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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Truth vs. deception: tackling today’s terror at home and abroad


Gerald SchmitzTimbuktu (Mauritania/France 2014)
T(ERROR) (U.S. 2015)
Welcome to Leith (U.S. 2015)

Fourteen years into the post 9/11 “war on terror” it seems that we are more spooked than ever about its menace: from homegrown attacks by “lone wolves,” to reports of “jihadist” outrages in faraway places, to the explosion of sickening social-media visuals accompanying the marauding atrocities of the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria where Canada is now at war. Despite the revelations of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden about the mass surveillance operations conducted by the national security state, our governments seem to feel they need still greater spying powers ostensibly to “protect” us. That is the crux of the Harper government’s Bill C-51, the draconian “anti-terror” law pushed through Parliament by its majority notwithstanding concerns about numerous flaws and excesses.

Should we fear the manipulation of public fear and government exploitation of the threat of terrorism as much as the threat itself? Just what is the full truth about terrorism today? Early opinion polls suggested most Canadians supported C-51; after many criticisms most now seem to oppose it. Perhaps the politics of fear will not prove to be a winning strategy after all?

This week I look at three excellent films about aspects of the terror spectrum — a fictional African narrative based on real events and two probing American documentaries — that illuminate dark corners beyond the usual easy targets of anti-terror headlines.

As today marks the start of the 68th Cannes Film Festival it’s fitting to recall one of the best from last year’s competition that was Oscar-nominated and has been screening in select North American theatres this spring. Director and co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu won the prize of the ecumenical jury at Cannes and dominated France’s 2015 “Cesar” film awards, taking seven including best picture and director. It’s set in 2012 in northern Mali (although shot in neighbouring Mauritania) among desert herders of the Timbuktu region whose traditional lives and tolerant practice of Islam are upset by armed invaders determined to impose their extremist Islamist ideology.

The movie starts with jihadist fighters racing around in their Toyota pickup trucks (or motorcycles) flying the black flag, destroying “idolatrous” artifacts, and trying to enforce their many “religious” rules against music, singing, dancing, or practically anything enjoyable, and most often directed at women who must of course be kept subordinate and submissive. Some of these edicts are plainly ludicrous, like insisting that women in the fish market wear gloves. Importantly, however, Sissako’s jihadists, a mixed-ethnic bunch who speak a mixture of bad Arabic, French and English, come across as real persons with mixed-up motivations and notions. They are confounded characters, not caricatures.

Sissako pokes fun at their simplistic pieties in a variety of often subtle ways. They ban soccer so young men mimic playing a game without a ball, yet at one point several jihadists get into an argument over a past World Cup. One recruit who confesses to a rap music past makes a hash of trying to record a jihadist video. But such human foibles don’t make them sympathetic. When confronted by the much more knowledgeable local imam who asks: “Where is the forgiveness? . . . Where is God in all this?” the leaders are unswayed and merely fall back on their rote harsh fundamentalist dictums.

That intolerance comes with displays of brutality too. Although a flamboyantly dressed eccentric women seems to get away with flouting their codes, a young female singer receives 40 lashes and a couple accused of sexual impropriety are buried in sand and stoned to death. Against this backdrop the heart of the story centres on the fate of a strong-willed family who are determined to stay in their home while others flee from intimidation. Herder Kidane and his wife Satima are the parents of 12-year-old daughter Toya and guardians of a young orphan boy, Issan, who helps tend to their cattle. While taking them to a river for water, a prize cow (named “GPS”) gets caught in the nets of a fisherman, Amadou, who kills it. A chain of consequences leads to a confrontation with Kidane in which Amadou is killed.

From a series of minor transgressions to this major one, the results of jihadist occupation for the local society are shown to be both dire and doomed. Far from converting a subject population, it’s evident the Islamists are an alien aberration whose ignorance and lack of mercy inflict many harms but whose goals can never succeed.


While the holy warriors in Mali are deceiving themselves, a much greater, more insidious deception on the American home front is uncovered in T(ERROR), which received a special jury mention for “breakout first feature” at Sundance before going on to screen at the “True/False” and Tribeca festivals. Co-director and producer Lyric Cabral had a neighbour in Harlem named “Shariff” (real name Saeed). Several years after he abruptly left town she discovered the reason: he was an FBI informant since 1991 who in 2005 had set up a renowned jazz musician Tarik Shah as a suspected “terrorist.” To the consternation of many, Shah would be convicted and sentenced to 15 years.

Cabral and filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe approached Shariff to explore and record his secret counter-terrorism career. It started when ironically he was a member of the Black Panthers, many of whom were Muslim converts and high on the FBI’s pre-9/11 subversives list. When arrested, charged with criminal offences and facing considerable prison time, he was made an offer — become an informant and make potentially big money — he didn’t refuse. Since 9/11, the FBI has recruited some 15,000 informants, often criminals, who are responsible for 30 per cent of “terrorism”-related arrests.

Cabral and Sutcliffe go undercover with Shariff to examine his approach to befriending FBI suspect and white Muslim convert Khalifah Al-Akili. (In recent years the targets are always Muslim.) Although Shariff, now in his 60s, claims to be one of the “good” Muslims, he comes across as a rather pathetic snitch who has survived the system at the price of honesty and family life. He goes along with entrapping targets through sting operations. The filmmakers also want to show what it’s like to be an FBI target so they interview and follow Khalifah while concealing that from Shariff. Matters come to a head when Khalifah is arrested, suspiciously just prior to a Washington press conference he was to attend protesting the criminalization of free speech supposedly protected by the First Amendment. Khalifah is convicted and receives an eight-year sentence.

It’s hard to see much true justice shining through when rooted so deeply in state-sponsored layers of manipulation and deception. (One of the official national security documents leaked by Snowden is actually titled “The Art of Deception” and contains instructions on how government agents can misuse social media to fabricate incriminating evidence.) The cautionary case of Shariff reveals, in the words of the film’s synopsis, “a complex web of greed, betrayal and regret.”


Stranger but true is the story of how neo-Nazi white supremacists have attempted to take over the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota. I keep getting unsolicited emails making absurdly alarmist claims about the dangers of a Muslim takeover. In fact, the worst examples of American-born domestic terroristic violence have come from the far right with “Christian” associations: from the Waco, Texas, Branch Davidian shootout of 1993 to the Oklahoma City bombing of 20 years ago by Timothy McVeigh, a decorated ex-soldier raised a Roman Catholic.

Michael Beach Nichols’ and Christopher Walker’s Welcome to Leith explores how a notorious outsider, Craig Cobb, started buying local properties in 2012, then attracting other extremists, including the family of a rather deranged Iraq war veteran, with the active support of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement. The foul-mouthed gun-toting Cobb, who makes no bones about advocating the extermination of Jews and non-whites (calling for a “racial holy war”), was joined by others using the threat of violence against longtime residents to intimidate and try to dominate the community. The incidents were documented by the Southern Poverty Law centre, which has been tracking the far-right racist extremism that has been largely ignored since 9/11.

At least the good people of Leith were moved to fight back against this outrageous invasion that would turn it into what one called “the Village of the Damned.” Arrests were eventually made and Cobb was charged with seven counts of terrorizing the population. However, he made a plea bargain that avoided prison time. Instead he was sentenced to four years of supervised probation during which time he has continued to promote his hateful views and has bought property in another North Dakota town close to the Saskatchewan border.

Just as Timbuktu shows the alien nature of ignorant intolerant perversions of Islam, and T(ERROR) shows the abuses of state power in the name of counter-terrorism targeting Muslims, Welcome to Leith shows the presence of violent extremism in our midst that has nothing to do with Muslims or the struggle within Islam. Each case raises many questions to which being scared into more wars on terror isn’t the answer.