Chattering Class

‘(T)ERROR’ Shines a Light on the FBI’s Murky Counterterrorism Tactics

David Felix Sutcliffe, co-director of the documentary, talks to Brendan about getting a rare glimpse into the world of an FBI informant.

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Most Americans are probably aware that whole departments of the government are trying to prevent terrorist acts. But how exactly are they going about it? And how effective are they, really? The new documentary “(T)error” gives a rare glimpse into the world of assessing terror threats.

It’s about Sayeed Torres, an informant for the FBI. Without telling his bosses, he invited filmmakers David Felix Sutcliffe and Lyric Cabral to film him as he went undercover to befriend a suspected jihadist. And then things really got interesting.

When Brendan met with David, he asked him to explain Saeed’s job.

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David Felix Sutcliffe: The word “informant,” and particularly in the way that, you know, Saeed works, and the way that the FBI has used informants and people like Saeed, is pretty misleading.

“Informant,” you think, “Oh, someone provides information.” They are part of some sort of network, criminal network, and they are offering the FBI or law enforcement, you know, a door into that, an entryway.

But really, what Saeed has done, and what other informants are doing — there’s 15,000 informants right now — a lot of them are being used as provocateurs. You know, the informant’s job is to go set people up. You know, there are provocateurs who are being sent into Muslim communities to kind of entrap young men, young Muslim men, who are angry at the government and have expressed those grievances, and the FBI says, “This person’s a person of interest. Let’s see what we can get him to do.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: You use the word “entrap,” which is a legal term, which is illegal, right, to technically entrap people?

David Felix Sutcliffe: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The government would call it “preventive investigations.” Is that correct?

David Felix Sutcliffe: Mm-hmm.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, Saeed invites you along on one of these investigations. The person of interest he is looking for is Khalifah al-Akili, who’s this white Protestant kid who converted to Islam. He has a criminal record. He’s publicly pro-Taliban, and the FBI feared he was either radicalized already or about to be. Can you explain how he became a person of interest?

David Felix Sutcliffe: Yeah, we have no way of knowing what it was that first kind of tipped the FBI off, why they began investigating Khalifah.

However, you look at Khalifah, you look at the statements he makes online, the way he dresses, and it’s not hard to understand why they began looking at him, and I think that’s where we kind of get into the gray zone.

We have people who are definitely, you know, worthy of investigation, you know. Someone who’s going online and saying, “Praise Osama bin Laden! I love the Taliban!” You know, that’s someone you want to look at, and where do their allegiances lie, and what are their aspirations?

Unfortunately, in Khalifah’s case, you know, they had been investigating him for seven years. And as early as, I believe, like 2005, FBI informants were approaching him trying to, you know, assess his thoughts on jihad, and violence, and political issues. And he never took the bait.

These agents, for whatever reason, that was… you know, they were unsatisfied to kind of let him keep on getting by with making these offensive, kind of radical, fiery statements online, and they pushed, and they pushed hard. You know, we caught the tail end of that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: How did Saeed try to find out more about him? Can you talk a little bit about his methods of investigation?

David Felix Sutcliffe: Yeah. I mean, in this particular case, Saeed was pretty critical of the Pittsburgh agents, and he was constantly criticizing the FBI for being, basically, a bunch of bumbling yokels who didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t have a cover for him.

He said, you know, “Normally, I could’ve come in as a businessman, but they didn’t have any sort of businessman cover for me, so I’m using what I have,” which is, you know, Saeed had search and rescue credentials and he had a dog, so he was telling Khalifah, like, “I work for the Search & Rescue, Red Cross,” but that didn’t really open up many opportunities to kind of then segue into a conversation about jihad or about traveling to Pakistan.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

David Felix Sutcliffe: And… so, he was kind of stumbling around. So, in terms of methods, there really weren’t any, and it was just kind of catch-all.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

David Felix Sutcliffe: Like, “Let’s talk about ‘Homeland.’ You like ‘Homeland’? Let’s talk about ‘Homeland.’ Let’s talk about camping.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: You get the sense that Saeed isn’t this really professional kind of guy, and we know that because he invited you along to film him being an informant. How did that happen?

David Felix Sutcliffe: Well, a lot of that came because of Lyric, my co-director, her relationship with Saeed.

You know, she had met Saeed in 2003, not knowing that he was an FBI informant. He was just her downstairs neighbor in a brownstone in Harlem, and at the time, she was a journalism student at Columbia, and thought this man was really interesting, and started spending time with him, you know, talking about current events. She found out he was a Black Panther, and was particularly fascinated by that.

And then, one day in 2005, he just disappeared. She came back to the brownstone. They had plans to hang out on a Saturday, and this was a Thursday, and his apartment was empty. There was no furniture; there was nothing there. And then he called her and said, “If anybody comes looking for me, don’t tell them where I am.”

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And she said, “Well, I don’t… how could I tell them anything? I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know where you are. What’s going on?”

And he said, you know, “I can’t tell you anything right now, but in a few months, I’ll call for you, and I can kind of tell you the whole story then.”

And that’s what he did. You know, I think later on that summer, she went to visit him where he was staying, and he said, “I’ve been working for the FBI since the early nineties, and I want you to write a book about me.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Was it legal for you guys to accompany Saeed as he ingratiated himself with Khalifah?

David Felix Sutcliffe: Well, the first thing we did as soon as he, you know, gave us the green light and said he would be willing to, you know, make a film, we reached out to the ACLU and said, “Are we allowed to do this? Are we going to get sent to jail?”

And they said, you know, “You’re doing what journalists do, which is you provide transparency, and so, this is a really critical and legal act that you’re doing. What you’re doing is justified. It’s important.” So we felt secure in kind of moving forward at that point.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But then something wild happens. Khalifah mentions on Facebook that he thinks the FBI is following him, and your movie takes a wild turn. You then approach Khalifah — now, this is the person that was being hunted, for lack of a better phrase — and you start filming him, and neither of them know you’re filming the other.

So, we get the perspective of the hunter and the prey. I’ve never seen anything like this. Certainly, you were in a position where you had to lie to both of them, right?

David Felix Sutcliffe: Yeah. I mean, the whole… it was kind of double-cross. It was like a hall of mirrors. Everyone is lying to everybody.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: So, Khalifah, it turns out, after you, you know, start filming Khalifah, he can see through Saeed and the FBI. You kind of list all the mistakes made when you’re seeing this guy, this not very sophisticated kid, catch on to all these things that the FBI are trying to do. What does that say to you about this process?

David Felix Sutcliffe: You realize that we’re spending $1 trillion a year on national security programs, and we have no idea how that money’s being spent, and if this film and these tactics reveal one sliver of the vast incompetence, you know, and ineptitude… it’s terrifying.

You know, Khalifah… it’s also tragic that, you know, even though he was able to figure out that he was being set up, it still didn’t stop the government from arresting him, didn’t stop the government from arresting him on the day that he was scheduled to go to a press conference in D.C. to criticize them for harassing him.

And, you know, they had their backup card, and that backup card was a gun charge. You know, they had a photograph of him on Facebook, from Facebook, you know, that was a clear violation of his parole. Khalifah didn’t realize it, but yet they were able to use that to take him down.