How One American Muslim Woman’s Instinct Led to the Uncovering One of the Largest FBI Probes in U.S. History

By Jen Marlowe Apr 24, 2018

In June 1998, 13-year old Assia Boundaoui returned to her Bridgeview, Illinois, home from shopping with her parents to find FBI agents forcing open the door. The FBI, she learned, was seizing the assets of the house’s owner, their upstairs neighbor, Mohammed Salah.

In 1993, Salah (a naturalized U.S. citizen of Palestinian origin) had been arrested by Israel while on a humanitarian mission to Gaza. He was charged with providing material support to Hamas, which his attorneys say he admitted to under torture. Salah was released in 1998 and he returned to Bridgeview. In 2004, U.S. federal prosecutors indicted Salah on the same charges that Israel had convicted him of. He was acquitted in 2007, but was convicted on a lesser charge—obstruction of justice.

Boundaoui’s theory is that Israel shared the information they obtained from Salah—under torture— with the FBI.  This, she believes, provided a basis for Operation Vulgar Betrayal, the encompassing FBI probe of her Muslim-American community that she uncovered.  

In Boundaoui’s new documentary film, "The Feeling of Being Watched," which is screening this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, neighbors and relatives describe odd incidents for over three decades. Strange cars and vans parked outside homes. Well-heeled men going through garbage cans. Boundaoui recounts looking out her window in the middle of the night as a teenager and seeing men installing something on the telephone pole.  Frightened, Boundaoui woke her mother.  “It’s probably just the FBI, go back to sleep,” Boundaoui recalls her mother saying.

Boundaoui felt compelled—as a journalist and a self-described “obsessive person”—to seek out primary evidence to back up her paranoia of being constantly monitored. She wanted evidence-based understanding of what was real, and what was not. “I can’t stand the gray area,” she said in a phone interview.

Boundaoui started to film in 2013, intending to focus on two of her best friends whose fathers had been charged with supporting terrorist activity in 1997.  Those charges were dismissed, and the men were convicted of minor white-collar crimes.  A year into the filming, her friends started getting visits from the FBI again. Unnerved, they stopped their participation. 

The project might have ended, but Boundaoui wanted to continue digging.  Eventually, she realized it was the digging itself that was the heart of the film.  “So I began filming the whole process.”

Poring over microfilm of the local daily paper, Boundaoui came across an article about an investigation into her mosque that began in 1993. She searched for more information online, and found the name of Robert Wright, the lead FBI agent on the case. More online research into Wright led her to a 2002 C-Span video in which the agent acknowledged the existence of an FBI investigation with the code name “Vulgar Betrayal.”  

An internet search of Operation Vulgar Betrayal led to Boundaoui discovering 1,000 unclassified documents, dating back to July 11, 1996.  Boundaoui was startled. She had assumed that the surveillance incidents were separate. Now she was learning that they were part of a far-reaching FBI counterterrorism probe. Most major Muslim-American institutions were listed to be investigated for money laundering and tax fraud, including Boundaoui’s school. “They thought all these mosques and charities were just one big front cover for terrorism,” she says in the film. The documents revealed that the FBI anticipated interviewing 500 individuals throughout the U.S.  

Boundaoui pieced together the timeline. The FBI Chicago Field Office launched Operation Vulgar Betrayal in 1996. The investigation was closed in 2000, after the U.S. attorney declined to prosecute. Vulgar Betrayal was re-opened in 2002 and closed again in 2007. “These investigations…used a really broad brush to paint law-abiding American citizens as suspect,” she says in the film.  Not one person from Boundaoui’s community was convicted on charges related to terrorism.

Boundaoui initially reached out to dozens of FBI agents who worked on the case. A few agreed to off-the-record meetings, but they were reluctant to talk.  So in 2016, she began filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, asking for “all photographic, video and audio media associated with this investigation.” As a journalist working on a public interest story, Boundaoui requested expedited processing of her FOIA request. But the FBI refused, responding that she had “not provided a compelling argument explaining why the public needs information on this subject matter immediately.” Each FBI communication contained a new rejection or run-around.

Eventually, Boundaoui received notification that the FBI had located 33,120 pages of records, containing 500 individuals’ files. She was told it would take nearly three years to process the documents. That later stretched to 500 pages per month—five years. “The only thing left was to file a lawsuit,” she says.

In September 2017, a U.S. District Court ordered the FBI to process 3,500 pages per month; giving priority to the sub-files of individuals. The court acknowledged, “Plaintiff is an internationally recognized filmmaker who is producing a film informing the public of the FBI’s alleged profiling and surveillance of communities based on race, religion, and ethnicity, in particular, the Arab American community in Bridgeview. Significant questions about privacy rights are implicated by plaintiff’s project.”

When the first batch of papers arrived, Boundaoui found documentation of intelligence-gathering on immigrant Muslim Americans as far back as 1992. She also learned more about FBI’s tactics: using informants; dispatching agents to people’s homes and work; monitoring phone calls.

Boundaoui’s family is from Algeria, but the Bridgeview community is largely Palestinian. Boundaoui believes this is a core reason they are viewed with suspicion. In the film, Gamal Abdel-Hafiz (the first Muslim FBI agent) spoke about Wright, Vulgar Betrayal’s lead agent until 1999. “[Wright] thought that all the Palestinians were a part of Hamas, and they are all against Israel. And he went on that premise.”

“We’re not worried just about privacy, we’re worried about our security and freedom,” Boundaoui says, regarding the surveillance. Her community has experienced surveillance leading to arrests, house arrests, deportation.

That worry has deepened since the 2016 election. Boundaoui says Trump’s language stokes fear that her neighbors haven’t experienced since 9/11. “Muslim enclaves, surveillance in every mosque in the country, forced registration. We don’t take those threats idly.”

There are other impacts of surveillance that Boundaoui exposes.  “They wanted to rattle the cage and see what comes out…But when you rattle a cage and there aren’t any criminals crawling out, what does that do to the people in the cage?” she asks the camera.

Boundaoui provides multiple answers over the phone. The FBI’s use of informants “creates distrust within a community, it fragments the community.” She also describes the fear of association. “You realize that this is an identity under suspicion, so you learn that if you can ‘pass’ and dissociate from that community, it’s better for you.”  There is a chilling effect on philanthropy.  “Organizations can no longer rely on community support because the community is afraid to donate money.”

Though Boundaoui knows the paranoia is justified, she worries that it might place her and her community on a mental health slippery slope. How paranoid would she have to become, she wonders, “before I would lose all perspective, that my paranoia would encompass me completely?”

Self-image is damaged as well, she says. Being viewed for so long with suspicion and loathing, “You eventually begin to internalize that gaze.” From the first time the FBI came to 11-year old Boundaoui’s door, she was aware that “they look at us like we’re bad, so maybe we are bad. Maybe I should be ashamed.” When a community constantly sees monstrous portrayals of themselves, she says, it impacts deeply. She sees her film as a drop in the ocean to counter that portrayal. “Stories of American Muslims or terrorism are often not told from members of this community. This film is grounded in the point of view of those who have experienced the surveillance, those inside looking around. Positionality matters,” she says. “It’s about representation. Putting something out there that is an accurate reflection of who we really are.”

Operation Vulgar Betrayal ended over a decade ago, but surveillance of Boundaoui’s community continues. Boundaoui is aware of at least one FBI visit to a neighbor five months ago.  Boundaoui intends to partner with local organizations to create an infrastructure for residents to report FBI presence. “Law enforcement and the FBI in particular feel like they can roll into our community and kind of do whatever they want. We want to send the message that, no, they can’t,” she says on camera.

Boundaoui still hasn’t received a single individual’s file, despite the court’s ruling that these must be prioritized.  Of the 3,500 pages that the FBI was ordered to process monthly, Boundaoui typically receives between 700 to 900. The rest are redacted. “They’re releasing information begrudgingly and are doing it in a manner to release as little info as possible,” she says.  The legal process continues; Boundaoui submits ongoing status reports on the deliveries.

Five years and 200 hours of footage later, Boundaoui has gained a measure of clarity.  But disturbing questions remain. “Why did this happen and why is this likely still happening? If people are still getting visited, does that mean there’s a new investigation? Or, once you’re marked as a terrorist, are you marked for life?