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Film explores al Qaeda’s history and culture

A new film by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney takes viewers on a search for the cultural and historical roots of al Qaeda and some of its motives behind its attack on the United States.
/ Source: Reuters

A new film by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney takes viewers from Cairo to London on a search for the cultural and historical roots of al Qaeda and some of its motives behind its attack on the United States.

"My Trip to Al-Qaeda," which debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, follows U.S. journalist Lawrence Wright's worldwide exploration of the historical context of what formed and radicalized al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

"We know al Qaeda, we know the terror, we know the threat, but we really don't know why, we don't know how. And Larry's personal journey made that understandable in a very low-key, compelling way," Gibney told Reuters in an interview.

Adapted from Wright's 2007 one-man play that was based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," it shifts between Wright's storytelling on stage and real-life interviews with Wright's sources.

"The search for al Qaeda isn't so simple, as to just say, who are these individuals? It's where they come from. What is the context in which the terror was made manifest?" Gibney said.

The film begins with Wright in Cairo detailing the radicalization of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon who formed al Qaeda's backbone. In 1984, al-Zawahiri left a Cairo jail after being tortured with electricity and wild dogs for three years, according to Wright. He was "hardened, resolute and bent on revenge," the journalist said.

The film then shifts, explaining how bin Laden's father, described as "a one-eyed illiterate Yemeni laborer," rose to become Saudi Arabia's biggest contractor.

But the younger bin Laden became disillusioned with Saudi Arabia, says Wright, who refers to a key moment when he was humiliated after being turned down by Saudi Arabia to protect its people when Kuwait was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990.

Instead, the Saudis turned to the United States and bin Laden's "pride was hurt," Wright says. The incident helped form al Qaeda's early agenda to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East, according to the author. Later, al Qaeda is shown using humiliation in martyrdom tapes with participants chanting "we will not accept humiliation."

Bin Laden is fueled by the historic event that occurred on September 11, 1683. On that date, Polish, Austrian and German forces broke the Ottoman siege of Vienna, marking the moment when Islam began a long retreat and "the Christian West regained its footing," Wright said.

Gibney said, "It is interesting to find out how Osama bin Laden redefines himself as this great hero who is going to lead the Middle East to some kind of victory over the West."

Many of the September 11 hijackers were from repressive societies with high unemployment rates, the film says, including Hani Hanjour. Wright says Hanjour's brother stated he became radicalized only when he could not find a pilot job in Saudi Arabia and became depressed.

"Their own culture offered them no way to be powerful in the world, but al Qaeda could offer them glory," Wright says.

Playing into al Qaeda's hands?Wright also details his personal journey and connections with al Qaeda.

A staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, he wrote the script for the 1998 Hollywood movie "The Siege" about a wave of terrorist bombings in New York. Wright said after the September 11 attacks, it became the most rented movie in the United States, making him "the first profiteer in the war on terror."

He criticizes the United States' own agenda and military reaction to the September 11 attacks and its scandals under the Bush administration on torture and illegal wiretapping.

Images of U.S. soldiers invading people's homes in Baghdad and pictures of U.S. soldiers abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib in 2004 helped sway public perception in the Middle East.

"Torture by liberal democratic societies proves to jihadis that the West is hypocritical," Gibney said. "It also gives terrorists a very powerful recruiting tool."

Gibney also examined torture in his Oscar-winning film "Taxi to the Dark Side," but he said he became enchanted with Wright's own quest.

"I wanted to look at the other side. I wanted to look at how al Qaeda came to be," he said.