Every so often a documentary comes along that manages to venture beyond entertainment into the realm of importance. "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" is one of these films. While not a great piece of film making by any means, its serviceable craftsmanship adequately supports the film's grave subject matter, and provides rare insight into the people, places and significant events that lead to the formation of Al-Qaeda, and the people behind the 9/11 attacks. There have been numerous other films about this topic, but none have examined the causes with such clarity and authority.
"My Trip to Al-Qaeda" is a quasi-film version of Lawrence Wright's one man off broadway play of the same name, which covered his experience doing research for the pulitzer prize winning 2006 book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11". In it, Wright took a sensible approach that seemed to be overlooked in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and focused on the individuals behind the attacks rather than their actions. Where did they grow up, what type of family background did they have, who were their friends, what did they study in school, and what happened to them in the years leading up to the attacks? As Americans and the media increasingly became focused on nations, organizations, terrorist networks, and vast conspiracies real or imagined, Wright focused instead on the human beings behind the rhetoric, examining their motives and emotional lives.
Wright is a quintessential Texas-born American and Tulane graduate, who spent several years in the late 1960's studying for his Masters degree and teaching at The American University in Cairo. Arguably only someone with Wright's unique personal history and perspective, would have the skills and background to see things as a typical Aamerican would, while at the same time having the training of a journalist and as a one time resident of the middle east, the ability to wade deep into the heart of the Muslim countries at the epicenter of these events. As "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" opens, Wright reveals that Mohammed Atta lived in the same Cairo neighborhood and attended college only a year after Wright had taught classes. He soon explains that it is no coincidence that an Egyptian would be the leader of the 9/11 attacks.
Wright's penetrating intellect is the heart of "My Trip to Al-Qaeda", the product of exhaustive research and interviews with a vast number of people directly or indirectly related to his subjects. In a series of refreshingly concise anecdotes and the occasional history lesson, Wright lays out the history of Al-Qaeda and its origins in the brutal Egyptian prisons of the late 1970's and early 80's, then shifts focus to Osama Bin Laden and his birthplace -- Saudi Arabia. Denied a visa to visit the kingdom as a journalist, Wright ultimately would accept a job as an adjunct journalism professor in order to gain entry. His experience there is covered in "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" making clear the profound societal factors that make the country a virtual powder keg for extremism. Wright shows how simple human desperation and despair easily explain why the majority of the 9/11 conspirators were Saudi's even though their government is one of the United States closest allies in the region
The film argues powerfully that while ideology and religion are fertile ground for the development of Islamic extremists, personal experiences and easily understood emotions are just as likely the prime contributing factors that lead these all-too-human men to do what they did. The most troubling parts of the film cover the myriad of mistakes the US has made prior to and since 9/11, and how we unwittingly have played directly into the role Al-Qeada leadership desperately wants us to play -- that of interloper, aggressor, infidel, repressor and ultimately, modern Judeo-Christian crusader.
Wright argues powerfully that we have chosen to ignore the base human emotions that drive the terrorists at our own peril, and would do best to see them as people rather than to further demonize and engage in rhetoric that plays into the hands of their leaders who have managed despite incredible odds, to manipulate us into engaging them in armed conflict. Wright points out that if you can understand a man like Osama Bin Laden, then you soon realize that his actions verge on performance, and that attacks on the West have and always will be calculated to provoke military reaction. Wright argues as he did in his screenplay for the film "The Siege", that the more we react with fear and curbing of our civil liberties, the more we play into the agenda of Al-Qaeda and organizations like it.