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.
However, Shaarif is starting to tire of and become uncertain of the entire informant-job. This is a familiar situation for him. Some years previously, his friend Tarik Shah is incarcerated using the same tactics. He is desperate for money and ends up swearing an oath of allegiance to an FBI-agent who pretends to be an Al-Qaida recruiter. Shaarif is the agent tasked with «softening» up the suspect before another agent shows up promising money and glory.
How far can you go dreaming about doing something, or being someone, before the dream is considered reality?
Both sides of the issue. The film takes an interesting turn when Khalifah publishes on Facebook that he believes he is under surveillance. The (T)error directors contact him and ask whether he is willing to do an interview. Incredibly, he does want to – and from this point onwards, we are privy to both sides of this remarkable story: both the pursuer and the pursued. None of them realise that the other one is being interviewed. Things escalate – and Shaarif becomes more and more frustrated because the FBI are breathing down his neck. «They just want me to get him to say something so that they can stick the terrorism-label on him, » he says, annoyed. The claim is not unreasonable: Throughout the film, we are witnessing the SMS-correspondence between the FBI and Shaarif on the screen, with the former obviously pushing for action. It almost seems like the agents are having fun – as if it is all just a game. In reality, they are toying with people’s real lives.
«He is nothing but a pseudo-terrorist, no more than an oxymoron, » states Shaarif. But, Khalifa is far more than a paradox: he manages to locate a public document with Shaarif’s real name and googles his way to the truth about his «friend». He then reveals Shaarif’s true identity on Facebook, before contacting a lawyer to sue the FBI for invasion of privacy and attempting to make him guilty of terrorism – something he never was nor is. Together with his lawyer he was due to hold a press conference about this in Washington, but was arrested the day before. A coincidence? Hardly. He is now sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for illegal possession of a firearm, and tells the directors, from prison, that he is too scared not to accept the sentence otherwise it can be extended. In the meantime, his wife and children are deported.
Professional prophecies. The historian Isaiah Berlin once stated that when a State argues for the sacrifice of thousands to save millions, we need to watch out. The only certain thing is the sacrifice of a thousand people – we know anything about the millions which are presumably saved. The same logic is applied by the FBI and the US State’s anti-terror program. Despite someone looking or acting suspicious, or sometimes even declares ideas that the State feels «threatens national security», no crime has been committed before an actual planning of an illegal act has begun. We can be as professional as possible, but it is impossible to predict the future. To penalise someone for something they have not done, contravenes even the most basic of human rights.
How far can you dream about doing something, or being someone, before the dream is considered reality? The answer has to be: very, very far. Mind games or virtually staging yourself on Facebook do not become reality before real actions pull these flirtations out of the boy’s bedroom. The action can of course be on an actual planning stage: if you plan to attack a governmental building and are buying the weapons needed, you are committing a crime. But not if all you are doing is thinking about it.
The documentary as mouthpiece. (T)error is a disturbing film. It depicts how far the USA are stretching boundaries to «prevent» terror. Following 9/11 and the introduction of its extensive anti-terror program, the problem is not only that crimes are to be prevented and lives saved, but how far the state invades civil society and the lives of individual citizens in a bid to identify criminal activity. The border between detecting terrorism and inventing it yourself is, judging by this film, non-existent. It is not exclusively counter-terrorism, but using an active program to locate scapegoats who you will never know are a threat or not. The basic foundations of democracy is at stake when its citizens are in danger of becoming the fictitious enemies of the state.
Neither the FBI nor the US state have thus far commented on the film, but there will probably – as with Snowden’s revelations – be consequences. This is merely the beginning. Let us hope that the whistle blowers yet again open up for a conversation which point in towards a more democratic and transparent USA. It is, unfortunately, yet again, evident that these are unable to use regular channels such as the existing legal system, to forward their case. So, it is uplifting to witness film makers such as Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe speaking out on their behalf.
Røed is a film critic at Modern Times.