A recent federal trial in Ohio offers new details about how the FBI uses informants in Muslim communities to gather intelligence on domestic terrorist threats.
Since Sept. 11, the bureau's aggressive use of such informants—including giving them the green light to spy on suspects inside mosques—has triggered concerns about potential civil liberties abuses. The issue is threatening to become even hotter: Attorney General Michael Mukasey recently confirmed he is expanding internal FBI guidelines governing the use of undercover informants in national security investigations. The proposed new guidelines, according to two senior law enforcement officials, would give FBI agents greater latitude to "task" undercover informants to collect intelligence in entire communities where potential threats are deemed to exist, rather than simply targeting specific individuals suspected of wrongdoing.
But a recent counter-terrorism case in Toledo, Ohio, shows how the FBI already started down that road in the wake of 9/11. Thanks largely to the work of a well-compensated FBI undercover informant, federal prosecutors last month secured the convictions of three Islamic radicals in Toledo on charges of conspiring to kill or maim U.S. troops overseas. FBI officials have touted the case as a major success story in part because it exposed what they see as an increasingly alarming phenomenon: the emergence of "homegrown" jihadis who cook up terror plots on their own after downloading violent extremist literature and terror training manuals over the Internet.
"O Mujahid brother, in order to join the great training camps, you don't have to travel to other lands," reads one of the manuals downloaded by the defendants from a Saudi Arabian website linked to Al Qaeda. "Alone in your home or with a group of your brothers, you too can begin to execute the training."
It is not clear how far the three Toledo men—all of Middle Eastern descent—would have gotten in their plans to attack U.S. troops in Iraq. Defense lawyers insist their clients were convicted based on mere "talk," not any actual acts of terrorism. But federal officials say the FBI would never have learned of the defendants in the first place had it not been for the work of a former U.S. Special Forces commando named Darren Griffin, who was recruited by the FBI after 9/11 and instructed to insinuate himself into the Toledo Muslim community, posing as a convert to Islam with extremist views.
"I'm profoundly disturbed that the government would send someone into the Islamic community to gather information without more specifics," said Steve Hartman, who represented one of the defendants, Marwan el-Hindi, a 45-year one-time travel agent and prison Imam. "The Islamic community should assume based on this that someone around them is working for the government. That's also disturbing."
Federal officials say that Griffin, who was paid more than $300,000 for his work, had previously served as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. After the 9/11 attacks, the DEA suggested to the FBI that Griffin, who spoke Farsi and rudimentary Arabic and had been injured during a parachute jump overseas, could help the bureau in its new top priority mission of collecting intelligence on domestic Islamic extremists.
Griffin spent months establishing his cover as a disgruntled ex-soldier devoted to Jihad against U.S. forces overseas. At the outset, said the sources familiar with the case (who asked for anonymity when discussing details of the investigation), Griffin was supposed to hang around a local mosque and was "tasked" with gathering information on individuals the FBI deemed "persons of interest." According to defense lawyer Hartman, the FBI originally had up to 20 intelligence targets in mind. But at least initially, they didn't name any of the targets to Griffin. Government officials said the initial targets' identities are still considered confidential.
Dennis Terez, head of the Federal Public Defender's office in Ohio, who represented one of El-Hindi's co-conspirators in the case, noted: "The way the government went about this investigation raises certain questions in our minds. If our client—indeed if none of the defendants—were to be found on the list of intelligence targets, what happened to the targets? Did this investigation sidetrack the government so that the 20 targets got away?"
But Griffin eventually came across other local suspects who piqued the FBI's interest. In 2002, he first met el-Hindi, a Jordanian-born US citizen, who prosecutors say had approached Griffin seeking bodyguard training. Then, in the summer of 2004, el-Hindi introduced Griffin to two Chicago "brothers"—Zubair and Khaleel Ahmed—who were supposedly also interested in such training. (The two Chicago men, of Egyptian descent, were actually cousins.)
Griffin established a relationship with the Ahmed cousins. That in turn led to yet more connections. According to court documents, Zubair and Khaleel Ahmed communicated over the internet with an Atlanta man who was a U.S. contact for an international Islamic network that recruited and indoctrinated followers via the web. One key figure in this network: a London man named Younis Tsouli, who used the internet nickname "Irhabi 007"—Arabic for "Terrorist 007." Tsouli was known for posting inflammatory Jihadist messages and videos, including beheading scenes staged by the now deceased leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Moussab al-Zarqawi.
El-Hindi and Griffin also met up with Mohammed Zaki Amawi, a 28-year-old Toledo man who had spent much of his youth in Jordan. The FBI informant and the two suspects began to "discuss and plan...violent jihad training," according to court testimony. (El-Hindi's lawyer says the initial meeting between Griffin and the two men occurred at a mosque). During the course of subsequent meetings and conversations, Griffin wore a wire and recorded the two suspects discussing firearms training and building homemade bombs for supposed use against U.S. troops overseas.
Beginning in 2004, El-Hindi, Amawi and a third Toledo man, 27-year-old Wassim Mazloum, allegedly began plotting to provide "one or more co-conspirators overseas" with resources—including a volatile but powerful explosive known as "astrolite"—that could be used to launch attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and elsewhere.
In August 2005, Amawi and Griffin, the FBI's undercover man, traveled from Detroit to Jordan carrying five laptop computers that Amawi allegedly intended to deliver to "the brothers." The two made a second trip to Jordan a few months later. Throughout these alleged machinations, Griffin continued make audio, and in some cases, video recordings of the suspects.
Finally, in February 2006, the feds arrested El-Hindi, Amawi and Mazloum. (According to his lawyer, Amawi was actually arrested in Jordan and flown back to the United States). The decision was a difficult one for the FBI because it meant that Griffin's role as an undercover informant would have to be exposed, given that he was the main witness against the defendants. The decision to bring the case to court—and expose the undercover informant's identity—"represents the challenge we face in these cases between prevention and prosecution," said Frank Figliuzzi, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Cleveland office. Figliuzzi told Newsweek that investigators decided that they had to blow their source's cover because they feared that "left to their own devices," the suspects either would have made their way to Iraq to join anti-American insurgents, or plotted mayhem closer to home—or both.
When the case came to trial this spring, Griffin appeared for the first time on the witness stand and was grilled by defense lawyers about his actions and background, including his alleged use of cocaine and marijuana while acting as a DEA informant. Defense lawyers also tried to show Griffin had manipulated both their clients and his FBI handlers. The lawyers did not allege entrapment; instead they argued that Amawi, the most important defendant, knew all along that Griffin was an FBI informant but was trying to milk him for money. A Toledo jury didn't buy it. They convicted all three defendants of all criminal counts against them. The men still await sentencing. El-Hindi faces additional charges of conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service in connection with a $40,000 grant he received to set up a tax-advice clinic.
Investigators say the El-Hindi case illustrates the critical role of undercover informants in identifying potential terror suspects. That's one reason the FBI now wants to expand its use under the proposed new guidelines that Mukasey is considering. The use of undercover informants for general intelligence gathering comes at the same time as a broader bureau initiative called "Know Your Domain." Under the program, which is just starting in some cities, FBI offices will be instructed to develop detailed national security threat profiles in their communities. "It's basically threat assessment," said a senior official familiar with the program who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters. "Do we have a problem with the Hassidic community in New York? Do we have a problem with Muslims in Newark? Do we have a problem with rodeo guys in Montana?"