Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Path of Blood: Al Qaeda vs. Saudi Arabia

If there is one heroic figure in this documentary, it is Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who crushed Al Qaeda’s campaign of terror in Saudi Arabia with a forceful armed response and close coordination with Western intelligence agencies. Since then, he has been purged of his government office and his place in the royal succession. Oh well. At least, he proved you can win a war against terrorism (or come close enough for government work). Viewers will get an eye-opening look at Al Qaeda in footage the terrorists shot of themselves (with some supplemental video shot by Saudi security forces) throughout Jonathan Hacker’s Path of Blood (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Forget Eric Hoffer’s True Believer. Ali, the Jihadi who we meet in the opening scene is such a clueless simpleton, he literally asks the Islamist recording his intended martyrdom video to use “smaller words.” For him, the choice between building a life in the here-and-now or opting for a fantastical harem of virgins in the afterlife is probably a no-brainer. One thing is certain: the candid footage of him and his other fellow Islamist extremists does not paint a flattering picture—and they shot it themselves.

Unfortunately, the collected videos suggest the savagery of the Al Qaeda terrorists even exceeds their stupidity. Despite Ali’s awkward blooper reel, this film is absolutely nothing like Al Qaeda’s Funniest Home Videos. There are some absolutely chilling clips, including some of the final minutes of American hostage Paul Marshall Johnson Jr.’s life, before he was beheaded on camera. Hacker largely spares us the actually murders, but plenty of the resulting blood and gore can be seen uncensored and unsanitized. That can be hard to watch, but the fact Mark Boal (screenwriter and producer of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker) is onboard as an executive producer should reassure a lot of viewers.

Hacker also incorporates several scenes of the Saudi security forces taking the fight to Al Qaeda, mostly shot by Saudi law enforcement. There is chaos and bloodshed, but it is clear the Saudi forces are professional and highly motivated. Indeed, it is easy to see why the Saudi authorities were willing to share all this footage they either confiscated or shot themselves. Without a doubt, it documents an unqualified win over Al Qaeda, scored by the very same nation that was so embarrassed by its high-level connections to bin Laden. Of course, now that Prince Muhammad is on the outs, and possibly under house arrest, the PR points are suddenly a bit muddled again.

Regardless, Path is enormously instructive by exposing the psychology and ideology of Al Qaeda terrorists. It also identifies some potentially winning strategies for fighting terrorism. It is worth noting none of the martyrs and murderers ever goes off on Israel. Frankly, the Israeli issue just doesn’t seem to be on their radar. Prince Muhammad and the House of Saud are a different matter entirely. The resulting film, quite brilliantly cut together by editor Peter Haddon (with some additional wok done by Kirsi Pyy and Bob H. Woodward), is profoundly illuminating and often deeply disturbing. Highly recommended for tough, inquiring viewers, Path of Blood opens this Friday (7/13) in New York, at the IFC Center.