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Review: (T)ERROR 

A deeply troubling and fascinating documentary about a cat-and-mouse game between the FBI and a suspected terrorist

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The first thing many documentary filmmakers require is access to those who can shed new light on a timely or controversial subject. Sometimes that happens by accident: journalist and filmmaker Lyric R. Cabral's discovery that a former neighbor and longtime friend was an FBI informant led directly to the deeply troubling (T)ERROR. Co-directed with David Felix Sutcliffe, the film lifts the veil on the FBI's post-9/11 practice of using paid informants to uncover terrorist activity on American soil. As (T)ERROR reveals in shocking detail, those activities — which may consist of nothing more than a stated willingness to do something illegal — often occur only with encouragement from informants who stand to profit from the entire ordeal.

  Cabral's informant friend Saeed "Shariff" Torres doesn't just describe for the camera what goes on in a 21st-century terrorist sting. For reasons of his own, Torres allows Cabral and Sutcliffe to surreptitiously film his latest undercover operation without the knowledge of his FBI employers. Amazingly, the target of the sting — an American Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili — also opens up to the filmmakers in secret. Neither informant nor target is aware the other is participating in the film, even as their real-world game of cat and mouse continues. (T)ERROR uses these extraordinary circumstances to examine a post-9/11 America where the balance between domestic safety and civil liberties appears to have gone off the rails.

  With its remarkable access to shadowy figures and clandestine activities, the film touches on a long list of related topics, from the FBI's highly questionable tactics to a working definition of entrapment and the tortured soul of the undercover informant. Careful construction of the mostly verite-style footage allows Cabral and Sutcliffe to slowly develop a film that's journalistically sound and creatively vibrant.

  (T)ERROR devotes its first half to 63-year-old Muslim and former Black Panther Torres. Even the half-dozen felony convictions held over Torres' head by the FBI don't explain his apparent comfort with making a career of sending his closest friends to prison. Torres never addresses the reasons for his risky participation in the documentary, but appears to see himself as a kind of whistleblower as regards the FBI. He also seems desperate to make sense of a lifetime of poor choices. It's a sad portrait of a man held captive by an invisible prison of his own device.

  The film gradually adopts the perspective of suspected terrorist al-Akili thanks to the FBI's increasingly questionable efforts to nail him for crimes he doesn't appear interested in committing. (T)ERROR's access to participants may be unique, but its story now happens with alarming regularity. In a radio interview excerpted in the film, author Trevor Aaronson (The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism) points out that the Bureau's corps of paid informants has grown from 1,500 to 15,000 since the World Trade Center towers came down in 2001. It's not hard to imagine why many FBI counterterrorism investigations begin on ethically shaky ground.

  (T)ERROR has so much on its plate that it barely touches on what may be the most disturbing aspect. Though anti-American speech is fully protected by the First Amendment, today that speech increasingly serves as a basis for prosecution in cases involving "conspiracy to commit" terrorist acts. Surely there remains a gulf between talk and action, even among suspected terrorists.

Film Details

Rated NR · 85 minutes · 2015
Official Site:
Director: Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe
Producer: Christopher St. John, Lyric Cabral, David Sutcliffe, Eugene Jarecki and Nick Fraser

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