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Frontline: The Al Qaeda Files

Paramount // 2000 // 420 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // September 6th, 2006

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Gibron found this seven-part series on terrorism from PBS a startling statement on the (in)stability around the world disturbing, depressing, and deeply troubling.

Editor's Note

Our review of Frontline: Facing Death, published February 5th, 2011, is also available.

The Charge

How America became Islam's Prophetic Enemy #1

The Case

Prior to the horrible events of September 11, 2001, many in America were unfamiliar with the name "Al Qaeda." Now we know it as a generic media term for the rising terrorism that has accompanied the rise of fundamentalist Islam. It's frequently used as a catchall to define each and every act of agenda-based violence against opposing political or moral ideologies. Back five years ago, it was just a name for the radical extremism of one Osama Bin Laden and his Salafist followers. In Arabic, it means "the base" or "the foundation" and, as we learned that fateful day five years ago, there are two ways to look at this translation. One is literal: for decades since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Bin Laden has created a semi-centralized organization that has its base of operations in a mountainous region of the country. There, it trains like-minded militants to prepare for Jihad, the ultimate holy war against aggressors and infidels. The title also suggests an underlying philosophy, one that has taken the peaceful tenets of Islam and perverted them into a call to war, hate, and death. Learning how one of the world's most powerful religions has become the basis for untold crimes against humanity is the focus of this seven-part presentation from the award-winning PBS documentary series Frontline. By delving into the history of the militants and exposing their corruption, these reports - collectively titled Frontline: The Al Qaeda Files—hope to enlighten the world on the growing threat from radicalized religious zealotry.

There are seven one-hour episodes contained in this two DVD collection. Each one focuses on a separate section of the Al Qaeda story. Individually, the narratives deal with the following concepts:

Disc One:
• "Hunting Bin Laden": A look at the life of the radical Islamic leader, along with his basic beliefs and the aims of his violent terrorist sect.

• "Looking for Answers": Al Qaeda's hatred of America is traced and explained with the hope of uncovering the reason for events like 9/11.

• "The Man Who Knew": A look at FBI Special Agent John O'Neill, a terrorism expert who warned U.S. officials about growing Al Qaeda threats against our country.

Disc Two:
• "In Search of Al Qaeda": Pakistan and its supposed support and safe haven for Al Qaeda activities are dissected and discussed.

• "Chasing the Sleeper Cell": An overview of how U.S. officials are trying to detect and prevent Al Qaeda activities within our own borders.

• "Son of Al Qaeda": He was a friend to Osama Bin Laden's children; now Abdurahman Khadr works for the United States. In this documentary, we learn the reasons why.

• "Al Qaeda's New Front": A summary of how Europe has become the new staging ground for many of Al Qaeda's most recent attacks.

A viewer is bombarded with several constants after watching this amazing set of stellar documentaries. The first and perhaps most important is the notion that most Muslims are proud, peace-loving people who only have one major qualm with America and Americans—our continued presence in the most Holy of their holy lands, Saudi Arabia. Viewing us as "infidels" who poison the region with our Western ways, they feel violated because we have a permanent presence in the nation that houses Mecca and Medina. When you extrapolate this concept out into the extremist realm, you get even more clarity and condemnation. Since America supports the current Saudi regime and therefore a monarchy seen as turning its back on Islam and all its tenets, the fundamentalists view us as aiding and abetting those determined to oppress them. With a long history of such persecution and the frequent forced exile from their homeland, families, and friends, these radicalized individuals have come to view any opposition as a mandate from Allah. They are required therefore by their religion to rise up and take arms against those who would dare defy the Koran and justify their actions as atonement for centuries of bullying and blasphemy. They don't want democracy or liberty, and could actually care less about equality or justice. They demand blood for blood and the freedom to rule themselves under the strict dictates of their own sacred law book. End of story.

With that given in mind, it is hard to see anything other than doom and gloom in this seven-part series. Other than Abdurahman Khadr's story, which seems to suggest that some in Al Qaeda are unclear about their true mission and purpose, we get nothing but portents of future terrorism, an unsettling feeling that nothing will ever satisfy or dissuade these individuals from killing any and all Americans they can. Their arguments, while laced with fact and occasional logic, get lost in a kind of defiant zealotry that just doesn't translate well. They never recognize that violence fuels hatred and hatred triggers retaliation. As flippant as it sounds, they simply spout a Blues Brothers-like "mission from God" mantra and are done with it. Most disturbing are the views from American Muslims, people given the freedom to dissent and decry, thanks to a country—and a Constitution—that they belittle and berate. Granted, the importance of Saudi Arabia as an uneasy ally, a strategic stronghold, and a supplier of fossil fuels cannot be shoved aside. The United States needs the Mideast nation and it seems to require our friendship as well. When so-called conservative Muslims badmouth their homeland, calling their own countrymen "infidels" for soiling their holy land, it's a tad unfathomable. They could then go on to argue and elucidate in near-genius terms about the other factors that fuel their rage, but by setting the stakes so high, no one could ever meet their demands.

In fact, what we learn most about Al Qaeda during the course of these seven hours is that fundamentalist Islamic factions like the one run by Osama Bin Laden function under a self-created delusion based on the personal offenses they feel via the inability to freely practice what they preach. If they had their way, no foreign power would ever step foot in a region comprised of a Muslim majority and every state where Islam is a primary religion would and should be a theocracy. By their own words, which we hear time and time again, the only proper form of government for anyone who believes in the Koran is one based totally in faith. They never take the next step and argue how these religious strongholds would then deal with other countries, including those outside their belief system. Nor do they suggest how Muslims in other parts of the world—America, Europe, South America, Asia—deal with living within secularism. In some ways, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Economic powers like Saudi Arabia will continue to do business with the rest of the world since petroleum is the only export that can guarantee financial security. This means that any nation dealing with the country will be viewed as a heretic, and their people punished for same. This will continue the feelings of anger toward the extremists, therefore fueling their potent persecution complex. Thus they will target innocent people, using these tactics to promote change. Since the fundamental element—the interaction between nations—is negated from the equation, their Jihad is really just a response to being out of power. These films from Frontline frequently ask us to imagine what they would do if they were in control.

This is perhaps the scariest element in The Al Qaeda Files. As Bin Laden continues to hide, and journalists try to decipher the reasons for his radicalized responses, Islamic purists are gaining control—in local government, in regional hierarchies. The success in Afghanistan (with the Taliban gone, the decades-old victory over the Russians has been incredibly effective in new recruitment) and the current war in Iraq have failed to eliminate the threat. In fact, many believe these situations have destabilized an already hair-trigger area. FBI Agent John O'Neill saw it and failed to get his superiors to buy into his horror stories. Now the world sits on eggshells, wondering when the next horrifying images of people dying and buildings burning will flicker across TV screens. The Al Qaeda Files does a dramatic job of providing the perplexing backstory into why America is almost alone in Osama Bin Laden's line of fire. Unfortunately, it fails to offer a single cogent argument as to how we can change said status. Instead of easing our concerns, the suggestion is simple. The West and Middle East are headed for a showdown of near-apocalyptic proportions and there is really nothing we can do to stop it. Yes, blood will flow. Unfortunately, blood will flow.

With the first four films offered in 1.33:1 full screen, the fifth presented in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic letterboxing, and the last two given the full 16x9 treatment, the tech specs for The Al Qaeda Files are lacking only in aspect ratio consistency. Otherwise, these are excellent transfers, each one full of color, detail, and depth. The Dolby Digital Stereo mix is perfect, capturing both dialogue and ancillary aural elements in a purely professional manner. PBS and Paramount do not offer any extras here, but it's hard to imagine any more contextual information fitting on these discs. They are exceedingly solid to begin with.

While this may seem more like a rant than a review, these are the issues that come leaping out at you as you try to digest the discussions that make up Frontline: The Al Qaeda Files. It's impossible to argue with the journalism here. Each film is packed with information and insight. The politics, on the other hand, will keep you antsy for days—or even decades—to come.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 420 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb: Frontline

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