Tuesday, November 2, 2010

DVD Review: The Oath

The Oath *** ½
Directed By:
Laura Poitras.
Featuring: Abu Jandal, Salim Hamdam.

The Oath is a fascinating documentary about a man full of contradictions. Abu Jandal was Osama Bin Laden’s personal bodyguard from 1996 to 2000 – when he was arrested and put in jail in his native Yemen. Soon after 9/11, the FBI comes calling on Jandal, who tells them pretty much everything they want to know. His case has even been used as a model on how to extract information from terrorists with torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques” or whatever you want to call them. He was released in 2003 after going through the “discussion” program, where he has to take an oath that he will not be involved in terrorism again. Oaths are big in Islam, and breaking one damns one to hell. But Jandal already broke one Oath when he left Bin Laden in the first place.

The other person in the film is heard but not seen. This is Salim Hamdam, Jandal’s brother in law who he helped recruit. He was arrested and sold to the Americans, who put him in Guantanamo Bay, where he was subject to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, but didn’t give anywhere near the information Jandal did. That’s because according to just about everyone, Hamdam was little more than a paid driver for Bin Laden. He had no knowledge of operations being planned or anything else. He was paid to drive, and he did. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court – where shockingly he won – when the court ruled that what they were doing violated the Geneva Convention. Congress acted quickly and passed a law so that the Government can charge Hamdam with additional crimes – and they do – and soon his is the first case being tried by military tribunal. The result of the case hangs over the film.

Jandal seems to want to have it all. He talks to young men who are interested in becoming jihadists themselves – but his message contradicts itself from session to session – sometimes he seems to be actively recruiting the men (which would be a violation of his second oath) and other times, he seems to be cautioning them. We see him talk to numerous media outlets in the film – both Western and Arab – and he changes what he says in each interview – playing to the audience if you will. He plays to the camera of director Laura Poitras as well – and the one time he seemingly get angry is when he wants her to delete something she recorded the previous day. What did he say? That he didn’t believe that the 9/11 attack was justified as it killed civilians – he would rather meet America on the battlefield. Why is he so ashamed of that remark? Perhaps because it may threaten the media stardom he holds in Yemen.

Jandal is such a fascinating person because you can never quite nail him down on anything. The portrait that finally emerges however would be ironic when compared to Hamdam if it weren’t so tragic. Jandal it seems had a lot of knowledge of what was being tried. He met, and welcomed, each 9/11 hijacker. His job was to great new recruits when they arrived at the camps, and figure out ways to “break them down” to make them more committed. Here is a true terrorist, who we see sit with his family, drive his taxi, talk to new young men who want to martyr themselves for the cause, and everything else. Meanwhile Hamdam, the driver, sits in Guantanamo Bay.

Does Jandal belong in jail? I honestly don’t know. Since being released, he hasn’t really done anything except talk. But when talking to young men who are considering joining Al Qaeda, and by extension killing people, isn’t talking more dangerous than anything else? When asked why he didn’t take part in 9/11 or any other suicide attack, he reasons he could have done so at any time. But he felt his skills were better suited elsewhere. The Oath is a fascinating documentary – that while illuminating the flaws in Bush era policies towards terrorists and the War on Terror itself – also reminds you that there are people out there who want to destroy America. If only we could tell the difference between those who do, and those who simply drive them.

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