Saeed Torres is a Harlem-born former Black Panther and self-described “revolutionary” who, while imprisoned in the early ’90s, began spying on his Muslim community for the FBI.
As a freelancer for the FBI Torres says he’s made thousands of dollars and helped to bring in at least five convictions. In 2011, the 63-year-old let photojournalist (and one-time neighbor) Lyric R. Cabral film him on what’s supposed to be his swan song: “buddying up” to Khalifah Al-Akili, a Pittsburgh-based, white, Muslim 37-year-old husband and father who also happens to praise the Taliban on social media. The result is “(T)error,” the first documentary film to go inside an FBI counter-terrorism sting operation.
As if watching an FBI freelancer work isn’t already mind-blowing, things really get interesting when, unbeknownst to Torres, Cabral and co-director David Felix Sutcliffe start talking to his target, Al-Akili, too.
(T)error” will premiere this month at the TriBeCa Film Festival, which was founded after 9/11 to revitalize Lower Manhattan. Cabral, 32, spoke with Colorlines about a film that’s about the consequences of betrayal including the one leading to Al-Akili’s questionable arrest by the FBI. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Midway through the film and unbeknownst to 20-year FBI informant, Saeed-aka-“Shariff,” you start interviewing his target, Khalifah Al-Akili. How did that even become possible?
You saw my Colorlines photo essay [from 2011] so you know I was photographing and, I’m still working on, documenting the family members of folks who’ve been either accused or convicted of national security crimes. In doing that I was covering the Newburgh Four case. I attended all of the six-week trial. Through that reporting I came to be known in activist circles as a journalist who would be sensitive to issues of entrapment…and a lot of activists added me to their listservs…. So there was that network I had built through that reporting.
We used to read Khalifah’s public Facebook profile and he started making somewhat ambiguous status [updates about being watched] that only made sense to us because we were with Saeed. … Ultimately Khalifah sent out a [general] e-mail articulating how he met “Shariff” and that he felt the FBI was trying to target and entrap him. Some colleagues forwarded the e-mail to me. So once Khalifah sent that e-mail we knew that we could access him without interfering with an active investigation.
So Khalifah’s public pronouncement turned out to be the perfect “in” for you guys to reach out to him?
Yes. Particularly since that e-mail was forwarded to me. It landed in my inbox and I have that documentation so we really felt comfortable going to him because the e-mail in essence says, “Please come talk to me.”
That is extraordinary. I call it serendipity, but that’s really the result of a decade of reporting on the families affected by these counter-terrorism operations.
Another thing, also based on that 10 years of work: Obviously when we contacted Khalifah we couldn’t disclose why we were [already physically] in Pittsburgh. Ironically, because I’d reported on the Newburgh Four… he looked at my previous journalism and sort of presumed that the reason I was there was to continue reporting on Shahid Hussein [an informant used in the Newburgh Four case introduced by Saeed/Shariff to Khalifah as “Mohammed”].
Why was it so important to document Khalifah’s perspective?
Typically the public is never privy to a defendant’s perspective. Terrorism is a grave concern. But, I think as a journalist I owe it to the public to get to root of “radicalization.” If people like Khalifah are the FBI’s greatest fear, and arguably, national security threats, then they should be able to articulate and speak as to why they post these things on Facebook and defend their political positions. We were also very committed to [showing] how it feels to be under surveillance. [It] doesn’t just stop with you, it extends to your friends, family.
One more thing: Khalifah is quite indicative of the individuals the FBI chooses to target. Even though he is a white American he is a convert. Often [targets] are converts to Islam, young, on the fringes of the community, impoverished and unemployed. Khalifah hits a lot of those aspects. …He didn’t have the resources or means to be connected to any type of group. He was really just struggling. And that’s the point at which the FBI found him. He describes himself as a “bottom of the barrel” type guy.
And he’s also the guy who figured out the FBI was watching him by using Google!
Yes, he was very digitally savvy.
Jazz musician Tarik Shah, Saeed’s target from an earlier operation, is midway through a 15-year sentence. His 80-year-old mother says of Saeed (to whom she’d rented an apartment in her home): “What you reap you will sow.” You’ve known Saeed for more than a decade now. Is that true?
Hmm. Yes, it’s true. He’s very isolated. This is someone who has no community, no friends. He’s always looking over his shoulder whether that be from a veritable fear or a psychological one that’s borne of guilt and shame. …Saeed’s a New York native, born and raised in Harlem, proud member of Masjid At-Taqwa–and he can’t go back. That’s painful. … I think in 23 years of [informing on persons of interest to the FBI] I think he’s lost a lot of himself. I think the person he was off the job is no longer. I think those identities have melded and he’s dealing with the consequences now. He’s living a very, not paranoid, but a very timid existence.
At what point did the FBI acknowledge that they knew Saeed had let a small camera crew into his life?
To date the FBI has not acknowledged that they’ve known anything. … In November we reached out for comment … on Khalifah Al-Akili and Tarik Shah, another one of Saeed’s targets. We have yet to receive comment.
Have you figured out why Saeed chose to expose this part of his life to you?
He has a folder of news clippings about the cases he’s made. He highlights his role–“anonymous informant,” “undercover informant”–literally with a pen. … I think he’s always had a desire to go on the record [and over time it increasingly] became OK for him to talk.
Why did Saeed decide to talk to you?
When I was living in small Harlem brownstone and he was my neighbor, I had no idea what he did. I just saw a well-dressed man leave out the brownstone with a suit and tie, carrying a suitcase. … He began to invite me into his apartment and [it was] during that four-year period that I met Tarik Shah, whom Saeed introduced as someone giving him bass lessons.
So when I asked why did he tell me he said, “Well, I knew you were studying journalism. You weren’t quite biased because you were learning. I wanted to give you a good story and, above all, I knew that you would believe me because you were in the middle of it.”
In the middle of it?
He told me when he made the disclosure about his actual work, he told me that the brownstone was wired with audio and video surveillance. [That] was very repulsive to me because I realized that I was involved, literally. At the age of 19 I arguably had some type of FBI file. I was pissed! … This man is a master of betrayal. I had never been betrayed to that degree. And it was definitely an eye opener.
So you know firsthand what it means to get caught up in an FBI informant’s web. You have something in common with Tarik Shah, Khalifah Al-Akili and their families?
The film includes a clip of local media coverage of Khalifah’s arrest by the FBI, which comes off as though the FBI had just nabbed Osama bin Laden Jr. Toward the end the reporter says the FBI has “no hard evidence” against Khalifah. Why did you include that clip?
Typically, media reports about terrorism arrests [are] dictated by the FBI press release. We included that [clip] after the audience has seen the nature and breadth of investigation, that even the informant is questioning the validity of the target and telling his handlers this guys is not a threat. The news report is wholly inaccurate. …
Something that’s also interesting about the news reports, too, is that they really set the tone. The jury of a defendant’s peers is chosen after having read these headlines and watched these news reports [and] very few people question beyond the news report. We’ve had people screen the film and still come up after and say [that] they believe the news report. Some people question the film and believe that newscaster. …It’s very interesting the power of the news.
How often in your experience have you seen the FBI arrest and hold someone on tenuous evidence?
It’s difficult to say. …Often you hear about the arrest but rarely do you hear a retraction or a note made in the news that the charges against so-and-so have been dismissed. Accusations are often more prominent than the [defendant’s] innocence.
How has informant spying changed relationships in the Muslim communities you’ve covered over the last decade?
All of the Newburgh Four attended Masjid al-Ikhlas. I visited a year after that  case and people in the mosque didn’t know an informant had been there. One result of these cases is this is a political discussion that is averted in these communities. Even though there’ll be a camera right above the entrance to the masjid, people don’t talk about it. Clearly there’s monitoring but people don’t want to be caught on camera scrutinizing the surveillance. …The inundation of informants in these communities has also transformed mosque attendance. People would rather worship at home where there’s no fear of surveillance.
What was the most difficult aspect of making this film and getting it to the public?
Surveillance. It was really the first film where we felt the need to engage in data protection. Laura Poitras is one of [the film’s] creative consultants and early on she encouraged us to encrypt all our hard drives and materials. We had to enter a new phase with digital protection that we’d never been in before.
What’s your next project?
I’m starting production on a new feature documentary film in Cuba in July. It looks at changing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba from the lens of American fugitives who are potentially thwarting negotiations.
Will this involve Assata Shakur?