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(T)ERROR: A Filmed Exposť of FBIís Entrapment Program

April 25, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Finally we have a visual testimony of how FBI informants do their dirty work. Americans who experienced COINTELPRO understand the treachery involved. During the 1960s African Americans were targeted and Black organizations infiltrated, intimidated and disrupted. Today’s main targets of US intelligence plots, Muslims, were completely naïve about COINTEL strategies; and much of the US media today act as if they’d never heard of it.

In the climate of fear that began to grip the US in the mid 1990s, it was a rare lawyer or journalist who would question government announcements of uncovered ‘terror’ threats. Exaggerated claims of danger and demonic portrayals of Muslims threatening ‘the American way of life’ went unchallenged by media for more than a decade. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Patriot Act drawn up in its wake was followed by an expansion of surveillance post 9/11, allowing the FBI and police to act with near impunity. They swept through Muslim communities detaining individuals on suspicion of aiding terrorism. Authorities deported thousands, most without a trail, and at the same time planted suspicion and fear within Muslim communities, citizens and immigrants alike.

The process continues today. After Sept. 2001, 13,000 mainly Muslim men were put into detention proceedings; we don’t know the precise number of resulting deportations. We also don’t know how many people were recruited as ‘informers’ to identify or entrap suspect Muslims, although it may be as high as 15,000.

During the first ‘Muslim terror’ phase (1993-2001) a few civil rights attorneys dared to take on the defense of suspects. After 9/11 everything changed. Distrust spread, animosity towards Muslims heightened, mosques and workplaces were infiltrated by planted informers, Muslim charities were investigated while many were closed and their leaders arrested. With notable exceptions –e.g. Lynne Stewart who paid heavily for her principles —civil rights advocates retreated from taking on ‘terror suspect’ cases. Journalists too backed away from investigating civil rights violations of Muslims. The 9/11 attacks had a chilling effect on everyone —the press, legal institutions, citizens, and especially Muslim immigrants—that persists to this day.

FBI entrapment programs were greatly facilitated by the tenuous status of many Muslims living in the US, especially non-citizen residents many of whom were married to Americans and had American-born children. Some had citizen applications in progress while others skirted the law by quietly overstaying their visa. These practices were not abnormal, and normally they were not serious.

Suddenly this population became vulnerable, like African Americans with minor infractions forty years earlier under COINTELPRO.  A traffic citation, unpaid child support, or a visa overstay now became a device whereby FBI recruited individuals to pursue people it identified as possible ‘threats to America’. This new class of FBI informants, nefariously referred to as ‘mosque crawlers’, began frequenting Muslim institutions and neighborhoods across the country. After ensnaring victims in ‘sting operations’, these informants would furnish evidence in court, helping to send hundreds of these entrapped individuals to prison.

One such ‘mosque crawler’ is Saeed Torres, a longtime FBI contract employee. Thanks to a remarkable new film “(T)ERROR” offering Torres’ on-camera testimonials, no one can pretend that such work has anything to do with justice. Torres is a disagreeable character but he was ready to show and tell.

 Disenchantment with his work and his disrespect for both his FBI handlers and his potential victims (POIs: persons-of-interest in FBI parlance) led Torres to confess his activities to Lyric R Cabral, a fearless –fearless because she would herself come under scrutiny by the FBI--photojournalist and filmmaker. Torres decided to allow her to film him at work--scouting out a ‘terror’ target.

“(T)ERROR”, a newly released film, is the result of painstaking work over a 10 year period by Cabral. It’s a joint effort by her and fellow filmmaker David F. Sutcliffe https://vimeo.com/davidfelixsutcliffe whose 2011 film “Adama” documented how, beginning in 2005, FBI harassment of a 16-year old New York student and her family almost destroyed their lives.

Sutcliffe and Cabral’s success in “(T)ERROR” lies not only in securing Torres’ candid testimony, but also in identifying and filming his intended Philadelphia target, (POI) Khalifah. The filmmakers’ extraordinary access to these men during the ongoing process of entrapment shows us both sides—that of the hunter, Torres, and hunted, Khalifah, in this unsettling drama.

We get a first hand view of the clandestine nature of an FBI ‘sting’. We witness an underworld of unsavory characters, incompetent and living a marginal existence. Even the ‘innocent’ Khalifah evokes no sympathy in this drama. (He was able to contact legal advisors for help, thwart entrapment and avoid imprisonment as a terrorist, but eventually was tried and convicted on a weapons charge.)

This film takes our understanding of this disagreeable process of entrapment to a new level, adding credibility to earlier reports of questionable FBI practices. In the highly publicized 2009 case of the Newburgh Four, the blinds came off. Journalists and civil rights lawyers stepped in to take a closer look at government tactics and investigate their devastating effects on the Muslim community. “Mohamed’s Ghosts” by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Stephen Salisbury started a conversation about the US government ‘stage-managing’ its war on terror. In a 2011 exposé by “Mother Jones”, author Trevor Aaronson asks: “… is the FBI busting terrorist plots—or leading them?”

Most recently we have an exhaustive report from Projectsalam.org and civilfreedoms.org answering Aaronson’s question. This and “(T)ERROR should leave no one in doubt that things have to change.

Next time, how long will it take to expose government lies?

 

 

 

 

[ (T)ERROR: A Filmed Exposť of FBIís Entrapment Program ]

Extreme is The New ĎNormalí

April 15, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It seems not a day that passes without an act of violent extremism occurring inside the US. It happens in our neighborhoods, our quiet suburban streets, our bucolic townships. I’m speaking about murders of a particularly shocking sort: like one last month when three children aged 1, 5 and 12 were stabbed to death in their home; that followed five wounded and one killed in a Phoenix suburb; around the same time we learned a man murdered seven people, mostly members of his family, before turning the gun on himself. We were still coming to grips with news of a neighbor blasting away the lives of three North Carolina college students, and how a father, a retired NY policeman, shot dead his two daughters then himself. It’s not just the numbers of dead;  yesterday I read of the equally extreme case--a three-year old shot and killed his baby brother. So many dead children. I could go on, but why preoccupy ourselves such awful stories. Better to reserve thoughts of extreme violence to something far away… like in hostile Muslim places.

Meanwhile, thanks to citizen videos, our media is finally questioning routine police brutality across this country, especially the murder by police of unarmed Black citizens. (Although this violence is nothing new:-- our shameful history of this kind of extreme behavior is well documented by, among others, by John Whitehead.).

Police killings and family murders are habitual here. But does that mean they don’t constitute extreme violence? Because ‘extreme’ is the new ‘normal’ in America.  

Consider this invitation to our favorite family pleasure, the circus. Ringling and Barnum and Bailey Circus, a show every child deserves to experience, is now promoted as “Circus Xtreme”. (As if those massive elephants and roaring cats can’t thrill us without this added moniker.) Extreme circus joins our daily indulgence in extreme sports—from group skydiving to alligator wrestling to skateboard-triple-turn somersaults.

Education is also promoted for its extreme potential: National Geographic, our most edifying institution, has launched the TV series “Extreme Planet”. “Extreme Planet” invites us to “Take an electrifying journey into some of our planet's most extreme environments …”. NG publishes Extreme Explorer, a children’s magazine “Specifically designed for striving readers in grades 6-12… (it) engages and motivates reluctant readers.”

Our children’s video games are populated by bizarre monsters --they make King Kong look like a fuzzy Teddy Bear-- capable of ever more extremes of violence against the “forces of good”. It seems we need to employ extremes to engage and motivate our children.

What about those TV commercials that show us what fantastic things our family automobile can do? Then there’s something known as extreme sex; add to that those bizarre indulgences by normal college students on their spring break. I dare not imagine what extreme pornography is, since normal pornography shocks and unsettles me. And are the abuse of children and torture of captives of war no less extreme?

Which brings us to what we are taught to think of as violent extremism. We reserve this phrase for the behavior of foreign rebels:-- currently they’re Islamic extremists, let’s not pretend otherwise. If not, why isn’t the co-pilot who rammed a plane into a mountainside and murdered its 149 passengers not a violent extremist or a terrorist?  Or those Canadian plotters of an attack on a Halifax mall?

To return those foreign atrocities and our daily extremism, I know it’s a huge leap, and it sidesteps the issue of how rebels like IS and Boko Haram can indulge in extremes on the scale we witness today or why our terrorizing others doesn’t seem to match theirs, here’s a thought-- if it’s true that those foreign rebels are media savvy, perhaps in a macabre way, IS and its counterparts are competing with the extremes they observe in our society? They’re competing with us to inflict grief and to shock.  

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. She was a longtime radio host and producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org and contact her at: info@radiotahrir.org.

[ Extreme is The New ĎNormalí ]

April's Elusive Promise:

April 07, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

April is a difficult month in northeastern US. By difficult, I mean it’s annoying and at the same time promising. Promising because it marks the end of winter’s discomforts. Yet real relief and signs of new growth remain elusive.

The landscape into which we dreamily gaze in anticipation of that relief is not only colorless. It’s drab and hazy and lifeless. At least winter gave us crisp, clear air, and the radiant contrast of sparkling, white snow and naked, black trees that frame a magnificent eagle gliding through the river valley. Our shy red cardinals are easy to spot in winter too. And the ice! Sheets of ice cling in giant curtains over rock hillsides and rows of glass icicles hang from roofs outside our windows.

Now, with ice and snow melting away, fields are littered with broken branches and other winter detritus. New York City streets not yet rain-washed, stink terribly from the droppings of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers’ pet dogs. Pieces of discarded city life, hidden under snow for months now lie exposed, soggy, and undecipherable. 

But warmer days assure us winter is ending (if not ended). Taking the air temperature as our cue, we have our cars washed of months of accumulated mud and salt; we enthusiastically pack away woolens and boots and optimistically pull off plastic insulation from windows. We let our shoulders relax and open our necks to the wind and lift our faces to speak real words to our neighbors who during winter only got a nod from behind our knit-wrapped heads.

Suddenly the thaw ends. Temperatures plummet and we awaken to four inches of spring snow. Puddles of water and mud in driveways and streets freeze, so that stepping on this tender snow-cover becomes particularly hazardous.

We search the landscape for color. That corner patch of earth catching some midday sun? Alas, a budding crocus. (Perhaps an early daffodil.) I recognize emerging green leaves that might release a blossom tomorrow.

Newly arrived birds bring color too:--blue of blue jays, red of robin, and rust of merganser ducks. With these flecks of color we become more assured that spring’s really here. Our confidence grows when we detect new smells:-- the unmistakable aroma of healthy, rotting earth, tree bark falling away to release the odors of new growth.  I inhale deeply.  

[ April's Elusive Promise: ]

Countering Racism: Homework for Every Next Generation

March 26, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

My friend Amer Zahr’s testimony about racism in the USA points to parallels between what Arab kids experience today and what he faced a quarter century ago when he was 13. On the surface it seems there’s been scant progress for us, as for African Americans, especially Black men for example in how they’re treated by police.

Remarkably, we hapless citizens on the receiving side of prejudice and ignorance continue to believe it’s possible to educate our foes and our rude friends. How many times have we heard how they “honestly never spoke to a real Muslim” or “never sat with a Black family”, how they “never knew”….until they viewed one of our prize-winning films, watched Muslims comedians or read a mind-blowing novel by an Arab woman?

Today, recharged by a battery of immense talent—comedians, authors, actors, musicians and TV hosts-- we forge ahead with the dream of overturning the shortcomings of our purported democracy, a distracted free press, our abused free speech and our trivia-laden social media.

The latest talent to come to my attention in the search for justice through powerful story-telling is Rafia Zakaria. She’s author of a new memoir "The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan", published by Beacon Press in Boston. I read it and swiftly arranged to interview Zakaria.

The book is a portrait of the author’s Karachi family woven into Pakistan’s history since independence, with the aim of illustrating how divisions and fragilities inside a household can mirror the vulnerability of a whole nation, manifest through women’s lives-- from Zakaria’s own hapless Aunt Amina, to protesting college girls, to the ambitious leader Benazir Bhutto. These lives intersect with one another and within the promise and pain of nationhood.

"The Upstairs Wife" joins a growing body of literature that reinvents how history is made more accessible and more realistic. But my phone interview with Rafia revealed something more personal and significant for me. Choosing journalism as a career, we share a commitment to erase misconceptions implanted and perpetuated about us by a patronizing and biased western press.

 Both Zakaria and I (along with Amer Zahr, Nermin Al-Mufti and others) declare an unwillingness to accept imperialist characterizations of our existence, and a determination to establish a new discourse. I set out a generation ago to portray multi-dimensional Arab lives (not ‘victims’ who liberals so eagerly embrace), bringing years of anthropology research to my journalism. Today’s generation is fighting the same stereotypes and professional battles we were certain we could obliterate. We didn’t fail; we simply need our children with their energy and their own rationale to maintain the momentum.

Zakaria explains: “You have to present stories of ordinary families: how they endure history, the mistakes they make, their victories and joys. Those are universal experiences; they bring people of the world together. If you know someone’s story, it's more difficult to hate them.”

It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Zakaria repeats my assertions when I took up journalism in 1989. I'm heartened, not dismayed by her statements. She too understands the process: “If you call a country a failed state over and over, that becomes the country’s identity not only for people applying those terms, but for the people of that country itself.” She concludes by admitting how hard it is for her and other citizens to deal with the reality of Pakistan, not because of its flaws, but because the idea of promise and potential, whether within a nation or in personal relationships, is something very fragile.

[ Countering Racism: Homework for Every Next Generation ]

Our Legacy of Women Authors

February 26, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A beneficiary of recent memorials to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Malik El-Shabazz, I’m rethinking what I say below about dead women writers. Death anniversaries can be inspiring— called “teaching moments” here—so bring them on.

Should we welcome news of the passing of women writers? Last month we learned of “The Thorn Birds” author Colleen McCullough’s death. I admit it; I read “Thorn Birds” only recently, then excitedly called friends to discuss this gripping family epic set in Australia. Ahh yes, they said. They knew it:--not the book but the film adaptation (in this case a TV-series). They remembered the handsome priest played by American actor Chamberlain. And the author? Hmm; maybe it was a woman. To compound this injustice to McCullough, Wikipedia characterizes “The Thorn Birds” as (just) a love story and devotes more attention to the film than the book and its author.

With McCullough’s passing we read that this bigger-than-life Australian – an ‘outspoken’ woman, they note-- penned 20 books including a 7-volume Masters of Rome series that shone light on her research proficiency and earned accolades from historians. And how about this: McCullough’s inspiration to write began while working as a neuroscientist (neurophysiology was her first vocation) in New Haven; earning half what her male counterparts made McCullough took up writing to supplement her income. After she’d become wealthy from the success of “The Thorn Birds” in 1977, she thoroughly indulged herself living how she pleased while continuing to write. Good for her.

When British author Doris Lessing died in 2013 we revisited her award-winning “The Golden Notebook” portrayal of free women written decades before the American feminist movement emerged. This story isn’t easy to follow but once into it you grasp what a brilliant piece of literature it is.

So overwhelming is our celebrity culture today that cinema eclipses all. How many of us who enjoyed the audacious film “Thelma and Louise” champion that feisty actor Susan Sarandon yet can’t name the screenwriter? Well, she’s another woman-- Callie Khouri-- who is moreover an American of Arab heritage!

Last year young people were fawning over “Hunger Games” film star Jennifer Lawrence and the story’s heroine Katniss Everdeen. But do they recognize the name Suzanne Collins who wrote that book? And how about the award-winning film “Theory of Everything” based on the book “Traveling to Infinity”   by Jane Hawking?

We still talk about “To Kill a Mockingbird”. But it’s the 1962 film with Gregory Peck that leaps into our minds. And if we can recall the author, we’re uncertain if Harper Lee is male or female. Or we may know her from the 2005 film “Capote” where Lee is a literary companion of Truman Capote.

We’ve just had news that may resuscitate Laura Ingalls Wilder. “Pioneer Girl”, a lost autobiography of Wilder, is to be released soon and will surely revitalize interest in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series for children. (Children’s books are one of the most invigorating areas of American literature.)

We’ve just had the 50th death anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun”—Yes, I know: you remember the film-- with Sidney Poitier. But what about Hansberry’s political career? 

Women will forever be compelled to pen stories from rich imaginations, curiosity and pride, pains and losses… and from inspiring foremothers. If it takes an obituary or a film for us to discover them, so be it. Along with libraries that still house books, we now have search engines to mine the web for more history.  END

[ Our Legacy of Women Authors ]
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