Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2018 4:23 pm 
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Boys against the Kingdom

Path of Blood is edited down from hundreds of hours of captured Al Qaeda films, plus Saudi security services videos, made from 2003 to 2009 and especially in 2005, with English subtitles and some narration in English. The material comes from a time in the early 2000's when several interrelated Al Qaeda cells were staging attacks in Saudi Arabia, around the capital, Riyadh. They aimed to disrupt the country and take over. This becomes a chronicle of buffoonery and incompetence, but it's no less real and chilling for that.

The tone is set before the opening titles. It shows an older man interviewing "Ali," who is to be the driver for a car bomb suicide mission. Ali can't understand the literary Arabic of the questions. "Make it simple," he commands. But first he becomes involved in a fuss over another cup of coffee, and starts to get the giggles. The filmmaker resigns himself to standing Ali up posed with smaller young jihadists and with kalashnikovs as a terrorist "bride." This is silly business, and posing at best. But the films, which follow up repeated missions nearly to their final explosion of flesh, show the action is serious, and deadly. The young men, hardly more than boys, manage to blow themselves up and damage or destroy targets, including repeated attacks on "foreign infidel" worker housing - which turn out to have a majority of people from other Arab countries. Other missions fail miserably.

We see sessions where trainees with masked faces drill in flipping head-over-heels and landing, kneeling with rifle at the ready. Later little boys in matching camouflage overalls, mini-mujahidin, play at the same drill, with comic results, and try to do push ups. Lots of joking and laughter. It's all a lark!

Paths of Blood is shocking, and packed with information, but no elaborate context. No talking heads, no pompous explanations, just the raw material. We are in the belly of the beast here. And the beast is an incompetent, uneducated, giggly, boyish young man. There's a wheelbarrow race, with a filmed boy saying "Delete that, you can see my underpants." Much giggling, and joy - at dying. These films bring home the point I cited in my 2003 essay about The Matrix, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, and 9/11: the young jihadists (they call themselves "mujahidin") want to die. Dying is instant martyrdom, takes them right to heaven and the 72 virgins. Baudrillard quotes Osama bin Laden: "Our men want to die as much as the Americans want to live."

But there is also the telling statement from an Al Qaeda higher-up captured and "persuaded" to speak by the Saudis: they sought men "who were young and lacked a firm grasp of Islamic law or the intellect to show them right from wrong." And, one might add, stupid. It's notable that Al-Muqrin, the Al Qaeda leader at the time whom we see, and also his destruction when trapped by Saudi security forces in a gas station and killed, is described elsewhere (Asharq Al-Awsat English Archive) as "a young man who couldn’t recite the Quran without making mistakes."

These authentic captured Al Qaeda footage and accompanying police videos, as Ryan Gilbey of the New Statesman has just pointed out, could be outtakes from Christopher Morris' 2010 satirical film on homegrown jihadists, Four Lions. You thought it was a joke? Think again.

Toward the end, we see detailed footage of communication with the younger brother of Al-Asiri, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula's chief bomb-maker, as he goes on a mission with a grenade inserted in his anal cavity to assassinate Muhammad bin Nayef, Chief of Security and a key member of the house of Saud. The grenade was detonated remotely with a cell phone. It killed Al-Asiri, but bin Nayef escaped with only minor injuries.

Another attack on the Abquaiq oil refinery by several vehicles shows incompetence when one of the drivers sees the gas is near empty. The other driver radios to ask if it's completely empty or he has a little left, and if he needs more, if he has the money to buy gas? And this is a suicide mission. Later, in security forces footage, the lead vehicle finds it can't get through the fence. But by smashing the fence repeatedly, it finally gets through. There was a gun battle that we don't see, and there were deaths on both sides, but the refinery was not damaged.

These attacks, sometimes inept but usually fatal for the attackers, are given three-dimensionality through footage from the Saudi security forces that helps explain the success rate of the missions and show violent and prologued combat-style police shoot-to-kill rains on Al Qaeda safe houses.

All this is disturbing, and it includes chilling shots of 'martyred' jihadist corpses posed with their eyes open, and scenes of blood and body parts after an explosion. Most intimately disturbing is the Al Qaeda footage of a terrified captured American engineer, Paul Marshall Johnson Jr., being interrogated and menaced. Later he was executed, which we don't see.

Clearly the Al Qaeda of the 9/11 attacks came from another world, where an almost incomprehensible degree of competence, plus luck, prevailed. What does this disparity mean? Answers might be found by consulting the eponymous book coauthored by Hacker with Thomas Small. For the film, Hacker has supervised a team of editors who have whipped the extensive footage into memorable and coherent shape. The sparse narration is spoken by the deep-voiced Samuel West, with Tom Hollander in a neutral voice speaking as the occasional "Voice of Jihad." The effect is to allow the viewer to experience the material relatively "cold," making own judgments. Keats' "Negative Capability" is called for here - "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" - to enter into the Desert of the Real and stay there for a while, and then flee.

As Nigel Andrews of Financial Times (and some other reviewers) point out, all this makes the Saudis look virtuous - but that's ultimately immaterial - and even somewhat dubious.

Path of Blood, 92 mins., was released simultaneously in the US and UK on 13 July 2018 (in NYC at the IFC Center). Produced by Mark Boal, the writer for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and Detroit.


Here from Good Reads is the publisher's blurb for the accompanying book, Path of Blood, by Thomas Small and Jonathan Hacker. Note it was published four years earlier. I'm will report when I've read the book and hope to provide more info on the making of the film.


Path of Blood: The Story of Al Qaeda's War on the House of Saud
by Thomas Small, Jonathan Hacker

[Featured Edition
ISBN 10: 1471135721 ISBN 13: 9781471135729
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK, 2014

Path of Blood tells the gripping and horrifying true story of the underground army which Osama Bin Laden created in order to attack his number one target: his home country, Saudi Arabia. His aim was to conquer the land of the Two Holy Mosques, the land from where Islam had first originated, and, from there, to reestablish an Islamic Empire that could take on the West and win.

Thomas Small and Jonathan Hacker use new insider evidence to expose the real story behind the Al Qaeda. Far from the image of single-minded holy warriors they present to the world, the bands of sol*diers are riven by infighting and lack of discipline. Drawing on unprecedented access to Saudi govern*ment archives, interviews with top intelligence of*ficials both in the Middle East and in the West, as well as with captured Al Qaeda militants, and access to exclusive captured video footage from Al Qaeda cells, Path of Blood tells the full story of the terrorist campaign and the desperate and determined attempt by Saudi Arabia’s internal security services to put a stop to it.

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