Trevor Aaronson October 10 2017, 3:45 p.m.
Screenshot: Video from Jabar Ali Refaie
Abailiff pushed Jabar Ali Refaie’s wheelchair into a federal courtroom in Tampa, Florida, on September 20. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and looking weak from not having had the drugs he takes to treat his multiple sclerosis, the 37-year-old Refaie was here for a bond hearing after being indicted on felony charges that allege he sold counterfeit BMW logos and diagnostic software on eBay.
Refaie’s case seemed by appearances to be about a lot more than selling shady car parts on the internet. That much was obvious from Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlton C. Gammons’s stiff bond requests — $25,000, a GPS monitoring device, the surrender of his passport, and the removal of all firearms from his residence — as well as the six U.S. Homeland Security agents who packed into the courtroom for Refaie’s hearing.
Refaie’s 30-year-old girlfriend, Felicity, was present in the courtroom. She and Refaie had been married before; after their divorce, when Refaie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they rekindled their relationship and live together again but never remarried. Felicity told U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun III that Refaie wasn’t a flight risk. They have 4-month-old daughter together, she said. The government knows all about their lives. “The government has been monitoring us for the better part of two years,” she told the judge matter-of-factly. McCoun agreed with the suggested conditions from the U.S. attorney’s office, and Refaie was released from jail that evening after posting bond. Prior to this charge, Refaie had no criminal history.
For two years, the FBI has followed and harassed Refaie as part of an apparent effort to recruit him to become an informant or cooperate in some way with counterterrorism investigations. The FBI has more than 15,000 informants today, many working because they have been coerced or threatened by criminal prosecution or immigration enforcement. Classified FBI policy documents published by The Intercept in January revealed the often heavy-handed methods used by the government to recruit informants, including so-called threat assessments as “a means to induce him/her into becoming a recruited [informant] mainly through identifying that person’s motivations and vulnerabilities.” What’s unique about Refaie’s interactions with the FBI is that he recorded and documented the conversations and events that led to his indictment. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment or a list of questions about Refaie’s case.
“I don’t believe they are representatives of the government; they’re misusing the government with their badges,” Refaie said of the federal agents he’s come to know. “They’re breaking oaths that they swore to uphold.”
“I was staring at the picture, and I said, ‘I know a lot of people who look like him. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen this guy,’” Refaie told the agents. As the months passed, Refaie began to grow suspicious. He saw cars that he suspected were following him. A camera appeared to be mounted on the light pole near his house, so he took pictures of it. On August 17, 2016, he found a GPS device on his girlfriend’s Toyota Camry and filmed himself removing it. A week later, he found another GPS device on his BMW. He also found electrical outlets in his house that he says were replaced with ones that looked identical but seemed to have listening equipment on the inside. He took pictures of those too.
He called the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to document what he’d found. A police report written on September 1, 2016, described how Refaie “provided us with a wrapped-up towel containing several electrical outlet plugs and a device that appeared to be a GPS.” In another report from that day, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Detective John McDarby wrote: “Mr. Refaie is not aware if he is being followed by a law enforcement agency or a private corporation. He is in fear.”
Less than a week later, Refaie had the answer to the question of who was following him. Agents with the Department of Homeland Security came to his office. They were at that moment executing a search warrant at his home, they told him. “I’ll see you at the house,” he told the agents.
Security cameras inside and outside of Refaie’s house in Riverview, Florida, south of Tampa, recorded the raid. At 12:27 p.m. on September 6, 2016, a black Homeland Security armored vehicle and a large blue van parked on the cul-de-sac in front of Refaie’s driveway. Wearing body armor and carrying a large shield, agents broke down the front door. An inside camera recorded two of Refaie’s six cats scurrying for safety as the front door flew open. The agents then walked slowly back down the driveway, their movements captured by an outside camera.
At 12:29 p.m., Felicity, who was pregnant at the time, walked downstairs from her bedroom and saw the front door busted open. She was then instructed to walk backward to the middle of the driveway, lift her shirt above her waistline, and turn around in a circle. She then was ordered to get on her knees and crawl backward to the end of the driveway, where she was detained by two agents. About 15 minutes later, the agents sent a bomb robot into the house; it went around the first floor and then struggled to get up the stairs, all while being recorded by the inside security cameras. Agents, guns pointed forward, finally entered the house using tactical formation at 1:54 p.m. A few minutes later, one of the agents noticed a security camera mounted high on the wall by the stairs. He grabbed a piece of the door’s trim molding that they’d busted off and used it as a makeshift club to strike the camera.
The search warrant, which a magistrate judge signed based on alleged government evidence that Refaie was selling counterfeit car parts on eBay, suggested that federal agents were particularly interested in Refaie’s computer activity and provided authority to collect all computer equipment and storage media.
As federal agents searched Refaie’s home, he was desperately trying to get there. Thinking that agents might have blocked off the main entrance to his neighborhood, Refaie took a back way to his house. As he did, a 2013 Dodge Caravan crashed into the side of his car. He said he got out to check on the driver, fearing he’d just been in an accident with a neighborhood soccer mom. An FBI agent knocked him to the ground, he said. Later, Refaie discovered that the minivan was registered to the FBI and was driven by FBI Special Agent Candace C. Calderon. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office faulted Refaie for the accident, based on the eyewitness account of another FBI agent, according to a traffic crash report, which identified the FBI as the owner of the van. (The traffic charge against Refaie was later dismissed after he went to court to fight it and the FBI agents did not show up to testify.) Refaie said the federal agents left his house at about 9 p.m. that evening. According to a receipt of what was seized, agents took much of Refaie’s electronics and even Felicity’s designer purses.
Then, in January, Refaie received a call from FBI Special Agent Moises Quiñones, who told Refaie that Homeland Security agents had found some ISIS videos on a USB flash drive, and now he was the subject of an FBI counterterrorism inquiry. Refaie said Quiñones also told him that the FBI was in possession of the GPS device and electrical outlets that he had given the local sheriff’s office. Quiñones sent out agents to interview Refaie’s friends and family. Agents asked these people if Refaie was known to have any connections with ISIS.
In a subsequent call, Refaie told Quiñones that he would be recording their conversations. “With me, if you want to record our conversation, I don’t have a problem with it,” Quiñones replied. In the phone conversations, Quiñones assured Refaie that he hadn’t committed a crime, but they needed to meet in person to discuss the ISIS videos. “We cannot waste time. We have a job to do,” Quiñones said.
Refaie agreed to meet with Quiñones in a public place, and he told him in advance that their conversation would be recorded. On March 16, Refaie met with Quiñones at a table outside a Wawa gas station. Another FBI agent, Retzilu Rodriguez, accompanied Quiñones.
“The reason I called you is I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Quiñones told Refaie.
“The benefit of the doubt for what?” Refaie asked.
“To what I’m going to ask you about right now,” Quiñones answered.
Quiñones told Refaie that the Homeland Security search of his home had uncovered ISIS materials. “They’re videos about recruitment, ISIS recruitment,” he told Refaie. “Propaganda videos.”
“I don’t believe that,” Refaie said.
“No, they are,” Quiñones followed.
Quiñones asked Refaie if he knew Neil Prakash, an Australian ISIS member who was arrested in Turkey in November 2016. After Refaie said he didn’t know who that was, Quiñones told him that a video of Prakash was among those they’d found.
“I’m not aware of that,” Refaie said.
“I’m fully aware of that,” Quiñones retorted.
“But anyway, it’s not something illegal if it’s —” Refaie said, shaking his head.
“I’m not saying it’s illegal,” Quiñones said, interrupting. “But it’s very concerning.”
The FBI agent also told Refaie that they’d found a video of Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida man who went by Abu Huraira al-Amriki and had died in a suicide attack in Syria. These videos are “red flags,” Quiñones told him. Quiñones said during the meeting that Abusalha fought for ISIS; in fact, he was with the Nusra Front.
“These things were on YouTube, my friend, OK?” Refaie said. “So don’t tell me I have them.”
“You had ’em on a thumb drive,” Quiñones said.
“Show me. Show me the evidence. Where’s your evidence?”
“Let’s go to the office, and I’ll show it to you.”
“Fuck you and your office.”
The conversation continued this way, until Quiñones seemed to threaten prosecution if Refaie did not cooperate with their investigation. “It’s not a threat. I’m just going say this. I know Mr. Joe Durand, OK?” Quiñones said, referring to the Homeland Security Investigations agent who led the raid of Refaie’s home. “And just in case you didn’t know, he has a very good case on you.”
“Oh, really, for counterfeit car parts?” Refaie asked, laughing.
“Again, you can laugh all you want. But you know what? He has a good case on you. He just wanted me to convey that to you.”
Quiñones also told Refaie that he was present for the search of his home, which would suggest that the FBI’s counterterrorism interests in Refaie began before the agents had found the purported videos.
“Why were you at my house?” Refaie demanded to know.
“Because sometimes we work together,” Quiñones said.
“Why would the Joint Terrorism Task Force work together with Homeland Security in order to raid my house for counterfeit car parts?” Refaie asked incredulously.
Toward the end of the interview, Refaie grew frustrated. “Listen, I intend to waste your time, your resources, OK, and your people, if they continue to harass me over and over and over again, because you’re going to come up with cero, zilch,” Refaie told the agent. He then ended his statement with the Arabic word for zero.
“Probably because you stopped what you were doing,” Quiñones told him.
April 25 was particularly intense. He found himself being followed by a Chevy Malibu. At one point, in a shopping mall parking lot with the Malibu directly behind him, Refaie stopped his car in the lane and hopped out to confront the driver. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Open your door. I’ll call the police. I’ll call the police right now. You got a warrant?” The driver, whose car had a large radio antenna mounted on the trunk, just backed up slowly without engaging Refaie and left the parking lot, as Refaie drove behind him honking the horn.
Later that day, while at a county government office, Refaie cornered a Ford Fusion he’d seen following him. As the driver attempted to back out, Refaie walked in front of the car. Blocked in by a curb and Refaie’s body, the driver stayed put but would not get out of the car or put down the window. Refaie whistled, and a security guard came out to assess the situation. Still, the driver would not exit the vehicle. As the security guard called local police and Refaie went back to his car so it would no longer obstruct traffic in the parking lot, the Ford took a quick turn and left the parking lot. “Did you see this shit?” Refaie can be heard asking the security guard.
When he returned home, a frustrated Refaie called Quiñones to ask him about the surveillance.
“Let’s make a point clear right now,” Quiñones told him. “If you’re calling me to find out what I’m doing, I mean, then I think we’re wasting our time because I’m not going to tell you anything as to what we’re doing. So we’re clear.”
Quiñones then told Refaie that he could make the investigation go away. “Mr. Refaie, you have the way out. I gave you —”
“Oh, you want me to confess to your crimes? You want me to confess to your crimes, your manufactured bullshit?” Refaie answered angrily.
“We’re not talking about any crimes here, Mr. Refaie,” Quiñones said.
Refaie took this to mean he was being asked to cooperate with FBI investigations and possibly serve as an informant. “Moises, that’s called extortion,” Refaie answered.
“You can call it whatever you want.”
“No, it’s called extortion.”
Quiñones again told Refaie that he believed he was communicating with people overseas. “You have the way out, Mr. Refaie,” Quiñones said. “Tell me why. Just tell me why you were in communication with those guys overseas. And you know the ones I’m referring to.”
“I don’t know who you’re referring to,” Refaie said.
“You have the way out,” the agent said again.
By this time, Refaie had already been indicted. He just didn’t know. On April 13, a grand jury charged Refaie under seal with filing a false income tax return, alleging that he did not report his eBay earnings for the 2010 tax year. Over the next five months, as Refaie refused to cooperate with the FBI, federal agents and prosecutors continued to work on his indictment. On September 6, 2017, in another sealed indictment, a grand jury added the charges of wire fraud and dealing in counterfeit goods based on allegations that Refaie was selling fake BMW parts and diagnostic software.
Refaie and I had been in contact for a few months, starting well before his arrest. I had initially suspected that he would be like many others who have contacted me with claims of FBI harassment and surveillance. I had assumed his claims, like theirs, would be impossible to prove, but Refaie turned out to be different. By recording his conversations with federal agents and filing local police reports, Refaie had effectively run a one-man counterintelligence program against the FBI.
Refaie and I had agreed to meet one last time in mid-September before I’d write an article about him. Then Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean and up the middle of Florida. We rescheduled our final meeting for September 20.
Two days before our scheduled meeting, around 10 p.m., Refaie sent me a series of long messages on Signal describing the FBI surveillance, and he expressed some concerns that his story, once told, might embolden conspiracy theorists who are being followed not by real agents but by ghosts in their heads. Refaie ended his series of messages with the kicker: “Enjoy. Talk soon!”
I did not respond until nearly 5:30 p.m. the next day. I noticed that a second checkmark, which indicates in Signal that the message has been delivered, had not appeared next to my reply. The next morning, as I was headed to Refaie’s house, I wrote again: “Leaving here soon. Not sure you got my messages from yesterday (Signal shows only one checkmark next to them).” Again, only one checkmark displayed next to that message.
Refaie and his girlfriend feed the outdoor cats in their neighborhood; in the entryway to their two-story, concrete-block house are bowls of food and water. I rang the doorbell, and Felicity answered. She was holding their 4-month-old daughter in her arms. “He was arrested yesterday,” Felicity told me.
At his bond hearing, Refaie gave me a friendly nod. Felicity was there with their daughter in a stroller. “She wants to see you,” Felicity said softly, as she held up the infant and turned her toward Refaie.
Refaie and I met at his home two days later. He said he was suspicious of me after he’d sent me those Signal messages, I hadn’t responded, and then he had been arrested. It was weird, he said. “I think I’m at 70/30 that you’re not working for the FBI,” he told me.
I pressed him: “If you’re only at 70 percent on this, why are you even talking to me?”
He conceded that it was unlikely I was working with the FBI. In turn, I’ll concede that it appears unlikely Rafaie is involved in terrorism. But I don’t know about the allegedly counterfeit car parts. Refaie said he intends to plead not guilty to those charges.
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Research: Margot Williams.