Posted by Eddie Bejarano on October 07, 2015 in Blog

“They trying to make me force this dude into saying something to support terrorism,” stated Saeed Sharif Torres, a former undercover FBI informant and star of the new film, (T)ERROR, which played at the Investigative Film Festival & Symposium in Washington, DC on October 2nd, 2015. This documentary film, which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, provided viewers with a rare inside view into one of the highly controversial counterterrorism tactics employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to enhance our national security. The film breathes life into one of the fundamental questions facing contemporary American society: How do we locate a balance between protecting our constitutionally guaranteed civil right and civil liberties and safeguarding our national security?

Directors Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe spend a majority of the film documenting Saeed Torres’ life as a highly paid undercover FBI informant who is tasked with moving to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA to befriend Khalifah Al-Akili, an American Muslim convert who landed on the FBI’s radar as a result of posting incendiary comments directed at the U.S. on his Facebook. By sending in Saeed as an undercover agent, the FBI appears to goad Al-Akili to shift from rhetoric to action, in hopes of arresting him on terrorism-related charges.

Over the course of the film, it becomes evident that Al-Akili sensed a government informant was pressuring him to speak about topics like “jihad” and committing acts of violence. In fact, Al-Akili reached out to the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) and Project SALAM in hopes of taking legal action against the FBI for what he called “their continuous harassment and attempt to set” him up. Using Google and other publicly available materials, Al-Akili discovered who the informants seeking to coerce him were and, in conjunction with the NCPCF and other organizations, scheduled a press conference on March 16, 2012 to expose the truth about his story. One day before the press conference was scheduled to take place, the FBI arrested Al-Akili for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

“This is wrong, I haven’t done anything to anybody,” exclaimed Al-Akili as FBI agents took him away from his home. A judge eventually charged Al-Akili, who had a preexisting criminal record, for being a felon in possession of a gun, and sentenced him to nearly eight years in a federal prison in New Jersey.

Saeed Torres’ failure to influence Al-Akili to transform his extremist words to actions undermined the entire purpose of the operation. Yet, the FBI’s decision to arrest Al-Akili on gun possession charges, not terrorism related charges, reflected just how desperately the agency wanted him behind bars. While this particular case ended with a gun possession charge, publicly known cases suggests that in numerous instances the use of informants provided the FBI with successful terrorism-related charges.

(T)ERROR provides a real world depiction of how present-day counterterrorism practices come dangerously close to entrapment. At the very least, these tactics are questionable, if not unconstitutional. The counterterrorism practice exposed in this film highlights a fundamental issue with many programs instituted by federal and local law enforcement agencies. These tactics do not enhance our security but rather, they inflame greater divisions within our society by stigmatizing the Arab American and American Muslim communities.

The targeting of Arab Americans and American Muslims through these counterterrorism operations causes these communities to feel that their law enforcement officials view them as part of the problem, as opposed to being an integral part of the solution. It also signals to the rest of the country that these communities exist as a threat. At a time when hate crimes committed towards Arab Americans and American Muslims are on the rise, law enforcement programs that defame these communities feed into false notions of hysteria and fear mongering.    

According to a recent report released by the House Homeland Security Committee, 75 percent of cases against American citizens seeking to travel abroad to join extremist groups and fight against the U.S. have involved an undercover source, informant, family member, or alarmed community member who collaborated with or tipped off authorities. Moreover, as Dr. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, pointed out, “30% of the cases of “Muslim terrorism” law enforcement officials claimed to have stopped, involved individuals who were supplied weapons and were prodded to plan violent acts by the very law enforcement agencies that then arrested them.” This unmistakably played itself out in (T)ERROR.