Imam Yassir Fazaga remembers the panic he felt. He remembers opening up the electrical sockets in his office and searching behind his computer monitor, looking for recording devices. In conversations with congregants, especially unfamiliar ones, he had doubts. “Who else is an informant? Who else is spying on me?” he recalls thinking.
It was the mid-2000s, and Fazaga had just learned that in the years after 9/11, the FBI had sent a man to spy on the community at his mosque in Mission Viejo, Calif., where Fazaga was the religious leader. The informant, a man with a criminal history who had worked for the FBI for years, had recorded hundreds of hours of audio and video conversations and helped the bureau listen in on private conversations between congregants and their spiritual advisors, according to allegations made in court documents. He’d even gone so far as to propose to two other community members that “we should bomb something.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Patriot Act and other government measures vastly expanded the bureau’s authority to surveil Americans, and it reportedly increased its use of informants to record numbers in the decade after the attacks. Of the more than 970 terrorism defendants prosecuted by the DOJ since 9/11, more than one third were caught up in FBI stings; and about 300 of those cases involved the use of informants, according to the Intercept. State and local law enforcement groups also got much more aggressive in their methods post-9/11. In 2018, the New York Police Department settled a lawsuit that accused it of illegally infiltrating student groups and mosques in a program that ran from around 2002 to 2014—an endeavor that the NYPD acknowledged led to no credible intelligence leads.