"The Oath": Documentary Follows the Journey of bin Laden's Former Body Guard and Driver
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The new documentary "The Oath," is about two men who were close to Osama bin Laden before 9/11. Abu Jandal was a jihadist who recruited Salim Hamdan. Jandal became bin Laden's bodyguard, Hamdan became bin Laden's driver. At the suggestion of bin Laden, the men married sisters, making the two men brothers-in-law.
The two men's paths diverged before 9/11 when they left bin Laden. Jandal was in prison in Yemen in 2001. He was interrogated there by an American and gave up key information. After his release, he became a taxi driver. Hamdan was captured in Afghanistan then taken to Guantanamo Bay, where he became the first detainee to face a military tribunal. He was also the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, challenging the legality of military tribunals. Hamdan was released after seven years and returned to custody in Yemen to serve out the remainder of his sentence which ended in late 2008.
My guest, Laura Poitras, filmed her documentary "The Oath" in Yemen. It's the second in her planned trilogy of post-9/11 films. Most of "The Oath" focuses on Abu Jandal. Hamdan declined to speak with her. She tells his story through his letters from Gitmo and his defense attorneys.
Given Abu Jandal's history, how did you convince him not only to talk with you but to allow you to film him?
Ms. LAURA POITRAS (Director, "The Oath"): I think there are multiple reasons that he, you know, agreed to be filmed. I think he actually feels very guilty about the fact that he recruited Salim Hamdan and that Hamdan was at Guantanamo and he was free. And I think it helped I'd made a film about the war in Iraq and I gave him that film. And I think that that also helped getting the kind of access that I needed.
GROSS: He's actually a very important figure in the larger story of terrorism and counterterrorism. And he was interrogated after 9/11, and he became one of the really important people to give up information to American intelligence. Can you talk about how he ended up being interrogated and what he offered?
Ms. POITRAS: Right. He was, in 2000, he was imprisoned in Yemen, so he was in a Yemen prison on 9/11. And after the attacks, an FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who many people might be aware of, he's written several op-eds speaking out against torture. And Ali Soufan was in Yemen and was asked to speak to people to try to find out information about the attack, and six days after 9/11 entered Abu Jandal's cell and a two-week interrogation ensued. And it's a very significant interrogation. I mean some people think it's one of the most important post-9/11 interrogations. And one of the things that's quite extraordinary about it is it was done with Miranda rights and by the book and actually delayed the invasion of Afghanistan.
GROSS: Because they didn't want to start until they were finished interrogating...
Ms. POITRAS: Yes. Because they were...
GROSS: ...because he was giving so much useful information.
Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: He was the one who identified all of the suspects from 9/11. He'd worked with them. He knew them.
Ms. POITRAS: Right. Yeah. He ran a guesthouse in Afghanistan so he would receive guys. And there were several that the government knew who they were but there were a lot of people on the planes whose names they didn't know, so he was able to identify them.
GROSS: So Abu Jandal becomes the kind of model of interrogation, where you get information without torture or extreme techniques. And his interrogators - he's diabetic - his interrogators brought him sugar-free soda and sugar-free food for him to eat. He talks about how they tried to win him over and I guess they succeeded.