In the opening moments of the chilling documentary “(T)error,” a federal judge is heard referring to informants as “sociopaths” by the very nature of their work. They are paid to engage with and earn the trust of suspects then sell them out in the next breath without remorse, before they move on to the next gig. This telling quote sets the stage for the complex and thorny moral dynamics of “(T)error,” a taut and engrossing look at stool pigeons in a post 9/11 era of fear and suspicion.
Since September 11th, approximately 500 suspects have been arrested for terrorist activity within the United States. 60% of these arrests have been predicated upon the use of FBI informants. Directed by Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe (“Adama”), and executive produced by Eugene Jarecki (“The House I Live In”), the stark and aptly named doc explores the shady ethical world of federal agency employed informants, how the agencies oversteps their bounds, and the dubious entrapment techniques used to capture suspects. “(T)error” is also the first documentary to detail an active FBI case while in progress. A stressful movie full of parallel stealth operations to the point that it creates a deep level of anxiety and paranoia, the filmmakers themselves infiltrate a covert sting in order to get their documentary jumpstarted, and the way it unfolds in real time is nerve-wracking and fascinating.
The subject in question is Saeed Torres, a.k.a. “Shariff,” a FBI informant who agrees to let the filmmakers document certain aspects of his current investigation. The kicker: he does not inform his FBI superiors. Preferring the term “surveillance operator” instead of informant, Shariff is an unlikely FBI covert operative: a 63-year-old black man, a middle-school cook, a former Black Panther revolutionary, and a single father struggling to make ends meet for his family. In a post 9/11 world, Shariff’s assignments are not much of a surprise — profiling Middle Eastern Islamists studying in the U.S. and ferreting out their motives. The standard operating procedure assumption is black and white and broad: suspects study here and are then presumed to go back to their respective countries to start up extremist military camps. The more disturbing element of these surveillance stings are the contrived techniques used expose and even invent what are often thin and tenuous criminal motivations.
Shariff is tasked to meet, befriend, and earn the trust of any POIs (person of interest) and then report back to his superiors with relevant information. But the documentary uneasily reveals the line between suggestion and coercion is an extremely dubious one. In Shariff’s quest to learn the POIs true intentions, he begins to plant and grasp at straws at the behest of his FBI superiors, slowly manipulating with evocation and hoping it will yield the right kind of answers.
As the case unfolds, the documentarians being to inspect Shariff himself. A three-dimensional person with his own baggage and shadowy history, his story and this examination adds much needed human texture too. Having fled New York several years ago for outing a former friend and member of an African American Muslim community in Harlem, Sharfiff is growing both weary and paranoid — believing his former New York friends have placed a Fatwa on his head (he now lives in an undisclosed suburb in the Eastern United States). Complicating the narrative, Shariff’s anxieties cast his stories in doubt, as he begins to take on dimension of an unreliable narrator. And a spiritual burden of regret and betrayal weighs heavily on his soul. Strapped for cash and worried about his boy, Shariff reluctantly leaves for Pittsburgh for a new assignment: to subvert and make contact with an Islamic dissident and “Taliban sympathizer” named Khalifah Al-Akili.
This is where “(T)error” excels as a multifaceted and layered documentary that explores not only the morally murky work of the FBI, but the difficult human circumstances of their operatives. Shariff is in the trenches and believes his superiors are like oblivious generals handing down orders that don’t make sense in the context of his insinuations (based on the documentary, he’s totally right). And they shirk him pay often, blaming any missing and promised figures to poor bank teller accounting. With the FBI obviously looking to make quotas and Shariff struggling to make ends meet, the ones with the most to lose are POIs who might be dissenters, but aren’t necessarily involved in any terrorist activities.
Pressured by his supervisors, Shariff gets in far too deep and overplays his hand sounding the alarm about Khalifah. As his case begins to unravel, the film’s air of menace and danger only escalates to nerve-wracking heights. It must be said, the filmmakers themselves get into some arguably exploitative territory as well by interviewing Khalifah about his mistrust of Shariff’s seemingly fraudulent friendship — both subjects are unaware that the filmmakers are interviewing them about each other. If it sounds like a fretful and ethical minefield, that’s because it most certainly is. “(T)error” only grows more elaborate and tense as the ticking time bomb-esque story counts down (details on how Khalifa’s controversial case, documented in the movie, went down, can be found here).
The filmmakers of “(T)error” obviously gain incredible and unprecedented access to the FBI and its operations — agent’s conversations are filmed and heard by phone — and one now has to wonder if Cabral and Sutcliffe are on some kind of watch list. It’s not just the access that’s impressive, but what the filmmakers do with it. For one, Shariff is a documentary goldmine, a subject who says and reveals far more than he probably should. Yet the movie’s corresponding examination of Shariff’s case, Shariff himself, and the manufactured tactics the FBI employs, is dense and riveting. The doc points to a greater and distressing pattern happening as we speak: the FBI misusing their informants in order to criminalize what are first amendment-protected activities.
Anxious and tightly-wound like “Citizenfour,” with similarly shocking and disturbing content, “(T)error” is a gripping parallel investigation of illegitimate counter-terrorist stratagems that not only considers the moral consequences of informing, and the wider troubling landscape around it, but does so from a deeply intimate and remarkable perspective. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Hot Docs Festival.