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The FBI Lost Our Son

11 October 2019

Maybe a Writing Prompt

From The Wall Street Journal:

William and Theresa Reilly were biking on a leafy trail north of Detroit when their son, Billy, sent a text from his trip to Russia. The 28-year-old man had never lived away from home, and the Reillys fretted over his safe return.

Billy Reilly had yet to find a career, but his foreign-language and computer skills led to part-time work in counterterrorism for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Detroit. He was one of the bureau’s army of confidential sources, and the Reillys didn’t know if his trip was somehow connected.

Over the years, Billy had delved into the Boston Marathon bombers, cultivated alleged Islamic State recruiters, analyzed Syria’s civil war and conversed with Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. He used online aliases to penetrate terror groups over computers from the family home in Oxford, Mich.

Billy planned to return soon, and his parents were relieved to hear from him. He had told them a vague story about joining a humanitarian mission into eastern Ukraine. Once abroad, Billy leaked alarming bits and pieces, mentions of fighting, drinking and bloody encounters with volunteer soldiers.

“Big news,” Billy texted. His plans were changing. He wasn’t leaving Russia just yet. Mrs. Reilly was so absorbed she didn’t notice a dog approaching her on the trail. It bit her ankle, she recalled, drawing blood.

Billy sent the text on June 24, 2015. Mr. and Mrs. Reilly called and wrote him texts back over the following hours and the next day. They lost sleep, tethered to their phones, but heard nothing.

A day or two later, a government sedan pulled up to the Reilly home. FBI special agent Tim Reintjes introduced himself. The Reillys had never met him, but they knew from Billy that he was their son’s FBI handler.

“Something happened to Billy,” Mrs. Reilly recalled thinking. “They know about it, and he’s here to tell us.”

Instead, the agent asked if Billy was home. When the Reillys said he was in Russia, Agent Reintjes seemed surprised. He began asking questions, probing for details.

Over the next months, Agent Reintjes returned a half-dozen times. He asked for the laptop and phone the FBI had given Billy. He also wanted to retrieve Billy’s phone bill as soon as it arrived.

Agent Reintjes brought colleagues who assured the couple that the world’s leading investigative agency was on the case. “They’ll find him,” Mrs. Reilly recalled thinking. “We don’t have to worry.”

Then the Reillys found another phone Billy had used. It contained text messages between Billy and a contact named “Tim.” The number matched the one on Agent Reintjes’s emails to Mrs. Reilly.

The parents scrolled through the texts and found a series of perplexing exchanges suggesting the FBI agents knew all along about their son’s trip.

As Billy prepared to leave for Russia, Tim had sent a text in early May 2015.

“Do you have your trip itinerary yet.”

“I’m still waiting on visa,” Billy replied.

Two days before Billy flew to Moscow, Tim arranged a face-to-face meeting and wrote, “Bring your travel info.”

The Reillys couldn’t understand why Agent Reintjes hadn’t told them.

. . . .

The FBI’s counterterrorism work grew to preventing attacks. To help, the agency recruited workers like Billy Reilly, part-timers with the right skills to infiltrate terror or criminal networks, either in person or through online chat rooms and social media.

These sources work in a dangerous world, with little training and fewer of the institutional protections afforded full-time FBI agents. They draw no government benefits beyond an occasional paycheck and a pat on the back. Yet they are critical to the FBI’s work to see plots in the fog of international jihad.

As an FBI source, Billy was required to report foreign travel, even vacations. The bureau has the authority to dispatch sources on foreign missions. It is one of the U.S. agencies responsible for disrupting terror cells abroad.

. . . .

Alarmed that Agent Reintjes was hiding information about their son’s disappearance, Mr. Reilly, a retired Teamsters driver for Coca-Cola, and Mrs. Reilly, for years a stay-at-home mom, began a quest to find Billy themselves.

. . . .

The Journal posed more than 100 questions to the FBI. Brian P. Hale, a spokesman, responded in an email: “The FBI never directed William Reilly to travel overseas to perform any work for the FBI.”

. . . .

Billy obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology from Oakland University, a public college in Rochester, Mich. The financial crisis had deepened Michigan’s economic troubles, and he was pessimistic about local job prospects. “Billy always wanted something bigger than our lives,” his sister said.

In the spring of 2010, there was a knock at the door, and a man in a suit introduced himself to the Reillys as an FBI agent and held a printout of the senior Mr. Reilly’s passport. After a raid on an al Qaeda position, the agent said, U.S. forces in the Middle East had recovered a hard drive that contained communications with someone using an IP address at the Reilly house.

Mr. and Mrs. Reilly looked at each other, and then toward Billy’s second-floor bedroom.

Billy, then 23, explained to the agent how he had found his way into restricted jihadist chat rooms. During their conversation, the agent asked Billy if he had any interest in working with the FBI.

. . . .

The bureau’s Detroit office had roughly 200 agents, and its counterterrorism unit was one of its busiest. Billy, an American of European heritage, who had knowledge of Arabic and could approach potential terror targets online, had great potential value to the FBI.

Billy told his uncle that 80 FBI agents had tried and failed to access a particular jihadist site that Billy penetrated. “They knew the language, but they didn’t understand the culture,” the uncle recalled Billy saying.

. . . .

The FBI’s Confidential Human Sources Policy Guide warned that a source’s “misconduct will reflect on the FBI. Fairly or unfairly, the FBI will be viewed in the light of that reflection.” Agents were schooled to cut off contact when sources behaved in ways detrimental to the agency.

. . . .

Billy’s value to the FBI soared when the Arab Spring began unfolding at the end of 2010. In Syria, as an unpredictable uprising took root months later, Billy tried to see through the confusion. His FBI reports often read as though they were prepared for the CIA, including analyses about an emerging group of fighters that became known as Islamic State.

“I think that after IS consolidates their control of Raqqa, Deir Zowr, East Aleppo,” he wrote of the militant group’s spread in Syria. “…their target will be the Homs area.” He turned out to be correct.

. . . .

The Reillys recalled Billy voicing doubts about his work in 2013, after he played a role in an undercover case targeting an Iraqi émigré. The FBI identified people with suspected jihadist sympathies who traveled to the Middle East. Aws Naser, of Westland, Mich., fit the profile.

Mr. Naser believed the FBI was already watching him when Billy reached out to meet in person. Billy had said his name was Mikhail, and that he wanted to learn about Islam. Mr. Naser recorded a video when he met Billy and planned to expose “Mikhail” as an undercover agent.

“I wanted to see how they entrap people, so they can never do it again to innocent people,” said Mr. Naser. Years earlier, he said, he had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Marines in Iraq.

Mr. Naser was arrested before he could post the video of Billy on YouTube. FBI agents stood in the driveway as police led him from his home on Jan. 4, 2013, Mr. Naser said in an interview. He was accused of stealing $180 from a cash register at a former workplace and squirting pepper spray at a cashier.

Mr. Naser, who had previously pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, said he was owed the money in back pay.

FBI agents were in court when a judge set Mr. Naser’s bond at $2 million. He was later convicted of felony armed robbery and sentenced to a prison term of three to 20 years.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Non-Fiction

3 Comments to “The FBI Lost Our Son”

  1. Even summarized, that is a good Story seed. I put it in the FBI folder.

    Thanks…

    If people want to read more articles like this, just google two different strings:

    fbi informants

    fbi entrapment

    Reading articles like this gave me a useful nightmare the other night. Wrote it up, it will make a great Horror novel. Think Stephen King’s, The Outsider.

    – The phrase “FBI throws people under the bus” comes to mind. That gives an interesting google result as well. HA!

    BTW, This is an old story with the FBI. They have been doing stuff like this for at least a century. Good old J. Edgar Hoover built his empire with “Black Bag Jobs” starting in WWI under Woodrow Wilson. Hoover was head of the FBI for life because he had dirt on everybody. Nobody dared fire him.

    This trailer is chilling, and ironic at the same time.

    Mark Felt Official Trailer #1 (2017) Liam Neeson, Michael C. Hall Biography Drama Movie HD
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfBccnAcuwg

    The context for Hoover and the FBI is in:

    American Experience: The Great War

    The Great War Trailer
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaTZsEABfNU

    OMG, I just remembered that the NSA is tracking all of our searches. What have I done posting this! HA!

  2. It seems to me, the old lawyer, that in the beginning, filing a Civil Rights suit against the government for abusing private citizens like this would be a much quicker way of obtaining useable information about a loved one’s whereabouts. Kudos to the parents, however, for the hell the parents went through in obtaining, eventually, their son’s DNA-certified remains. Quite a story.

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