‘A Complex Truth’: Dan Reed on the Liberty City Seven and Counterterrorism in His New Doc, ‘In the Shadow of 9/11’

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Left: director and producer Dan Reed; right: a still from his new documentary for FRONTLINE, "In the Shadow of 9/11."

Left: director and producer Dan Reed; right: a still from his new documentary for FRONTLINE, "In the Shadow of 9/11." (Dan Reed photo: Dominique Desrue)

August 10, 2021

The new FRONTLINE documentary In the Shadow of 9/11 tells the story of an FBI sting that led to the indictment of a group of Miami men on terrorism charges — despite the “Liberty City Seven,” as they were called, having no connection to Al Qaeda.

Director and producer Dan Reed (Leaving Neverland) spoke with FRONTLINE about how he pieced together what happened in 2005 and 2006, and whether the case, which was ultimately tried three times, represented a counterterrorism overreach during a time of heightened fear.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When did you first encounter this story, and how did you decide to pursue a documentary on it?

I first encountered this story in 2014. A fellow director, Chris Morris, had come across this story and others like it, and he was going to use them as the basis for a feature film, for a scripted feature, which he did eventually. And he said: “This is an amazing story that nobody really knows. Why don’t you look into it and tell the true story for a documentary? Because that hasn’t really been done before.”

And so that was the very beginning. … At the time, I think none of the defendants had been released from prison, and I had no contact with the FBI special agent. … It was kind of like a blank slate. But there’s a really great researcher who is credited as associate producer on the film, Faisal Qureshi. He’s done quite a bit of research for Chris, and he showed me a little research that he’d done.

I was like: “Wow, there’s surveillance records. There’s audio recordings.” I began to try and make sense of [the story]. … Knowing nothing about the story, I didn’t know if they were really terrorists, or if they were planning to bomb the Sears Tower and collapse it into the lake and flood Chicago with a tidal wave. …

Read more: A Major Terror Plot Interrupted — or a ‘Setup’?

I started reading the court transcripts and watching some of the video and audio surveillance recordings, which were quite difficult to understand sometimes. That was the beginning of, really, a lot of work, decoding this stuff and trying to make sense of it, transcribing, and really trying to figure out what it was the FBI had recorded back in 2005 that led them to put these guys on trial.

You have a range of voices represented, from current and former Department of Justice officials and FBI agents to the defendants themselves. Was it hard to get access to these sources or to earn their trust?

It was difficult. I’m a veteran documentary maker now, and I guess what you learn over the years is that the ones that are really difficult to get are often the best.

But in this case, we had a break early on. Trevor Aaronson, who is a journalist based in Florida, who wrote a great book called The Terror Factory … and there was a woman called Debbie Carter, who, back in 2009, got really interested in this case. … With those two people, I managed to get in touch with Sunny Phanor [one of the so-called Liberty City Seven]. …

I ended up interviewing actually five out of the seven guys back in May 2016. Then the big mystery was, “What about Narseal [Batiste, referred to as the group’s “ringleader”]?” Even with those early interviews, which feature heavily in the film, I didn’t really know what to think. …

Then, also, I couldn’t figure out why the FBI had pursued it so vigorously and so relentlessly, to the point of obviously arresting the seven men, but also that the DOJ, having got a mistrial, goes on for a second trial, gets another mistrial, et cetera.

What was it that was driving the case, driving the government’s kind of total unforgiving drive to nail these guys and put them in prison? I was wondering about that, and I started talking to Narseal when he was in prison, with Trevor’s help, and ended up driving to Texarkana with [Batiste’s] sons and his ex-wife and filming him come out of jail. This was the first scene in the film. And so that took us one step closer to the enigma, Narseal Batiste.

“I hope we managed to separate truth from lies and the fantasy from what actually happened.”

But at the time, [Batiste] had to go straight into a halfway house. So, we didn’t get to interview him for another two years … . That gave me some of the answers, but it opened up new mysteries, because some of the things Narseal said were just bizarre and didn’t seem to fit with anything that I knew.

These sort of things really started falling into place when I got to meet Tony Velazquez [one of the FBI special agents assigned to the case]. Back in May 2016, we had a glass of wine in a hotel lobby, and he didn’t really want to be interviewed. He was fresh out of the FBI and working for a private security company. …

I kept trying and I kept in touch with him. And then one day I was in Miami and I phoned him up, and he was like, “Yeah, OK, I’ll meet you for a drink.” … Suddenly he was really willing to talk and willing to explain. He was very much the retired FBI special agent. He still embraced the logic of everything he’d done on the case but was really willing to be so open, and openly talk about it, and answer any questions. That began a long and quite fruitful series of interviews with Anthony Velazquez of: What the hell happened on the ground?

How did you deal with some sources potentially being seen as unreliable narrators?

That depends who you mean. Narseal was clearly an unreliable source because his relationship with reality and truth is often challenged. But that said, when you read his interview really closely, a lot of answers he gave matched or corroborated. When he described the actions he took and the reasons why he took those actions, it did kind of stack up with what I knew and what we saw in the recordings, and what his associates told us.

One way we can corroborate things was really through the surveillance recordings. But I think there are certainly parts of the recordings which are missing, which were not provided to the defense before. We have a very good idea of what the surveillance recordings show the FBI, but we don’t have the complete picture.

But that said, the surveillance recordings that were used in court were very useful. So, in terms of checking out what Narseal was saying, there was never an indication that he actually harbored actual intent to do any harm to anyone. I never came across any conversations that suggested that [Batiste] … knew anything at all about ‘Salafi jihadi ideology.’ …

I was very skeptical listening to Narseal’s account. … A lot of it is about what was he thinking and his inner motivation for doing things and what his reasons were, and those are not things you can readily corroborate, because they’re psychological impulses. …

I hope we managed to separate truth from lies and the fantasy from what actually happened.

Audiences may come to the film with preconceptions, but the documentary hears out a spectrum of voices, in a way that may make viewers stop and think. How did you accomplish that?

That’s what I try to do in every single documentary that I make. … You just have to listen to what people are really telling you and not try and filter everything they’re saying through your own preconceived ideas. …

I approached everyone the same. … I just try to make sense of the story. And when you listen to what people are telling you, and you listen in good faith and try and make sense of what they’re saying, then that really helps.

The documentary includes some incredible surveillance footage and audio recordings from the sting operation. How did you go about getting access to that material?

The material we obtained was what had been submitted by the FBI as evidence and reviewed in court. A couple of short clips had been played in the media, but this is the first time this extraordinary surveillance material has been thoroughly delved into and screened at length. It took hundreds of hours to filter through, log and assess the surveillance material: phone taps, wire taps and covert video recordings.

It’s worth noting that the phone calls between Narseal and members of the group touch on the construction projects, financial matters, spiritual babble and the relationships within the group but make no mention of terrorism. Narseal talks about terrorism only when the informants are present.

From your interviews with federal agents, did this case impact how the government carried out subsequent counterterrorism investigations and prosecutions?

It seems to have. On the one hand, I think that you’ve got to take note of the fact that the government, the DOJ, was extremely intent on getting a conviction and bringing the case to trial three times. That’s really unusual. …

I think what that tells us is that the government was very, very keen to vindicate its use of the counterterrorist sting, which, in this case, was one of the first really big counterterrorist sting cases based on information from an informant post-9/11.

Based on the assessment that these people could be a danger, it was like if you see Minority Report, the Spielberg film, it was kind of a pre-criming technique. “Could these people potentially become terrorists? Yeah, let’s find out.”

“You might not want to have dinner with some of the defendants … but does that mean they’re terrorists?”

On the one hand, it emboldened the government, because in the end, the prosecution was successful. On the other hand, that proved to be a cautionary tale, because within government, and I think the interview with Michael Mullaney, who was the counterterror chief of the DOJ [from 2006 to 2019] — which is pretty unique and I hope gets the attention it deserves — shows that within the DOJ, they were going, “Why the hell are we making such a big deal out of this?” …

The FBI goes from being a crime-fighting organization that prosecutes mafia guys to being an organization that has to prevent terror attacks by people who may not even yet be terrorists. … While the DOJ may have thought, probably, it was the right thing to do, to get them off the streets, it was the wrong thing to do, to make such a fanfare about it. That’s one thing. They learned to keep these cases a bit more low-profile and not trot them out as examples of post-9/11 success in the “war against terror.”

There’s a real spectrum of degrees of culpability or potential culpability. In the end, it’s a matter of law. You might not want to have dinner with some of the defendants in the sting cases that followed the Liberty City Seven, but does that mean they’re terrorists?

And also, if we’re spending a long time and lot of money creating, or pretty much creating, terrorists in order for us to catch them before they become real terrorists, is that a good use of public money, when there are real people out there who do really want to cause harm? … Are we reducing our chances of catching the real deal? …

As the so-called “war on terror” approaches its 20-year anniversary, what lessons does your film have for America, for U.S. policy?

What the film shows is … we have got to be aware of the theater of counterterrorism.

Catching actual terrorists is really hard work, and you need to be equipped with good intelligence, which the FBI wasn’t on September 12th. No matter how afraid we are of something, you still need to make sure that there are all the checks and balances, and all the safeguards, which are part of our peacetime system, do not get eroded. We shouldn’t allow fear, in our moral panic, to lead us to accept the theater of security in place of real security. …

You have to remain skeptical, and the media has to remain skeptical and strong. The media in the Liberty City case was pretty good at the outset. You can hear those journalists at the press conference [announcing the indictments] taking the attorney general to task. But this case, which is so long and complex — and Narseal is such a strange character, it’s difficult to know what to make of him — that the media was never able to actually condense the narrative of this case and, with sufficient force, to truly challenge what was happening. … That’s why this case kind of disappeared into the midst of post-9/11 history, and very few people know about it. …

These counterterror stings have been a key part of how the FBI tried to keep America safe after 9/11. We’ve been pretty lucky so far, but is this the right way to do it?

What do you hope viewers will take away from the documentary?

My hope with every documentary is that viewers take away that sense of having been on a journey and understanding that it’s complicated. What long-form documentary does is, it allows you to take a journey through a story that is on a much more human scale and that doesn’t involve all the shortcuts, and all the sloganeering and all the taking positions that is involved in a news story or one’s reaction to a news story. So, I think it’s much easier to tell a complex truth in a documentary.

And what I hope is that people come away from this film with a great deal of sympathy, both for the [seven men] but also for the FBI agents on the ground, who were just trying to do their job in a time of great fear, in the midst of a huge internal realignment of the FBI. But I think it’s difficult not to conclude that this case should not have gone as far as it did.

It’s about the dangers of moral panic. It’s about the dangers of being so scared that you lose your wits and you stop asking things to make sense. And this case didn’t make sense.

Watch In the Shadow of 9/11, in full, below.


Lila Hassan

Lila Hassan, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Twitter:

@lilahass

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