Lost in the Movies: Frontline: The Al Qaeda Files

Frontline: The Al Qaeda Files

With the bogeyman spectre of Osama bin Laden lingering over the Western world's head, the threat posed by terrorism and Al Qaeda specifically - and Osama bin Laden even more specifically - sometimes seems almost metaphysical. John McCain likes to call it "an existential threat," which may be true in its own way, but also implies something unfathomable, almost abstract in its evil. What "Frontline" does, in this series of episodes aired between 1999 and 2005, is lift the curtain a bit and show us what lies behind the organization of Al Qaeda, the events of 9/11, and the terrorist attacks since then. It's a riveting, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing look at a culture often alien to Americans, and also sometimes weirdly familiar.

There are seven programs on this disc and the first one, "Hunting Bin Laden" has a surreal tinge to it. Why? Simply by virtue of its original date, which was the turn-of-the millennium, in other words when bin Laden still was an abstract threat to most Americans. In this program we follow his passage from family fortune to mujahideen to terrorist financier to terrorist leader. One of the useful reminders this show offers is that for all the stereotypes, most organizational terrorists, and certainly terrorist leaders, do not come from impoverished backgrounds. They are middle-class, well-educated, coming to radical Islam more as an ideology than a religion, as a forum for their transformed consciousness. The image of bin Laden, with the long beard and robes, hidden deep in a cave somewhere on the outskirts of civilization, may frighten many Americans, but it seems supremely calculated to do so: it's an image bin Laden has created himself, not one he was born into.

The following episode, "Looking for Answers" was aired less than a month after 9/11 and has a somewhat different tone than "Hunting bin Laden." Whereas the first had a curious, investigative tone, "Looking for Answers" is limned with a grimmer mood, for obvious reasons. Though "Frontline" also seems to have gone through an aesthetic transformation in the intervening years; its cinematography is now darker and sharper. This episodes rehashes some of what the previous show provided, while providing some new interviews and some unseen outtakes, including further interviews with a weirdly charismatic Egyptian terrorist (who doesn't seem to have played much of a role in the attacks of the last few years - we never see him again); one expects him to say something like, "Yes, infidel, I would like to cut your head off and blow up your family. Would you like some more tea?"

After these intriguing looks at the formation of Al Qaeda and the context provided for the international jihadist movement, we move into a series of fascinating, more focused stories. "The Man Who Knew" is about John O'Neil, a flamboyant FBI agent who specialized in terrorism and especially bin Laden. Though prescient, supremely dedicated to his work, and an obvious asset to the FBI, he was largely marginalized - because of his idiosyncratic personality, because of casual sloppiness (he left a briefcase with classified documents in a meeting once), and because of a temper that did not ingratiate him to his superiors.

Yet O'Neil was always ringing the alarm bells about bin Laden and proved adept at investigation. Once he was finally pressured out of the Bureau, he took a job as head of security in the World Trade Center. When a friend joked that he chose the safest place because "they've already hit that one, they won't go after it again," O'Neil responded pensively that they had always wanted to finish the job. And indeed, on 9/11 he died when the Towers collapsed. We've been hearing a lot about "mavericks" in the past few months, but apparently O'Neil was the real deal, for better or for worse. Within the captivating story is a warning about organizational and bureaucratic ineptitude - institutions planting the seeds of their own destruction.

The following episode, "In Search of Al Qaeda" takes a step back from the personal stories for a moment to follow the hunt for the group and bin Laden in post-Taliban Afghanistan. This is our first introduction to Waziristan, the region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, technically under Pakistani control but in fact ruled by tribes sympathetic to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It is almost certainly here where bin Laden remains. Though premiered back in 2002, six years later the story is not much different. Yesterday I watched "The War Briefing," a "Frontline" program devoted to the war in Afghanistan and it was clear that the situation had worsened but the conditions were the same: tribal regions beyond U.S. or Afghan control, Pakistani reluctance to deal with the problem, and - already in 2002 - a refocusing on Iraq which would distract us from those really responsible for 9/11.

"Chasing the Sleeper Cell" returns to the smaller-scale stories, examples that fact is often stranger than fiction. In the spring of 2001, a group of American teenagers - members of a Muslim community in Lakawanna, NY - told their friends and families they were going on a religious trip to Pakistan. Instead they hooked up with Kamal Derwish, an American citizen living in Saudi Arabia with connections to bin Laden and the terror network. He got them into Afghanistan where the six guys trained in an Al Qaeda camp and met with bin Laden. You can't make this stuff up, and as one of the young men is interviewed, casually speaking in all-American vernacular about how he tried to get out of the camp and bin Laden personally asked him to stay, he sounds like some disobedient camper trying to wriggle his way out from the clutches of an overzealous camp counselor. At one point, bin Laden asked one of the young men to send a letter home to his parents, letting them know where he was in case they were worried. I mean really...you can't make this stuff up.

Much of the episode also focuses on the FBI's surveillance and eventual arrest of the "Lakawanna Six." Though ostensibly the "worst terror cell in the U.S." they don't appear to have been a terror cell at all, just six kids looking for adventure (this was before 9/11, though after attacks on the USS Cole and the embassies), who happened to be incredibly, incredibly stupid in how they want about it. Though the government trumped up the arrests as if they were equivalent to the operations in Hamburg - related to a 9/11 planner - the sentences of the young men ended up being about 10 years each - which seems extreme for misguided but harmless behavior, but extremely loose if they were really as dangerous as the FBI and Homeland Security claims to have believed.

But the most disquieting moment of the show arrives near the end. In those calm, staid PBS tones, the reporters ask their subjects whatever happened to Kamal Derwish, the Saudi connection. Why wasn't he named in the indictment? Long, long silences follow, in which you can hear the buzzing of the room tone and sound equipment. Little smiles and twinkles in the corners of their eyes betray the FBI agents' attempted stoicism. They clear their throats. "Uh, well he's not named in the indictment, so as far as the FBI is concerned..." The subject trails off, barely able to withhold a smirk. When Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge is asked the silence is deafening. The man has one hell of a poker face. Although I should mention he isn't asked why Kamal Derwish wasn't indicted, but rather if the U.S. government knew that Derwish was in the car that a Predator drone blew up in Yemen several years ago. Finally Ridge responds affirmatively. All this is not especially offputting - how many terrorist leaders have been assassinated in this war? - until "Frontline" reminds us, and Ridge, that Derwish was an American citizen. Granted, this is no different than the tactic used to "capture" John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde but it remains more than slightly disturbing.

"Son of Al Qaeda" is the most fascinating of all the programs in this collection: Abduhraman Khadr was the son of a close friend of bin Laden's and grew up in and around the terror camps in Afghanistan. We are told that he was a rebellious youth, that he drank, smoked, and chased women (though how one chases women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is left to the imagination). We even see video of him, looking like an American teenager, with his arm around a bearded buddy, joking with the camera. What ensues will certainly be made into a movie someday, though whether fact or fiction cannot be currently confirmed. Khadr claims that following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan he was separated from his family and taken into military custody. He agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities, came under CIA control and began to move about the country, collecting intelligence.

Eventually they asked him to go to Guantanamo Bay, where he would be treated like any other prisoner but would hopefully get close to those around him, and pry loose vital information that interrogators could not get. Khadr's recollections of Guantanamo are chilling, from the plane ride for which he is strapped to the interior, wishing for suicide, to the isolation chambers where he nearly went mad, to his recollection that his brother also showed up in the prison, communicating from across the wall to "stick to the story." Khadr says he told the military guards that they were making a big mistake, that most of the prisoners were innocent. Eventually he couldn't take it anymore, and requested transfer.

The CIA sent him to Bosnia and prepared him to infiltrate a jihadist group and enter Iraq. At this point, Khadr decided he had had enough and demanded to be freed. The CIA agreed, saying it would pay him a promised sum, and let him go to Canada, where he had spent much of his childhood (indeed, Khadr and his family were Canadian citizens all this time). When he never received his money, he contacted "Frontline" to tell his story. The episode also features interviews with Khadr's mother and sister, cloaked head to toe, only their eyes showing. In genial manner, and lightly Canadian accents, they reminisce about Osama bin Laden, who apparently enjoyed reading poetry and playing volleyball. Both they and Khadr recall his relationship with his kids - "he was a typical father" Khadr recounts - and these are among the most fascinating moments in the entire collection. Khadr also remembers watching the African embassy and 9/11 bombings on television, as his friends cheered and he watched dead Africans being carried by medics in Kenya and men leap from windows in the World Trade Center and felt queasy and disturbed instead of elated.

As for his story, the CIA neither confirms nor denies. Khadr has submitted to - and passed - polygraph tests and when you hear his recollections, they do convey a sense of conviction. It's hard to believe that he fabricated all of his detailed memories. We are told that his grandmother disowned him when she discovered he'd collaborated with the CIA, but that Khadr's mother and little brother (who was injured in a firefight that killed their father in 2003) arrived in Canada seeking medical attention soon after, and that the family has begun to reconcile.

The final program is called "Al Qaeda's New Front." It is the most disturbing and the most relevant to our current situation. Aired in 2005, before the London bombings of July had even taken place, it shows how Al Qaeda has expanded into Europe and become a completely viral, amorphous organization. The start of this collection shows us a roughly organized, fairly focused jihadist movement, composed of well-educated, radical Islamists who have fairly concrete critiques of U.S. policy and specific resentments they hope to address. By the time of "Al Qaeda's New Front" this situation has transformed into something more dangerous. Interviewed jihadists speak of a caliphate stretching across the Middle East, even into Spain. More frighteningly, their connections to one another are tenuous, something easily broken and transmutated - these men appear like nomadic drifters, winding their way from one country to another, plotting attacks with the hope that they will kill the maximum number of civilians.

French counterterrorism experts criticize the Bush administration's approach to the War on Terror, comparing the current composition of Al Qaeda to an amobea. We are also given a look at why the situation has become more violent in Europe than in America: Muslim populations there are more marginalized, less integrated into the community, and more easily radicalized. What you get is ghettoization rather than the proverbial melting pot. The program begins with footage from the March 11, 2004 bombing in Madrid and this thread continues intermittently throughout, culminating in the revelation that Rabei Osman El Sayed Ahmed, a radical jihadist circulating throughout Europe, claims responsibility for the Madrid bombings. He does so in a recorded sing-song voice set to music, boasting to a young friend whom he is trying to mentally prepare for a suicide bombing. This is one of the most chilling moments in the series: I can't describe exactly how or why the sound of this is so creepy, but it is.

It also points to a possible flaw in the otherwise riveting series. "Frontline" has a tendency to focus on cold, hard facts, which I like, but in doing so it largely eschews the motivations behind all this madness. And I don't mean the stated causes of the terrorists, but the psychological makeup. When we peer into the consciousness of jihadists, in the musical recording, in some of the propaganda videos, it's undeniably fascinating. "Frontline" lays out the scenarios, but never quite lets us inside - perhaps this would be more than a documentary program could achieve. Nonetheless, the little clues it plants throughout open the door a crack, letting us peer behind the metaphysical mystique of the ostensibly existential terror threat.

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