Another disturbing case of how US intelligence services operate.
On August 23, 2011, 46-year-old Marcus Dwayne Robertson, the imam of an Orlando, Florida mosque, was arrested, imprisoned and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He pleaded guilty.
Almost four years after his initial arrest, Robertson, also known as “Abu Taubah,” is still behind bars awaiting sentencing for that crime, as well as for a separate count of conspiracy to file a fraudulent tax refund claim. He could be released on time served based on those charges, but the U.S. government is now seeking a “terrorism enhancement” that could result in him serving an additional 20 years in prison.
Part of what makes the case unusual is that Robertson has never actually been charged with planning or committing any terrorist acts. Instead, prosecutors are trying to use his possession of Islamic literature as proof of his terrorist intent. Citing statements a young acquaintance of Robertson’s made to a government informant, in addition to passages from a number of e-books found in Robertson’s possession after his arrest, prosecutors are arguing that the imam is “an extremist seeking to promote violent jihad.”
Robertson, for his part, alleges that he has been a target of entrapment and malicious prosecution. More spectacularly, he also claims that he was a covert government operative who came under scrutiny after refusing to perform certain tasks requested of him by the CIA. While this claim may seem fantastical, a sentencing memorandum issued by his lawyers in late April states that the government has confirmed a number of Robertson’s claims regarding past clandestine activities he conducted on the government’s behalf.
True or not, Robertson’s life has taken a series of improbable turns, from being a U.S. marine, to a member of a New York City street gang, to finally transforming himself into a putative religious leader. Robertson’s most recent transformation from gang member to imam began in 1991, when he was sent to prison for a string of robberies and violent incidents targeting police officers and government installations. In the government’s sentencing memorandum, the prosecution claims that during his membership in a gang known as the “Forty Thieves,” he “murdered several individuals; participated in assassination attempts; used pipe bombs, C-4, grenades, other explosives, and automatic weapons.” The government also claims that the Forty Thieves “stockpiled weapons and explosives in preparation to fight against the perceived threat of interment of Muslims by the United States.”
Speaking to The Intercept from a Florida jail, Robertson said that many of these government allegations were false, but conceded that during the early 1990s he was part of an organization in New York City called the Forty Thieves, which he described as part criminal gang, part vigilante group. “During that time in Brooklyn we were dealing with the ongoing crack cocaine epidemic, as well as with pimps and violent drug dealers destroying the social fabric of our neighborhood. We formed the Forty Thieves to clean up our area, and many times the police were on our side in this effort,” Robertson said in a phone interview.
Nonetheless, he added, “We were young, we made foolish decisions, and sometimes we were inadvertently used by people for other agendas. Sometimes our behavior crossed a line.”
Robertson testified for the prosecution at the eventual trial of several Forty Thieves members and was released after serving four years in prison.
Once out of prison, Robertson’s life apparently changed course. He adopted the teknonym “Abu Taubah” (a reference to a passage of the Quran dealing with repentance for sins), became an imam, and, according to his own account, worked periodically as a covert operative for the CIA and FBI. Robertson, who had previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps, claims to have been a government operative for several years over the past decade, helping conduct domestic terrorism investigations as well as foreign “espionage” operations. The U.S. government, according to a defense memorandum, “acknowledges that Robertson has provided extensive assistance to the authorities.”
While Robertson declined to discuss the specifics of his alleged operations, citing ongoing legal restrictions in his case, the same defense memorandum states that the government has acknowledged that between 2004 and 2007, Robertson worked under the direction of the FBI as “an extraterritorial confidential source … sent to Mauritania performing a role that can only be defined as ‘espionage.’” The memorandum goes on to state that Robertson “served as a confidential source in domestic terrorism investigations from Atlanta to Los Angeles, wherein he was provided with actual authority to, inter alia: possess firearms in order to maintain his cover and fulfill the objectives set for him by the [FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force] JTTF.”
Robertson’s latest legal troubles started sometime after he ceased to be a government operative in 2007, according to the defense.