The new documentary “Entrapped,” which was aired as a special report by Democracy Now! on October 6 and is due to be released on DVD by Big Noise Films, is that rare documentary that not only informs us about an issue, but in doing so, actually transforms our understanding of this issue.
“Entrapped” is a thirty-five-minute documentary that encapsulates months of investigations and interviews by the filmmakers — Anjali Kamat, a producer at Democracy Now!, and Jacquie Soohen, a member of the Big Noise Films collective — involving cases of government surveillance aimed at Muslim communities in the U.S. While it draws on and references a much larger body of examples, the film focuses in particular upon three recent cases: the case of the “Fort Dix Five,” in which five men from suburban New Jersey were convicted last year of conspiring to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base; a 2006 case in Albany, New York, in which a pizzeria owner and the imam of a local mosque were convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to support terrorism; and the ongoing case of the Newburgh Four, in which four men from Newburgh, New York, are charged with plotting to bomb a synagogue and a Jewish community center in the Bronx (at the time I write this, the jury is deliberating in this case).
All three cases were reported by the media, in full-blown fear mode, as examples of “terror plots” (or, to use the more recently-coined and strangely botanical term, “homegrown terror”). However, the three cases have more in common: in all three cases, the men who were arrested (and, in the first two cases, convicted) were Muslim. In all three cases, no terrorist crime was actually committed. Most important, from the point of view of the filmmakers, all three cases rest upon fake plots concocted by the FBI and rely heavily upon hundreds of hours of surveillance video and audio secretly recorded by a paid government informant. In fact, the same informant, Shahed Hussain, who had been central to the case in Albany, was used again by the FBI in the Newburgh case.
This use of paid informants becomes the main focus of “Entrapped,” and the filmmakers make a convincing case that there is a pattern at work here. The narrative put out by law enforcement, and dutifully gobbled up by the media, is that in each of these cases, the government successfully infiltrated “terrorist cells” in order to thwart deadly plots. A closer look at the cases suggests something quite different: paid informants sent purposefully into Muslim communities, seeking out vulnerable individuals, and then working very hard to convince them to take part in fake plots concocted by the FBI — “terror plots” that can then be “broken up” by the same law enforcement agencies that set them in motion. As Alicia McCollum, the aunt of David Williams, one of the Newburgh Four, puts it near the end of the film: “This is entrapment. You’re going to send an informant into an impoverished community, the most impoverished county, to do your trickery. You ain’t stumbled upon a cell. Nobody ain’t tell you that someone was plotting to do anything. You created a crime!” Or, as Columbia University Law Professor Daniel C. Richman put it in another context regarding another recent case of alleged FBI entrapment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn: “Most of these cases, the inducement part is pretty straightforward, there is inducement.”
The questionable nature of the use of informants in alleged terrorism cases is echoed by the two experts interviewed in the film: Karen Greenberg, Executive Director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security, and James Wedick, a former FBI agent who spent thirty-five years in the field. As they both note, the use of paid informants is nothing new, but the FBI’s reliance on them, particularly in terrorism investigations, has grown more pervasive. More disturbing, as Wedick notes, is that the FBI seems to be going against its own long-standing conventions regarding informants: while it is common to employ people who have been accused or convicted of crimes, those whose convictions betrayed a history of lying were considered unfit to serve as informants, for obvious reasons. This basic principle seems to have gone out the window: Shahed Hussain, the informant in the Albany and Newburgh cases, had been brought up on fraud charges for running an illegal driver’s license scheme, and Mahmoud Omar, one of the two informants in the Fort Dix case, had been convicted of bank fraud.
As a result of these and other elements of entrapment and fabrication in recent “counterterrorism” sting operations, Wedick concludes: “I’ll venture to say ninety percent of the cases that you see that have occurred in the last ten years are garbage.”
The most extensive sets of interviews featured in the film are with relatives and friends of the men who have been accused and convicted in these cases. It is impossible not to be moved by these interviews. The strongest impression, however, is a sense of total bewilderment in finding their husbands, sons, and brothers the objects of such situations in the first case. In some cases, the family members seem to be struggling to understand precisely what it is that their loved ones have been accused of doing. This provides further support, if any was needed, for the documentary’s argument that the FBI is targeting vulnerable individuals and fabricating cases, rather than “uncovering” plots: while we would expect the families of the accused men to defend them under any circumstances, it would be impossible to feign this sort of total bewilderment about the very accusations being made against them.
My own reaction to “Entrapped” may suggest something about the way this film might transform our larger understanding of these and similar cases. On a first viewing, I found myself growing impatient a few minutes into the film. The interviews with family members were, as I say, emotionally affecting, and one felt sympathy for the men who had been imprisoned, but something seemed to be missing. Then I realized that I was waiting for what we’ve become accustomed to expect from documentaries such as this one: I was waiting for the film to reveal evidence that would convince us that these men were, in fact, innocent.
Part of the transformative shock of the film is precisely the realization that such evidence will not be forthcoming. This is the difficulty in dealing with these cases, for legal experts and indeed for all of us concerned with the erosion of civil liberties, especially the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, under the “War on Terror.” For in the strict legal sense, the film suggests, crimes were committed, plots were made (although it needs to be reiterated, especially given the severity of the sentences handed out, that in all three cases, no terrorist crime was actually committed — in fact, no one was killed or injured in any of the cases). Thus, the film cannot advocate for the “innocence” of any of the men accused. What it can do — and what it does, chillingly and effectively — is force us to face the very real possibility that our government is literally creating and staging fake terrorist plots which can then be triumphantly foiled, like a firefighter who’s an arsonist on the side.
This is why the argument regarding entrapment becomes so absolutely crucial, both in the legal sense and in the realm of the public sphere as well. What becomes clear, in each of the three cases (and in many similar cases) is that the “plots” involved would never have existed without the instigation of paid informants and the machinations of law enforcement. The motives for staging and then foiling such crimes is obvious: as journalist Petra Bartosiewicz, who has been following these sorts of cases since 2005, puts it, a terrorist conviction “adds to the Justice Department’s statistical scorecard in the war on terrorism.” In the process, however, the very notions of “guilt” and “innocence” are being perverted in new and frightening ways. As Bartosiewicz notes, in the closing arguments of the Newburgh Four case, one of the prosecutors, in trying to establish that the defendants were predisposed to commit these crimes (rather than being induced or entrapped), asked the court to consider the question, “Are these defendants innocent-minded?” This is, in the most literal sense, an Orwellian scenario; the documentary persuades us that this is the territory into which the U.S. government has ventured in these cases.
In the process, the film also gives us some sense of the almost unbearable pressures being brought to bear against Muslim communities in the U.S. There has been some focus, of late, on the general question of Islamophobia in U.S. society, but not enough analysis of what we can only call an official policy of government-enforced Islamophobia, as found in these cases.
In this regard, the most affecting, and infuriating, of the cases covered in the film involves the two Albany men, Mohammed Hossein and Yassin Aref, convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to support terrorism and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Neither man had any previous criminal record. Hossein is a Bangladeshi immigrant whose family owns a pizzeria; Aref, a Kurdish Iraqi who received political asylum after fleeing from Saddam’s regime, is the imam of the local mosque. Hossein was the object of a relentless campaign by the government’s informant; eventually, with his business failing, he was persuaded to accept a loan of $45,000 and a gift of $5,000 from a man who he believed to be a Pakistani businessman (as Kamat notes in her narration, at a few points, the informant told Hossein and Aref that he was a member of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad, and claimed that the money was related to weaponry — although it is unclear how much the men understood that the money for the loan had been allegedly laundered from weapon sales to a terrorist group). Aref did nothing more than witness the loan, a common role for an imam to play for a member of the community.
Again, the instigation to commit the crime on the part of the government’s informant is clear. As Fatima Hossein, wife of the imprisoned man, says in the film, the informant, who was a frequent visitor to the pizzeria, “was saying, ‘Brother, I am your brother. If you need some money, maybe you can borrow from me and give it to me.’” Hearing the facts of the case, it is impossible to imagine either of the two convicted men voluntarily taking part in any such plot. It seems not unfair to suggest that Mohammed Hossein is in jail for being a poor man with a failing business, and Yassin Aref is in jail for being an imam. Or simply: both men are in jail largely because they are Muslims.
“Entrapped” ends with scenes of family members taking part in protests on behalf of the accused and convicted men in these cases. We are told that this is an example of their ongoing struggle, but we can’t help but notice (and this is clearly intentional on the part of the filmmakers) that these protests are sparsely attended, to say the least. The viewer can only be left with a sense of shame at this sight, since it indicates the isolation being experienced, not just by these families, but by Muslim communities more generally as they find themselves subject to government surveillance and entrapment. This isolation needs to end. This film, and the information and inspiration it provides us, is a crucial step in that direction.