In the decades of cinema history we’ve seen embedded federal agents from White Heat to Donnie Brasco, but nothing quite like Saeed Torres. Financially desperate and socially isolated, his anonymous FBI handlers sic him on the equally desperate and isolated in the name of preventing terrorism. The filmmakers imply Saeed is a sociopath which the FBI values in this line of work. Better to draft someone who would have no problem both building up a relationship and then selling that target out. That Saeed is inept at managing his finances and perennially unable to land straight work acts as a bonus. He tries to justify his role in capturing potential terrorists as being just a small cog in the government machine, but his true allegiance is to the money and the prestige of the work. Though its never discussed outright, I imagine its these that made Saeed a willing participant in (T)ERROR. Whether the filmmakers offered him a bit of money or a platform for his exploits Saeed is just as loyal to the film production as he is to his next mark.
There’s nothing worse than a rat, except one who serves as a lure to a trap. Saeed dances around the word “entrapment”. The FBI wants to convict those they’ve targeted, and they want to convict them as terrorists. Tax frauds, negligent parents, or possessors of illegal firearms don’t have the same je ne sais quois, and wouldn’t play quite as well in the press. Saeed’s task then becomes one of planting suggestions and setting up introductions. He can’t say “let’s rob a bank” he must instead imply “I bet there’s a lot of money in there” and then eventually “here’s someone I think you should meet”.
Saeed is just a contractor for the FBI. He gets a whiff of their unlimited resources when they set him up in apartments and provide cover employment. Payment comes in envelopes of cash handed off in clandestine locations. But he’s responsible for his own transportation and cell phones. His communications back to the bureau are terse and informal. “Can u meet?” The FBI seems content with Saeed’s natural skill set and his pedigree as a former Black Panther.
The mark this time is a caucasian convert to Islam living in government-assisted housing in Pittsburgh. Khalifah is more than a generation apart from Saeed, drawing FBI attention for his pro Taliban screeds on Facebook and Youtube. The FBI sends him on a ill fated dance to connect to Khalifah through social media and expect a May-November friendship to flourish.
Khalifah is at the very least savvy. He recognizes nearly immediately that the FBI sent Saeed on his trail and works the internet and his amateur sleuthing skills to trace the net encircling him. Its incredible that so much information is publicly available and the government so brazen as to not cover their tracks.
A third target haunts the narrative. One of Saeed’s early marks, a down and out jazz bassist, never appears on camera but lingers at the margins. He was Saeed’s biggest bust but left him ostracized from his community and living in exile. As the particulars of the case become clearer, Saeed and his whole persona shrinks. (T)ERROR can produce a lot of news clippings but it cannot find even a whiff of heroism in any of its protagonists actions.
(T)ERROR reveals a crucial truth about the status quo. While the public turned against George W Bush and his administration, it left the security apparatus he set up largely unscathed and unprosecuted. In the press and larger society the hunts for terrorists are lionized. The press is still filling in the blanks with unwarranted tales of heroism and derring do. No more likely to investigate the actions of the FBI than the national media were to prosecute the case for the war in Iraq.
The FBI also benefits from the atrophying state of criminal justice. The government boasts unlimited resources to prosecute anyone they see fit. Many of the potential targets are poor, represented by public defenders who push their clients toward plea deals rather than risking a trial. In discussions about the increase of the US prison population the rise of plea bargaining plays an outsized role. Seven years in prison looks better than fifteen especially when your only representation presents these options as binary choices.
(T)ERROR makes clear at the outset, Saeed is one of thousands. The FBI won their game with hundreds of “potential terrorists” since 9/11, racking up 15 year suspended sentences on often dubious charges. In the next few years the first waves of them will reemerge from their prison stints...