(T)error

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Oct 7, 2015
'(T)error'
'(T)error'  (Source:Sundance)

Since 9/11, the FBI has gone after terrorism suspects with renewed vigor. But what if the methods the Bureau uses are flawed and prejudicial? What if the people charged with keeping us safe are wasting time pursuing the wrong targets -- or even inventing targets to chase?

And what if there are racial biases at work at very root of the Bureau's anti-terrorism efforts?

These are some of the troubling questions raised by Lyric C. Cabraland David Felix Sutcliffe's documentary "(T)error," the grimly punning title of which gives you a pretty good read on the theme and subject.

Half the film's running time is devoted to following a paid informant named Saeed, also known as "Shariff." This is a born and bred American, a man who was once a member of the Black Panther Party and who once made a practice of contributing stolen money to his mosque. The Black Panthers were formed as a means for African Americans to find strength in community and look after their own; the group has long been painted as a paramilitary organization with terroristic overtones, but what's often overlooked are the party's efforts to care for the vulnerable members of America's black underclass.

Law enforcement was never a great fan of the Black Panthers, perhaps -- as some would suspect -- because of the blackness of its members as much as, or more than, their militaristic affect and their rhetoric. The way Shariff tells the story, once he was arrested for stealing he became the target of a recruitment effort to turn him into an informant.

After 9/11, he was deployed against a young man named Tarik Shah, a musician suspected of having terroristic inclinations. Shariff befriended Tarik and got him to express interest in providing training to Al Qaeda for pay. That was enough to land Tarik in jail until 2018. Sheriff resists the notion that he entrapped Tarik, but his explanation trends awfully close to the line. "It was like a bait," he says of his interactions with Tarik, "I threw the hook out there; he bit into it."

Shariff mentions several motives for his involvement with the feds. Patriotism is one; he's concerned with national security. Another is piety. Of Muslims who follow a path of violence, Shariff says, "I don't have no feelings for them. You making Islam look bad, you gotta go." But he's also in it for the money; Shariff would like to save up enough of a nest egg to go into business for himself, become a baker, and turn out cupcakes.

Until then, he has work to do. For his current assignment, Shariff has been tasked with cozying up to a "POI" -- person of interest -- named James Marvin Thomas, Jr., also known as Khalif, who posts pro-Islam writings and videos online. As Shariff maneuvers himself into a position to meet and become acquainted with Khalif, his handlers in the Bureau press him to make faster progress. Then things start to go wrong.

This is, unsurprisingly, where the documentary picks up some steam. Until now it's been a steady, sometimes slightly tedious affair, with Shariff griping, self-justifying, and getting cranky. Now, though, prompted by Khalif's online posting that he thinks he's being monitored by the FBI, the filmmakers initiate contact with him, too -- and a whole new side of the investigation comes to light: The side of the person being investigated.

Shariff's handlers have been too aggressive, and Shariff himself none too subtle. Suspicious of the way Shariff comports himself and the topics he wishes to discuss, Khalif tells the filmmakers about his concerns and, once he figures out exactly who Shariff is, he shares his insight with everyone online. Nether Khalif nor Shariff know that the filmmakers are interviewing the other fellow and getting his movements and his opinions on video.

Feeling targeted by the federal authorities -- and not without cause -- Khalif turns to an organization called Project SALAM which offers him support and schedules a press conference. Khalif also seeks the advice of a lawyer -- worried, he says, by what might happen to his wife and nine-month-old baby if the feds "snatch" him "off the street." Surely not, you think -- surely not in the Land of the Free, where religious exercise is valued more highly than the full civil participation of every one of the nation's citizens.

Think again.

The film paints a chilling portrait of governmental forces misused and people pursued and prosecuted for nothing more criminal than speaking out. (It's hard to miss the irony of Christians who complain that this has become their lot in life, even though they suffer none of the surveillance and systematic imprisonment that Muslims in America seemingly face.)

But how reliable are the film's narrators? The more time we spend with Shariff, the less inclined we might be to take him at his word; he's clearly given to self-justification and self-interest. As for Khalif, it's not a stretch to imagine that once he feels the FBI might be watching, he'd jump at the chance to get his fears and concerns on record -- that doesn't exonerate him, and neither does it incriminate him. But is his story truly as clear-cut as the film makes it seem?

There's a lack of perspective here that hobbles the film's credibility. The FBI, we're told, declined to comment. Again, that's neither exonerating nor incriminating in and of itself. But given the Bureau's history -- the ongoing currents of deep-seated racism in American law enforcement in general -- it would be unwise to dismiss the film's implications out of hand.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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