“Can we have a new beginning without reckoning with the past?”
For Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Lawrence Wright, no American administration can plan a “new beginning” in the Middle East without understanding the root causes that spawn terror groups like Al-Qaeda. Despite what macho-stud chickenhawks have claimed since 9/11, an attempt to understand the enemy doesn't make you soft; nuance is not a four-letter word. Wright's sober, multi-pronged analysis is almost a nostalgic return to a pre-wingnut era when comprehension was actually considered helpful.
Wright has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, working briefly as a teacher at the American University in Cairo and later as an adjunct professor of journalism in Saudi Arabia. In the past decade he has spent considerable time interviewing major players in Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. His “trip” through Al-Qaeda has been an emotional as well as intellectual one, and he has questioned his own ethical choices while spending his days in the presence of killers and encouraging them to share their beliefs.
Wright's experiences led him to author the 2006 book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” and then to stage a one-man play titled “My Trip to Al Qaeda.” Director filmed Wright's multi-media stage presentation and combined it with several of Wright's field interviews for this 2010 documentary.
The film literally places Wright at center stage and allows him to share his unique perspective on the situation. For Wright, any attempt to understand Al-Qaeda must begin with an understanding of Egyptian prisons. Politically radicalized inmates spend long days in cramped quarters with little to do but share their radical ideas, and their sense of solidarity is only increased by the Egyptian government's use of torture (this was shot long before the Arab Spring, of course). Egyptian radicals enter prison as Islamists, and come out as Jihadists. This was certainly what happened to Ayman al-Zawahiri (then described as the man behind bin Laden, now claimed to be Al-Qaeda's leader) who was jailed for his role in Sadat's assassination, and emerged with much broader and even more violent goals.
Wright also points the finger at the repressive regime of Saudi Arabia in which the one percent of the one percent exploit the rest of the population. There is royalty, pseudo-royalty, and then the masses who have no say in their daily lives, a strictly regimented world without movies, music, or even dating. It is an atmosphere ripe for revolution, but the revolution never occurs because Saudi citizens look at their neighbors and fear things could be even worse.
Factors like this as well as a long history of oppression, both real and perceived, by the West make it easy for Al-Qaeda and other groups to peddle humiliation as a recruiting tool. You are the victims of history, so it is your right to employ any means to strike back. For some, a glorious death is far more appealing than a life of humiliation.
Wright denies that Al-Qaeda is even a political organization, describing it more as “an instinct... a snake bite.” They have strategies rather than policies, and no plan for success, only destruction. Al Qaeda may want to create a new multi-national caliphate, but they aren't interested in governance, only in bringing about a final clash between civilizations. And if that's the case, Wright is deeply concerned about a U.S. government that hasn't been setting much of a “civilized” standard in its prosecution of the war on terror.
As is usual in documentaries like this, the viewer is left to trust the subject's expertise, and I am certainly not qualified to evaluate Wright's claims. Perhaps Wright doesn't have all the answers, but at least he doesn't claim there is only one answer.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer. The interlaced transfer is solid throughout though video quality varies a bit with the different archival sources.
The film can be watched in either 5.1 or 2.0, and there isn't much difference between the two. This is a dialogue (or monologue) centered movie and what matters most is that the audio is clearly audible. No subtitles are provided.
Gibney's documentary played at Tribeca in 2010, and then went straight to HBO. “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” is not on par with his finest work, but certainly provides a valuable and nuanced perspective on the root causes of modern radicalism.