Zero Dark Thirty (twelve thirty am – a night operation) was about ten years condensed into a hundred and fifty minutes. Politics are stripped down and similarly absent is any personal life for the single-minded heroine who toils at the bottom-feeding end of dirty CIA activities and who almost represents the essence of life; everything else is preparation and waiting for that one big moment.
It opens with over a minute of black screen accompanied by a soundtrack collage of emergency phone calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers. Cut to two years later, when a captured nephew of Osama bin Laden undergoes a prolonged series of brutal CIA interrogations that involve beatings, waterboarding, being bound with a dog collar and ropes and getting locked in a small wooden box. It’s not the cosiest way to invite the viewer to get involved. The hunt for bin Laden was an enormously frustrating endeavour that cost vast sums of money, manpower and strategic thinking and couldn’t be brought to a successful close for nearly a decade, despite the fact that he was holed up a stone’s throw from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. The tall man who had engineered the deaths of close to four thousand people in that one iconic attack alone became a phantom, protected by forbidding geography, loyal followers and an already legendary aura. But, as BHO so succinctly put it – ‘we got him’. He was caught because it was impossible for him to totally isolate himself. Even if he never showed his face, made a phone call, sent an email, he was enslaved; he had to rely on trusted couriers.
We all remember where we were on 9/11. I was in my office – a colleague called me over to the computer screen as the second plane hit. I recall that it occurred to me at the time how much better special effects were getting – like many, I suppose – my first reaction was one of disbelief – this was surely a movie set.
The events of 9/11 led to a fundamental change in how intelligence organisations perceived their role in the common war against terrorism, especially true in the U.S. and Europe. Since then, intelligence ties among the various organisations have gradually improved, as has the transfer of information among them. As a direct result, terrorist suspects have been located and identified in their home countries, and terrorist organisations in the early stages of formation have been exposed and thwarted. Rapid transfer of suspected terrorists’ details made possible their detention and interrogation, while terrorist attacks which had already been planned have been avoided and thwarted, saving thousands of lives in Israel and elsewhere. And yet, even now, over a decade later – how much do we really understand about the mentality which has such a cavalier disrespect for human life? Books and pamphlets came out in abundance, dissecting the myth of al-Qaeda and its many-headed children. I lived in the Middle East, surrounded by mosques, where imams had their sermons broadcast from powerful speakers so residents who preferred to stay in bed that Friday still got the message. Even with my very limited knowledge of Arabic, it was clear that there was passion in the preaching so it should come as no surprise that extremist preachers find a congregation, disaffected and ripe for jihadist enlistment. The recent operation in Algeria – described by the one-eyed leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar as ‘blessed’ was carried out by forty Islamist fighters, including several Westerners. It was filmed before the standoff ended in a bloodbath last Saturday and the militant leader, who lost an eye while fighting in Algeria, demanded that France withdraw its troops from Mali as the price of any negotiation.
I think firstly that is this – the idea that ‘land’ and ‘Islam’ have some degree of equivalence – that is at the core of their thinking. Anywhere the Muslim sets his foot is claimed for Allah, the poll tax or jizya is to be levied on the infidel inhabitants and the blessings and mercy of Shari’a are to be applied. Secondly, the Algerian Special Forces were inevitably blamed for over-zealous action by Western media who persistently fail to understand that the militant or suicidal jihadist mindset perceives negotiation as weak and they have the right to trample on people too decadent or spineless to defend the principles they believe in. The Western media carried horror stories of the extremists’ occupation in Mali – random arrests for offences as trivial as playing local music, medieval punishments including public amputations, lashing women considered underdressed and so on. It was only a matter of time before the sheer scale and savagery of these excesses demanded a response from someone – huzza to the French for shouldering their ex-colonial responsibilities and flushing out the terrorists. But this did not come without a price in the West, most particularly in London which has long been regarded as a safer haven than most for exploitation of the notoriously liberal British laws concerning freedom of expression. I’m not easily outraged, I have to say, but the spectacle of about 60 British Muslims actually being allowed to come out with the appalling rhetoric shown in this video without being arrested for public disorder offences almost beggars belief. I found eight minutes’ worth almost more than I could stand.