Mohammed Agbareia was living the Florida dream. His three-bedroom, 2,126-square-foot home, with a palm tree-lined pool and hot tub in the backyard, was located near the tony town of Wellington: an equestrian-oriented playpen for the world’s richest people about 15 miles from President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Agbareia parked a Hummer and a Jeep Wrangler in the driveway. His neighbors in the manicured gated community knew him as a charming, successful man who had studied physics in Canada and sold medical equipment for a company in Boca Raton.

But Agbareia’s life in Florida and his successful image came to an end on May 30, 2017, when a couple of FBI agents arrived at his home. Agbareia was just getting out of the shower. He wrapped a towel around his body to answer the door.

“Get dressed,” an FBI agent told him.

Agbareia and the FBI weren’t strangers. For more than a decade, Agbareia had been one of the FBI’s more than 15,000 informants — so valuable as a “national security asset” that FBI Special Agent Brian King told a federal judge in Alabama in 2006 and again in 2009 that Agbareia, who had been extradited from Canada to face criminal charges in the United States, should not be turned over to immigration authorities for deportation. The FBI needed him.

“I looked at him as a brother,” the 55-year-old Agbareia said of King in an interview with The Intercept.

King, whom the FBI declined to make available for comment, had been a frequent visitor at Agbareia’s house, according to Agbareia. He’d come with assignments — people in South Florida’s Muslim communities whom the bureau wanted Agbareia to spy on — and sometimes with cash payments. In all, the FBI paid Agbareia, an Arab Israeli citizen, $ 121,962 over nearly 10 years and kept him from the clutches of immigration authorities.

In return, Agbareia befriended Muslims the FBI was interested in knowing more about, and from April 2015 to July 2016, he played a key role in an FBI sting that led to the arrest and conviction of three Black converts to Islam for supporting the Islamic State group. “These defendants conspired and attempted to provide material support to ISIL and one of the defendants was arrested attempting to travel overseas to join and fight for the deadly terrorist organization,” then-U.S. Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin said in a statement announcing the terrorism bust.

But when Agbareia answered the door in a towel almost a year after that Justice Department announcement, the FBI wasn’t there to discuss a new assignment. They were there to arrest Agbareia on four counts of wire fraud. Federal prosecutors charged Agbareia with running scams to defraud people in Texas, Colorado, New York, Ohio, and Germany. Agbareia had looked up wealthy Muslims around the world and then contacted them as part of a scheme in which he would pretend to be a devout Muslim stranded on his way to their community. He needed money, he’d tell them, and the cash would roll in hours later through Western Union. “It was all so easy,” Agbareia said of his scams.

That’s how Agbareia funded his lifestyle in Florida, and he alleges that King and the FBI were well aware that he was running scams for the decade he worked as an informant. The bureau turned a blind eye to the crimes because Agbareia was valuable to them, he said. While the FBI declined to comment about Agbareia, citing a policy of not discussing informants, the circumstances of Agbareia’s Florida life and his work for the FBI suggest that government agents should have known something was fishy about how he paid his bills. The FBI paid him less than $ 20,000 per year on average. FBI agents knew he couldn’t work legitimately, because they were the ones keeping him out of the custody of immigration authorities. And yet all the while, Agbareia was living in a luxury home with expensive cars in the driveway.

Agbareia’s arrest was largely the result of his own sloppiness, which finally made it impossible for the FBI to cover for him. A hidden camera, installed by the FBI in Agbareia’s home while he worked on a case, captured him talking in Arabic and running one of his “stranded traveler” schemes; a defense lawyer who stumbled on the incriminating recording notified federal prosecutors.

   

Agbareia’s story is emblematic of a larger institutional problem at the FBI. Many of the bureau’s more than 15,000 informants commit crimes that go unpunished because the bureau views the informants’ work as valuable. The extent of this problem is largely unknown because the FBI is not required to report to Congress when informants violate the law without FBI authorization. According to policy, however, the bureau is supposed to notify the Justice Department of these violations. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by USA Today, HuffPost, and the Daily Dot show that from 2010 to 2014, the FBI permitted informants to violate the law more than 20,000 times. The number of unauthorized crimes committed by informants like Agbareia that are ignored by the FBI has never been disclosed.

The number of unauthorized crimes committed by informants like Agbareia that are ignored by the FBI has never been disclosed.

Lack of FBI oversight is a critical problem here. For years, Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, has pushed the Justice Department to revise FBI guidelines to require the agency to tell Congress about crimes committed by informants. But the Justice Department and the FBI have refused to be transparent about their informants’ illegal activities.

For his part, Agbareia now feels burned by the FBI. The bureau benefited from his scams as much as he did, Agbareia alleged, because those scams allowed him to work full time as an informant for years. Once the FBI could no longer keep the crimes secret, he said, they turned on him — resulting in criminal charges and his removal from the country.

“This is like what they call the abused woman syndrome,” Agbareia said from Israel, the country of his birth. “She’s being abused by her husband, but in the back of her mind, she still thinks it’s OK. And it’s OK. And it’s OK. And then it’s too late and he kills her. This is what happened with me and the government.”

Agbareia’s frauds weren’t a surprise to the FBI. They brought the con man and Special Agent King together in the first place.

In May 2005, federal prosecutors in Alabama indicted Agbareia, who was then living in Canada, for running his “stranded traveler” scheme on 54 victims, including a mosque in Mobile, Alabama. Canada, acting on a U.S. government request, extradited Agbareia to face the charges. A little more than a year later, Agbareia pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served and ordered to pay more than $ 90,000 in restitution to his victims. U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Butler Jr. also ordered Agbareia turned over to immigration authorities for deportation.

That’s when King, then an FBI agent in Alabama, stepped in, telling the judge in an affidavit that Agbareia should be spared deportation because he had been enlisted as an informant. Shortly after, King moved to the FBI’s office in West Palm Beach, Florida, and he brought Agbareia with him. Because Agbareia was on probation in Alabama, King successfully petitioned for his probation supervision to be moved to Florida, where he was needed as an informant on matters “pertaining to national security investigations.”

“They wanted me to keep this image of a person who’s doing so well in the United States.”

Agbareia arrived in West Palm Beach in October 2007. “They wanted me to keep this image of a person who’s doing so well in the United States,” Agbareia said. To help build that cover, King introduced him to a real estate agent. That’s how Agbareia landed the home near Wellington. The rent was $ 2,500 per month. Agbareia’s wife and son then moved from Canada to join him in Florida.

But the money from the FBI, according to Agbareia, came sporadically and in small amounts. There was no way he could live off what the FBI was paying him, so he continued the “stranded traveler” scams, he said.

“I’m living in a nice house. It has a swimming pool. It has all these things,” Agbareia said. “The FBI, they’re not idiots. They’re not dumbasses. They know I cannot afford this. They know I don’t have a job. They know I don’t have work. They know what I’m doing.”

Illustration: Clay Rodery for The Intercept

A Convenient Loophole

The most infamous example of an informant committing crimes while working for the FBI is Whitey Bulger. A Boston mobster who was protected by John J. Connolly Jr., his FBI handler, Bulger provided information to federal agents about his rivals in organized crime. At the same time Bulger was providing information to the FBI, his Winter Hill Gang was involved in a host of violent crimes, including murders, and Connolly made sure that the FBI didn’t investigate Bulger and his crew.

The Bulger case was egregious, and the Justice Department prosecuted Connolly in 2002 for racketeering, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. Bulger was a fugitive for more than a decade, until he was found in California in 2011. He was convicted in 2013 and later murdered in prison.

Informants are the backbone of the FBI: There are more registered informants working for the FBI today than there are agents. Because FBI guidelines require agents to have probable cause before infiltrating groups or people’s private lives, informants are often on the front lines in the FBI’s undercover work. The probable cause requirement doesn’t apply to informants — a policy loophole that incentivizes FBI agents to use informants when the bureau has suspicions but no evidence to suggest that a crime has occurred.

There are more registered informants working for the FBI today than there are agents.

But unlike agents, many informants have checkered pasts. They are often criminals and scam artists like Agbareia, and to some extent, that’s by design. Choirboys aren’t well suited for infiltrating criminal organizations or violent groups. FBI agents acknowledge that the best informants are criminals who won’t lose sleep after betraying people.

So what does the FBI do when criminals in their employ commit crimes that agents didn’t authorize as part of investigations? With no oversight rules that require the FBI to disclose when informants break the law without authorization, it’s impossible to know how often this occurs — but there is an obvious incentive for the FBI to ignore the informants’ crimes: An informant facing criminal charges won’t be a useful asset.

While the FBI spends $ 42 million per year on payments to informants, the bureau is not adequately reviewing long-term informants to ensure that their behavior, including possibly unauthorized illegal activity, doesn’t disqualify them, a November 2019 report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General found.

This has been a long-term problem for the FBI. A related 2005 Office of the Inspector General report found that 87 percent of reviewed informant files contained documentation of actions violating policies on the handling of informants. Of 120 informants analyzed, 12 committed crimes that the FBI had not authorized. But that number was artificially low, because the inspector general also found that the FBI had engaged in a practice of authorizing criminal activity retroactively. In at least two cases in which the informants’ criminal activity was not authorized, the FBI did not report the crimes to the U.S. attorney’s office, as required by policy. That’s what appears to have occurred in Agbareia’s case.

The FBI declined to respond to a list of questions related to its handling of Agbareia as an informant.

“The FBI’s use of informants — across all criminal and national security programs — is done in accordance with strict guidelines and in close coordination with the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s offices,” James P. Marshall, an FBI spokesman in Miami, said in response to the questions. “Aside from what you may have learned from court proceedings or documents, the FBI does not discuss actions taken in the course of an investigation.”

A Person of Interest

In Agbareia’s view, the FBI had given him immunity as a con man. King instructed Agbareia to become well known in South Florida’s Muslim communities and to spend time in the Shamsuddin Islamic Center in North Miami Beach — a mosque that for years has been the target of FBI investigation and surveillance because its congregants had once included Adnan El Shukrijumah, a senior Al Qaeda member before his death in 2014, and José Padilla, who was convicted of plotting a dirty bomb attack in the United States for Al Qaeda.

Prior to Agbareia’s move to Florida, the FBI had been aggressively investigating people associated with the North Miami Beach mosque. FBI agents approached the imam, Foad Farahi, in 2004 and demanded that he become an informant. When he refused, U.S. authorities attempted to deport him and told him that the only way to stay in the country was to work as an informant. The deportation case was based solely on a technicality: Farahi, a Sunni born in Kuwait with Iranian citizenship, was in the country on a student visa. In one semester while finishing a master’s degree, he needed to take only two classes, which he did, making him a part-time student and as a result violating visa terms that required full-time study. Farahi successfully fought off the FBI’s pressure campaign and has remained in Florida.

Foad Farahi has spent 15 years assuming that FBI informants were all around him. One of those informants was Mohammed Agbareia.

Foad Farahi has spent 15 years assuming that FBI informants were all around him. One of those informants was Mohammed Agbareia.

Photo: Trevor Aaronson

Agbareia said King told him that Farahi would be one of his first targets. “Farahi was a person of interest,” Agbareia said. “They wanted to know a lot about him, about his ideology.” According to a 2007 FBI memorandum obtained by The Intercept, federal agents believed that Farahi was an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood “intelligence officer/recruiter.” The memo — which does not provide information to support the Muslim Brotherhood claim — states that in 2003, a man in Trinidad told agents that Farahi had been “close friends” with Shukrijumah, the Al Qaeda member. The report provides no evidence for its claims and instead relies significantly on innuendo, such as an informant’s claim in 2004 that Farahi seemed “pissed off at life.”

Farahi told The Intercept he’s spent 15 years assuming that FBI informants were all around him. It’s been that way since federal agents associated him with Shukrijumah. Farahi acknowledges having met Shukrimjah in Florida but says they were not “close friends,” as the FBI memo stated.

Farahi remembered Agbareia, but since he rarely saw the man without his family in tow, he hadn’t suspected he was an FBI informant. “Usually when someone’s an informant, you don’t see their family,” Farahi said. “He always brought his wife and son.”

That was part of what made Agbareia unique in his work for the FBI. He was a family man, a professional, a generous donor to local Muslim causes — not what many would expect in an informant.

That’s how Fadi Kablawi remembered Agbareia as well. A dentist in Miami, Kablawi met Agbareia as a patient who needed fillings. Agbareia didn’t go to Kablawi’s dental practice on his own accord, though; he said he went there at the FBI’s instruction.

Fadi-Kablawi

Fadi Kablawi, a dentist in Miami, knew Mohammed Agbareia as a patient and a friend. Agbareia said the FBI instructed him to befriend Kablawi.

Photo: Trevor Aaronson

According to Agbareia, FBI agents were suspicious of Kablawi because of his devout religious beliefs and suspected he might associate with violent extremists. Kablawi’s video sermons on Facebook and YouTube had attracted decent followings, and he regularly spoke at mosques throughout South Florida. For years, Kablawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan, has suspected he’s been under FBI investigation, so he wasn’t surprised that federal agents sent in an informant as a patient. “It’s all about my rhetoric, my speech. They feel that I have influence. I’m changing people’s perception of things,” Kablawi told The Intercept. “And that’s what they view as a threat. I criticize the government here, and I criticize governments in our countries. I hate injustice. I will risk everything to speak out for the truth.”

As a result of the FBI-ordered friendship, Agbareia arranged for Kablawi to give talks at mosques in West Palm Beach, and Kablawi in turn asked Agbareia to write for a local Muslim magazine that he published. Writing under the name Mohammad Hassan, Agbareia wrote pedestrian articles about physics. “The strange world of quantum science and its phantom-like nature,” read the headline of one article. “Atoms, particles, and the forces moving them,” read another.

As was the case with Farahi, Agbareia never saw Kablawi doing anything illegal.

The FBI’s interest in Kablawi has extended beyond Agbareia as well. In September 2017, a few months after the FBI arrested Agbareia for wire fraud, state prosecutors in Florida indicted Kablawi for Medicare fraud, alleging he overcharged Medicare $ 13,737 for patients’ dentures. He has denied those charges, explaining that he allowed patients to pay an upcharge in order to purchase dentures that were of higher quality than those covered by Medicare and has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. Records show that the FBI played at least a supporting role in getting Kablawi indicted by state prosecutors. In a court filing, a Miami-Dade police investigator disclosed that “in accordance with provisions of the search warrant” of the dental office, he had turned over Kablawi’s iPhone to an FBI agent.

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Illustration: Clay Rodery for The Intercept

A Bloody Damn Fantasy

In Palm Beach County’s Muslim community, Agbareia had met Gregory Hubbard, a Black man in his late 40s who served in the Marines and then worked in a variety of jobs. Before moving to South Florida, he ran a cheesecake shop in upstate New York. In Florida, he scratched out a living making paintings and sculptures.

Agbareia told King that Hubbard had expressed support for the 2015 San Bernardino shooting and said that the war in Syria justified such attacks. Agbareia also told King that he thought Hubbard was a man of talk, not action. “He was a person who believed in conspiracy theories,” Agbareia said. “He thought that even the meat at McDonald’s was made out of kids. It was insane.” But King was still interested. Agbareia said King told him to get to know Hubbard better and see what happens.

Hubbard introduced Agbareia to two friends, Dayne Christian and Darren Jackson. At the time, Christian was working at a Dunkin’ Donuts, having recently completed a one-year federal prison sentence for acting as a straw buyer for a friend’s gun purchase. Jackson, who was recently divorced, had been working as welder in nuclear power plants.

Agbareia started hanging out together with Hubbard, Christian, and Jackson — and together they discussed the possibility of moving to Syria to live under ISIS rule. They also watched and commented on ISIS propaganda videos together. Their conversations were captured by recording devices Agbareia wore and others hidden in his home. The informant encouraged the conversations about ISIS but privately marveled at the men’s naivete.

“They make out the conditions of living in the [Islamic] State, or the dawla, like a Shangri-La,” Agbareia remembered. “Everything’s going to be a gold coin. Everybody gets a house, gets married. They live such a peaceful life, and it’s like paradise. That’s the picture they have. It’s a bloody damn fantasy.”

Christian confirmed in an interview from prison that they talked about moving to Syria and about ISIS, but in his view, no one was serious. “What I can say honestly is, I did have interest to go to that region, whether it be Iraq or Syria, just for the purposes of seeing what it was like to live under Islamic law.” But he said it was just talk. “It was just, excuse my language, like you’re shooting the shit with each other.”

Christian was suspicious of Agbareia. While he appeared to be a successful businessman, something about him didn’t add up. “Mohammed was always available,” Christian said. “How are you always available? It doesn’t matter the day, the time — you’re always available. Do you work? Things just started to seem strange about him, and every time we would meet up, all he would want to talk about is ISIS. It was just the same thing over and over again.”

Christian and Jackson confronted Hubbard about Agbareia, and they argued. “He’s a good brother,” Hubbard insisted. Christian and Jackson agreed to trust Agbareia on Hubbard’s word, and over the next few months they continued to talk about ISIS. Christian, who owned guns despite being a felon, loaned them to Agbareia and Hubbard to use for shooting practice. A few weeks before their arrest, Christian learned that Agbareia and Hubbard were planning to travel to Syria — but he stayed quiet. Hubbard’s passport had expired, and at the time he was homeless, so Agbareia arranged for him to apply for a new passport and have it sent to his house. When the day came to travel to the airport, Agbareia asked Jackson to give them a ride — something Agbareia said the FBI encouraged him to do so that they could rope him into the conspiracy to support ISIS.

Hubbard and Jackson, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed from prison, were arrested at the airport. FBI agents arrested Christian at a chemical company where he had recently started working.

All three men pleaded guilty to providing material support, and Christian pleaded to an additional charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Hubbard was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and Christian and Jackson received a little more than five years. In a letter to the judge, Hubbard wrote: “There is no excuse for what I’ve done. More than anything, I wish I would have taken a different path.”

Agbareia was the one who laid the path before Hubbard. Christian doesn’t think any of them would be in prison today were it not for him. “A person may have it in them to commit murder, but as long as you keep the gun away from that person, the murder’s never committed,” Christian said. “Hubbard may have had those intentions, but it took for Mohammed to be able to provide the passports and the knowledge of traveling abroad and whatever it was that convinced Hubbard to say, ‘You know what? This is my opportunity.’”

Christian added: “I don’t know what caused him, Mohammed, to get involved in this deal with the government. That’s none of my business. But my thing is, if you’re going to set terrorists up or seek out to nab terrorists, do just that. Go and find real terrorists.”

Gregory Hubbard photographed in his home in Royal Palm Beach, FL, on Oct. 22, 2007.

Gregory Hubbard photographed in his home in Royal Palm Beach, FL, on Oct. 22, 2007.

Photo: USA Today Network

Before Hubbard pleaded guilty, his defense lawyers discovered the recording in which Agbareia was caught running his “stranded traveler” scheme. They turned it over to federal prosecutors, who were then forced to file charges against the FBI’s informant. In a court filing, Hubbard’s lawyers suggested that the FBI knew about Agbareia’s scams and that his thefts allowed the bureau to “conserve its financial resources” and reduce the impact of potentially having to disclose to a jury large cash payments over a decade to a single informant.

Once Agbareia’s scamming was public, the FBI was no longer there for him. He served two years in federal prison and then was deported in 2019 to Israel, where he’s living with his mother. His wife was deported to Canada; his son, now married to an American, still lives in Florida.

In September 2019, after being deported, Agbareia sent a series of text messages to his former FBI handler. “Mr. King,” he wrote in one, “you have done a lot of harm to our family. You must be proud of your achievements for the sake of an organization that lost its integrity.” In another, he wrote: “We put our lives on the line because of you, not the FBI. GOD IS WATCHING.”

Agbareia now regrets what he did to Hubbard, Christian, and Jackson, as well as his spying on Farahi, Kablawi, and others in Florida. But in his view, he’s a survivor who did what was necessary at the time for him and his family. “I’m a fuck-up because I did all these frauds,” he said. “But I did it for a reason.”

Asked if he’s still running scams from Israel, Agbareia answered: “I do what I have to do.”

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