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Q&A: ‘Path of blood’ shows Qaeda’s videos during terror campaign in Saudi Arabia

Ismaeel Naar

Published: Updated:

Over a decade ago, al-Qaeda shocked the Gulf Peninsula and wider world when it attempted to launch a “bloody revolution” in Saudi Arabia by carrying out a series of car bomb attacks.

At least 39 foreigners and Saudi nationals were killed and over 160 wounded during the attacks.

In 2003, Saudi Arabia’s security forces launched a counter offensive that would see a three-year security crackdown on the group, with thousands of its members thrown into prison.

More than 10 years on, a documentary film promises an inside look into al-Qaeda after hundreds of hours of footage from terror outfit’s own cameras and mobile phones were captured and released by Saudi security officials.

The film, Path of Blood, went on to release in the United Kingdom and the United States on July 13 and is now available on multiple video-on-demand platforms across the world.

Al Arabiya English spoke with the film’s director, Jonathan Hacker, and discussed the journey the film took from its conception to release.

Al Arabiya English: You co-authored a book of the same name a few years ago. How does the film take off from the book? Were you conscious how the narrative would change from one medium to another?

Jonathan Hacker: The project started at the same time as the book. Because we were doing the research... it’s much easier to get a book published than it is to get a film off the ground. So while the book was really a spin-off of the research for the film, getting the film off the ground, especially a documentary and one based on a dark subject, is really difficult. So it’s been slog but we got there in the end, even if it’s taken a while.

The way we have done the film, it’s never been done before. The reality is that nobody, to the credit of the Saudi security services, no other security services in the world has done this; to release captured footage. The al-Qaeda cells were shooting so much, they were just filming themselves messing around even though their hope was to edit it and use it for propaganda videos. So these behind-the-scenes footages are invaluable for us to understand what al-Qaeda or any of these extremist groups are really like.

It is a real credit to the Saudis that they have released it, which has enabled this film to be absolutely unique and extremely important. The other thing is, when we put the film together, we didn’t do it as a traditional documentary with voice-overs and interviews telling you what to think. Television documentaries tend to tell you what to think and to lecture, which is a classic current affairs format. They can either be more or less intelligent. But we wanted to do something which was much more like a story and cinematic and good story-telling echoes in your mind. It has a resonance. It isn’t simply information and analysis, it has a kind of lyrical quality to it. A good story extends beyond the events it is simply describing.

Al Arabiya English: Some would argue that it has been a daring decision to release a film that is entirely narrated through the voices of these young extremist militants. Was that thought ever prevalent throughout the editing process and what the ultimate goal of the film would be like?

Jonathan Hacker: There is no way I want this film to encourage anyone. But the footage was so revealing. Al-Qaeda and their sympathizers, and people in ISIS, they have an image of themselves of being romantic vision of themselves as warriors of old fighting a noble cause yet the vision that we see from the footage behind the scenes is so different.

The footage we see is that of the victims whom they de-personalized and don’t think of them as proper human beings. They think of them as faceless enemies. But when we see them as real children dying and being pulled out of the rubble, real women being killed, ordinary civilians being shot without a chance, you see them for what they are, which are murderers.

The realities of who these people really are comes across in the film, and you don’t like them. I’ve played the film to different audiences, and sometimes you get a reaction which is people both saying “I want to shake them”. It is both of compassion from people and hatred and anger. The reaction to it is of both saying “Ah, these are kids. They are so stupid you just want to shake them and say please just so the reality of what you’re doing” but at the same time being angry because they are killing and murdering people. I think that is a good human reaction to have, because they are human beings and we should both feel anger and compassion toward them.

Al Arabiya English: The Saudi security services released nearly 500 hours of film footage shot by these young extremists. What were the challenges and how were you able to compress it into a 90-minute film?

Jonathan Hacker: In these situations, the thing to do is to invest a great deal of time and energy ahead of the editing. In other words, everything needs to be translated and logged. You can’t ignore any of the footage.

We worked with the security services who were able to help us on a lot of logging and translation but a lot of the stuff we had to do it ourselves as well. That’s where the research for the book came in. Because when we first started doing this, we were just googling around on the Internet and there really wasn’t much information available at all. So trying to understand and put together the different threads of the story was a huge job. All that is just before the editing process. Afterward, the creative one comes in of finding the highlights where you feel the moments are the most revealing and then steering the narrative towards those key moments of the film.

The critical thing as well was that it wasn’t just a series of events cut together, but trying to cut it into a thriller. Our approach was that this film needed to be exciting, visceral and gripping for the audience so we have made it a cat-and-mouse thriller between al-Qaeda and the security services and we cross-cut each scene back and forth showing the increasing intensity.

Al Arabiya English: Throughout the film we see many scenes ranging from extreme darkness to near-comical. Do specific scenes stand out for you that perhaps revealed something that challenged notions and stereotypes of these extremists?

Jonathan Hacker: One particular scene involved Ali al-Mudayish who was a suicide bomber. He was so excited about the prospect of martyrdom and going to heaven that he had made his own car number plate reflect meeting 72 virgins. He is then seen putting it on the truck bomb and starts kissing the number plate and embracing it and putting it all over his face. That scene was a very tangible way of showing the psychology of the suicide bomber.

There are a number of other scenes where they show themselves to be incompetent like when they run out of petrol on their way to blowing up the world’s largest oil refinery and they’re not even carrying any money with them. That kind of thing you think to yourself, if that was in a film, you wouldn’t believe it. If someone was writing a satire about al-Qaeda, that’s the scene they’d put in. But this is real life and this is a documentary.

Al Arabiya English: Although some footages date back as far as 2003, do you see parallels between the young men of al-Qaeda back then to say those who are drawn to ISIS today? And are there lessons we can draw from the film about the psyche?

Jonathan Hacker: ISIS is a different phenomenon but lot of things are common. I think that still the romantic self-image of people fighting in these battles and the obsession with prophecy and the very literal simplistic kind of religious beliefs and the degree of ignorance they have.

But there are differences from ISIS. ISIS is more of a blue-collared or working class phenomena whereas al-Qaeda in their early periods were sort of middle-class or lower middle-class kids. There are people among them who, surprisingly, were educated. The stereotypes, certainly in the West, is that they think these kids are angry young men, perhaps from working-class families in poverty. But these aren’t kids from poor background, they are often coming from relatively well-off backgrounds.

With ISIS, that has changed. It has been a product of lot of people ending up with them because it they were just there in a way it was just show and tell and they were forced or pushed into it and it’s more complicated. But we have to remember that al-Qaeda is on the comeback as ISIS has died down.

Al Arabiya English: Ultimately, what were the goals you hoped to achieve with this film in terms of the audiences’ perspectives?

Jonathan Hacker: There are two or three goals. One is certainly in the West, and I imagine in the Middle East as well, where we have only the shadowy idea of how these people are human beings. I think it is absolutely essential and crucial that we have to understand their psychology and belief system if we are to confront this ideology... that’s the primary aim.

I also believe that people will think of the nature of evil. Yes, it is about al-Qaeda and the insurgency that took place in Saudi Arabia, but I hope that the audience will think about other organizations, groups and ideologies throughout history that have similar elements to it. The Nazis for example had the ideas of racial destiny and they felt they were noble Teutonic knights... members of Hitler Youth felt they were something brave and noble in what they did, some of which were the most horrific crimes in history.

Human beings seem to want simple, easy answers to life. There’s a saying that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and the greatest crimes are done in the name of something which sounds good. But, because people are lazy, they don’t like to think and take responsibility for themselves. This is how this happens.

I hope what people take away from the documentary is that people will think. Thinking is hard, but it’s really important.