My Trip to Al-Qaeda (2010)
Director: Alex Gibney
Story b: Lawrence Wright
Producer: Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes, and Kendall McCarthy
by Jon Cvack
It’s been sixteen years since the invasion of Iraq and it seems like an increasingly bipartisan consensus that the war was an absolute disaster, both in intelligence and justification and execution and resolve. The war arguably led to the rise of ISIS, who in a vacuum created when we left, allowed Islamist Extremists to push in an even more radical direction. A consequence that has continued to this day, as Trump celebrates defeating the last ISIS stronghold in Syria; though months prior, the New York Times says their membership has now reached over 75,000, and they’re positioned throughout the middle east.
A question I enjoy asking people is when they felt like they were a part of history. Most say September 11 and yet I feel like I was too young to fully grasp the ramifications of that day, and the way in which history would forever change from then on out. It was when the war in Iraq was becoming increasingly disastrous that I read Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies (2004). Clarke was a security and terrorism advisor to presidents George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush; in which for the latter, he explains how although he expressed his concern with the rise of radical Islamist factions to senior members of Bush’s cabinet, they often ignored the warnings. The far left would perceive this as conspiracy; culminating in the infamous video of Condoleezza Rice explaining how she was warned about Al Qaeda flying planes into American skyscrapers just months before the attack. I recommend the read for anyone interested in the complete failure of American intelligence in the years leading up to 9/11.
Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower (2006) was recently adapted for Amazon, and while that series falls way short of the book, both explore the rise of Islamist Extremists; the ways in which radical members of religion targeted impressionable young men with adventure, martyrdom, and an infinite afterlife filled filled with rivers of milk, cream, and 72 virgins. As the middle east further divided between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish factions, the fractured politics reached a breaking point. Specifically, as America aligned itself with Saudi Arabia and it’s Sunni monarchy, Bin Laden and other radicals saw a western perversion of their culture and society.
I had no idea that Lawrence Wright wrote The Siege (1998), which is arguably the most prescient ever made; produced about four years prior to 9/11. I had seen the movie with my cousins, though being only thirteen years old, failed to grasp the ideas it explored. Thinking back on the film, it makes perfect sense that Lawrence Wright would be the one to come up with such a plausible idea.
My Trip to Al Qaeda is essentially a produced version of Lawrence Wright’s one man play by the same name. The first image is a bit off putting - the best selling author being made up backstage before his big show, discussing all of the death and destruction he had seen; that is, while most of the people he talked to are worried for their lives back in the middle east, he’s safe and sound in America, ostensibly profiting from their openness.
The bad taste lasted for about the first third of the film, until he gets deeper into the show and shows us how complex and seemingly irreversible the problem is; involving conflicts going back thousands of years with the myopic American Republicans failing to have any evacuation plan once they dethroned Saddam Hussein, or how it could create a power vacuum leaving to even further radicalization and destabilization.
What we find is a man that’s deeply frustrated over how right he was, knowing that the problem will continue on for what’s looking to be an entire generation. After 9/11 most people knew that the course of history was forever changed. Nearly twenty years later, and it seems as though everything wrong with America’s role in the middle east goes back to that day and the events leading up to it. Trump’s conservatism is at least a partial rebuke to Bush’s neoconservatism; as if there’s one thing I’ll give the man it’s castigating his predecessor for getting involved with the war in Iraq. However, there are faint war drums beating against Iran, and I can only hope Trump doesn’t take another play from Tyrant 101 and get us involved in another endless war, forcing us to once again topple their government as tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensify.
I’m not entirely sure what the point of Wright’s play was - whether to inform audiences that might be less familiar with his books and writings, or to act as a catharsis for what I can only imagine is a deeply frustrating endeavor that’s getting worse and worse. What I was left with was less about the details of what he discussed and more the eeriness in hoping - though not at all confident - that we might have learned our lesson about oversimplifying complex problems.
Writing this just weeks after the New Zealand attacks, I can’t help but see the parallels between radical Islam and radical White Nationalists; both functioning as deeply religious and conservative factions that hope to return to the world to an earlier time; often when women, minorities, and members of the LGBT community were either oppressed or assaulted. In the same way Al-Qeada recruited impressionable young men through social media, we’re learning that White Supremacists are digging through web forums and gaming networks; hoping to find marginalized youth desperate for a sense of community; exploiting this need toward their own mission of destruction.
I’d like to think that we might have learned a bit about how to deal with this problem, and yet I’m already seeing the hypocrisy run strong on both sides. While Conservatives are willing to ban Muslims they don’t want intelligence organizations snooping around questionable white nationalist groups due to civil rights violations. While Liberals are willing to expand these investigations, they want to avoid snooping into questionable Islamist organizations also due to a violation of civil rights. And so it goes, with both sides thinking that they’re on the righteous path while the other abuses its power, and it seems as though nothing gets done to solve the problem of radicalization, or why people would be attracted to it in the first place. As Wright suggests, there seems to be no end in sight.
BELOW: Wright discusses his play
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