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Monday, Sept. 13, 2010

The Oath

Documentary highlights Guantanamo prisoner, Osama bin Laden bodyguard

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For many, the human face The Oath puts on Al Qaeda is unsettling because it lacks the demonism expected from people who executed a plot to kill thousands of bystanders to a faraway conflict. The documentary’s ostensible subject is Salim Hamdan, a curious choice as the first Al Qaeda prisoner to face a military commission in Guantanamo. Although the United States accused him of “war crimes,” he was only Osama bin Laden’s driver, and his trial begs a question: Why wasn’t Hitler’s chauffeur hauled to Nuremberg to stand accused with Goering and Hess?

Hamdan, however, is a spectral presence in The Oath, heard only through his letters home to Yemen, where he is stoic in the face of harsh imprisonment. Director Laura Poitras has elegantly edited her footage, which flows through parallel stories involving the person who became the film’s focus, the man who introduced Hamdan to bad company, his brother-in-law Abu Jandal. Although he was bin Laden’s bodyguard and ran a “hostel” for terrorists-in-training, including the entire 9/11 gang, Jandal is a free man, driving a cab in Yemen’s capital and granting interviews to Arab and Western media.

One suspects he is an unreliable narrator. Jandal (his nom de guerre means “death” in Arabic) is actually caught lying on camera when he tells a passenger that the movie being made around him is a documentary on cab drivers. Also, his story is a bit fuzzy. Jandal left Afghanistan in 2000 and was rounded up with the usual suspects by Yemeni police after the U.S.S.Cole was attacked. In prison on 9/11, he was questioned at length by the FBI (he was cooperative) and paroled by Yemeni authorities on condition that he stays out of radical politics.

While many Al Qaeda activists regard him as a traitor for violating his oath of obedience to bin Laden, the film shows him at the center of a circle of admirers hanging on his war stories of “Sheikh Osama,” whom he describes as a father figure to “the guys.” He is equivocal on 9/11, but seems proud of the perpetrators because “they hit America and humiliated it.” Jandal has an adorable grade-school-age son, and when he asks the boy what he wants to be when he grows up, he is proud of the answer: “a jihadist”—just like the old man.

Jandal is charming, even charismatic. Articulate and quick-witted, he is a skillful debater who can hold up his end of any argument. Jandal’s terrorism trail began in Bosnia during the Yugoslav civil war and wound its way to the right hand of bin Laden. Nowadays he conducts a convincing PowerPoint seminar on “the art of dealing with others.” Jandal is a master manipulator; one suspects Hamdan was merely nave and in need of a paying job. Apparently, the military commission at Guantanamo thought so, too. Hamdan was acquitted of major charges and sentenced to time served (seven years) plus five months.

The Oath screens at 6 p.m. Sept. 17, 7 p.m. Sept. 18 and 5 p.m. Sept. 19 at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre. Admission is free.n

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