Terrorism gets quite a bit of press in the United States, although the terror organizations that actually threaten us are few and far between. This is not meant to discount the high cost of domestic terror, but rather, to point out that global terror organizations tend to strike a bit closer to home. Killing In The Name, the 2010 documentary premiering on HBO tonight, points out that the majority of people killed in terror attacks are Muslim, and then focuses on one man who lived through an attack and is trying to stop the violence with words.
Before we meet this man, though, Killing In The Name opens with horrifying images of terror attacks and tells us that a jihad may be a holy war and it may be any vigorous, emotional crusade for an idea or principle. Ashraf Al-Khaled is a true jihadist in the second sense. On his wedding day in 2005, a suicide bomber killed 27 members of his wedding party in Amman, Jordan, including both his father and his new wife’s father. Losing so many on what should have been a happy occasion has filled Ashraf with a quiet fury and determination that verges on suicidal. He is a devout Muslim, and he does not understand why these terror organization are killing so many Muslims in the name of God.
One person who will not meet with Ashraf is Zaid, a major Jordanian recruiter for Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group responsible for the attack on Ashraf’s wedding day. He is free with his advice, however, that Ashraf not taint his picture of all mujahideen for this one little mistake. Zaid, as you may have guessed, is not this documentary’s idea of a good guy. It is quite surprising that the filmmakers convinced this guy to open up for the camera at all. Zaid says that jihad is a duty for Muslims, and that it is impossible for a Muslim to deliberately kill other Muslims, because he will go to Hell.
One of the Muslims recruited by Zaid was a young man named Ra’ed al-Banna, who blew up a car on a busy street in Iraq, killing hundreds of people, most of whom happened to be Muslim. Over footage of people washing away a literal pool of blood, Zaid tells us that this was a great killing and reminds us that his mission is to deliver the mujahideen to jihad. Zaid tells us how he met Ra’ed at a mosque, then visited him at home. By the time he sent Ra’ed to Iraq, says Zaid, the young man was begging, almost crying, to be delivered to the mujahideen. Later, Zaid will agree to answer some of Ashraf’s questions through an intermediary. Among Ashraf’s questions is how long it takes Zaid to turn a confused man into a jihadist. Zaid is cagey for about a minute, but then says, almost with pride, that it takes about a month.
With a player like this on the other side, Ashraf’s mission to end terror with words seems futile, a teardrop in a hurricane. Ashraf meets with Ra’ed’s father Mansour, a devastated man who strongly disagrees with Zaid’s account. He says that he never heard a word about politics from Ra’ed, although he later reveals to Ashraf that Ra’ed was a trained lawyer who, at one point, worked for the United Nations. His father says that Ra’ed loved America and went to Saudi Arabia looking for work after returning. A month later, Mansour received a mysterious phone call from someone congratulating him on Ra’ed’s martyrdom. Ashraf wants to know what Mansour thought about the car bombing before he knew that his son was involved, but Mansour cannot answer. He believes that Ra’ed was chained to the steering wheel against his will. Ashraf asks if Mansour has heard his own story, and Mansour knows right away about the groom who lost his fathers on his wedding day. Ashraf wants Mansour to speak out against Al Qaeda. We do not hear his answer.
The second half of the movie takes place in Indonesia, where Ashraf has traveled to seek advice from a man who works against terrorism named Nasir Abas. Abas was a higher-up in Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.), the largest Islamic militant organization in Southeast Asia, but he was so appalled by a 2002 bombing that killed more than 200 people that he testified against his former colleagues. The film tells us that Abas now works to de-radicalize convicted terrorists, but we do not see much of his work. Ashraf joins Abas at a meeting with a just-released Bali bomber, a rather terrifying blank man named Idris. Idris coolly lays out the logistics of the bombing, but when a striken Ashraf pushes him to justify his actions, Idris states, passionless, that he refuses to think deeply about his actions. “Why would I?” asks this murderer.
In the most nerve-wracking segment, Ashraf’s zeal leads him alone into the heart of darkness, a remote Indonesian school led by a J.I.-tied headmaster who actively recruits for his organization out of the children he ostensibly educates. With children listening at the door, Ashraf questions a number of white-clad young men who are perhaps teachers, cold-blooded terrorists, or both. The documentary doesn’t provide any answers. What is immediately clear is that Ashraf is in over his head, and he doesn’t seem to realize it. Without a camera crew present, this would likely be the end of Ashraf. He attempts to reach these teacher-killers with a line from the Quran, which has about the same effect as asking Fred Phelps to stop being such an asshole by quoting the Sermon on the Mount. Ashraf plays a video of a woman widowed by the Bali bombings who is begging the terrorists to stop. They are, to say the least, unimpressed, and things come to a quick halt when the scary-looking headmaster steps into the room.
Ashraf’s quest is a sane and admirable one, even as it leads him to sit down with the insane and murderous. As we head into the ending, Zaid answers another of Ashraf’s questions: is it possible to defend Islam without violence? Zaid says that Al Qaeda is only meeting violence with violence, and that if Americans and Jews and Europeans (listed in that order) would stop killing Muslims, then Al Qaeda would be willing to sit down for peace talks. We close with Ashraf speaking to kids in school, then speaking to the United Nations. He says that he is ready to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan. A final splash card tells us that Ashraf helped to establish the Global Survivors Network, which is working toward ending terror violence everywhere.
This documentary has so much good intent that it seems harsh to judge it as art. But if good intentions meant great art, Michael Moore would have made The Wire. It is a competently shot film, and Ashraf’s struggle is well worth documenting. The scenes with Zaid were astounding, as was the conversation between Ashraf and Mansour. The Indonesian sojourn, on the other hand, produced some fascinating footage but seemed to be pulled from a sequel. Were this a longer movie, I could see these two halves being better integrated, but as is, the Ashraf who is so justified in cleaning up his country and region in the early parts of the movie becomes Ashraf the peace tourist in the second half. It is as if these two halves of the movie were the pacifist versions of First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part 2, both squished into a lean 38 minutes. In some sense Killing In The Name is less a movie than a commercial for a guy whose organization is doing the brave-to-foolhardy work of trying to make the world a better place. As commercials go, it is excellent. As films go, it feels as if some vital footage has been lost on the cutting room floor.