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Marlene Jenkins sipped a cup of coffee at a café in midtown Manhattan, a brightly colored leather purse her son had stitched for her by her side. Though she used to own a brownstone in the Bronx and spent many nights out in Harlem listening to her sons play jazz, Jenkins said she seldom makes it down to the city these days.
The 80-year-old grandmother now lives in Albany, working part-time to support the 14-year-old child her youngest son left behind when he went to prison on a charge of conspiring to provide material support to Al-Qaeda. With her part-time job, Jenkins said she is able to make the $400 necessary to travel down to Petersburg, Virginia, to visit her son in prison every three or four months.
“Tarik tells everybody, he says, ‘If Mommy is still alive when I come home, from that day on, she won’t have to do a thing. I will do all the cooking, all the cleaning,’” Jenkins said as she thumbed through a stack of photos she kept in a worn Walgreen’s envelope. “He’s good like that. He’s very humble and he is very family-oriented. It’s just sad he hasn’t been able to be around his children.”
Jenkins’ son, Tarik Shah, a jazz bassist and 10th degree black belt, was convicted in 2007 of agreeing “to provide training in martial arts and hand-to-hand combat to Al-Qaeda members and associates,” and “pledging an oath to Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden,” according to the FBI. The crux of Shah’s conviction relied on the testimony of and recordings made by a paid FBI informant and an undercover FBI agent. His mother and four siblings maintain Shah was the victim of entrapment. He is currently halfway through his 15-year prison sentence.
“I used to say to Tarik, ‘Be careful. You are always opening up your house to strangers. You feed them, you let them come and stay, and look at what it does.’ I would always tell him that, but you know, Tarik had a good heart, and he always trusted this particular gentleman,” Jenkins said.
The particular gentleman Jenkins referred to — a paid FBI informant and former Black Panther named Saeed “Shariff” Torres — is the reason she traveled to Manhattan on this April evening. Torres’ story is the subject of a new documentary, “(T)error,” produced by Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, shown at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Granted unprecedented access by Torres to both his day-to-day life and work for the FBI, “(T)error” is perhaps the most up-close look at post-9/11 FBI counterterrorism operations involving paid informants. During the course of the film, Torres targets, courts and puts another man, Khalifah al-Akili, behind bars. All the while, Cabral and Sutcliffe’s cameras are rolling.
“In working on this film, we wanted to challenge the kind of simplistic thinking we have about these operations, both about the targets and the informants,” Sutcliffe told Al Jazeera. “We wanted to ultimately paint Saeed, Tarik and Khalifah all as human beings who have made poor personal decisions, but that lack power in these situations. We wanted to show how they are being taken advantage of by a system that has questionable motivations and questionable tactics.”
A spokesman for the FBI declined to comment for this article, writing in an email that the FBI is not “familiar with the film” and that it is “impossible to comment if we haven’t seen it.”
Cabral said she first met Torres in 2005 while he was working undercover on the operation targeting Shah and another man, Rafiq Sabir.
“Saeed was my neighbor in a brownstone in Harlem. Back then, I met his sort of double life, his cover. Saeed left the brownstone every day wearing a suit and a tie and carrying a briefcase. He told me he had been working at the Legal Aid Society,” Cabral told Al Jazeera.
“He had not told me that the FBI was paying the rent on his apartment, and it was wired with audio and video surveillance. But there were other curiosities I did notice at the time about Saeed, like the way he always had large amounts of cash at the ready. He kept thousands of dollars in his apartment, two cellphones, marijuana, some drugs. Sometimes, he would talk in hushed tones,” Cabral said.
Through Torres, Cabral also met Shah, who had been giving Torres bass lessons. Jenkins, who became a Muslim after studying under Malcom X in the 1950s, said she was cautious about her son’s new friend from the beginning.
“I used to tell Tarik that you can’t befriend everybody and that you need to be careful who you are speaking to. There’s supposed to be freedom of speech, but what the hell happened to that? And that is what really got him into trouble,” she said.
Jenkins said Torres had told her son that he was going to be kicked out of his apartment, so Shah offered to rent him a place in the house Jenkins owned in the Bronx. But on the morning Torres was due to finish moving in — May 28, 2005 — the FBI arrested Shah.
“I had just spoken to Tarik the day before. He was renovating the apartment downstairs for Saeed to move into, and he said, ‘Mommy, do you mind if I stop about 4 o’clock because I have two gigs and I want to get an hour’s sleep.’ He said he would call me tomorrow. But the next day I kept calling his number, and it kept going straight to voicemail,” Jenkins said. “That was the beginning of the nightmare.”
Torres insisted he had not been informed that the FBI was going to arrest Shah that day.
“Saeed showed up that morning, and Tarik’s apartment was surrounded by police officers and sirens. And it became really clear to [Saeed] just what level he had been working at,” said Sutcliffe. “While Saeed may have felt before that he was part of the FBI’s team, they hadn’t really shared all of their developments and plans. And that might have been a turning point for Saeed.”
Cabral said Torres disappeared after Shah’s arrest, but did testify against him in court. In the film, Torres recounts how the courtroom was full of people from the mosque and the community who had come to see it for themselves; they could not believe Torres had been working with the FBI the entire time.
In 2007, Shah pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Sabir, a doctor and the other man Torres was targeting at the time, was also convicted in 2007 of conspiring to provide material support to Al-Qaeda in the form of medical aid to its fighters.
Shah never conducted any martial arts training with alleged Al-Qaeda members, nor had any weapons in his possession at the time of his arrest. In a press release at the time of his sentencing, the Department of Justice said Shah “also took steps to find locations where jihad training could be conducted and where he could make weapons.”
Steve Downs, an attorney and the executive director of National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, said Shah’s case is troubling.
“I think the Tarik Shah case is one of the most outrageous examples of entrapment cases, because the government seems to have gone way beyond what I thought they would have done to try to entrap somebody,” Downs said. “I mean, this is everybody’s worst nightmare. You meet somebody nice and they need a home, you take them in to your apartment and it’s an FBI agent, and they have been recording you. I don’t know any other case that was quite that over the top in terms of this constant and relentless pressure.”
Kathy Manley, an attorney who also works with the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms and Project SALAM, a legal advocacy group for Muslims, said the Shah case represents a model increasingly used by law enforcement in terrorism cases since Sept. 11, 2001.
“I think the FBI and the prosecutors have realized that this is a great model for them, because they get to control everything,” Manley said. “They get to pick their informant, they get to construct what the charges are going to be, they get to control all the details and the person gets conned into going along with it. If the person doesn’t back out before they are arrested, that’s it, and they can argue there is no entrapment.”
For his part, after agreeing to let Cabral and Sutcliffe film him on the al-Akili operation, Torres has gone into hiding. He told the filmmakers he feared for his life after testifying against Shah in court. Searches for his name turn up addresses in Schenectady, New York, the Bronx and Seabrook, South Carolina, all without a phone number. Torres declined to comment on written questions from Al Jazeera America passed to him through Cabral and Sutcliffe.
But Cabral and Sutcliffe said “(T)error” also sets out to explore the cost of these operations for the informants themselves.
“For Saeed, there is easily half a million dollars that was squandered because he thought that money was always going to keep coming. Saeed thought he was an asset, he thought he was valued, he thought that if he worked these high-profile cases and people were convicted, that work would keep coming. Now he has no money, and no one will talk to him. And he’s dependent on these cases as his sole source of income,” Sutcliffe said.
Cabral added: “Saeed is a Vietnam veteran. He became a Black Panther because he possessed this anti-government ideology, and now he has a job where he depends on the government. He’s an ex-felon. He is solely dependent on the government, and if that dependence is not through informing, it is through social services.”
Jenkins, who was also interviewed in the film, said Torres “will reap what he sows.”
“Tarik is in prison, and he took almost 15 years away from Tarik. But Tarik is freer than Saeed is,” Jenkins said. “Now Saeed has to look over his shoulder all the time. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him. The government has dropped him, people don’t want to be bothering with him, so what kind of life do you have? You’ve imprisoned yourself because you have no friends. All the masjids have forwarded his picture around so he can’t even go to the mosque.”
On a website she created, Jenkins said it is her greatest hope to live long enough to see her son freed. Until then, she said she has devoted her time to reaching out to the families of other victims of entrapment and speaking out about Shah’s case.
“Malcom [X] used to say to me, ‘Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.’ And this is what I’m saying: People get so caught up, they look at the news and they blow it out of proportion. A lot of these young brothers and sisters that are being arrested, they haven’t planned anything. They have no weapons,” Jenkins said. “But by the time the government finishes with them, they are the worst people in the world.”