(T)ERROR: 7 out of 10: (T)error follows pot smoking former Black Panther as he attempts to entrap a potential terrorist in Pittsburgh on behalf of his FBI handlers. Our FBI informant is Saeed “Shariff” Torres and we get to spend most of the film with him. Saeed is what we call in documentary watching circles “a character”. Whatever other failing (T)error has as a documentary, the time spent with Saeed’s story and point of view make this a worthwhile watch. Here is a man who has made a lot of bad choices in his life and is now facing retirement as the chickens are coming home to roost. Honestly, this is a more interesting story than the informant vs. terrorist story the film is trying to tell.
Our other main character Khalifah Ali Al-Akili is the “terrorist” in question. Terrorist belongs in quotes because he is not quite at the level of an actual terrorist. He is more LARPIng as a terrorist. To use the singer seducing underage girls scale, he is not R. Kelly, but he is at a Drake level. It is very understandable why the FBI would monitor him. (He sells jihadist literature and makes social media posts supporting terrorism.)
Khalifah is both too smart to be caught and too stupid to be caught. He walks around practically wearing a T-shirt saying I am a terrorist ask me how. Khalifah is a white guy originally called James Marvin Thomas Jr. who converted to Islam and went for the full jihadist package. Khalifah sports one of those eminently punchable faces that makes it hard to sympathize with his fate. He gives off a serious “bro” vibe and seemed to only interested in Islam as a cover for his petty criminal activities and to fulfill his incel fantasises. From what I gathered from the documentary, he married a foreign bride who may not speak nor show her face and who was deported the day after his arrest.
Our target Khalifah hooks up with the organization Project SALAM that is trying to expose the FBI’s tactics in entrapping innocent Muslims. He uses technology and street smarts to figure out he is being targeted by FBI informants and finds out their true identities all of which he presents to Project Salam (This is the Khalifah being too smart portion of the story). One would think the FBI would slink away with their tail between their legs after being bested by this bearded millennial wonder. Alas Khalifah is a felon, and he likes to make pro jihad YouTube videos where he shoots an AR-15 rifle. And well being a felon and all… They did get Al Capone on tax evasion. Nothing like the low hanging fruit of a felon with a firearm. (This is the Khalifah being too stupid portion of the story).
At best, Project SALAM comes across as one of those weird well meaning good guys in the alien invasion movies that try to negotiate with the alien invaders. (They come in peace) at worst they come across as abetting homegrown terrorists themselves. They remind me of those shadow organizations that always ended up being the bad guys in seventies spy novels. You know the ones where they stage an orgy with the French finance minister and secretly work for the Soviets.
One would think the people trying to stop the FBI from using informants are on the side of the angels but really what do they propose instead. As the recent shooting at the Jewish deli in Jersey City proves there are plenty of homegrown terrorists ready to commit violence on behalf of whatever whacky religious sect, they belong to. Clearly the FBI program could be better run but the idea in theory isn’t really a bad one. Cops pretending to be hookers on the side of the street don’t catch men not interested in paying for sex.
One last note can we talk about the brackets in the title. I mean I know the filmmakers think they are being cute but this ranks right up there with Se7en on the obnoxious scale and seems remarkably inappropriate for a serious documentary,