SCREENINGS, READINGS & MEANINGS

By Gerald Schmitz

What in the world after terror’s hot summer?

Point and Shoot (U.S. 2014)
Losing Iraq (PBS Frontline 2014)
The Unknown Known
(U.S. 2013)
Camp X-Ray (U.S. 2014)

 

This is the second of two parts.

In an afterword to his seminal The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright observes that: “One day, al-Qaida will disappear, as all terrorist movements eventually do. But the template of asymmetrical warfare and mass murder that bin Laden and his confederates have created will inspire future terrorists flying other banners. The legacy of bin Laden is a future of suspicion, grief, and the loss of certain liberties that are already disappearing from memory.”

How true that already seems barely more than three years after our former global enemy No. 1 was assassinated in the Navy SEALS “zero dark thirty” raid into Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country which, as shown by new books like Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, continues to provide support to Taliban insurgents.

The situation is worse elsewhere in the region even as al-Qaida’s presence has dimmed to a shadow of its former self. Out of al-Qaida in Iraq has come the most virulent manifestation yet of violent Islamist extremism, fuelled by the appalling Syrian civil war and the toxic sectarianism of a corrupt incompetent Shiite government in Baghdad. This new terrorist front has outgrown various names — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Levant (in Arabic Al-Sham) — as it became the first jihadist organization to control significant territory in two contiguous states. On the eve of Canada Day its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph of all Muslims, hence the current reference to the State of the Islamic Caliphate or simply Islamic State (IS).

All of this has happened as the hopes of the 2011 “Arab spring” have been dashed (with the partial exception of Tunisia), Libya is in chaos, and Israel’s war in Gaza has inflamed the long-running Palestinian factor in Middle East terrorism. It is possible that the Sunni extremism of IS, which attacks other forms of Islam as heretical, will overreach and provoke a backlash. Still, IS easily took over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, once home to many Iraqi Christians but where Catholic mass is no longer celebrated for the first time 1,800 years. The fall of Baghdad or Damascus may be improbable but the future of Iraq and Syria looks terribly bleak. (Cf. two excellent essays in the July 17 London Review of Books, Owen Bennett-Jones “How should we think about the Caliphate?” and Patrick Cockburn “Battle for Baghdad,” as well as Coburn’s “ISIS Consolidates” in the Aug. 21 LRB. Also released in August is a chilling series of video reports from inside the expanding IS area that can be watched at: http://www.vice.com/vice-news/islamic-state-full-length.)

And this isn’t only a problem over there. Among the most troubling aspects of the growth of IS has been its success in attracting radicalized western young men, including from privileged non-Muslim backgrounds, to its cause. Indeed, however puritanical, this contemporary jihadism uses some very modern tech-savvy means, such as disseminating slick videos via the Internet, to recruit adherents, including actual fighters, thousands of whom hold western passports. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has indicated some 130 Canadians are involved.

As worrying from a civil rights and privacy standpoint has been the accompanying expansion of a far-reaching national security state surveillance apparatus in response to the perceived threat. To the extent that it shields activities from accountability under layers of secrecy, silences and punishes whistleblowers, and sometimes target innocent people, it becomes an insidious phenomenon damaging our democratic freedoms from the inside.

The following films explore aspects of what has failed to stop terror’s frontlines from spreading and why, starting with the journey of a young American who joined the revolution in Libya.

***

Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot, awarded best documentary feature at Tribeca, tells the incredible true story of a timid obsessive-compulsive Baltimore man, Matt VanDyke, who set off on a three-year motorcycle journey across North Africa and the Middle East, self-described as a “crash course in manhood.” Through a Libyan friendship he became involved in the struggle to overthrow the Gadhafi regime, shooting with a gun as well as a camera. At one point he’s captured and spends six months in solitary confinement. Much of the film is culled from hundreds of hours of video he took.

VanDyke returned to America and never became part of the jihadist militias now battling each other for control. But he is indicative of a startling process of self re-invention as a rebel fighter starring in his own movie. It’s a fascinating look at how troubled susceptible young men can be motivated to construct new “heroic” identities that too often have fatal consequences.

***

It seems almost incredible that 11 years after President George Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, the expenditure of trillions of dollars and cost of thousands of American lives, the fractured country is threatened by violent Islamist takeover, including by fighters brought up with “western values.” An excellent guide to that debacle is Losing Iraq which aired on PBS Frontline July 29 and can be watched online at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/losing-iraq/.

A key figure in the train of bad decisions was Donald Rumsfeld, Defence Secretary until removed by Bush in late 2006. Veteran documentarian Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known — a take on Rumsfeld’s noted musings about “knowns and unknowns” prior to the Iraq invasion — is an attempt to pin him down on what went wrong. It’s not very successful, however, since like former Vice-President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld proves to be a wily cagey subject unwilling to admit error. These top decision-makers have had it easy in contrast to officials who’ve been hounded for speaking truth to power (as profiled in the Tribeca documentary Silenced). Take the example of the use of torture techniques on prisoners. Those who leaked information about it have been prosecuted; no one who actually authorized or practised it has.

***

An enduring stain from the dirty wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo which the Obama administration has yet to succeed in closing. Just how warped its effects have been comes through in writer-director Peter Sattler’s Sundance feature Camp X-Ray. The focus is on the intense relationship that develops between Amy Cole (a surprising Kristen Stewart in a gritty role), a young female army private doing a tour of duty in the Camp Delta compound, and Ali Amir (Peyman Moaadi from Farhadi’s Oscar winner A Separation), a highly educated Pakistani inmate abducted from Germany eight years earlier.

Amy’s rude “welcome to Gitmo,” an Orwellian space where there are no prisoners of war only “detainees” lacking rights, subjects her to abuse from fellow soldiers as well as inmates. The vociferous Ali, who calls her “blondie,” works on her, sensing that she isn’t like the other guards. Amy is increasingly disturbed by the environment of abuse and actions of fellow soldiers. When she reports a superior officer for a “blatant violation of standard operating procedure” she only further isolates and endangers herself. Meanwhile she learns more about Amir and despite the cages that separate them and make them into enemies in a war over terror, they begin to talk as two human beings (he even pleads with her to get him the latest Harry Potter book).

None of this alters the evils of a hostile situation that traps the guardians as much as the guarded and drives some to desperate measures. Amy gets sent back stateside and we may suspect Ali was indeed part of a jihadist terror network. This isn’t about naive innocence. It’s about the manifest failures of places like Guantanamo among the tactics employed by the post-9/11 “war on terror.”

Looking at the tragedies unfolding from North Africa to Iraq, and the recruitment of fighters in our own backyard, different strategies are called for. Is our political leadership up to the challenge?

 
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