“Jihad is for teenagers. Now I am too old.”
It’s not exactly the answer you’d like to hear when asking a supposedly reformed fundamentalist if they have an interest in rejoining al-Qaida, but it’s better than nothing. And at least he’s being honest.
The absence of absolutes is what’s most enriching in Meg Smaker’s new documentary, Jihad Rehab. The American film-maker had access to the Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Advice and Care in Saudi Arabia, where she followed the progress of a group of men released from the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, some after nearly 15 years. This is a thrilling journey into restorative and cultural justice, mind control and cultural conditioning. This movie is for intelligent people who want to challenge their preconceived notions.
The facility looks more like a junior school than a prison. Between interviews, our subjects are shown using colored pencils for art therapy, learning about Google, or listening in to Freudian psychology lectures at the university. “interpersonal skills class”. A scholar of Islam explains in detail how al-Qaida misunderstood the teachings.
These men will eventually be free. Khalid, a former graduate is shown as a successful story. He has a family and a successful business selling toy remote control vehicles. He doesn’t dwell on his past as bomb maker and admits that the deeds of his history do keep him awake at night. His warm smile is shattered when he thinks about the people who leapt from the World Trade Center towers.
There’s little implication that these are men falsely accused of their crimes. This is not Taxi to The Dark Side. The film does provide context about what young men like these thought jihad was prior to they fled their homeland for Afghanistan. It was their belief that they were right to join a war. They were soldiers, not terrorists.
Ali, one of the group’s members, was an exception to the rule. Ali was the younger brother Qasim al Raymi, the head al Qaida in Yemen. (Al-Raymi died in an American airstrike following the events shown in this film. Ali was captured in the aftermath of time spent at a training center with his brother when he was 16. If his claims are to believe, Ali was taken prisoner after spending time with his brother at a training facility at the age of 16. However, he maintained that they were not related for years at Guantanamo.
Wondering just how much to believe these men now isn’t just cynicism. Smaker doesn’t whitewash any of the rehab’s failures, in which someone made it through the program essentially by lying through his teeth. He was immediately released and joined a terrorist cell. Fortunately, there were some precautions that prevented this from happening.
Graduates of this program must have a family sponsor. They are at risk for arrest if they leave the nation. (Arrest in Saudi Arabia, as it bears repeating is not always a slap on your wrist. Nadir, a former Osama bin Laden bodyguard, is vouched for by a cousin too young to have ever known him before Guantánamo. “They lost two buildings, we lost two countries,”He smiles and says nothing about the 9/11 attacks. His mother kept his passport, so he speaks with a shrug.
Circumstances change for everyone as Saudi Arabia’s political winds shift when Mohammad bin Salman assumes control in mid-2017. Release schedules are halted. Then, life becomes more difficult for non-Saudi residents as work restrictions are implemented. The rules keep graduates from leaving and they are unable to earn a living. Their religious counselor encouraged them to start a family as soon as possible to ensure that there is food for their children.
Smaker doesn’t remove the extremely retrograde attitude toward women found even within this oasis of progressive crime reform. “Women age faster than men,”They are taught. “Don’t choose one close to you in age, because in 10 to 20 years she won’t be able to take care of you and you’ll need to marry again.” When one of the subjects grows frustrated at Smaker’s questioning, he confronts her, shouting, “You should find a husband, a woman like you needs children!”Smaker keeps her cool.
While Jihad Rehab has the goods in terms of subject matter and access, there are some aesthetic choices that don’t quite work. The movie doesn’t really start for 12 minutes. We’re forced to sit through a CNN-like montage that really had me worried about what I had gotten into. The animation sequence is another problem in modern documentary. It’s unnecessary and cliche. For any documentarians who are reading this, Frederick Wiseman did not include psychedelic line drawings in his work. Let your subjects speak and let your audience listen.
Despite this, the movie is a success, mainly because viewers will be frustrated by it.