In the wake of 9/11, the FBI recruited thousands of informants to spy on the country’s Muslim communities. In a thrilling exposé, two filmmakers follow a felon-turned-informant as he tries to snare an alleged terror suspect, with devastating results.
(T)ERROR opens to footage of part-time school cook Saeed Torres cursing about being on camera. “I told you I didn’t want my face on this shit,” he tells filmmakers Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe. Minutes later, he’s showing off on the sidelines of the school basketball court.
That contradiction is the first of many 63-year-old Saeed demonstrates in the 90-minute documentary, which offers unprecedented access into the unsettling work of an FBI informant during an active operation.
A former Black Panther, Torres was arrested on larceny charges more than 20 years ago and has been working for “the agency” ever since. His biggest coup came in 2005 when he drew Brooklyn jazz musician Tarik Shah into an admission that would see him jailed for 13 years. Shah’s mother, who appears in the film, is still campaigning to have him released, 10 years into his sentence. Torres says he has “no feelings” for the POI, or “Person of Interest” he’s sent to ensnare. But later in the film he says of Shah: “I liked and trusted the brother.”
In Pittsburgh, where most of the film takes place, Torres is tasked with befriending a white Muslim convert who the FBI suspect of radicalisation. While Torres admits that Khalifa al-Akili “wouldn’t throw rice at a wedding,” he sets about drawing the 34-year-old into a terror plot that would allow the FBI to put him behind bars. “He’s not even a psuedo-terrorist,” Torres says, but continues to angle for a conviction that could fetch him up to $250,000.
Torres and his interactions with FBI agents (he shares his voicemail and text messages with the audience), reveal the dogged and clumsy workings of a programme which has targeted and jailed thousands of Muslims across the United States since the 9/11 attacks, a scheme which civil liberties advocates describe as an “indiscriminate monitoring” and “a violation of religious freedom”.
‘FBI know nothing, they just want to make an arrest’
Directors Cabral and Sutcliffe were drawn to the issue when a 16-year-old student at the Harlem arts college where they taught was arrested on fabricated terror charges, leading to the deportation of the girl’s father. Sutcliffe went on make a film about Adama Bah, who after five years saw her charges dropped and was reunited with her father. But she was one of a fortunate minority – in similar cases the federal conviction rate is 96%.
“The FBI is responding to the latest episode of a deeply embedded historic problem: it’s a response to an event which in itself is a response to power abusing those without power,” Sutcliffe told FRANCE 24 in an interview on Thursday. “We recognise that the threat of terrorism is very real, but to what extent have our own policies exacerbated that problem?”
For Saeed, the FBI is “who’s in control”. But he says they lack understanding of the situation on the ground. “They don’t know nothing, they’re just trying to make an arrest,” he says.
Cabral and Sutcliffe made a request for a statement from the FBI but never received a response.
“We would love to hear their thoughts,” Cabral told FRANCE 24. “I’m sure there are people within the FBI who are frustrated with the counter-terrorism strategy too. But we just get this wall of silence. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle.”