PBS debuts ‘The Oath,’ what makes a terrorist …

What makes a terrorist go Tick … Tick … Tick?

Often it’s the same thing that makes new devotees convert to religious groups around the world: Friends and relatives invite them into their sphere. This principle of evangelism and conversion is celebrated as a good thing for billions. It’s how most new Christians and Muslims are minted, day by day. But it’s also the way men and women are drawn into darker corners of the religious world.

I’m not alone in this conclusion. You can watch this principle unfold tonight in “The Oath,” a new documentary by Laura Poitras that has taken years to produce and has been touring film festivals this year to generally favorable reviews. “The Oath” was shown at festivals in Sundance, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Edinburgh and Melbourne. Tonight, millions will see it thanks to the PBS “POV” documentary series.

Laura Poitras isn’t out there on a limb, either. This conclusion is similar to those drawn by Ariel Glucklich, author of “Dying for Heaven: Holy Pleasure and Suicide Bombers—Why the Best Qualities of Religion Are Also Its Most Dangerous.” (NOTE to our longtime readers: Glucklich’s book now is available in paperback and, if you click back to our interview with Glucklich, you’ll have the option to get the book in that new, less-expensive paperback edition.)

If you want to watch “The Oath,” here is the PBS official website with a link to locate regional broadcast times around the U.S. The PBS website also includes other helpful information—such as links to purchase the film for educational programs.

Review of “The Oath,” documentary by Laura Poitras, airing on PBS

Filmmaker Laura Poitras.The hair will stand up on the back of your neck as you watch the man known as “Abu Jandal” look at family photos with his son in the opening moments of “The Oath.” Together, they chuckle at images of loved ones, mingled with weapons—that’s right weapons. Eventually, the father asks his son if he’d like to follow in his footsteps someday. The boy proudly says he wants to do just that.

And therein lies the danger.

This father, Abu Jandal, once was one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards. He was arrested in 2000, before the 9/11 attacks took place. While in prison, he helped investigators identify other key figures in the bin Laden network including his brother in law, Salim Hamdan. Just as the charismatic Abu Jandal recruited so many others into the terror network, he drew Salim Hamdan to take a job for $250 a month to serve as a personal driver for bin Laden. “The Oath”—and other press reports on Hamdan—describe Hamdan basically as a low-level employee, certainly devoted to the cause but nothing more than a modestly paid driver.

How powerful was Abu Jandal in his prime? “The Oath” includes a segment of a 2006 “60 Minutes” report, which concludes that Abu Jandal once was more important to terrorist networks than “anybody we’ve got in Guantanamo now.” One of the ironies explored in the film is that Abu Jandal, the charismatic recruiter and architect of so many destructive relationships, now is free and works as a taxi driver in Yemen, while Hamdan has suffered through years of harsh imprisonment and court battles.

One way to look at this irony is: Somebody in our U.S. counter-terrorism agencies must be asleep at the switch to let Abu Jandal motor around Yemen at will—still boasting of his love for terrorism. “Yemen is a sort of marketplace of ideologies,” Abu Jandal tells several visiting journalists in the film, boasting that he is in regular contact with a newer generation of terrorists. Those newer people are dangerously lethal, he claims.

Another way to look at this situation is: If Laura Poitras and other U.S. journalists are able to get regular access to this guy, then U.S. counter-terrorism agencies almost certainly are watching him very closely. Abu Jandal may be motoring around Yemen partly so that his contacts can be watched by American spy agencies. At least, that seems like a good bet.

This is a world of shadows and boasts and dangerous relationships. “The Oath” is not a History Channel-style or CNN-style point-by-point exploration of terrorist history. It’s an intimate portrait of people and families who are deeply enmeshed in these deadly relationships.

What will haunt you, after you watch it, is seeing Abu Jandal in scenes with his little son. In the middle of the film, Abu Jandal is watching breaking news about political unrest on cable TV, when his son complains. “Daddy, I want to see ‘Tom and Jerry.’”

A moment later, the classic cartoons appear on the screen. The boy smiles, watching the cat and mouse race around a cartoon image of a typical American home. What catches the boy’s attention? “They have lots of toys,” he tells his father.

Abu Jandal changes the subject, telling the boy to go get a book.

Late in the film, the little boy sits beside Abu Jandal during a long discussion of the Quran and politics with a circle of 20-something men who seem to regard Abu Jandal as their teacher. As the father runs on and on about political theory, the son slyly begins to consume his soft drink—until it’s all gone. When Abu Jandal realizes this, he chuckles, stops the discussion and tells the boy to go to the store and get a new bottle of this British-brand ginger ale.

One of the 20-somethings asks: “You are supporting Western made goods?”

Abu Jandal laughs again. He picks up a Western-made cookie and chuckles, “The Yemeni ones taste so bad. What can we do? It’s true,” he says, “these Westerners are infidels, but they make things with sincerity and conscience.”

He seems to ponder this idea further, then laughs again, and says, “Our manufacturers are sons of dogs and cheaters.” Now, everyone in the room chuckles.

But, wait. Before you read those lines as an admission of some sort—what’s really fascinating about scenes like this is the easy way Abu Jandal navigates the world. He’s very, very enticing—very, very persuasive. If you’ve got a sweet tooth for Western foods—that’s no problem, he reassures his young friends. The whole world is available to us, he seems to be saying.

And, of course: Therein lies the danger.

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