- Lyric R. Cabralindependent documentary filmmaker who co-directed the documentary (T)ERROR.
- David Felix Sutcliffeindependent documentary filmmaker who co-directed the documentary (T)ERROR.
- Steve Downsexecutive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms and also works with Project SALAM, which published a report last year called “Inventing Terrorists: The Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution.” He is also representing imprisoned Pakistani scientist Dr. Aafia Siddiqui.
- Khalifah al-Akilia Muslim-American from Pittsburgh area who was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI “entrapment” sting. His story is told in the new film (T)ERROR. He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs.
- Marlenemother of Tarik Shah, who was arrested in 2005 after a joint FBI-NYPD sting operation that involved Saeed Torres, who he thought was his friend but was actually an FBI informant. Torres is featured in the new film (T)ERROR. Marlene requests that the media does not use her last name in interviews for privacy purposes.
We spend the hour with an explosive new film that shines a bright light on the FBI’s shadowy use of informants in its counterterrorism sting operations. These undercover operatives are meant to root out would-be terrorists before they attack. Since 9/11, they have been used to prosecute at least 158 people. But critics argue they often target the wrong people, “including those with intellectual and mental disabilities, and the indigent.” “(T)ERROR” goes inside the world of a particular informant who has played a key role in several major terrorism cases. It does so while he is in the middle of carrying out his latest sting operation. It came together when two independent filmmakers gained unprecedented access to follow Saeed Torres, whose undercover name is “Shariff,” a 63-year-old former black revolutionary turned FBI informant, as he monitors a white Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili. Torres knew one of the directors, Lyric Cabral, and after he came out to her as an informant, he agreed to share his story, without informing his superiors. As the film unfolds, al-Akili begins to post on his Facebook page that he suspects the FBI is targeting him. The filmmakers used this an opportunity to approach him, and soon find themselves interviewing him at the same time they are also documenting “Shariff” monitoring him. During this time each man remains unaware that the filmmakers are talking to the other one. We get the rest of the story when we are joined by the filmmakers who co-directed “(T)ERROR,” Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, and play part of an interview with al-Akili from federal prison. Al-Akili was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI “entrapment” sting. He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs. We are also joined by Steve Downs, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. He works with Project SALAM, which published a report last year called “Inventing Terrorists: The Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution.” He is also representing imprisoned Pakistani scientist Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. We are also joined by Marlene, the mother of Tarik Shah, who was arrested in 2005 after a joint FBI/NYPD sting operation that also involved Saeed “Shariff” Torres. She details in the film how Shah thought Shariff was his close friend, but he was actually an FBI informant.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we look at an explosive new film that shines a bright light on the FBI’s shadowy use of informants in its counterterrorism sting operations. These undercover operatives are meant to root out would-be terrorists before they attack. Since 9/11, they’ve been used to prosecute at least 158 people. But critics argue they’re often targeting the wrong people. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found the FBI has focused on, quote, “particularly vulnerable people, including those with intellectual and mental disabilities, and the indigent.”
Well, a new documentary that just premiered here in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival takes us inside the world of a particular informant who has played a key role in several major terrorism cases. And it does so while he’s in the middle of carrying out his latest sting operation. It’s called (T)ERROR; the T is in parentheses, to put the emphasis on “error.” It came together when two independent filmmakers gained unprecedented access to follow Saeed Torres, aka Shariff, a 63-year-old former black revolutionary turned FBI informant, as he monitors a white Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili. Torres knew one of the directors, Lyric Cabral, and after he came out to her as an informant, he agreed to share his story, without informing his superiors. In this clip from the film, the other director, David Felix Sutcliffe, interviews Shariff inside the FBI safe house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the operation is underway.
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: How exactly do they train you to kind of prepare you?
SAEED TORRES: They don’t train me for nothing. It’s how I use the language. If they train me, I would never get what I wanted to get, because they’re strictly textbook. There’s a difference between telling somebody and making a suggestion. See, entrapment is if I go and tell him, “Yo, come on, let’s go rob a bank,” and you know that was not his intention, that was my intention. So I’m entrapping him. I don’t make the suggestions. I may go to him and say, “Damn, there’s a lot of money in there, boy. I see all them [bleep] dropping off all that damn money.” And he feeds into it, and he go, “[bleep] I’d sure like to take that.”
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: What about your current target? Are your handlers trying to suggest that you—
SAEED TORRES: I don’t suggest anything. I wait 'til as we speak and to get to know each other, what we speak about. So when he brought up camping, that was my key opening right there. The door opened up for me to make a suggestion now. I said, “Yeah, oh, that's cool, man. We could all go camping.” I said, you know, why don’t we just go a little further? We could train the man like we do in the military.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from (T)ERROR of Saeed Torres, aka Shariff, an FBI informant who portrays himself as a radicalized Muslim in order to monitor Khalifah al-Akili. As the film unfolds, al-Akili begins to post on his Facebook page he suspects the FBI is targeting him. The filmmakers use this as an opportunity to approach him and soon find themselves interviewing him at the same time that they are interviewing Shariff monitoring him. During this time, each man remains unaware that the filmmakers are talking to the other one.
Well, to pick up the story, we’re joined by the two filmmakers, who co-directed (T)ERROR, Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe. In a minute, we’ll also get a call from the federal prison where Khalifah al-Akili is being held. As the film shows, al-Akili was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI entrapment sting. He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs. He was not arrested on terrorism charges.
David and Lyric, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Tell us about this story, Lyric, how you discovered it.
LYRIC CABRAL: Sure. Well, I met Saeed’s forward-facing self. I met his double life, if you will. I was studying photography. I was living in a small brownstone in Harlem. And Saeed was my neighbor. While he was my neighbor—excuse me—I would have frequent visits to his apartment. We would engage in conversations about politics, about current events.
One day, he abruptly disappeared. This was at the end of three years of conversing. He abruptly disappeared. It was May 28, 2005. I was staring into an empty apartment, wondering where he went, when I got a call from him. He said, “I’m no longer in New York. If anyone asks—comes to you asking about me, any information, please give me a call. Get their information for me.” When I said, “Why?” he said, “Come to South Carolina. I’ve relocated. I have something to tell you.”
And when I went to South Carolina, he confessed to me that the apartment in which we had been conversing was, in essence, an FBI safe house. The rent was being paid by the FBI. It was wired with audio and video surveillance. And he told me that, “Do you remember Tarik?” And I said, “Yes. Tarik Shah?” He said, “Tarik is now in jail on suspicions of terrorism.” And at the time that I met Saeed in—between 2002 and 2005, it was sort of the height of his career. He was involved in two active counterterrorism investigations, one being the domestic investigation of Tarik Shah, the other the international—
AMY GOODMAN: Tarik Shah, who was a musician?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: Yeah.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: And the other being the international investigation based in Germany of Sheikh al-Moayad.
AMY GOODMAN: And you didn’t know this at the time.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: No, I just knew that he was a well-dressed man who said that he worked for the Legal Aid Society. He sort of—
AMY GOODMAN: He said he worked for Legal Aid.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: He did.
AMY GOODMAN: This FBI informant?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Did he work at Legal Aid?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes, yes. The FBI—what happened, the FBI took him from his job with the promise of doubling his pay, after the first World Trade Center attack. And so that’s sort of why—
AMY GOODMAN: So was he working at Legal Aid and being an FBI informant at the same time?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: That’s a good question. I believe so. I believe so. He always has some type of supplementary income.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how—he left.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you reconnect with him? And what year was it that he left Harlem?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: He left Harlem in 2005, immediately after Tarik Shah’s arrest. I went that summer, in like June or July, to South Carolina to visit him. And, I mean, it wasn’t really an issue of reconnecting, because I always called. I knew there was tremendous potential there for his story, yet I was completely repulsed that he had put me in a position where I was actively surveiled by the FBI. And so, for about 10 years, I really called him once a month—”How are you? Where are you?”—until David articulated the strong desire to make a film about informants.
AMY GOODMAN: So, David, explain how you came into this picture.
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: So, Lyric and I actually met right around that same time in 2005. We were both working at an after-school arts program in Harlem. And one of our students was arrested by the FBI, a 16-year-old Muslim girl named Adama Bah. And that arrest kind of shocked everyone in the community, shocked Lyric and I. And watching what happened to her as a result of her arrest—her father was deported; the government tried to deport her for several years. She—
AMY GOODMAN: And she was from?
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: She was from Guinea, West Africa, 16 years old. And she, all of a sudden, had to kind of be the primary caretaker of her family. Her mother did not speak English and had difficulty finding work, so she had to drop out of school—Adama—to take care of her four younger siblings. And so, while working on this film about her, I started to notice, you know, the other counterterrorism cases that were popping up, and seeing, in case after case after case, informants being sent into communities not to uncover terrorist cells, but to kind of create plots and cultivate arrests that the FBI could then use to swoop in and justify a victory in the war on terror. And while kind of observing these cases, I just thought, you know, dramatically, that would be a fascinating story to explore, the relationships that are being set up between these two—these two individuals, a target and an informant, the informant knowing that this person is ultimately going to be arrested as a consequence of this relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: When you started talking to Shariff—that was his aka name—Saeed Torres, for the film, you had not gotten in touch with Khalifah, his target in Pittsburgh, yet?
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: No.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about, Lyric, you convincing Saeed to go on camera. I mean, this is—you are getting him in the middle of a sting. The FBI doesn’t know about this?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Presumably. We have—we, as filmmakers, sought comment from the FBI. We have yet to hear comment. But we presume that—you know, we had Saeed’s wholehearted cooperation. This film really comes from his desire to tell his story and get his story on the record.
AMY GOODMAN: Even as he is doing another sting? Because that’s how you’re—
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s what’s so astounding about this film.
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: And I think it didn’t entirely make sense to us, either, at the time. We said, “Why would this person agree to participate in this film?” But we didn’t want to question that, initially said, “Let’s take advantage of this opportunity.” But ultimately, what we realized was, at the height of his career, Saeed was making hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, working on multiple investigations. But in 2005, after having to testify in the case of Rafiq Sabir, who was Tarik Shah’s co-defendant, his identity was exposed, and everyone in the New York Muslim community became aware that he was actually an informant. At that point, he left New York and no longer had the social connections that made him valuable as an asset to the FBI. So when we met up with him several years later, he was making—he was barely getting reimbursed for gas money and was struggling to kind of make those large paychecks, those enormous paychecks, that he had been making previously in his career, which I think is what prompted him to agree to participate in this film.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, Lyric, how did you get in touch with his target? Presumably, Shariff did not tell you who he was now surveiling, monitoring.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Well, early on, we were committed to sort of documenting the investigation wherever it may go and, as journalists, getting as close to the investigation as we could. And we sought legal consultation early on from the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, who sort of told us our parameters as journalists. And as such—Khalifah had a public Facebook profile, which was frequently checked by the FBI and by Saeed. And because it was public and Saeed shared that information with us, we began to check his profile. And increasingly, while we were documenting the investigation, Khalifah began to articulate suspicions on his public Facebook page, very interesting status updates like “The Feds think they can send anyone to me. They must think I’m Willie Lump-Lump,” things like this. So he would start to articulate that he thought that he was the target of an FBI investigation. And ultimately, his suspicions became more detailed. And when he finally articulated a name, Saeed, that—you know, the name of the informant that he thought was targeting him, we sort of felt comfortable, as journalists, reaching out to him.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’re going to hear both from Shariff and from Khalifah—from Khalifah in jail. Shariff, we have from the film, (T)ERROR. Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe are the directors. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. That domestic terrorist attack killed 168 people. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with the film (T)ERROR. That’s T with parentheses around it, emphasizing the rest of that word, “error.” This is FBI informant Saeed Torres, known as Shariff, expressing frustration that his FBI handlers keep pushing him to help them pursue terrorism charges against this white Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili. The filmmakers are interviewing Shariff, again, at the FBI safe house in Pittsburgh.
SAEED TORRES: I mean, I could have set him up, just take a [bleep] handgun and just put it somewhere and say, “Yo, y’all call in the locals, have the locals grab him right now.” Boom, he got a gun, and it’s all over with. But they don’t want to do it that way. And I told them. I said, “I’m not here to entrap nobody.” They’re trying to make me force this dude into saying something to support terrorism. I said, “The dude is not a [bleep] terrorist, man! He’s not even a pseudo-terrorist. He’s nothing but an oxymoron.” I said, “What y’all been doing for the last three years? Y’all ain’t seen nothing? If y’all ain’t seen nothing, what y’all expect me to see?”
AMY GOODMAN: So that is the FBI informant, Shariff. Now, this is a clip from the film (T)ERROR when Kharlifah al-Akili describes how he discovered that Shariff—actual, his real name, Saeed Torres—and the man he introduced him to, named Mohammed, were FBI informants.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Shariff left me alone in his truck. And when he did that, there was a letter sitting on the dashboard from the welfare office. So I picked it up, and I snapped a picture of it, because I knew he was FBI. I wanted to know who this guy was. And his real name is Saeed S. Torres.
SAEED TORRES: Come on, Sheeba. Come on. Sheeba, Sheeba, stay. Stay.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: This was a guy who used to email me all the time, call me. You know, “Let’s go out for coffee. I’ll pick you up.” But a lot of that slowed down dramatically after he introduced me to this, quote-unquote, “Mohammed.” I put his phone number through Google.
MOHAMMED: Anyone should be rewarded for the things they do, either by Allah or by the organization that does these things.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: That’s him. Mohammed, he was informant for the FBI, and his real name is Shahed Hussain.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there is Khalifah al-Akili understanding who he has been talking to. Well, we’re in studio now with Lyric R. Cabral, independent documentary filmmaker, who co-directed the documentary, (T)ERROR, with David Felix Sutcliffe. They are both with us. We’re also joined in Washington, D.C., by Stephen Downs, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms and also works with Project SALAM, which published a report last year called “Inventing Terrorists: The Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution.” He is also representing imprisoned Pakistani scientist Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, but we’ll talk about that in a moment.
So, Stephen Downs, we’re at the point where Khalifah al-Akili realizes he is being set up by the FBI. He somehow reaches out to you. Explain.
STEPHEN DOWNS: He sent us a letter, to the National Coalition. And we decided to respond to this, because he had irrefutable proof that he was being stalked by the FBI and did not want to participate in any kind of a terrorist plot. And so, what we decided to do, we called him. We wanted to make sure that he had legal representation, that he was aware of his rights. And we also decided to hold a press conference down in Washington to call attention to this and to denounce the FBI and say you shouldn’t be stalking people that don’t want to be entrapped.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you were going to hold a news conference. Did you think at this point that he was close to arrest?
STEPHEN DOWNS: Yes. I would have said—because we’ve had experience with Shahed Hussain. Up in Albany, Shahed Hussain was the main informant that entrapped a local imam that we happened to be—Kathy Manley, my associate, and I were on the defense team for him, so we knew Shahed very well. And he was sort of brought in as the closer. So, we assumed that he was getting pretty close to doing something.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, what do you mean you knew Shahed well? Who was Shahed?
STEPHEN DOWNS: Shahed was an informant that the FBI had sent in to convict—to essentially take down Yassin Aref, who was an imam in a mosque up in Albany. And Kathy and I were on the defense team. We represented Aref, and so we knew Shahed well because he testified at the trial, or he was part of the trial. His work, his tape recordings of all the meetings with Aref—who is completely innocent, I believe—were put into evidence. And it was from that fake arrest of Aref that we started our analysis of preemptive prosecution and ultimately set up Project SALAM.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what’s so astounding about this film is you are filming it not in retrospect, people recreating the story, but as it is happening, both sides. They don’t know you’re interviewing each other, David and Lyric. Now you come to the point of the possibility of arrest. How were you there in those early morning hours when Khalifah was arrested?
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: It was—you know, it was a coincidence. We were on our way to film him going to morning prayer. We knew that, you know, there was a possibility of him being arrested very soon, so we wanted to make sure to film with him as much as possible. And one of the things we wanted to capture was him going to the mosque in the early morning, because that was actually—previously, Shariff would often offer him rides to the mosque. Shariff lived a half a block down the street from Khalifah, which was an intentional decision on the part of the FBI to get them as close as possible. And it’s a tactic they use frequently in these cases, to get targets very close to their informants so they can offer them—you know, “Oh, you’re going to the mosque? I can offer you a ride.” So we pull up, you know, in our car and see SUVs all outside the front of Khalifah’s apartment, and immediately grabbed the camera, jumped out of the car and started filming.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip from the film (T)ERROR when Khalifah al-Akili is arrested.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: I haven’t done anything to anybody. Prophet Muhammad said, “Beware of the supplication of the person who is unjustly treated.” This is wrong. I haven’t done anything to anyone. Can you please try to get a hold of someone to help my wife, please? Please, man?
REPORTER: Now investigators are questioning a man after the FBI raided his Wilkinsburg home. What they found inside has forced them to launch a major investigation.
ALAN JENNINGS: He told friends he wanted to join the Taliban and die like a martyr. But he ran from the FBI. The Pittsburgh FBI SWAT team, though, took him down moments later in front of his Wilkinsburg apartment. And now the Feds tonight are looking to see just what level of anti-American he might be.
REPORTER: Ali al-Akili, also known as James Marvin Thomas Jr., was in possession of jihadist literature and literature of the U.S. military and its tactics, and that he promoted guerrilla violence against the U.S. armed forces.
ALAN JENNINGS: Now, tonight, there is no hard evidence, according to the Feds, that the suspect took any action against the United States. But this investigation of this suspect and his friends is far from over.
AMY GOODMAN: That report from Pittsburgh. Steve Downs, Khalifah al-Akili contacted you right before that arrest. Now explain, as we hear about FBI stings and arrests now, just in our headlines today, around the country—explain, ultimately, what he was convicted of.
STEPHEN DOWNS: Well, he was convicted—the FBI, when they go after somebody like this, we call it preemptive prosecution. They look for anything that they can get to take a person down if they are suspicious about his motivations or if there’s something that they think he might do in the future. So they apparently went through his record very closely, as they do in a lot of cases, and found that he had a prior drug arrest, felony arrest a number of years ago, which would prohibit him from owning any or possessing any guns, any firearms. And on his Facebook page, he had posted a picture of himself holding a gun, which a friend had given him at a public shooting range, and he was simply holding the gun. Obviously, he did not think of that as possessing a gun. It was a gun that had been rented at the public shooting range. But under the law, that is possession. And so they knew they had this fallback position: If they could not entrap him into a terrorist activity, then they would get him for the gun charge. And that’s what they ultimately did. They arrested him, really, the day before the press conference. I had already sent him a bus ticket to come down to Washington for the press conference. The FBI, I think, had been reading our emails. They knew that was happening. So they decided to abandon the attempt to get him on terrorism charges and just do him on the old gun charge.
AMY GOODMAN: And he didn’t actually go to trial, right? He pled.
STEPHEN DOWNS: He pled, eventually, yes, that’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
STEPHEN DOWNS: Well, because it’s very hard to win these cases. The case law is pretty clear, that if you hold a gun when you’re not supposed to possess a gun, that would be sufficient to convict you. And by getting a plea bargain, he was able to reduce the sentence considerably to, I believe it was, eight years.
AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this, as you cover this case, Lyric and David? He pleads guilty. He ends up going to jail. Now, we were just about to bring you a live interview with Khalifah al-Akili. We had the time set. He was calling us from the Fairton, New Jersey, prison where he is being held. But he just called and said he was brought to the security office this morning and told he could not make a call that would be broadcast live with us. But he did do an interview from prison Sunday night with Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz, which we want to bring you an excerpt of now. Again, Khalifah al-Akili is the Muslim American from the Pittsburgh area who was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI entrapment sting, his story told in the new film, (T)ERROR, now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun. This interview with Khalifah al-Akili was conducted over the phone, so listen closely.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah, my name is Khalifah al-Akili, and I’m in FCI Fairton. I’ve been here over two years, going on two years, a little over two years, actually. I’m out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
RENÉE FELTZ: Khalifah, we’re talking about the film (T)ERROR, in which you describe how the FBI targeted you. Can you talk about how you came to understand that you were being targeted by the FBI?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah. I knew as early as 2005 that I was a target of the FBI, when I met this one individual in my community, in the local Muslim community. He walked up to me in the mosque, and he began talking some very radical views and strange things.
OPERATOR RECORDING: This call is from a federal prison.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Strange things. And immediately, like, I kind of felt uncomfortable, and I expressed my discomfort to other people in the community that also had that same discomfort regarding this individual. This was as early as 2005. Now, in regards to the recent events with Saeed Torres and Shahed Hussain, I became aware, almost the second day after I met Saeed Torres, that this guy had an agenda, with his, you know, wanting to spark up a relationship with me, that he moved—mysteriously, out of nowhere, he just moved down the street from me and started to attend the mosque that I used to go to for morning prayers. I knew immediately that this guy had an agenda.
RENÉE FELTZ: You were ultimately convicted based on the help from the informant, who went by Shariff, but not on terrorism charges. You were convicted on weapons charges.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Right.
RENÉE FELTZ: And you pled guilty to those charges. Can you talk a little bit about how that unfolded and why you pled guilty?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Well, basically, after I came forward and sent out the email exposing the two informants and my desire to go to Washington, D.C., to—a press conference was established and set up by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. I was supposed to attend that. The day before, I was actually arrested coming out of my home early morning, ready to go to the mosque to attend my morning prayers. And I was charged with a weapons violation based on a picture of me from two years prior, when me and some friends went to a gun range. It was pretty much—it had nothing to do with the informant directly, and that this was done, I believe, in a timely manner in order to stop me from attending that press conference.
I eventually ended up taking a plea, due to the fact that—you know, the threat of facing more time and pretty much knowing that when you’re up against the federal government, there’s really nothing—there’s very limited resources of being able to seek some type of justice when the chips are stacked against you. So I took a plea in order to—you know, to get less time than what I was facing.
RENÉE FELTZ: Can you talk about the impact this case and the charges against you have had on your wife and on your family? She has been deported, is that right?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah, my—well, actually, not deported, but under the threat of being arrested, my wife voluntarily left. This has definitely had a devastating effect on my family in regards to physically separating us, not only by my incarceration, but the fact that in 2013 immigration authorities approached my family in Columbus, Ohio, and under the threat of my wife being told that if she doesn’t leave, that she would be incarcerated, saying that her application was denied. And everything in regards to how my wife originally entered this country was legal, and they found a small technicality to just find a reason, the fact that she overstayed her original 90 days when she entered the country from the U.K. as a visitor, even though we filed the paperwork within that timeframe for her to get, you know, permanent residency and then eventually to get citizenship. But they used that in order to basically threaten her and tell her that she has to leave, that her application was denied. And that happened in 2013.
My wife is now living in London with her uncle. You know, in regards to being separated and not being able to receive visits—phone calls are extremely expensive, one dollar a minute for international phone calls. So it’s very hard for me to keep in touch with my family. And it has definitely caused a strain on my family relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Khalifah al-Akili doing a phone interview from FCI Fairton in Fairton, New Jersey, which is southern Jersey. He ended his interview saying, if there’s some sort of legitimate threat, then I have no problem supporting the government in doing what they need to do and to protect fellow Americans. We’ll post the full interview on our website at democracynow.org. Again, we had hoped to conduct that interview live today with Khalifah. He called up to say that the security office said he could not do a live interview. So we recorded this interview yesterday and played you a portion of it, and we’ll post the rest online at democracynow.org, as he described what happened to his family, his wife and his baby. Lyric Cabral, the deportation of his wife?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes. So, after Khalifah’s arrest, in the wake of Khalifah’s arrest, Hibo was kicked out of public housing—Hibo is Khalifah’s wife—along with his daughter, were kicked out of public housing. And they sort of depended on the charity of friends locally in Pittsburgh, and then ultimately they moved to Ohio. And we traveled to Ohio to film with her, just to do a little bit of follow-up. When we went to Ohio, we found that immigration had seized her passport, as well as the passport of her daughter, and basically told her that, you know, she cannot get these documents back, unless she is to leave the country. So like Khalifah said, under threat of being arrested, she was sort of forcibly made to leave.
AMY GOODMAN: Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe are the directors of a remarkable real-time film called (T)ERROR. It was first shown at Sundance, and it was now, this weekend, shown at the Tribeca Film Festival to a packed house, people stunned at the end of this film. When we come back, we’re going to continue to talk about this FBI sting—actually, a previous one, with a well-known jazz musician named Tarik Shah. We’re joined by Tarik Shah’s mother, as well. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Today we are talking about a new film called (T)ERROR, about the FBI informant and his targets. We talked about the case of Khalifah al-Akili, who is now in prison for eight years on nonterrorism-related charges. He was afraid—if he went to trial, who knew what would happen? He pled out, and he is in prison in Fairton, New Jersey, for eight years. Now we’re going to go to a previous target of this FBI informant named Shariff, who is actually Saeed Torres. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Our guests are Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, both directors of (T)ERROR. Steve Downs is an attorney who deals with issues like these. And we’re joined by the mother of a man named Tarik Shah, who was arrested in 2005 after a joint FBI/NYPD, New York Police Department, sting operation that involved Saeed Torres, who he thought was his friend but was actually an FBI informant. Torres is featured in the new film, (T)ERROR. Lyric Cabral, let’s go back to Tarik Shah.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes. So, Tarik Shah was a prominent—is a prominent jazz musician, who’s played with the likes of Ahmad Jamal, Betty Carter, Rachelle Ferrell. And basically, Tarik frequently played jazz gigs in Harlem, at the Lenox Lounge and at St. Nicholas’ Pub. And so, the FBI knew that Tarik frequented this neighborhood. They introduced Tarik to Saeed while he was playing a gig, and basically told Saeed to get an apartment in Harlem, where I also lived, in the brownstone in Harlem, to basically target Tarik Shah, so that when Tarik would come to Harlem, he would have a location to hang out before or after gigs, engage in conversation.
And during these conversations, Saeed—you know, Tarik was facing child support, child support issues, and Saeed knew this. And so, Saeed would offer him money, and basically go to him and say, “You know, I know you’re facing—you have these child support issues.” At the time, Tarik also had no passport. He was a musician who principally made his money in Europe, and he was unable to travel to Europe.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Because the FBI had taken—I mean, excuse me, the government had taken away his passport because he owed child support. And additionally, they took away his driver’s license. So here is a musician who was literally unable to travel to get to his gigs, except for on foot and on the charity of others. And so, into this situation, Saeed said, “Well, I know how you can make some money.” Tarik Shah was also a martial arts expert. He is someone who had been trained through the Nation of Islam, through the Fruit of Islam. His father, Usman Shah, was one of Malcolm X’s lieutenants. So, arguably, this is someone whose family had been under surveillance since the '60s, you know, so this is a continuum of COINTELPRO surveillance, in my opinion. And so, when Saeed entered Tarik's life and sort of knew about—
AMY GOODMAN: They were apartment neighbors.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: They weren’t neighbors. Tarik actually didn’t live in the brownstone, but he frequently played music gigs in Harlem, and so he would stop by a lot, just because it was a—you know, the FBI had engineered this environment so that it was comfortable for him, so that he would have a place that was available late at night after he would get off of a gig. And so, ultimately, Saeed used this child support need that Tarik had—he owed about $70,000—and said, “Well, you know, if you use your martial arts service in service of 'al-Qaeda,'” quote-unquote, “we can get you $70,000. I can get your passport back.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, Stephen Downs, explain ultimately what happened to Tarik, what he was charged with.
STEPHEN DOWNS: Well, he was charged with material support for terrorism, for essentially, I suppose, nothing more than, in a kind of a scripted plot—or not a scripted plot, but a scripted play by the FBI, he took some sort of an oath to al-Qaeda that he would treat al-Qaeda soldiers if they were injured somehow, or would train them in martial arts. And I think the request was: Would you train al-Qaeda soldiers? And he said, “I’ll train anybody. I’m a martial arts instructor.” And that was essentially the—for what he was convicted of.
AMY GOODMAN: Marlene is the mother of Tarik Shah. She doesn’t want to use here last name. Actually, you were close to Malcolm X. You were one of the last people to speak to him on the telephone the day he was killed in 1965.
MARLENE: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to your son?
MARLENE: Well, I think what happened with Tarik, I think that Tarik has always befriended a lot of people. And he used to always say, you know, if someone needed his help, he would give it to them. He spoke with me about teaching this particular person, Saeed, music lessons, and also that his wife was pregnant, and he needed another place to stay, which was in my brownstone. I had an apartment downstairs. And Tarik was redoing the apartment so he could basically, you know, like, stay there. Also, he was speaking to me about martial arts, and he said that Saeed told him that he was—he could help him get his passport back. And also, he—
AMY GOODMAN: Did he tell him he worked for the FBI?
MARLENE: No, he told him that he was a paralegal.
AMY GOODMAN: Was he working at Legal Aid at the time?
MARLENE: I don’t know. You know, I don’t know. And he said that he could help him get his passport and also that he could help him with his child support. And that’s the main thing, because the child support was definitely drowning Tarik. He was paying, you know, lots of money. And when he was working abroad, it was absolutely no problem, because working in Europe and traveling abroad, I mean, you know, he made an abundance of money. In New York, he wasn’t able to make the kind of money. So he would call me, and he would say, “They took my passport.” And then they took his driver’s license. So I said, “Well, you know, you’re going to have to go to the—
AMY GOODMAN: On what grounds? All to do with child support?
MARLENE: All to do with child support. So he had absolutely no way of traveling back and forth. So he got people to take him back and forth to various places. So I said, “You have to go to the motor vehicle bureau and ask them for a driver’s license just to use for work,” because lots of times if they take your license, they will give—
AMY GOODMAN: An ID.
MARLENE: Right. So, you know, like, he did that, and basically—but he couldn’t travel out of state.
AMY GOODMAN: So here was this very convenient guy, Saeed, very nice guy—
MARLENE: Very nice guy.
AMY GOODMAN: —who’s taking music lessons from Tarik Shah. And he’s saying, “I can help you our. I can get you a little money.”
MARLENE: “I can help,” exactly. And he said, “I can help you get money, and if you want to teach martial arts”—Tarik had said, “What I’m interested in doing is opening up another studio.” So he had asked me—when he moved into my house in the brownstone, he had asked me if he could do the basement, make it sound proof, to teach music and also to do martial arts. So I told him, “Sure,” if he can do that. But in the interim, he was dealing with Saeed, and Saeed told him about something out on the island. They went out there. And from what I can understand, it wasn’t suitable for his taste, but he kept saying, “You can make extra money teaching martial arts.” And, you know, if you wanted—I didn’t hear these—Tarik never spoke to me about doing anything with al-Qaeda. He had just said, “Mommy, I want to open up another studio.” And he said, “I have a guy that will help me.” Now, Saeed had told him that he was—this studio that he had or this place he had out on Long Island, he used to teach dance. He was a choreographer. So Tarik went out there with him to look at the place, figuring that it would be suitable. But he said, when he got there, it wasn’t suitable. So, from there on in, I don’t know what happened, in the interim, with that proposal.
AMY GOODMAN: How many years was he sentenced to?
AMY GOODMAN: Fifteen years. And when does he get out?
AMY GOODMAN: Does he feel like he was set up?
MARLENE: Of course. He knows he was set up.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Downs, what is the definition of entrapment in a sting operation like this, whether we’re talking about Tarik Shah or we’re talking about Khalifah al-Akili?
STEPHEN DOWNS: Right. Well, we have to face the reality that although there is technically an entrapment defense, it really no longer exists. I should say that most Western countries, particularly in Europe, do not permit entrapment by the government. I mean, it’s obvious that the government should not be in the business of creating crimes for their own citizens. They should be protecting their citizens.
In the United States, there was case law that set up an entrapment defense very early on. But over the years, an exception was created for anybody who was predisposed. That would be particularly in drug cases. If you had prior drug arrests or prior drug convictions, that could—should be used to show that you were predisposed to commit this kind of crime. The government could then go in and do an entrapment in the sense of a buy or a sell arrangement. And so, that kind of case law went on for a while.
And then it was expanded to say, “Well, what does it really mean to be predisposed?” And the Supreme Court created another exception by saying, well, predisposed also would include a ready response by the government. In other words, even if you’d never been involved in anything before, if the government offered you something that was illegal, and you immediately accepted it or enthusiastically accepted it, that would be a ready response, which would indicate that you were predisposed.
That ready response exception has grown, under the war on terror, into an exception that is so big that it has completely swallowed up the rule. There really is no entrapment defense anymore, because anybody who—the only way you can escape from the ready response doctrine is to withdraw from the plot. If you withdraw from the plot, there is no crime, so there’s nothing to charge. If you go through with the plot, then they will say, “Well, that was a ready response.” And the courts have tended to uphold that. So, my sense of it is, right now, although the law is still a little bit in flux, that the entrapment defense really doesn’t exist in the United States anymore. It’s more a theory than in practice.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by going to a slightly different issue, Steve Downs, talking about Aafia Siddiqui. In Pakistan, she is considered a political prisoner, but in the United States she’s known as “Lady al Qaeda.” She’s currently incarcerated at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, where she’s serving 86 years behind bars. You just met with her family. You just came back from Pakistan and have agreed to represent her and will announce this today at a news conference. What are you going to say? And if you can—we only have a minute, but just to get a taste of what this case is and what your defense is.
STEPHEN DOWNS: Right. Well, I would say, at this point, that there are really two points I want to make. First, that in Pakistan she is very, very popular. Everybody knows her. She is the daughter of the nation. The prime minister and his whole cabinet came to the family’s house to pledge that they will try to get her back. Whereas here in America, she’s almost unknown. And I want to talk about that, because I think America, who holds a lot of the political prisoners in the world, does not do enough to publicize what political prisoners are and the conditions under which they are held. And I think Aafia’s case is a particularly glaring example of this.
The other thing that is very disturbing to us is that she has not been heard from for over a year by her family. They’ve had consular visits, and the consular has not even seen her face yet. So we don’t—there are concerns as to whether she’s even alive, and if she is alive, in what the state of her health is. And so, one of the things I’m asking at the press conference, I want the Pakistani government to send a letter to the American government asking for an independent medical evaluation of Aafia to make sure that she’s alive and in good health—
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Downs, we have to wrap, but we are going to continue this interview.
STEPHEN DOWNS: —and then also work on the idea of somehow repatriating Aafia to Pakistan, where she really belongs.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to—I want to thank you for being with us, and we’re going to continue this interview to explain her case and post it online at democracynow.org. Stephen Downs, Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, thank you so much for being with us. Their film is (T)ERROR. You should see it. And, Marlene, thank you for being with us, mother of Tarik Shah.