Jihadists as you’ve never seen them

 

A YOUNG man is speaking into the camera, clowning around as he struggles to focus on the questions from his interviewer, his face a jumble of nerves and excitement.

"Do we have to beg for a coffee?" he teases his friend.

Ali is a young suicide bomber who is about to meet his fate.

"This one will drive the car," says the man behind the camera.

"Ali is heading to paradise."

The footage was found in a trove of confronting home-videos made by Islamic terrorists and seized by Saudi security services, which are now the linchpin of an eye-opening documentary showing extremists as you've never seen them before.

Path of Blood shows the militants laughing and joking, affectionately hugging each other and earnestly contemplating their future - before heading out to brutally murder civilians. Edited together with the jihadists' own words, the footage paints a picture of who these people really are, and how they may be defeated in the future.

"The film is essentially a study in evil," British-Australiandirector Jonathan Hacker tells news.com.au. "You've got these kids who are clearly extremely idealistic, by which I mean, they think that what they're doing is good, and they think what they're doing is holy and it's sanctified.

"And yet what they're doing so clearly, from our perspective is so clearly evil.

The home-movie footage shows jihadists training, hanging out and fooling around in between carrying out sickening murders.
The home-movie footage shows jihadists training, hanging out and fooling around in between carrying out sickening murders.

"The point of the film is that 'normal' people do these terrible crimes, 'normal' people are involved in the Second World War with the Nazis. All the great crimes in history are conducted by 'normal' people."

"If we're going to defeat this political phenomena, we have to understand these people.

"Their whole principle is to dehumanise their enemy … we have to be cleverer than that."

The documentary, from the producers of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, does not shy away from showing violent hostage interrogations or the dead bodies of families strewn around bomb sites - the grisly reality of the fighters' macho posturing.

"I felt like it was really important not to pull your punches about what they're doing to real human beings," adds Hacker.

"The way in which news covers these kind of things, inevitably it means you just dip in and you get a glance at it, you're never given the chance to actually think about what it is you're seeing or the context …

"I felt it was very important to make a film that was harrowing, to make a nice film about terrorism would be to trivialise it and trivialise these issues."

'THE PSYCHOPATHIC ELEMENT'

One of the most disturbing scenes shows the terrorists torturing a bound, gagged and petrified prisoner - an American helicopter engineer named Paul Marshall Johnson Jr, who was later beheaded.

"It just upset me so profoundly when I was working on that scene," says Hacker, who says he choked up a couple of time during the editing process. "I had to not look at it, just sort of squint at it.

Ali is a picture of nervous excitement before he takes on a suicide mission.
Ali is a picture of nervous excitement before he takes on a suicide mission.

"These terrorists are depersonalising their victims … the Paul Marshall Johnson scene I felt was really important to get across because of what it told us about al-Qaeda. The interrogation, and the way they're interrogating him, is very revealing.

"In the footage, there's some kind of interesting stuff where you see their incompetence or you see them being all matey with each other, but this is the one scene, I think, that showed the psychopathic element.

"The people interrogating him are enjoying themselves, they enjoy the power that they have.

"Yes, 80 per cent of these guys are kind of sheep and they've been swept up, got involved somehow for the ride, but in amongst these guys are a number of people who are either power mad or, indeed, psychopathic, there's a sadistic edge.

'EUPHORIC AT THE PROSPECT OF DEATH'

The movie uses hundreds of hours recordings made by al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2009 and gathered by Saudi authorities. Some of it was intended for broadcast in propaganda videos, some for training or posterity, and some just filmed for fun.

It's the outtakes that reveal the most about the young jihadists - their expressions while sitting around a campfire at training camp reveal introspection and fear.

Path of Blood author and director Jonathan Hacker says the editing was at time deeply distressing.
Path of Blood author and director Jonathan Hacker says the editing was at time deeply distressing.

"Your average person, when they think of these jihadists, they have a preconception of them as these 2D villains, perhaps people who have been maltreated in some way," says the Path of Blood director, who previously wrote a book of the same name.

"But they're much more like middle class or lower-middle class kids with something to prove.

"The need for people to feel they're part of (something) - for young people in particular, to feel like they belong.

"They get that self-affirmation from these groups and a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, and the need to feel superior because you're in a group. You're in an environment in which to hate people outside the group.

"Those are rather sad human traits that are all too common in the world and throughout history.

"So I hope people will look at this and not go, 'Oh look this is just about Muslims,' but they'll actually look at it and think, 'Yes, it's happening a lot in the Muslim world at the moment but it also has happened historically and does continue to happen in the West'."

A man with a sign that refers to the ‘72 virgins’ suicide bombers expect to meet in heaven.
A man with a sign that refers to the ‘72 virgins’ suicide bombers expect to meet in heaven.

The young men in the footage display an eye-opening level of religious fervour rarely seen today in the Western world.

"For these kids, heaven and hell are very literal places and they seem to have a very profound sense they are about to go to heaven and meet the 72 virgins," says Hacker.

"The nature of faith as it comes across in the film is much more like you would expect it to have been in Europe in the Middle Ages.

"They're going into battle euphoric at the prospect of death."

THE TERROR COMEBACK

While al-Qaeda largely faded away after Osama bin Laden's death following 9/11, a new group sprang up in its place, Islamic State.

Their professionally shot and edited propaganda videos are more sophisticated than the grainy footage used in the documentary - but there are many core similarities in their beliefs.

"There's virtually nothing between the two organisations in terms of ideology," says Hacker. "The primary difference is a strategic difference … ISIS was a split-off of al-Qaeda that wanted to be more ruthless and, in particular, had a different strategy from bin Laden, they wanted to hold land."

As the documentary shows, every time radical groups in the Middle East are broken up, new ones form - and al-Qaeda is returning.

Saudi Arabia, the Land of the Two Mosques, remains central to the jihadist cause as its most holy land. Bin Laden's son Hamza has taken the leadership and the group is growing once more.

The documentary exposes the motivations and deep religious fervour of al-Qaeda extremists.
The documentary exposes the motivations and deep religious fervour of al-Qaeda extremists.

"Al-Qaeda is on the comeback," says Hacker.

"The West generally feels that because ISIS is nearly been defeated in Syria, because bin Laden has been killed, that this problem has gone away, but it really, really hasn't gone away."

Hacker believes the footage may be useful in the fight against IS, helping us understand the profile and motivations of the typical jihadist. But he cautions that "we have to be careful about making sweeping generalisations".

IS recruits tend to be more working class, and hard-bitten than the young al-Qaeda fighters who came before them. He believes the characters are more like extremist sympathisers in the West - lower and lower-middle class kids who flirting with dangerous ideas in an almost romantic way.

Hacker believes the footage helps create an understanding of jihadists that can help us combat them in the future.
Hacker believes the footage helps create an understanding of jihadists that can help us combat them in the future.

"You've got to tackle the ideology and you've got to tackle the psychology of these people," says the Path of Blood director. "However, hard we come down on them, it'll reappear in another form, it'll move around the Muslim world.

"The Muslim world at the moment is undergoing some kind of civil war in terms of its own identity and adapting to the demands of the 21st century … just like Christendom was undergoing an existential crisis in the 17th century with reformation and counter-reformation."

Hacker hopes the film reminds the audience that the violence wreaked on the West by terrorists is a mere snapshot of what's going on in the Middle East.

"In the West, we have this preconception that somehow this is a clash of civilisations, Islam versus the West, and certainly that's the agenda al-Qaeda would like to put forward," he said.

"But the reality is that the heavy-duty fighting is taking place in the Muslim world, the Muslim world is undergoing a civil war."

- Path of Blood is available for download on iTunes now. For more information visit the website.


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