Phantom Parrot (2023): casualties of the war on terror | Review

A laptop in a darkened room.

Phantom Parrot explores the machinery of secret surveillance and the war on terror. But, Kate Stonehill’s documentary asks, can we trust it to keep us safe?

Some stories aren’t so simple. This is one of them.

It begins with the arrest of Ali al-Marri, a Qatari man studying in Peoria, Illinois. Al-Marri had graduated from Peoria’s Bradley University in 1991 before returning to the Middle East. Ten years later he was back to study a postgraduate degree, this time accompanied by his wife and five kids.

They flew into Chicago on September 10th, 2001, the day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In December, al-Marri was arrested. He wouldn’t see his family again for 13 years.

America’s torturous war on terror

Details about al-Marri’s life before the arrest are strangely inconsistent. His studies, FBI allegations, and even the date of his arrest vary between news reports and outlets.

What matters, though, is what al-Marri was alleged to have done in his decade away from the States, and why he’d come back.

The FBI said al-Marri had attended terrorist training camps overseas, and was in contact with the 9/11 attackers. Now there was also “an encyclopaedia bookmarked at US waterways, internet searches for toxic chemicals, and printouts of hundreds of American credit card numbers”.

In 2003 the Bush administration classified al-Marri an “enemy combatant”. He was sent to a naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where he could be kept without charge or trial indefinitely. For al-Marri, that was the next six years.

Then in 2009, against his lawyer’s advice, he pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy and was jailed for eight years – though now in a federal prison. Since his release in 2015, however, al-Marri has maintained his innocence. The guilty plea was simply a means to get home.

Al-Marri had good reason to bargain: his time in the brig was served in solitary confinement, and punctuated by torture. He alleges interrogators made rape threats against him and his wife, and used dry-boarding [content warning].

At least some of al-Marri’s claims are indisputable: interrogators kept records of how they withheld bedding, heat and lighting to disorient him. By a twist of fate, these were released to al-Marri’s lawyer, and later published on the CAGE website.

The existence of that data is where the story takes another dark turn.

The UK: surveillance nation

While al-Marri’s story underpins Kate Stonehill’s documentary, Phantom Parrot, it’s just one of its narrative threads.

One of those brings us to Muhammad Rabbani, who, in 2016, was returning from a research trip in Doha when police stopped him at Heathrow Airport.

There are two things to note. First, Rabbani is director of human rights group CAGE. Secondly, he was stopped under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which gives officials elevated powers to stop and search people at ports and border (i.e., before, during and after travel).

Unlike other police powers, under Schedule 7 officers don’t need ‘reasonable suspicion’ to detain, search or question someone. Meanwhile, those stopped have no right to remain silent or withhold information. If asked, you must hand over phone pins and device passwords – or risk arrest.

But when officers demanded Rabbani’s passwords, he refused. Why? Because he was carrying confidential documents that could compromise a victim of grave injustice: Ali al-Marri.

Rabbani suspects this is why he was targeted at Heathrow. Not because he posed a security risk, but because information on his devices might expose wrongdoing by US agents.

If this sounds like the plot of a spy movie, it’s not the first time Schedule 7 has been used in questionable circumstances.

David Miranda – whose partner had published Edward Snowdon’s leaked intel – was held at Heathrow for nine hours in 2013. A decade later, French publisher Ernest Moret was detained at London’s St Pancras train station.

The danger of sweeping surveillance legislation is that it can easily silence the press, activists and critics – perhaps even at the request of other countries. After all, how willing would you be to expose injustice if it meant facing a terrorism charge?

Terror laws are supposed to keep us safe. But can we trust their safeguarding?

Phantom Parrot

For Rabbani, the consequences of Schedule 7 were potentially life-changing. In the run-up to his 2017 court case he wonders what will happen to his family if he’s sent to prison. Either way, a terrorism charge places a damning question mark over future work and travel, and puts his kids at risk.

But while Stonehill’s documentary zeroes in on individuals caught in the war on terror, the film’s lingering dread lies in surveillance of a magnitude most of us can’t even imagine.

This is the “phantom parrot”: a code name for data covertly downloaded from mobile devices under Schedule 7 without its owner’s knowledge or consent. In 2017, journalist Ryan Gallagher – who appears in the film – reported data had been shared with UK intelligence agency GCHQ.

Even those tasked with extracting data are in awe of its reach. Data is never truly deleted; some isn’t even knowingly collected in the first place. One trainer explains he never signs into Google services because he doesn’t want to be tracked … before his own data pinpoints his location to within a few feet.

Freedom is slavery

Clearly, there’s a lot to process here and, at times, Phantom Parrot feels quite hefty for it. It cycles between chronologies, locations and voices at a pace that can hard to keep up with.

But if it’s complex it’s also compelling and frightening. It tells a story that’s all around us, but hiding in plain sight – right down to the surveillance we welcome into our lives through smart devices, shopping apps and video doorbells.

Some people argue freedom from terrorism comes at a price we shouldn’t begrudge paying. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right?

Counter Terrorism Policing reports the number of Schedule 7 stops is “declining and that it is being used in an increasingly more targeted and accountable way”. However, Home Office data for the last decade reveals people of Asian heritage are still significantly more likely to caught in its radar … with all the consequences that implies.

Inevitably, the cost of freedom weighs heavier on some of us than others – but it would be foolish to think we don’t all pay a price.

Phantom Parrot (2023), directed by Kate Stonehill

This film screened at Sheffield DocFest 2023

What to read or watch next

Picture credit: Agung Raharja