Suddenly I left this life, the serious life, the manhood, the life of dignity and power, the life of pride—for a life of vulnerability and weakness.
A young boy wakes, slowly, his eyes blinking. Young Habeeb gets to his feet, as his father prompts him: it’s prayer time. “I ask Allah for forgiveness,” he begins, yawning. “How many times do you say glory to Allah?” the father asks. The boy glances at the camera that’s observing him in his bedroom and guesses, “Twice.” No, his dad corrects him, patiently, “Thirty-three times.”
This brief early moment in Laura Poitras’ superb documentary, The Oath, makes visible Abu Jandal’s gentle, attentive parenting, as well as the access he’s granted the filmmaker to his home and family. Premiering on PBS’ POV series on 21 September, the film follows Abu Jandal, but doesn’t quite figure him out.
Driving a taxi in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, Abu Jandal appears mostly at ease, whether exchanging stories with his fares (the job lets him “go out and mingle with people”) or lying outright about the camera mounted on his dashboard. “Oh, that’s turned off,” he tells one inquirer, “It belongs to a foreign company making a film about the daily life of taxi drivers, because they hear there’s an economic crisis and life is hard.” The fare doesn’t know that Abu Jandal is Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, that he was imprisoned in Yemen for his participation in the U.S.S. Cole bombing, or that he is, at the time of filming, concerned that his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, is imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.
Abu Jandal’s multiple lives serve as a focus of The Oath. The film cuts between Yemen and Guantánamo, where lawyers report on his trial by U.S. military commission (“I can tell you today that these charges are nothing short of absurd,” says Lt. Commander Brian Mizer, Hamdan’s U.S. military lawyer). Abu Jandal says more than once that he feels responsible for Hamdan’s trouble, that he helped him to get work as bin Laden’s driver, which led pretty much directly to his imprisonment. Hamdan’s own story is introduced in the film’s very first images, as he appears captured and hooded in Afghanistan, November 2001. Seven years later, he writes his family from his cell at Camp Delta: “I am not permitted to see the sun. I am alone. I do not talk to anyone in my cell. One month is like a year here.”
The film has no access to Hamdan. This because he has refused to be filmed or speak to the media since his 2008 release, following his conviction on charges (“material support to terrorism”) that were notoriously invented by the Bush Administration for his case. Yet his absence shapes the film, a point of departure for most everything Abu Jandal does talk about. Back then, Sheikh Osama impressed Abu Jandal because he treated his men “like sons and they treated him like a father. A lot of youth missed a father figure.”
But Abu Jandal, born Nasser al-Bahri, immediately complicates this familiar and too simple explanation for bin Laden’s effectiveness as a leader, submitting that his own commitment to jihad—maintained to this day—is a function of his own beliefs, his own understanding of global power and Western corruption. Filmed while he engages in Socratic-seeming sessions with his own mentees, young recruits to jihad, Abu Jandal describes the West’s weakness and arrogance: “America can’t fight without planes, without girlfriends, without pizza and macaroni. But our jihadis,” he concludes, “live on stale bread.” Asked whether killing innocents is acceptable, his answer is different on different days. The U.S. also kills innocents, he says, and “blowing up” the World Trade Center achieved an appropriate effect, which was to “hit America and humiliate it like no one ever did.”
He goes on to say that as Al Qaeda’s “Emir of Hospitality” prior to 9/11, he helped to recruit the hijackers. He also revealed their identities to renowned U.S. interrogator Ali Soufan following the attack, evincing horror when told what they had done (at the time, he was still imprisoned in Yemen). It’s striking that Ali Soufan tells this story of Abu Jandal’s openness from behind a screen, during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. His success with Abu Jandal (“I read him his Miranda rights every morning”), Soufan says, argues against “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and even as you agree, the many variations of Abu Jandal raise questions about who’s succeeding with whom. (Abu Jandal reveals his own thinking about torture and confession, seeing in the process a series of lies and negotiations on all sides.)
The Oath does make clear that truth, by definition, remains unfixed. This may sound like a problem for a documentary, but here it serves as a completely compelling premise. What is an oath, after all? Can a man’s misjudgments, pondered through self-reflection and debate, lead to self-revision, to new oaths and commitments? Has Abu Jandal abandoned Al Qaeda? Is he committed to another understanding of Islam? Is he telling a truth when he says, “A person, a man, may make many mistakes in his life and feel regret. My biggest regret is what I did to Salim Hamdan”? The questions about him keep coming, along with shifting answers.
Even more pressing, perhaps, are the questions the film poses regarding those institutions and authorities entrusted to be responsible to constituents. As it becomes clear that the United States government has not only abused Hamdan and other detainees, but has also lied (and keeps lying) about it, the value and cost of truth are thrown into sharp relief, against a systemic investment in dishonesty. Whether such dishonesty is a function of wartime subterfuge or incessant, self-justified pathology is difficult to parse.
Describing his experience in a Yemeni reeducation program, Abu Jandal says he’s taken a new pledge, “not to kill foreigners.” Judge Hamoud Al-Hitar, leader of that program, called the Dialogue Committee, insists it is premised on two pillars, theological dialogue and reintegrating released prisoners “into society.” Precisely on beat, following the judge’s interview, the film cuts to Abu Jandal in his cab, negotiating traffic, again. Cut off by another car, he yells out (“You animal!”), then embarks on a philosophical debate with his fare.
A pronouncement by a former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit—“Anybody who is as dedicated as he is, we ought to be taking care of him one way or another”—illustrates the problem. Abu Jandal appears engaged, moment by moment, but it’s hard to say exactly with what.
The enigma of Abu Jandal is only exacerbated by his various media appearances, including an interview with a Yemeni TV station and a 2006 interview with 60 Minutes, as well as his lengthy self-presentation in The Oath. He explains his view of “man’s nature” to a recruit, beginning with the relationship between enemies. “These relationships are a kind of art, the art of being affecting and being affected. Every human is between these two states, influencing or being influenced.” Just where he is, between these two states, is hard to say, just as it’s hard to say, even as it’s hard to say whether such ambiguity is practiced or genuine or both at once.
Seeing Abu Jandal with Habeeb—drinking Western sodas, eating Western cookies (because even if they are infidels, they “make things with sincerity and conscience, [and] our manufacturers are sons of dogs and cheaters”), and watching Tom and Jerry on TV—indicates he is an earnest, enduring parent, or at least pleased to perform that role on camera. He is also elusive and self-aware, asking that Poitras “delete” an answer he’s made the day before. She does not, but rather includes the request, further complicating Abu Jandal’s credibility and charismatic appeal, rather than undermining it. His multiple lives—father, worker, brother-in-law, and interview subject—seem as difficult to juggle as others’. Gauging responses and reading contexts, he is, as The Oath presents him, in process.