9/11 was a turning point on every level for the American society. The attack opened up for an intensification of an already aggressive foreign policy, with an emphasis on «war against terror», as the Bush-clan termed it. Internally, laws such as the patriot act were introduced, making it legal to arrest people based on unsubstantiated suspicions. Around the world, institutions were created where torture and incarceration took place out of the reach of both US laws and international human rights. But the FBI also created a miscellaneous network of national informants, where the plan was to prevent terror before it happened – not unlike the pre crime-department of Steven Spielberg’s Minority report (2002), which remarkably enough just launched when this programme was put into action.
The informants were tasked with infiltrating local communities and build personal ties with individuals whom the FBI suspected of plotting terror, or in some way of being potential contributors to terrorism. This meant that the informants had to spend a significant time with the suspects and the community around them before potentially becoming privy to anything to support the FBI’s suspicions. In some cases, this also meant that they would have to deceive people they had established close friendship ties with.
In the years leading up to 9/11, the FBI had around 1,500 such informants. Following the terror attack, this number exploded and is now at least 15, 000. Half of the 500 incarcerated since 2001, for terror-related activities, were imprisoned as a result of this programme.
Just a normal man. In the recent film, (T)error, we meet one of these informants. Shaarif, 60, is no intelligence expert, not a well-educated specialist, but just a regular guy who has misspent his money and needs help to start afresh. Some 20 years earlier, Shaarif was himself arrested for criminal actions. The FBI offered him a deal: If he would become one of their informants, he would not be convicted and would earn a regular income. Simply put, he did not have much of a choice. Could it be that Shaarif is making a little extra effort in a bid to make his employers happy? Not out of the question. He knows perfectly well what kind of goods they are after – and a potential terrorist jailed means money in the pot and more quality time with his family for him. He explains that he wants to provide a dignified life for himself and his son. The problem is spending long periods away from his son when he is working in a case.
Shaarif is also Muslim, like those he is spying on: He converted whilst part of the Black Panthers in New York during the 1960-70s.
Behind the scenes. Shaarif knew Lyric R. Cabral, one of the (T)error directors, for a long time – they happened to be neighbours in New York’s Harlem – before he, in 2005, revealed how he had worked as an informant for 20 years. When he moved out of Cabral’s neighbourhood, following the completion of his task there, they kept in touch for several years. In the meantime, his former neighbour became a film maker, with a mounting interest in domestic politics and governmental anti-terrorist activities.
After Cabral discussed the case with Shaarif over a period of time, he finally agreed to take part in a film project about himself and his FBI job. The employers were not aware of the film nor that Shaarif agreed to tell his story, something which makes this film completely unique. This is the first time a documentary offers a glimpse from within the secretive informants program – we are provided with a study of what exactly happens, and the intricacies of an actual case is laid out in front of us, piece by piece.
Jihadi flirtations. When we first meet Shaarif, he has just received a new «target», Khalifah, who, according to the FBI, is keen on taking part in a training camp abroad which could potentially lead to terror activities upon his return to the USA. Shaarif moves into Khalifah’s Pittsburgh neighbourhood, and pretends to be a Red Cross employee. Khalifah is not hiding his interests. His Facebook-page is filled with Osama bin Laden’s Koran readings, tributes to Allah and statements such as living in the USA, «the belly of the beast », as the suspect states in a YouTube-video published online. As they are getting to know each other, we see Khalifa’s interest in Jihadi literature, and martial arts and weapon making manuals. They eat lunch and attend the Friday prayer at the local mosque together. They become friends.
A potential terrorist jailed means money in the pot for and more quality time with his family for him.
We gradually understand the lengths the FBI are willing to go in order to tempt Khlifah onto shaky ground. The presumed future terrorist action is being treated as if already factual, whilst it in reality is barely a fantasy. Within this twisted reality picture, the informants are a useful tool for the FBI: they plant the FBI’s fictitious future terror just enough in current statements and activities so that the terrorist label sticks to the suspect. This way, «evidence» for something which has yet to happen – and which will not happen – is fabricated, when the accusation sends the suspect to prison. This is symptomatic of an intelligence and a penal system which have lost contact with any reasonable perceptions of guilty/innocent and friend/enemy.
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