Florida Imam Who Claimed To Be Covert Government Operative Is Accused Of Terrorism
20 June 2015
By Murtaza Hussain
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
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.
In late 2010, an acquaintance of Robertson's, 26-year-old Jonathan Jimenez,
traveled from New York City to stay at Robertson's home in Orlando. Robertson
had promised to help Jimenez — who had a history of mental illness and drug
abuse — straighten out his life and further his study of Islam, according to the
defense. He raised the possibility of arranging for Jimenez to travel to
Mauritania to study Islam, as he had arranged for other young men in the past.
Robertson also helped Jimenez file a false tax return; Jimenez was refunded
$5,587, ostensibly to help him cover his travel expenses.
While he was staying with Robertson, Jimenez was befriended by a government
informant, with whom he began discussing the possibility of fighting and dying
abroad. Jimenez, who had been checked into mental institutions on five separate
occasions and had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication, told the informant
that he was ''getting ready for that grave, baby,'' and that Robertson had been
providing him with martial arts and firearms training so that he could go abroad
Prosecutors have alleged that the $5,587 earned through the fraudulent tax
return was intended to send Jimenez to Mauritania to commit acts of terrorism.
Jimenez also made statements to the informant suggesting that Robertson was
managing ''a travel facilitation network … that sends individuals overseas to
commit violent jihad.'' Jimenez would later deny having made such statements in
subsequent interviews with FBI agents, and in 2012, pleaded guilty to lying to
federal officials about his discussions with the informant. Jimenez is presently
serving a 10-year sentence, in which the terrorism enhancement applied, for
false statements to officials and conspiracy to file the fraudulent tax return.
During the time when Jimenez was in touch with the informant, the government was
also separately conducting surveillance on Robertson, who was recorded
discussing the possibility of sending Jimenez abroad to Mauritania, but was
never heard on tape discussing a plan for him to engage in terrorism. In many of
the surveilled telephone conversations leading up to his arrest, Robertson
expressed skepticism about Jimenez's maturity and the possibility of
rehabilitating him from his drug abuse problem.
In multiple conversations in July 2011, Robertson is recorded saying that
Jimenez had been hanging out with ''crackheadass niggas,'' and that although he
had repeatedly tried to help Jimenez straighten out his life, he ''acts like a
teenager,'' and would only cause problems if sent to Mauritania.
In 2011, following the execution of a search warrant at his home, Robertson was
charged with possession of a handgun (which was owned by the security director
of his mosque), and has remained behind bars in Florida ever since. While
incarcerated on this gun charge, Robertson was subsequently charged with the
separate count of conspiracy to file a fraudulent tax return, which he was
convicted of in January 2014 following a bench trial.
Now, to demonstrate that Robertson's tax charges merit a terrorism enhancement,
the government has cited a number of books and other documents owned by
Robertson that allegedly extoll extremist beliefs. Robertson, who is recognized
as an Islamic scholar, owned a library which included roughly 10,000 e-books, a
small number of which are alleged by the government to have contained passages
The government hasn't provided evidence to demonstrate that Robertson endorsed,
let alone acted upon, any of the passages cited in these books, the defense
counters. ''There is nothing contained in the prosecution's memorandum which
connects Mr. Robertson to any actual conspiracy to commit terrorism,''
Robertson's attorney Daniel Broderson said. ''He is an Islamic scholar who owned
thousands of books, and they are trying to pull select passages from a handful
of books he owned to try and make the case that he's an extremist.''
Robertson's book collection and the statements of Jimenez make up the primary
evidence the government has put forward to substantiate the claim that
Robertson's charges have any connection to terrorism.
In the meantime, his case has grown even murkier.
In a 2012 lawsuit Robertson filed from jail — ultimately dismissed on grounds of
being improperly filed — Robertson claimed to have been targeted by the
government for malicious prosecution after refusing to conduct an overseas
operation requested by the CIA. In a suit filed against the prosecuting attorney
in his case, then-Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as against eight FBI
agents whom he specified by name, Robertson alleged that for many years after
his 1991 arrest, he worked as an informant for both the FBI and CIA, until a
dispute in 2007 led to a falling out with both agencies. Robertson alleges the
government then began seeking legal retribution against him, culminating in his
entrapment and malicious prosecution on gun possession and tax charges.
Robertson's 2012 lawsuit further claimed that the FBI agents named in his filing
were conducting surveillance and infiltration of American-Muslim communities,
justified solely on their religious background.
While he claims to have worked with the government on terrorism investigations,
Robertson says he balked at conducting indiscriminate spying. ''I did work with
the government in cases related to counterterrorism, but I was never a 'spy',
nor did I ever spy on Muslim communities,'' Roberston said. ''There's a difference
between pursuing legitimate terrorism investigations, which we as Muslims
support, and profiling and infiltrating entire communities.''
Robertson's claims of past government service are reminiscent of a litigation
tactic known as ''graymailing,'' used by defendants in cases that may force the
government to discuss classified issues. ''Traditionally, graymail has been used
by defendants who know and threaten to disclose classified information as part
of their defense,'' says legal expert Josh Dratel. ''The amount of leverage the
defendant has with respect to information about his prior assistance to the
government will be measured by the government response. It may offer a lenient
resolution of the case, which is a common result when such leverage exists, or
it may even be compelled to dismiss it outright, based on the amount of
In Robertson's case, it's unclear whether he does indeed have information the
government regards as classified. In its own court filings, the government has
not responded to his claims specifically, but has generally described them as
either false, unsupported or otherwise irrelevant to his sentencing.
In addition to his book collection and claims of past service, the conditions
under which Robertson has been held in jail have also been a source of
controversy. According to his attorney, for roughly two years between 2012 until
2014, Robertson was held in solitary confinement. During this time, he was
shackled at all times whether inside or outside his cell, to the point where the
skin around his ankles had rubbed off. In October 2014, following complaints by
his attorney to the U.S. Marshall's office, the conditions of his incarceration
were somewhat relaxed, though he remains in isolation.
On April 30, Robertson was allowed to testify in a closed hearing about the
clandestine cooperation he says he provided as a covert operative. In early
June, the presiding judge in the case decided that Robertson would be sentenced
on the gun and tax charges separately, a ruling that makes the tax charge the
only count eligible for the terrorism enhancement. This decision will have the
likely effect of reducing his total possible sentence when hearings resume later
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Tampa Bay
FBI office both declined requests to comment for this story.
Robertson, for his part, believes his case could have have far-reaching
ramifications for other defendants.
''The government is trying to use my case to establish a legal precedent, where
even if a person is not charged with actual terrorism offenses they can still
try them as a 'terrorist' using the sentencing adjustment,'' Robertson says.
''This is not just about prosecuting my case specifically, it's about creating a
precedent whereby the government can simply go through the books you own and use
them to frighten people into believing that you're a terrorist.''