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Terrorism at the Movies

24/09/2010

I have recently indulged in watching a couple of films which in different ways handle contemporary terrorism. One is serious and one is less so, but both did inspire me to think about issues around some of the questions they raise. While my aim is not to provide a substantive critique on the films themselves, undoubtedly some opinion will slip in.

First up (in alphabetical order) is Four Lions, British satirist Chris Morris’s take on Islamist terrorism in the UK. In true Morris style it is a mordant comedy which pulls no punches in highlighting the sheer stupidity and inadequacy of the majority of young men who become involved in jihadist terrorism in the UK. The men are religiously illiterate and lead meaningless lives which are focused around whatever banal things fill the average middle Englander’s day.

Clueless: Three of the Four Lions 

Morris claims much of the material he has used came from amongst the reams of research into court documents and interviews he has done with people who have become involved in Islamist terrorism in the UK. I have no doubt that this is true – I have spoken to a number of security professionals who have at various points in my endless questioning about various plots and plotters highlighted to me what morons these chaps actually are. And in some cases, you really have to wonder. Omar Khyam, the leader of the Crevice plot, was busted after he forgot the bomb-making recipe he had learned and emailed his friend in Pakistan a rather blatant note inquiring about the specific volumes. Eventual “super-grass” Mohammed Junaid Babar was so discrete that he thought it would be a good idea to go straight to the hotel where all the foreign journalists were staying in Lahore and announce that he had radical ideas and was willing to do interviews about it. This landed him a prime-time slot on international TV and arrest as soon as he stepped back onto U.S. soil. Rangzieb Ahmed, the first man to be jailed in the UK for being an “Al Qaeda director,” was unclear what exactly a bidet was and thought it might be a bath for small people. And the list goes on. One case which Morris highlighted in interviews is of a plotter who snorted some TATP thinking it was cocaine – I have been unable to pin down exactly who this was and would appreciate any pointers.

But for me, the fact that they are idiots is not all that relevant. Some of them may not be all that smart, but they are nonetheless playing with dangerous toys which can lead to innocent deaths. That they have no idea what they are doing, are religiously illiterate and are buffoons is somewhat tangential if they are able to actually follow through on what they are attempting to do, albeit in their half-baked way. Morris hints at this towards the end, but it is an important point to remember when considering these people as idiots. People treated Abu Hamza like a clown who had been delivered by central casting to act as a real-life Captain Hook until it became clear exactly what he was facilitating. This is not to exaggerate the menace, but neither is it a good idea to completely dismiss it – the real point is that hopefully such satire will help demystify these groups a bit.

The second film, which is probably less well-known outside a specialist audience, is called “La Prima Linea” (translation: the first line – it was the name of the group). It is an Italian film which looks at a terrorist group that existed in Italy during the Anni di Piombo (years of lead) during which left and right wing terror groups shot and blasted their way around the country. The group was second only to the more notorious Brigate Rosse (red brigades) in number of activities and members. Based on the memoirs of one of the group’s commanders, the film does for the group much the same as “The Baader Meinhof Complex” did for the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction).

Unlike Four Lions, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and is told from the perspective of one of the leading members who relates his story from prison. It shows how the group evolved from small-time protesters, to murder and beyond. In many ways it is a story telling a piece of Italian history – but in the same way as something can be learned from examining old groups which is applicable today, the group dynamics highlighted in the film offer some lessons which seem relevant to our time

In the film we see how the group launches a massive assault on a prison to release their comrades. A rather foolhardy act in many ways, but nonetheless it does provide evidence of how strong the bonds are between the members of the group – a dynamic which is part of Marc Sageman’s “bunch of guys” theory. Much is made of the emotional bond between the individuals in the group (in true Italian style, two fall in love), and the fact that over time, the political content of what they are doing starts to lose its power and not wanting to let down your comrades takes over as a driving motivation. Early on we also see how, though they don’t think that they are necessarily going to achieve their goals, they are certain that something should be done and a vanguard needs to lead the way with action.

In an earlier post looking at the RAF, I (in a highly caveated fashion) pointed out some of the similarities between these leftist groups and current Islamist groups. This film adds some depth to this discussion in showing how the dynamics of the relationships in such groups might work – though it is unclear that current groups are necessarily structured in as hierarchical a fashion.