As It Happens

Filmmaker describes 'chilling effect' of growing up in Muslim community under FBI surveillance

Assia Boundaoui discovered her community in Illinois was the subject of one of the largest surveillance operations by the FBI before 9/11.

Assia Boundaoui's The Feeling of Being Watched playing at Hot Docs festival in Toronto

Assia Boundaoui, right, shows her mother and brother reading FBI documents. Their hometown of Bridgeview, Ill., became one of the largest counterterrorism investigations ever conducted in the U.S. before 9/11. (Submitted by Assia Boundaoui)

This story was published on April 27, 2018.

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It was called Operation Vulgar Betrayal — but to Assia Boundaoui and her family, it was daily life in Bridgeview, Ill.

For years, Boundaoui and other members of her predominantly Muslim Chicago suburb felt like they were being watched.

Suspected of funnelling money to international terrorist organizations, the community was the subject of one of the largest pre-9/11 counter-terrorism investigations ever conducted in the U.S. The operation yielded no terror convictions. 

Boundaoui joined As It Happens host Carol Off in studio on Friday to discuss her documentary The Feeling of Being Watched, now playing at Toronto's Hot Docs festival. 

Here's part of that conversation.

Did you have any idea, the degree to which your community was under surveillance, and that everybody knew?

It was something that was so ubiquitous. It was just part of our daily lives.

It was such a part of the way we grew up, that we would see cars parked on the end of the street.

Some kids grow up being warned not to talk to strangers because their parents are afraid of them getting kidnapped. Our parents were afraid of the FBI, and we were warned not to talk to the FBI.

I don't remember anyone ever telling me we were under surveillance, or the FBI suspects us. It was just something I always knew.

And what were they looking for?

They were looking for terrorism. It was a terrorism financing investigation.

They made the assumption that all of our institutions, our mosque, our charities, our schools, were one big front for terrorism, that they were raising money and sending money abroad for terrorism financing.

After 12 years of investigation, more than that, not a single person was ever convicted of anything related to terrorism in my community.

They never found that any of these charities were doing what they suspected, or these mosques were doing what they suspected, and yet these investigations continued and persisted.

A still from The Feeling of Being Watched, which made its international premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs festival on Thursday. (The Feeling of Being Watched)

But the effect was to intimidate people? 

My conclusion was that, yeah.

When you put such a large and wide net around an entire community, people feel threatened, they feel targeted, and they don't understand why.

And the long-term affects of that are hyper-paranoia, fragmentation of trust within a community.

People stop associating, people stop donating to those organizations, people felt safer not going to the mosque. This really had a very chilling affect on our community.

Assia Boundaoui spreads out FBI documents in a scene from her documentary. (Submitted by Assia Boundaoui)

As you pursued this investigation — as a journalist you were very open about it, as one must be — but sinister things began to happen to you, and you didn't know if you were just being paranoid. 

We were making a film about surveillance while we were under surveillance, essentially. The deeper we got into the investigation, the more paranoid I became, but I think justifiably paranoid. 

I got an alert from Google. Google basically warned me that government attackers had hacked into my account. That was shocking. 

All of this overt surveillance, there's nothing really secretive about it. Maybe they parked the car down the street because they wanted us to see them. Perhaps the purpose was to make people in the community paranoid, to rattle the cage, and see if any criminals come out of the woodwork.

The question I ask is: what happens when you rattle the cage and there are no criminals inside? What does that do to the people in the cage?

As It Happens host Carol Off and Assia Boundaoui in studio (As It Happens )

Have people in your community, have they seen your documentary?

Some of them have. It's kind of amazing, actually. I feel like they walked out of the screenings with their heads held high in a way.

This was a thing we whispered about and also internalized a lot of shame about.

When someone tells you "you're bad, you're bad" for such a long time, at a certain point you start to believe that, and that becomes the way you look at yourself.

And I think we needed to say, "No, there's no shame about this," to stop whispering and talk out loud about it.

There's a power in that collective story, and I think that's what we're trying to do now, get people to share these stories. And it validates their experience in a way.

People who maybe just thought, "I'm just crazy paranoid," it validated them, that no, you're not paranoid, this did happen, and it wasn't right. It shouldn't have happened.

Written and produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.