Assia Boundaoui

Watching the watchers 

When Assia Boundaoui discovered that the Chicago community she grew up in had been under intense FBI surveillance for years, she wanted to find out the truth.  


Journalist Assia Boundaoui grew up in a tight-knit Arab-American community in Bridgeview, Illinois. Starting in the 1990’s, the entire neighbourhood became the target of the secret FBI operation ‘Vulgar Betrayal’, which was investigating the funding of terrorism through charities. ‘We all suspected that the phones were tapped,’ Boundaoui said in a recent interview, ‘that there were camera’s posted on street lamps’ and that FBI agents were watching them from cars around their mosque.  


In her film The Feeling of Being Watched – shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2019 where Assia Boundaoui is a special guest – she goes on a quest to find out the truth about Operation Vulgar Betrayal. It was part of the rapidly expanding US surveillance state which, in tandem with an increasing Islamophobia, manifested itself after the first Al-Qaeda attacks against American targets in the 1990s. After many years of intense blanket surveillance, operation Vulgar Betrayal was shut down without a single terrorism conviction. So what was the justification? 


The documentary makes chillingly clear how the large-scale privacy violations of such an indiscriminate operation hurt communities. ‘The harm these decades-long investigations have had on my neighbourhood is profound,’ Boundaoui says. ‘They transform communities into places where neighbours distrust each other, where people censor themselves, and where everyone lives with an unhealthy dose of fear and paranoia.’ 


Using the Freedom of Information Act, Boundaoui took the FBI to court to provide her with more than 33.000 pages of documents from the operation. These will help her uncover the reality of the way American law enforcement uses widespread ethnic profiling in its national security policies. ‘Perhaps there’s nothing I can do about being watched,’ she says in the documentary. ‘Perhaps the only way to disrupt surveillance, is to make sure that those that do the watching, are also being watched.’