A Life Lost in the Maw of Counterterrorism
New book explores the hapless life and useless death of FBI informant Billy Reilly
THIS MAY BE THE ONLY spy book ever written about a working-class nobody.
Billy Reilly was a truck driver’s kid from a town north of Detroit, a way-smart loner and computer nerd who lived at home until he was 28. No girlfriends, no close friends, no steady job. He got mixed up with the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a freelance counter-terrorism informant. Then he went to Russia and he disappeared.
Still, something in this story beckons. Two years after he disappeared, Billy attracted the attention of a Wall Street Journal reporter named Brett Forrest, who could not let the story go into missing-person limbo, disappear into the half-truths world of intelligence and counterintelligence, mercenaries and frightened bureaucrats.
In the headlong style of a deadline journalist, Forrest presents a tragedy of naïveté and deceit, a tale that he first published as a story in the Journal. Here, after more than a year of research, he adds context—novelistic touches of scenery, atmosphere and backstory. He explores histories of the suburbs of Detroit (sometimes called “the Arab capital of North America”), the Islamic terrorism that changed the mission of the FBI, and the unusual independence and curiosity of Billy’s family.
With an inheritance, they took vacations in Russia, then followed Billy’s interests in Arabic by vacationing in Syria. After the 9/11 planes destroyed the World Trade Center, they drove to New York to see the ruins—a scene that would inspire Billy and his younger sister to take an interest in foreign policy and Islam. The Reillys bought an early dial-up computer in the way that ambitious families once bought pianos and encyclopedias.
Billy would write: “The day I will always remember was when my family got our first computer. The computer brought the whole world into our living room.”
FBI Comes Calling
Years later, it would also bring an agent of the FBI, which spotted Billy’s Michigan address on a laptop captured in the Middle East. By then, Billy had announced his conversion to Islam, taught himself Russian and Arabic and hung flags of Chechnya and Palestine in his bedroom. He saw America’s war in Iraq as a hustle. At a rally for President George W. Bush, Billy shouted “Heil Hitler” and got into a fistfight. He adopted the name “Bilal.”
Once, he would have been anathema to the FBI, but after 9/11 its mission changed from merely solving crimes to preventing them. Fearing more attacks, it needed informants such as Billy, with his entrees to Islamic fundamentalist computer sites around the world.
The agent asked: Would Billy be interested in doing some volunteer work for the FBI?Most people with his politics would have seen the FBI as an adversary, but Billy lacked that sort of political calculus. He saw opportunity, a direction in life at last. He became a CHS, an FBI term for confidential human source.
Working in his bedroom, he translated internet postings and used false names to enter sites where he identified Americans joining jihadi groups.
He had high-profile assignments—he investigated the Boston Marathon bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers. He wanted to join the FBI, which strung him along with vague promises. But he had a hapless streak.
In 2012, under the direction of the FBI, he adopted the name of Mikhail to contact a Detroit-area Iraqi named Naser, who had come under suspicion. But Naser smelled a rat. He decided to make a YouTube video showing that Billy/Mikhail was out to entrap him. He commandeered Billy’s car, interrogated him, then led Billy’s FBI tail on an 85-mile-per-hour chase, his point proven.
Billy was urged to cultivate a Filipina who sent him pictures, asked for money and said she wanted to martyr herself for ISIS. He booked a flight to meet her in Manila. He got cold feet at the Detroit airport and called his parents for a ride home.
In 2015, at 28, with an interest in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, he flew to Russia against his parents’ advice, as if it were time to seek his destiny.
It took him about six weeks to find it. In Moscow, he hooked up with a Russian who recruited mercenaries. He hung out. He picked up tabs. He hoped to join a humanitarian convoy.
He debated flying further to Bangkok to meet the Filipina.
“I think you have gone completely wacky,” his mother wrote. “Adventure is one thing but this sounds like suicide.” He stayed in Russia.
Then his messages stopped.
A day or two later, Billy’s FBI handler, Tim Reintjes, arrived at the Reillys’ house. Expecting bad news, the Reillys were surprised when Reintjes asked if Billy was home.
They said he was in Russia. Reintjes asked why. They told him about the humanitarian convoy. On his way out, Reintjes asked: “One more thing. What side is Billy on?”
Later, the Reillys would find messages suggesting that Reintjes had known Billy was leaving the country. After promising to help find him, Reintjes would later refuse to talk to the Reillys at all.
Their lives became a full-time search for their son. They tried to hand a letter to Donald Trump at a political rally. They went to New York to stand outside a Fox News broadcast with a T-shirt reading: SON MISSING IN RUSSIA. They buttonholed Trump advisor Anthony Scaramucci, who recalled their passion: “On a scale of one to ten, the mother was a twenty-five.” At the same time, they took pride in Billy having “the courage to follow his fascinations.” After two years of questioning they traveled to Russia, where they found nothing.
At that point they welcomed the inquiries of the author, Brett Forrest, who had lived in Russia and Ukraine. The second half of his book becomes a saga of the confusions and contradictions, stonewalling and blind alleys that he encountered in both the United States and Russia. The FBI tried to block his story, thereby persuading Forrest and the Reillys that it knew and cared more about Billy than it admitted.
One suspects that with more cooperation, the FBI might have avoided the very publicity it tried to block. Now readers are left to shake their heads over the fact that the principal guardian of the nation’s security would depend on a naïve loner like Billy in its fight against terrorism, use him, and then refuse to take any responsibility for him.
What solved the case was fingerprints—a brand of evidence the FBI had long championed and might have been able to use to search for Billy in Russia. Instead, it was Forrest who got Billy’s prints from a Michigan gun license application and sent them to his own source in Russia. The source responded with a set of prints taken from a body found not long after Billy broke contact with his parents. The prints matched. Billy had been stabbed and dumped in a reservoir, pulled out, fingerprinted, autopsied and buried. The Reillys traveled to Russia with Forrest, unearthed the remains and shipped them back to Michigan.
Forrest concludes: “When we are young, we seek our fates. We find we have no great destiny, only lives.”###
Henry Allen, a former U.S. Marine in South Vietnam and longtime feature writer at The Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000.
LOST SON: An American Family Trapped Inside the FBI's Secret Wars. Brett Forrest, Little Brown, 324 pages, pub date May 23, 2023
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Once, the Russians would say "Sure you can work for the Americans. But when they have all they want they will drop you like an empty can." That worked because it was more true than not. Now? I do hope it is false now.