Tag Archives: Osama Bin Laden

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the successful US attempt to find and kill Osama bin Laden; I am using the most common spelling of his first name, but there are different ways of transliterating Arabic names into English. The US intelligence services called him Usama bin Laden or Ladin , and he is referred to as UBL throughout the film.

The film starts with the last messages left by some of the victims of 9/11. It then shows the CIA’s attempts to track down bin Laden, culminating in his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs at Abbotabad on 2 May 2011.

The main protagonist is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who is obsessed with the hunt for bin Laden. She is a fictional character, although it is unclear whether she is based on a single CIA agent, as The New York Review of Books states, or is a composite of several, as the makers of Manhunt, a documentary treatment of the story, claim.

Unlike many fictional characters with an obsession (eg Agent Mulder in The X-Files), Maya does not appear to have a personal stake in the case. Rather, she appears to be simply utterly absorbed in her job, which is to find bin Laden. She does not seem to have any life outside of her work. Even Carrie Mathison, the obsessive and bi-polar CIA agent from the TV series Homeland, with whom Maya has been compared,  visited her father, sister and nieces and had a sex life.

Zero Dark Thirty is an entertaining film, which deserved its five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Chastain, but it was fair that even better films and performances beat it in these categories, leaving it with only a joint win for Sound Editing.

The film has caused a number of controversies. It begins with one: the film-makers did not ask permission from the families of the dead to use the recordings of the last phone calls made by victims of 9/11 that are played over the opening credits.

Another is that shows the CIA obtaining vital information from torture. It has been claimed, most notably in a letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), that this intelligence actually came from other sources. Sen. McCain, captured in the Vietnam War, can give advocates of the use of torture the unanswerable reply that it did not work on him.

Michael Morell, the Acting CIA Director, distanced his agency from claims that it had co-operated closely with the film-makers in a statement that said that:

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has just decided to drop its inquiry into how much help the CIA gave the film-makers.

The release of the film was delayed until after the US Presidential Election because it was feared that it might boost support for President Obama, since he ordered the mission that killed bin Laden. However, the film asserted that waterboarding, introduced by the Bush Administration, but banned by Obama, was a key element in finding bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Neither President nor any members of their Cabinets are portrayed by an actor in the film. The most senior officials to appear are the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) and the National Security Adviser (Stephen Dillane). Each is described by his job title rather than name in the film; the incumbents were Leon Panetta and Tom Donilon.

Overall, this is a good film, but it is marred by the rudeness shown to the families of the 9/11 victims whose last messages are broadcast without permission, and by its ambiguous attitude to torture. Not showing it would have been a whitewash, but the film shows it producing useful intelligence. The Guardian quotes Bigelow as telling the New York Film Critics Circle, who had just given her their Best Director award that:

I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.

The trouble is that the difference between depiction and endorsement will be lost on some, who will see torture producing the evidence that led the good guys to get the bad guy, when in reality it did not.

Incidentally, the zero dark is US military code for midnight, so zero dark thirty means 0030 am, the time at which the SEALs attacked bin Laden’s compound.

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Modern Spies Part 2- BBC2

The second and final episode of Modern Spies  was broadcast by BBC TV on Monday 9 April. It was presented by Peter Taylor, a BBC journalist who specialised in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and has reported widely on al-Qaeda since 9/11. It discussed the lengths to which the intelligences services are prepared to go in the fight against terror and asked whether or not British intelligence officers have a licence to kill. Click here for my blog on the first episode.

As in the first episode, Taylor interviewed serving British intelligence officers. They were identified by only their first names,  their faces were obscured and actors spoke their words, so we have to take their word and that of the BBC that they were who they claimed to be. Given Peter Taylor’s reputation, I would be surprised if they were not genuine. There were also open interviews with former senior British police officers and Israeli intelligence officers, current and former CIA and FBI officials and William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary.

It was claimed that there are about 2,000 al-Qaeda inspired terror suspects in the UK. In 2010 MI5 carried out extensive surveillance on a group suspected of planning attacks on major targets in London, including placing bugs in suspect’s homes. The MI5 and police officers interviewed said that everything they did was proportionate and legal, and that they were accountable to a high level of government. The evidence gathered was so convincing that the nine accused pleaded guilty and were given long prison sentences.

Security services make use of ‘sting’ operations, where undercover officers pretend to be able to supply suspected terrorists with the weapons and equipment needed to carry out their operation. There is a risk that these cross the line into entrapment, where the undercover officers entice the suspects into attempting to carry out an act of terror.

A British ‘sting’ operation against the Real IRA came close to entrapment, with the result that only one of the two suspects was convicted. This was blamed on the undercover agent not being trained by MI5; he was recruited specially for this operation, because MI5 did not have an agent with what was described as the ‘right face’ for the mission.

The US uses undercover agents more aggressively than Britain does. This was claimed to risk claims of entrapment. An operation, again carried out by outsiders brought in specially for this mission was described.  The Albanian-American Muslim Duka family took a film of themselves firing automatic weapons, whilst shouting Allah Akbar and Jihad, to a shop for conversion into a DVD. The film company informed the FBI which, lacking suitable agents, recruited two Albanian-Americans to penetrate the group.

Six men, including three Duka brothers, were convicted of buying weapons as part of a plan to attack the US military base at Fort Dix. There appeared little doubt that they had done so; the issue was that the FBI undercover agents may have proposed the operation and thus been guilty of entrapment. One of the undercover agents was paid $240,000 and the other received $150,000 and had deportation proceedings against him dropped.

The  question of whether or not British intelligence officers have a James Bond style licence to kill was discussed. The interviewees were adamant that they do not, and the programme then moved on to other intelligence services that have used assassination.

Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, has admitted that it hunted down and killed the Palestinians responsible for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972; it argues that its motive was to prevent future attacks, rather than revenge. A fictionalised version of this story was told in the film Munich.

A team of up to 20 Mossad agents is believed to have assassinated Mahmoud al Mabhouh of Hamas in Dubai in 2010. The programme showed hotel CCTV footage of the agents, who were out of the country by the time that al Mabhouh had been found dead in his hotel room. Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence service, has also killed Palestinians.

The USA has killed a large number of al-Qaeda leaders in drone attacks. A total of 3,000 people have died in these, including innocent bystanders. Britain also uses drones. US Navy Seals assassinated Osama Bin Laden last year.

One awkward revelation for the British intelligence services was that Britain co-operated in the extraordinary rendition of the Libyan opposition leader Abdel Hakim Belhaj  to Libya in 2004. Belhaj was then the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which MI6 feared was close to al-Qaeda. He is now a senior military commander in the new Libya, which Britain helped to create.

This came to light when Libyan intelligence files were discovered after the headquarters of Libyan intelligence were bombed last year. Britain has always denied any involvement in torture, but Belhaj says that he was tortured during his captivity.

This was a very interesting series. To some extent, we were told only what the intelligence services wanted us to hear, but it had unprecedented access. It was noticeable that criticisms had to made tangentially, by talking about things that the Americans and Israelis had done, and which Britain might also have done.

It is available for UK viewers on the I-Player until 12:19am on 20 April. No co-producers, so I do not know if it will be shown in other countries.

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