by Trevor Aaronson, The Intercept:
A BAILIFF 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.”
REFAIE’S STORY BEGINS in September 2015, when agents claiming to be from Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up unannounced at the offices of a web hosting company where Refaie oversaw data center operations. A Muslim U.S. citizen whose mother was Jewish-American and father a Jordanian citizen, Refaie brought the agents to a conference room, where they told him he might be a victim of identity theft and then showed him a mugshot of an Arab man.
“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.
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