual, is a very minimal burden before going ‘Enemy of the State‘ on this guy,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Democracy. “This case shows the extreme lengths that the government is willing to push the argument that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply to bar its observation of you in public. It would be surprising if this is the only instance in which they’ve trained this kind of surveillance on one individual, so I doubt this is the last time we’ll hear about this kind of situation.”
The existence of the FBI’s spy plane program was revealed after the 2015 protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. At the request of the Baltimore Police Department, the FBI dispatched Cessna aircraft to monitor crowds from April 29 to May 3, 2015, and a year later the FBI released that video footage to the public.
The Associated Press and BuzzFeed News reported that the FBI’s spy plane program had been deployed nationwide and used more than 100 Cessna aircraft. Tail number registration records from the Federal Aviation Administration show that many of these aircraft were owned by what appeared to be FBI front companies, such as KQM Aviation and PXW Services. Surveillance cameras are mounted on the underside of the planes on the pilot’s side; pilots fly in a counterclockwise pattern in order to keep the camera constantly trained on targets.
“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” FBI spokesperson Christopher Allen told the Associated Press in 2015. “Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.”
A BuzzFeed analysis of FBI spy planes, using data from the flight-tracking website Flightradar24, found that the FBI used its aerial surveillance program following the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, in which Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at a company holiday party. Two aircraft circled the scene of the shooting, BuzzFeed reported, and the following week, flight records showed that three different FBI aircraft circled the mosque Farook had attended.
Until now, however, it has not been understood how the FBI might use its fleet of spy planes against an individual criminal suspect.
In May 2019, the FBI became interested in Alazhari, a Home Depot employee who was then 23 years old, after learning that he was watching ISIS propaganda and speaking favorably about the terrorist group, authorities claimed in court records. Federal agents also learned that Alazhari had been convicted in Saudi Arabia in 2015 on charges that alleged he was planning to travel to Syria to join Jaysh al-Islam, an Islamist militant group that was opposed to ISIS.
Alazhari allegedly tried to purchase a gun on eBay in April 2020. The FBI then took over the eBay seller’s account, and an undercover agent began to communicate directly with Alazhari. Alazhari told the undercover agent that he already had several guns and discussed selling those firearms, including an Uzi, to the undercover agent. “What’s actually really cool about this Uzi, it’s, it’s really accurate. I love it, I mean, the way it shoots,” Alazhari told the agent. Alazhari also discussed buying an AK-47 from the undercover agent, which he wanted to be modified for fully automatic fire.
The FBI’s near-constant aerial surveillance of Alazhari happened while he was communicating with the undercover agent who was pretending to be the eBay seller. From April 18, 2020, to May 12, 2020, the FBI surveilled Alazhari from the air every day except one — from two hours to as many as 20 hours per day during the period.
The only day the FBI didn’t surveil Alazhari by air was the one during which he was receiving in-patient mental health services.
In all, the FBI surveilled Alazhari from the air for nearly 429 hours. Some of this surveillance resulted in evidence the government has brought against Alazhari, including footage that the Justice Department claims shows him “scouting targets for a potential mass shooting attack.” Yet the FBI’s planes mostly followed Alazhari as he went about his life, following him to trips to Honeymoon Island State Park, off Florida’s west coast, and to Orlando.
The planes also followed Alazhari during routine events — including getting mail from his mailbox, visiting his sister, and going to an urgent-care clinic — and even once when he checked himself into an in-patient mental health facility. The only day the FBI didn’t surveil Alazhari by air during this period was the one during which he was receiving in-patient mental health services.
To keep eyes on Alazhari, the FBI used a rotation of planes, with a new plane taking off to pick up when another plane headed back to land. The planes’ cameras were able to zoom in close enough to identify people on the ground and could switch between various modes, including one that recognized heat signatures and could reveal people otherwise obstructed by trees or other objects.
The FBI used at least nine planes to surveil Alazhari — a fact that Alazhari’s lawyer was able to determine by the file names of the FBI’s videos, which were handed over to the defense as part of discovery in the criminal case. Each of the file names included what the lawyer described as “a seemingly meaningless alphanumeric pattern.” The alphanumerical designations were the FBI planes’ tail numbers.
FAA records show that the planes are registered to what appear to be FBI front companies, including RKT Productions, KQM Aviation, NG Research, OBR Leasing, and PSL Surveys. One of the planes used to surveil Alazhari — a Cessna 182T with the tail number N404KR — was also flown by the FBI in California in the days after the San Bernardino shooting.
“The surveillance sounds like the ravings of a paranoid schizophrenic,” Landes, Alazhari’s lawyer, wrote in the filing challenging the legality of this warrantless aerial surveillance, explaining why the court should view the surveillance as an illegal search. “Society is therefore prepared to recognize as reasonable Mr. Alazhari’s perfectly sane expectation that he was not being constantly watched from above by the FBI.”