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For Many American Muslims, The Legacy Of 9/11 Lies In The Battle For Civil Rights

Ali Malik is part of a class action lawsuit against the FBI alleging religious discrimination and violations of surveillance laws.
Umara Chaudry
Ali Malik is part of a class action lawsuit against the FBI alleging religious discrimination and violations of surveillance laws.

Updated September 11, 2021 at 1:02 PM ET

On a recent day in Irvine, Calif., Ali Malik is looking for his son Layth's shoes to get ready to go to an arcade.

Layth is 5 and his brother, Muhammad Binyamin (they call him Binyamin) is 9.

The Sept. 11 attacks happened well before their lives began. So they don't fully understand how it changed so much for this country, led to two American invasions, occupations and wars. And they also don't know how it changed their dad.

All they know is their father is suing the FBI.

Twenty years ago, Malik was a 17-year-old high school student, a popular football player in Orange County, Calif.

That morning he recalls his brother rushing into his room.

"Ali, Ali, wake up. Some terrorists hit the World Trade Center," his brother told him. Malik jumped down from his lofted bed.

"What?" he asked.

Like everyone, he was confused, afraid and grieving. Soon after, like so many Muslims in the United States, a different fear set in: that his faith would be associated with the 19 hijackers.

What followed were two decades of policies that civil rights advocates say add up to the religious profiling and unlawful surveillance of Muslims in the U.S. under the broad banner of national security.

"My life at that time was completely different I would say to my life afterwards," Malik said. "9/11 completely changed the world and it changed my life for sure."

In the weeks after the attacks, some 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, were rounded up. Some were held without charges for months. Many were deported on largely minor immigration violations. And Malik was getting questions from friends about Islam, about Afghanistan and about the drumbeat for war. He didn't know all the answers.

"And to deal with it, I used alcohol to be honest," he said. He told himself, "I'm just going to party, I'm going to have a good time. I'm going to hang out with my friends and I'm not going to deal with it."

After the turmoil of 9/11, a meeting with an imam turns the page for Ali Malik

Then he met the religious leader, or imam, that led the Islamic Center of Irvine in Orange County. Malik started to search for the answers to his questions and the ones he was getting about his faith.

"It was the imam and the community at the Islamic Center of Irvine that really turned the page for me and made me realize, no, we do have an articulate voice. No, this isn't our tradition," he said.

He was sure that his faith wasn't the caricature of evil depicted on television.

"I stopped partying and I started studying. I got my life together," he said. "I started going back to school and I wanted to get into academia and be able to address these concerns and address these questions."

He had dreams of becoming a foreign service officer for the State Department. He enrolled in the University of California, Irvine. He was politically active on campus. He traveled to learn and to share his knowledge. He went to Washington, D.C., and took a trip to Yemen to study at a respected seminary for about six weeks. And in Irvine he was at the mosque every chance he got.

"It was a happening place," Malik said. "The youth were involved and we finally had a mosque that we could go to that was super fun, where we could be active and study our faith, be involved and just feel like we're part of this safe community."

A new convert at the mosque is actually an FBI informant

All that changed in 2006 when a man named Craig Monteilh came into the mosque and converted in front of hundreds of people in the congregation.

He took the name Farouk al-Aziz and pretended to be of French and Syrian descent. The community welcomed him, inviting him into their homes and helping him in his journey to learn a new faith.

Monteilh, as it turned out, was a paid FBI informant who'd done prison time. He was collecting information, recording them on behalf of the FBI in mosques across Southern California, according to his witness statements and court documents.

"It's very empowering when you are a criminal and you're sanctioned by the government. It means that you can do whatever you want and they will overlook it," he said in an interview.

In those witness statements he said he was asked by the FBI to incite violence to try to get others to do the same. In an interview with NPR and in court documents he said he was tasked with gathering as much information on as many Muslims as he could for the FBI. But Monteilh eventually outed himself as an informant who entrapped people.

When Monteilh was still Farouk al-Aziz, posing as a convert, learning a new faith, the imam at the mosque asked Malik, then 22, to help Monteilh learn to pray.

The informant insists on asking about violent jihad

Pretty quickly Monteilh started to ask Malik some frightening questions about violent jihad. Malik was concerned, but chalked it up to misinformation that a new Muslim may have gleaned from television. So Malik explained the concept of personal struggle.

"I was like, 'You know, jihad is a fight against your own ego. It's a fight against yourself, the desires that might guide you to being a bad person. You need to fight against those carnal appetites," he said. "And he's like, 'But, what about, you know, what about the fighting jihad?' Like, that's what he was trying to get at."

He asked if any imams were supportive of violent jihad. Malik responded, no, none.

"I've never met any," he recalled telling Monteilh.

For the next few months he'd work out with Monteilh at the gym sometimes. He continued to try to help him learn the faith and they talked about life.

Meanwhile Monteilh was recording everything. He was asked to find out details about Malik's personal life so the FBI could use that to pressure him, according to court documents.

At one point Malik gave Monteilh a book. It's commonly used in Sunday school for kids. It teaches basic practices: how to pray, the five pillars of Islam, the Islamic prophets.

At another gym session Monteilh told Malik they needed to talk. He walked him over to the bikes and they pedaled.

"Again, he just jumped straight to jihad and he knew all the pages from the book that mentioned jihad," Malik said. "Really trying to get me to say something about it, like, 'OK, OK, I was lying the whole time. We do believe in jihad, we have a plan. We're going to do something big. Are you in?' "

Malik just kept telling him no, reteaching the personal struggle. He urged him to focus on learning the faith. Monteilh was scaring him.

"He just wouldn't get off it. And that's when the alarm bells started ringing," he said.

Malik loses the sanctuary of being at the mosque

He went to the leadership at the mosque and told them he was worried about Monteilh being violent. He told the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations what Monteilh was saying. Malik was afraid. Monteilh was a big guy and menacing when he wanted to be.

When Malik would see him at the mosque, he'd hide behind cars in the parking lot.

"He's physically intimidating, he was massive and I was a young kid," Malik said.

Finally Malik stopped going to the mosque altogether.

"That religious sanctuary, that spiritual sanctuary, became a place of complete discontent, complete chaos. It was a scary place," he said. "It was ruined. It was stained."

Some 15 years later it still brings him to tears, now knowing Monteilh was earning thousands of dollars a month to secretly record him and many other innocent people.

"I introduced him to my mom at the mosque and she was so happy and she was like, come over for food. My mom loved to feed converts," Malik said.

She wanted Monteilh to feel supported in his new faith. This makes Malik cry. He brought Monteilh into his family's life.

"What if he did something to her?" Malik asks himself.

The community turned Monteilh into the FBI as a possible threat.

But the FBI didn't do anything. So they got a restraining order from an Orange County judge to keep him away.

And the little trust between the Muslim community and the FBI was broken.

Malik and other Muslims are suing the FBI

Malik and two other Muslims who were surveilled are suing the FBI for religious discrimination and violations of surveillance laws in a class action lawsuit. A portion of that legal fight will be in front of the Supreme Court in November. The court will hear arguments on whether the government has the right to invoke the state secrets privilege, which says it can withhold evidence if it poses "reasonable danger" to national security. Meaning the main accusation, religious discrimination, could be dismissed entirely, and accusers won't have their day in court or any judicial recourse.

"I didn't do anything wrong, and they know that, and they're using the state secrets privilege to hide the fact that they did something unconstitutional to go after me and try to entrap me and other Muslims in the United States," Malik said.

Yassir Fazaga, a religious leader of the Orange County Islamic Foundation takes questions from the media, as he announces a lawsuit against the FBI at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California headquarters in Los Angeles on Feb. 23.
Damian Dovarganes / AP
Yassir Fazaga, a religious leader of the Orange County Islamic Foundation takes questions from the media, as he announces a lawsuit against the FBI at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California headquarters in Los Angeles on Feb. 23.

For 14 months Monteilh recorded hundreds of hours of audio and video with key fobs outfitted with recorders and a video camera in the button of a shirt he wore. He took pictures of license plates. He collected hundreds of cellphone numbers and thousands of emails and mapped out mosques in Southern California for his FBI handlers, according to his own statements in the case. And he was told to "investigate" Malik because he studied in Yemen and had become more religious. Also, Monteilh said he was told the way Malik "groomed his beard indicated that he was a radical."

"There's no oversight. So the abuses aren't known and they can do whatever they want, and I think that that needs to have some boundaries," Monteilh said in an interview.

He doesn't regret his days as an informant. He even called the work of collecting information on scores of Muslims who hadn't committed crimes "necessary." But he does think about the trauma he caused so many innocent people.

"There were hundreds of people that I was in their homes, in their businesses, in their mosques. They left the country out of fear because of Operation Flex," he said. "I have to bear that burden alone."

Twenty years after 9/11, Monteilh said, the trust between the FBI and Muslim communities is nonexistent. The FBI, he said, isn't acting in good faith to work with Muslims. Instead, Monteilh said, Muslims are viewed as suspicious and when agents interact with Muslims it's about "creating suspects." Meanwhile, Muslims don't trust the FBI, in part because often when they do say something they're turned into suspects. It's why Monteilh provided witness statements in the case.

"I can actually, with the help of the ACLU, strengthen the civil rights of Americans and how surveillance is conducted. And just make a difference in this country as far as how things are done within the confines of counterterrorism," he said.

The FBI informant says his handlers told him Islam was a threat to America

In his statements he said he was taught basic Arabic and trained to pose as a Muslim.

"Both my handlers and other agents explicitly told me that Islam was a threat to America's national security," Monteilh said in one witness statement. "My handlers also instructed me to start attending fajr (dawn) prayers, which are held about 4 a.m., or ishaa (late) prayers, which are held about 9:30 p.m. My handlers told me that people who attended prayers very early in the morning or late at night, and especially both, were very devout and therefore more suspicious."

His pay went up when he started to go to the early prayers. He was told to stir up anger by speaking about U.S. foreign policies that led to the killing of Muslim civilians and record people's reactions. He was told it was fine to have sex with women if it helped him gather information and eventually he was given immunity and asked to incite violence.

"I began asking people about violent jihad, expressing frustration over the oppression of Muslims around the world, pressing them for their views and suggesting that I might be willing or able to take action," he said in his statement. "After one incident where I said some extreme things in order to test the reaction of others, several individuals reported me to local police and to the FBI. When the authorities did not respond with any urgency, people became suspicious that I might be working for the FBI."

This sort of surveillance wasn't just happening in Southern California, it was happening in places across the country. And the policies that allowed it haven't changed.

An FBI spokeswoman said she couldn't comment on pending litigation.

The secret surveillance led to no convictions, but Monteilh said that wasn't the point. The point was to build a huge database on Muslims in Southern California, home to the second-largest Muslim population in the United States.

Today at 37, Malik has abandoned all his dreams of bridge building and becoming a foreign service officer. Instead he's in medical device sales. This lawsuit is the most important decision he's made in his life.

"I want my kids to know that we live in a participatory democracy, that we live in a system where you can sue the government, not because you hate the government, but because the government did something wrong and we have systems to check the government," he said.

Suing came with costs, he said. He was often searched and questioned for hours when returning from travels, the contents of his computer and phone downloaded. He said the FBI tried to hold up his wife Umara Chaudry's visa over the lawsuit. Despite this, he went through with the suit.

"Not just for me, not just for the Muslim community but for everyone, for all Americans, which isn't easy," Malik said.

He and his wife had nightmares about FBI raids in the middle of the night. Today those have subsided.

"Now we're coming up on a decade of litigation in this case where the government has resisted even the idea of being [hauled] into court to be accountable to what it did," said Mohammad Tajsar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU working on the case.

The ACLU says the states-secrets privilege is used to block government accountability

The use of the state-secrets privilege long predates the Sept. 11 attacks. But since then, Tajsar said, it's been used to "defeat any kind of judicial review and accountability for its actions in prosecuting the 'war on terror' domestically, internationally. And that's what the government did here."

He said if the Supreme Court decides that the government is within it's rights to invoke the privilege in this case "what we have essentially done is destroyed checks and balances and any kind of accountability for unlawful government conduct by giving the executive the full power to unilaterally declare what is permissible for you to bring in court."

That is the danger of the years after Sept. 11, 2001, when constitutional rights including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right against unreasonable search and seizure are skirted anytime the government says it's for national security.

"9/11 created a permanent state of exception and emergency within the United States that allowed for the suspension of even the most minimal legal protections and rights that people have struggled, fought and died for," Tajsar said.

For Yassir Fazaga, a religious leader and psychotherapist who is the named plaintiff in the case, that is the legacy of 9/11 twenty years later. American Muslims didn't have time to grieve an attack on their country, he said, because they were made into the imagined enemy of the state.

"The recipients of the negativity of the policy may be Muslims right now, but that potentially can extend to all of us, to the rest of us," he said. "I would say for anybody that is thinking that this is none of their business. Think again, please."

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.