Al Jazeera examines FBI undercovers in new doc

'Informants' airs on Al Jazeera English’s YouTube channel

Elie Assaad might be a wife-beater and a criminal, but he is also an FBI informant known as “The Closer,” responsible for the setup of “Liberty City 7,” a group former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez said wanted to stage a ground war in this country.

It is just one of the true stories investigated by Al Jazeera’s Trevor Aaronson in the network’s new documentary, Informants, which examines FBI and counterterrorist informants.

The production profiles three informants working for the FBI who encourage Americans to join terrorist plots that are entirely concocted by the FBI. The undercovers pose as Muslims to snare potential terrorists. “If you can’t find terrorists in the Muslim community,” says Imam Yassir Fazaga, who was himself a target, “create them.” So it goes. 

The goal is to thwart attacks before they begin — however in these cases, the attacks are completely made up and financed by the FBI, who then targets impoverished people. 

In the case of the Closer’s Liberty City 7, the mental health of one such “terrorist” is easily questioned when he believes Chicago’s Sears Tower controls the world. “The mental competency of the people caught up in these sting operations is often questionable,” Aaronson tells the Metro Times. “This is a guy who the government portrayed as a dangerous terrorist, but he’s talking about something from a Batman comic book.”

“Often, the targets of sting operations have mental illness,” Informants producer Jeremy Young tells Metro Times. Young says the law enforcement response is that mentally unstable people are dangerous, and people who are deranged are capable of hurting people, too.

Another “terrorist” of the group, Rothschild Augustine, was dead broke, and went along with the Closer with the poor plan of scamming the informant for a promised $50,000.  

Gonzalez, Young and Aaronson say, made it appear the “terrorists” had money. “What was interesting for us was to deconstruct it, and show how pathetic these guys really were. Rothschild served seven years. He lives in North Miami now. If he was a bonafide terrorist, would he go back to living in North Miami without anyone monitoring him? It lends itself to the ridiculousness of it,” says Young.

Besides “The Closer,” the doc also looks at “The Body Builder,” a thick man who listens to Audioslave “to keep myself sane,” he says. The Body Builder shares the FBI’s formula for bringing in potential terrorists, MICE: Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego. “There was a method to the madness,” he adds.

The Body Builder trolled mosques looking for Muslims the FBI might be interested in. After the Body Builder’s cover was blown, and the FBI did little, if anything, to protect him, he switched sides and partnered with the Muslims he was spying on to sue the U.S. government. Eric Holder killed the case, claiming that allowing it to move forward would compromise national security. 

But of most interest to local Metro Times readers are the profiles of informants in Toledo, Ohio. “The Trainer” was busted by the DEA and became a drug informant. From there, he started working for the FBI, and set up a young Muslim named Mohammad Amawi. The young man is now serving a 20-year sentence. 

The doc also goes to the Toledo home of another man the local Muslim community suspects is an informant. The response of the man is revealing.

Al Jazeera asks important questions, mainly: Are informant-led sting operations essential? It interviews two former FBI agents — but no one currently at the FBI would comment for the doc. 

In the end, the viewer is left with a better sense of what kinds of operations the FBI is carrying out in order to keep us safe. With 15,000 informants in this country, the FBI’s informant network is compared by the Body Builder to the surveillance systems of East Germany and Cuba.

The saddest point of the film isn’t just that the government believes it’s necessary to concoct phony terrorist plots, entice impoverished and mentally ill people to join, and then prosecute them and champion their good work at keeping us safe. It is, perhaps, that, according to Aaronson, “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Informants will air on Al Jazeera English’s YouTube channel at 12 p.m. EST on Sunday July 20.

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