What turns four ordinary young men into suicide bombers in waiting? While everyone in the west struggles to answer this question, film maker Paul Refsdal has simply gone and asked them.
Of course, it’s not been that simple - a veteran of conflict areas for more than three decades, Paul has gained unique access to al Qaida in Syria, filming the daily life of one of their groups. The result is ‘DUGMA: The Button’, an intimate insight into life on “the other side”. Often, in sharp contrast to how al Qaida likes to portray themselves, the characters in this film are not just soldiers, but human beings with weaknesses, faults and self-doubt.
For example, Abu Qaswara al Maki hangs out with friends in his favourite chicken restaurant, talks with his family back in Saudi Arabia and arranges gatherings for local children - meetings that end with singing performances or a banana eating contest for the fathers.
Back at the frontline, a 26-year-old white British convert from London, Abu Basir al Britani and his two Syrian companions engage in conversations about Islam, the situation they’re in, their own background and the operation they want to make. Sniper bullets repeatedly strike the outside of the building they are sitting in. It’s a constant reminder of the immediacy of the war they are a part of, but the three men hardly flinch.
With unprecedented access, the film follows four al Qaida suicide bombers waiting to “push the button” and perform a martyr operation, illustrating an unbiased picture of Al Qaida soldiers – their beliefs, motives and personalities.
What made you want to make a film about al Qaida?
Since starting covering war in 1984, I have noticed a discrepancy between how Western media portray insurgent groups and how I experience the same groups by embedding with them. If these groups serve our interests, they are usually hailed as freedom fighters. If they fight against out interests, or even worse, against our troops, they are terrorists or thugs. And finding positive or even fair coverage of such groups in Western media is more rare than encountering a unicorn in the street.
In 2009, I decided to do something about this by making a documentary from the inside of the Afghan Taliban. The project was cut somewhat short because of my kidnapping by a rogue Taliban commander, but still resulted in a film, ‘Taliban Behind the Masks’ (2010).
As the Arab Spring turned into civil war in Syria, there was this al Qaida-affiliated group, which seemed different from how we have come to think of al Qaida. So I decided to take my concept of showing the other side up a notch by embedding with this group.
How did you earn the trust of the men you were filming?
I took about one year and a half between the first day I set my foot in Syria and the day I could start filming with the group, Jabhat al Nusra. The delay was not because of reluctance from their side, rather as a result of administrative and organizational issues.
They say that my stay was approved by al Qaida Central, but I do not know that for sure. What I do know is that al Qaida noticed my Taliban film as it was one of very few Western films that showed the human side of the Jihadis. After Bin Laden was killed in 2011, US published some of the letters found on his computer. In one of these letters I was mentioned as the Norwegian journalist who spent time with the Taliban and “shows that the Taliban are humans that have families and children and that they laugh and eat as the rest of the people”.
What was the biggest surprise you had in making this film?
There were a lot of surprises. First, that I could film relatively freely and that they did not try to manipulate me or make propaganda. In fact, when the US-led coalition bombed a nearby base killing 14 fighters, an angry man talked to the camera claiming these were civilian houses. The al Qaida operative standing by my side corrected him and told him to stop lying.
About the characters in the film, the surprise was how, let’s say, normal they were, but also how casual they were about the prospect of dying. That one of them would have a change of heart during the filming was also something that I did not expect.
Having been exposed to these young men in their intimate lives, how do you feel about their acts of violence?
As long as they are only targeting the military of the Syrian regime, I would regard them as soldiers fighting in a war. You have to remember that Jabhat al Nusra has been attributed as having killed “only” 356 civilians in five years of war. The Syrian regime has been attributed as having killed more than 183,000 civilians (these figures according to Syrian Network of Human Rights, as far as I know the only organization breaking the number of casualties down according to perpetrator).
You’ve worked for many years in conflict zones. What makes al Qaida different?
I think the question should be; what makes al Qaida in Syria different from al Qaida as we know it from other parts of the world? And the answer is: a lot. They do not target Western countries or make any kind of operations outside Syria. They do not deliberately target civilians or try to provoke a sectarian war. They are fighting a dictatorship that every day is bombing towns and villages in rebel-controlled areas.
I think that if what we see in Syria is the future al Qaida, it will be a good thing also for the Western world.
Based on your experience, what do you think is the best path for western countries going forward in reaching any kind of global calm and non-violence?
That is a tough question. First of all, fighting ISIS is a subject for itself. And a very complicated subject too, as there looks like a surge of unstable, suicidal men with Muslim background making the ISIS version of suicide-by-cops.
The US has bombed Jabhat al Nusra since 2014 under the pretext of the existence of a secret Khorasan group planning attacks on the US from within Nusra. Personally, I think the Khorasan group is as non-existent as the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were in 2013. For sure, the base I filmed after the US strike was just a normal base used by fighters resting after a tour on the frontline.
Assuming that I am right about the Khorasan group, then you can question the wisdom of bombing an al Qaida branch not planning to attack the West. How much bombing does it take until they actually decide to target Western countries or the US? Will the bombings not just create a new generation of fighters who have lost comrades in the strikes and who now want revenge?
The experience from the Vietnam war is that you do not defeat insurgents by simply killing as many as possible. The key is winning over the hearts and minds of the population.
As I see it, the so-called War on Terror is just another sophisticated counter-insurgency. And the US is not exactly winning hearts and minds among Syrian by ignoring the regime while bombing one of their main opponents.
‘DUGMA: The Button’ is now available worldwide on iTunes. Click here for info.