Articles

Nov 16, 2001

Review of Holy War Documentary

New York Times

November 16, 2001

Days of War and Wonder in Afghanistan

By CARYN JAMES

“Holy War, Inc.,” Sunday’s installment of “National Geographic Explorer,” complements “Unholy War” in more than its title: it begins in Pakistan with a classroom of little boys being trained for a jihad. Based on Peter L. Bergen’s new book, “Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden,” it relies more heavily than Ms. Shah’s films on Western experts and reporting. And although it is disappointing and perfunctory next to Mr. Bergen’s slim yet thorough book, it has a thoughtful, opinionated quality rare among current documentaries.

Events have moved so fast this week that television has been filled with unexpected images from Kabul of men shaving their beards, women showing their faces and Taliban corpses in the streets. Even the most recent documentaries might literally be yesterday’s news. These three function on a level beyond flat-out information. They do not bridge the gap between Western and Islamic culture but expose it with unforgettable drama.

The boys’ school seen at the start of “Holy War, Inc.” is one of thousands like it in Pakistan, and its headmaster does not have a reassuring message. “Osama is doing this because whatever is happening is not his fault,” he says. “And he has every right to take revenge, whatever is in his power.”

The film has some peculiar lapses. Mr. Bergen, CNN’s terrorism analyst, is not the narrator but the primary talking head. And though his book begins with a stunning description of his meeting with Mr. bin Laden in 1997, when Mr. Bergen was the CNN producer for Peter Arnett’s interview, no film of that interview is included. (The rights were not available from CNN.) Instead, we see a photograph of Mr. bin Laden in a cave, Mr. Bergen on his left and Mr. Arnett on his right.

Much of the bin Laden history presented is familiar, but the film raises valuable questions about United States intelligence failures and responds with harsh assessments, taking on a subject too many reporters still consider off-limits. Mr. Bergen points to the case of Ali Mohamed, an Egyptian-American who served in both countries’ armies and was an instructor at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He was also an Al Qaeda sleeper agent, who took a photograph of the American embassy in Nairobi, which helped Mr. bin Laden plan its bombing later. He is a template of the hijackers, Mr. Bergen says.

And the film notes that the United States government had a great deal of information, badly handled and assessed, about the dangers of refueling a ship in Yemen. The bombing there of the U.S.S. Cole was, the narrator says, “a plot that the government could have known about.”

“Holy War, Inc.” also observes glaring examples of the gap between Islam and the West and of how culture and politics get tangled. During the Persian Gulf war, Mr. bin Laden was furious when American troops entered Saudi Arabia; he saw infidels in the Muslims’ holy land. In contrast, the narrator says, “Most Americans thought their troops were risking their lives in order to help the people of Kuwait.” (That ignores the fact that plenty of Americans thought it was all about oil, but the point about clashing cultures holds.)

Mr. Bergen, whose reasoned, solid analyses on CNN make it clear that he is no alarmist, concludes the documentary by saying that even if Mr. bin Laden and the top Al Qaeda leaders were to vanish tomorrow, their legacy of terror would remain. “Too many people have been trained in bin Laden’s camps, and he has inspired too many people in the Muslim world with a sort of anti-Western, anti- American sentiment,” he says. “We’re going to see this conflict go on for a very long time.”

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