Thursday, March 17, 2016

Suicide Bombers are People, Too

"[Paul Refsdal], the Norwegian journalist who spent some time with the students [Taliban in Afghanistan] and released a film that was condemned in the West because he shows that the students are humans that have families and children and that they laugh and eat like the rest of the people [can be trusted]."
Adam Gadahn (deceased) al-Qaeda spokesman

"Nusra do kidnap people, or arrest them. But that is if they enter their area without permission."
"I think al-Qaeda in general need to have some relations with journalists to bring their message out. They don't have to accept that these journalists are 100 percent in their favour, but if they can trust them to give a fair coverage, I think that's OK."
"[Nusra] were just happy for me to be alone if I wanted to be alone [in the evenings, after frontline business was over for the day]."
"It sounds very difficult and very dangerous, but when you are there [embedded with the Islamist jihadis], everything is easier in a way."
Journalist and filmmaker Paul Refsdal
02_19_SuicideBomberFilm_01
A still from 'Dugma: The Button,' a documentary by Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal, who embedded with al-Nusra Front in Syria. Paul Refsdal

And so was a documentary produced. To humanize the suicide bombers, as simply ordinary people taken by extraordinary events and times to commit to unusual and usually deadly practices. But since these are fervent Muslims who have answered the fundamental demand of Islam to take part in jihad there is nothing too unusual about the aspiration to martyrdom, since it is an honourable and venerated achievement.

That much being understood, Mr. Refsdal sought to film the ordinariness of jihad and martyrdom.

And so he did. And he has had ample experience as a freelance journalist with three decades under his belt and behind his camera reporting from global conflict zones. He has been to Burma, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua and Kosovo as well as Afghanistan and now Syria in the interests of revealing to the world what he has seen and experienced in recognition of common humanity, living for periods of time among rebels.

Two trips to Syria in 2014 and 2015 furnished the adventurous and empathetic 52-year-old with the makings of a documentary he hopes will help the world see suicide bombers as, well, people. Fact is, it is generally recognized they are people, without Mr. Refsdal's assistance but people with a distorted agenda of sacred war in the name of the ineffable. His purpose was achieved when two al-Qaeda-affiliated suicide bombers agreed to have Mr. Refsdal shadow them.

One, Lucas Kinney, a 26-year-old British convert from West London, renamed as Abu Basir al-Britani, the other Abu Qaswara el-Maki, a 32-year-old Saudi national. Both dedicated to jihad, both willing to honourably surrender their lives as martyrs to global jihad. In the process, of course, driving explosives-laden vehicles into crowds of people, then detonating their deadly load for maximum carnage. The dream of every juvenile delinquent.

Which gives the documentary its title: Dugma: The Button, since the button in the vehicle to be depressed to initiate the blast is called the dugma. In one scene in the documentary al-Maki escorts Refsdal to an armoured truck where a dugma is positioned close to the driver's seat, connected to an explosive device in the trunk of the vehicle. When a suicidist drives such a vehicle and hits its target, that is the time to also hit the dugma for maximum effect. And the effect is totally maximum.

Syria, the world's most fraught area for journalists, where according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 91 journalists have been killed since 2012, called out to Mr Refsdal. Despite the gruesome beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff when most news organizations and freelance journalists felt it was suicidal to enter Syria, Mr. Refsdal thought otherwise. And lived to tell the tale.

(Seems he does share something with the suicide bombers; a casual attitude toward life.)

That members of Nusra are just ordinary people, albeit ordinary people with a mission. That most Western countries consider the group a terrorist organization is beside the point, obviously, based on their purpose and action. Mr. Refsdal sought the opportunity to embed with them in Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia provinces. And out of that experience came his understanding and forgiving portrait of ordinary people indulging in extraordinary events.

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