Sunday, May 04, 2008

PBS Frontline: "The Al Qaeda Files"


PBS Frontline has packaged several programs about Al Qaeda on two DVD’s called “The Al Qaeda Files.” They are produced by CBC/"Fifth Estate" and WGBH, and distributed by PBS.

Disc 1 has three one hour films:

Hunting Bin Laden (March 2000)

Looking for Answers (Oct. 2001)

The Man Who Knew (October 2002) (dir. Michael Kirk)

The films overlap to a large extend, covering the biographies of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others. The underlying theme seems to be fundamentalist rage and humiliation of American support of corrupt governments in the Middle East, all over the region, as well as American presence on sacred Arab lands.

In some parts of the Arab world, particularly Egypt, the rise of militancy occurred within well-educated Muslims could not find work partly because of deteriorating economic conditions and corruption. For a time, the militants were known as the World Islamic Front, and the danger that bin Laden could pose started becoming apparent after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia and moved to the Sudan in 1994. By the mid 90s, the links of various plots, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing by Ramzi Yousef (very close in timing to the first Waco raid), Andul Rahman and others, blasts in Saudi Arabia, and the murder of American helicopter cavalry in the “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993 in Somalia, and even events in the Balkans abd Chechnyna, would become apparent. The nature of Al Qaeda (“The Base”) as a kind of franchised terrorism was starting to become apparent, but would not be widely reported in the media until after 9/11. Bin Laden was not so much a financier as an operation planner. Two of the films cover the 1998 attacks in Africa, and of President Clinton’s hasty cruise missile response that did not get bin Laden.

The rise of Al-Jazeera is covered, and characterized as a form of "sham freedom of the press."

The most interesting of the three films is probably Kirk’s “The Man Who Knew” (“Too Much” without Alfred Hitchcock), the story of FBI Agent John O’Neill, a kind of Fox Mulder with “sharp elbows” but some of Duchovny’s slickness. O’Neill’s outspokenness tended to make enemies, and after he was promoted and moved to New York other fibbies pounced on him for some mechanical security and procedural lapses, like a lost briefcase and misuse of a government vehicle. Nevertheless, he started to be involved in the USS Cole investigation after the Oct. 2000 incident, but the UA Ambassador in Yemen did want him around. Some leaks to the New York Times (retrospective link "Funeral; F.B.I. Expert On bin Laden And Terrorism Is Mourned") led to his “retirement” from the FBI and his taking a job as chief of security for the World Trade Center, where he would perish on 9/11, his first day of work.

This does sound like the proverbial "shoot the messenger" story. It's plausible that had he be allowed to do his job, the FBI might have put enough pieces together (including the Zacarias Moussaoui laptop) to prevent the attack. (Here's the PDF of the Bush Aug 6 2001 memo that was "overlooked").

Disc 2:

In Search of Al Qaeda, aired in Oct. 2002. The program documents visits to Pakistan and Yemen. The tribal areas of Pakistan, controlled by Pashtun, are depicted as a "free zone" with no effective state. Karachi, on the coast, is depicted as having a huge number of cells capable of hiding Al Qaeda or facilitating escape through the Indian Ocean. The arrest of one of the 9/11 hijackers happened in Karachi the day of the filming. Young men in Yemen are interviewed, and average 14 year olds know how to use rifles. The inside of Saudi Arabia is shown, as kind of Phoenix on another planet, where religious police troll the plush shopping malls to keep women from talking to men. A mother (in Yemen) is interviewed, and she indicates she would like to raise boys to grow up to be suicide bombers.

Chasing the Sleeper Cell, aired 10/2003, dir. Rumnel, traces the government's investigation of a group of Muslim men living in Lackawana, NY, south of Buffalo. One or more of the men had gone to Pakistan or Afghanistan in early 2001 and supposedly received terror training, but the men maintain that they simply wanted to transcend themselves by getting closer to their religion. The government claimed one of the men had cross-dressed as a disguise. The men were eventually sentenced to years in prison, but the case has always seemed questionable. The story is cited as an example of application of the USA Patriot Act, with the surveillance and sharing of data among agencies. The movie migrates to ties the men might have to Yemen, and to the use of an unmanned CIA drone to assassinate a suspected terrorist in Yemen.

"Sleeper Cell" was a TV series on Showtime, and I am aware of a screenplay script (not mine) called that with some interesting depiction of radical psyche.

Son of Al Qaeda, 4/2003, tells the story of Abdurahman Khadr, son of an Egyptian man close to Osama bin Laden. The story is told in his words, and is taken at face value; the producers of the show gave him a polygraph which he passed. Even as a teen, he rejected radical Islam in his own mind, to the consternation of his family. He would be present at Clinton's attempt to destroy Osama bin Laden in 1998. He would get into arguments with his family about 9/11, and the idea that individual Americans shared the personal culpability for the supposed sins of America. He would wind up "working" for the CIA as a fake prisoner at Bagram and later Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo. He detailed the brutal treatment of prisoners in American hands, including being kept motionless for hours and being stripped and physically humiliated. Eventually, his own quarters at Gitmo would get better, and he even got to go to a barbecue on the beach. He would be moved to Bosnia, to blend in with Muslims, and the CIA wanted him to go to Iraq. He declined, and was eventually sent to Canada after a brief time in Sarajevo. His family would disown him, but recently his family's attitude has started to change; his father has died, and his brother was partially blinded and paralyzed in the war, but may stand trial. The PBS link for all this is "Life with Osama bin Laden," here. LiveLeak has an interview here. Another important link is the "Trial Watch" concerning the brother Omar Ahmed Khadr, here. The Canadian CBC link is here.

Khadr's story certainly would make a movie. It would sound like a tempting project for Participant or 2929. Who would play Abdurahman? Perhaps Shia La Beouf. Who would write the spec and shooting scripts?

The last film, "Al Qaeda's New Front", covers the role of radical Islam in Europe, with the Madrid and London incidents. The Madrid 3/11 is shown as photographed by cameras in one of the train stations. Spain withdrew from Iraq in the political aftermath. The failure of European society to assimilate Muslim immigrants is discussed (as in Bruce Bawer's book "While Europe Slept"). The history of Islam, and its success in Spain until mid last millennium, and the reasons for its decline are discussed, as well as the plans for the old caliphate. The radical branch Salafism, whose adherents do not follow all of Muslim rules for dress, is presented. Prosecutors in Europe say they have never seen ideology justify activities like this, at least not since Nazi Germany.

This set of seven programs makes for a colossal documentary film.

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