The feeling of being watched: The FBI's chilling surveillance of one quiet Arab neighbourhood

The feeling of being watched: The FBI's chilling surveillance of one quiet Arab neighbourhood
Assia Boundaoui's unnerving documentary questions years of FBI surveillance on her Arab American neighbourhood in Chicago, Illinois.
6 min read
20 August, 2019
The Feeling of Being Watched focuses on the Arabs of Bridgeview [film grab]
There was something very different about growing up in Bridgeview in the 1990's. From the outside, it was a typical suburban town. Its streets were neat and grid-patterned with convenience stores mingling with takeaways and electronic shops.

Excited children and surly teenagers were driven to and from the different schools, workers travelled to the large factories on the town's edges, and officers patrolled the streets and directed traffic as they did anywhere else in the US.

To the outsiders driving through the town there was nothing unique at all about this little snippet of suburbia on the edge of Chicago, Illinois. 

But for children growing up there, many knew there was something very ominous about Bridgeview.

While they were used to aeroplanes flying over the town, they had also grown used to seeing helicopters hovering overhead. Walking down an average street, they'd see dome-shaped cameras hanging off the edges of buildings looking back at them, and even at home their privacy was invaded with large tinted-window vans parked on the streets outside their houses. 

Day after day and year after year, those vans were often there. Late at night or early in the morning, they would hear knocks on their front doors. They’d sit and see their home flood with fear, as strange men entered and asked their parents even stranger questions.

The programme was an expensive, extensive surveillance targeting the Illinois Arab Muslim community conducted by numerous FBI agents

Assia was 16-years-old when she learnt once and for all what was so different about Bridgeview.

Fast asleep in her family home, she awoke in the middle of the night to lights and clunking sounds from the street outside. It was three o'clock in the morning. Peering outside she saw two men, both hanging off a telephone pole, tampering with the wires. She ran to tell her mum.

"It's okay," her mother responded as she tried to calm the panicked girl, "It's probably just the FBI. Go back to sleep."

Operation Vulgar Betrayal

During the 1990s, the town of Bridgeview was the target of one of the largest counterterrorism investigations conducted in the US prior to the attacks of September 11.

Called "Operation Vulgar Betrayal", the programme was an expensive, extensive surveillance targeting the Illinois Arab Muslim community conducted by numerous FBI agents.

The FBI recently admitted to having 33,000 pages of records on the quiet neighbourhood. Yet, after decades of surveillance and countless dollars spent, no charges were ever filed.

Spying on the Arabs of Bridgeview is the subject of The Feeling of Being Watched, a documentary film that tells the story of Algerian-American Assia Boundaoui, who grew up in Bridgeview and witnessed first-hand the climate of paranoia and fear inflicted upon the towns Arab citizens.

In a fascinating example of investigative journalism, Assia uncovers the full extent of the FBI's surveillance on her community – one that appears driven entirely on the basis of their religion.

The film itself was motivated by the desire to remember a community's collective trauma. As a qualified journalist, Assia returned Bridgeview to visit her home and recall her childhood that was filled with suspicion.

She visits her neighbours, and as they tell their stories of life in the 90's, a mass of personal testimony builds up.

With the knowledge that trauma of life under surveillance had become part of the fabric of the community, Assia's filmmaking process begins. Throughout, she documents her journey in uncovering the sheer scale of the FBI's operation not only against the Arabs and Muslims of Bridgeview, but against many other minority communities in America's recent past. 

You feel like someone is just invading your life. I had a feeling like there is a camera, there is something watching you and you don't feel free or feel safe

An abuse of power

The Feeling of Being Watched questions the abuse of power and minority rights with Assia's personal discovery as she grapples with the enduring impact of the FBI spying on her community and how it shaped her own identity.

Expanding the scope beyond the rampant Islamophobia that her neighbourhood was targeted by, Assia's The Feeling of Being Watched delves into the myriad occasions when the US government used the same approach with other minority groups deemed to be on the "wrong" political side.

The targeted surveillance of activists from minority groups seems to be a well-established feature of 20th century American history. From the onset of the First World War and lasting until 1941, the US Department of Justice established a special "Negro Subversion" section dedicated to spying on African Americans. 

Their aim was to "uncover" disloyal motives civil rights activists in the NAACP and the National Equal Rights League.

Then, during the Second World War, the FBI began gathering information on "enemy aliens", leading to the mass detention of 110,000 Japanese Americans by 1942. 

Focus then returned to African Americans, and in 1956, the FBI began COINTELPRO – a series of covert and often illegal operations to disrupt and discredit Black civil rights groups, leading to alleged assassinations and the imprisonment of key leaders.

In the 90's, the Arab's of Bridgeview became the latest victims to come under the American Big Brother's glare. 

A state of paranoia 

Assia's community is about as close knit as you can get. Yet for three decades, people only ever whispered to one another.

Talking about schools and shared fencing, falafel or a favourite sports team could be part of an everyday conversation, but the Arabs of Bridgeview almost never discussed politics out loud. Publicly voicing opinions about global events, especially in the Middle East, was an absolute taboo.

Even teenage slang was feared. A neighbour told Assia how she banned her teenage sons from using the slang phrase "da bomb" when referring to something "really cool". 

"It's almost as if it was a swear word!" she says.

The Feeling of Being Watched weaves together a collection of home videos, archival footage and contemporary interviews to bring the trauma endured by the Arabs and Muslims of Bridgeview to the fore. 

Most apparent is the suffering rendered by the decades-long invasion of personal space and the disregard for privacy.

"You feel like someone is just invading your life. I had a feeling like there is a camera, there is something watching you and you don't feel free or feel safe," Assia narrates in the film.

For her, the efforts of the FBI are completely counterproductive. None of the Arabs of Bridgeview would doubt that extremist views could be found in different communities, or that terrorist attacks need stopping. But alongside a complete disregard of the views of Muslim-American citizens in US global politics, the film demonstrates such acts of mass surveillance only led to a collective trauma of US citizens.

"They are not finding or stopping terrorism in the community, they are just traumatising people," Assia explains.

Yet with her own camera, the tables have been turned. 

The release of The Feeling of Being Watched in 2018 joins in the chorus of condemnation that has grown against the FBI's approach to American Muslims in recent years. For Assia, it is a critical first step to restore citizen's rights to check any abuses of power.

"It is in the act of looking back and talking out loud that we become less alienated, less petrified by our paranoia," narrates Assia.

"Perhaps the only way to disrupt surveillance is make sure that those who do the watching are also being watched."

Sarah Khalil is a journalist with The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @skhalil1984