"The Oath": Documentary Follows the Journey of bin Laden's Former Body Guard and Driver

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.

Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I mean I've spent time with both men. Unfortunately, Ali Soufan couldn't participate in an interview for the film but he testifies at the Senate, speaking out against the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. And they're both pretty extraordinary men, very intelligent. Both, I think, very skilled men at persuasion. And, you know, what happens in this interrogation is that at first Abu Jandal doesn't believe that the 9/11 attacks were committed by al-Qaida. And then...

GROSS: And then he sees the pictures of the suspects and he starts to weep because he knows them all.

Ms. POITRAS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Would you trace his trajectory for us about how he became a member of al-Qaida and ended up joining bin Laden?

Ms. POITRAS: So Abu Jandal is born of Yemeni parents, but he's born in Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah. And as he was growing up, he talks about being influenced by the people who fought in Afghanistan during the Mujahedeen and against the Soviets, and as a young boy being impressed by these men who had fought. And what inspired him to leave home was the - what was happening in Bosnia. So at the age of 19, he packed his bags, told his dad he was going to be, you know, playing soccer with his friends, met a friend of his and went to Bosnia and fought there for about a year. And then after that...

GROSS: Fought with the Muslims there.

Ms. POITRAS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. And was trained there. And then he went into Somalia, and he was there for a short time, went to Yemen. It was in Yemen that he met Salim Hamdan. And, you know, Hamdan was, you know, very different than Abu Jandal. Abu Jandal was a very ideologically motivated jihadi who was looking for - to, you know, engage in jihad, as he would define it, defending Muslims. And Salim Hamdan, by contrast was, you know, a Yemeni guy who didn't have a place to live or a job, and Abu Jandal recruits him and takes him on his way to Tajikistan. And as they are going through Afghanistan, bin Laden had just left the Sudan and invited that group to come visit. And it was in the invitation that he invited them to stay, and Abu Jandal went on to become bin Laden's bodyguard and Salim Hamdan the driver. This would've been in '96.

GROSS: So do you know why he was disillusioned when he was working for bin Laden?

Ms. POITRAS: I think he felt that the tactics were wrong, that the targeting of civilians was not what he wanted to engage with.

GROSS: And we should say, it's not like he's opposed to the jihad.

Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: He still believes in jihad. He just believes it should be a battle on the battlefield, and not killing civilians in planes or buildings.

Ms. POITRAS: Right. Right. There's a point in the film where I ask him this question, and that's what he says, is that he doesn't personally believe in targeting civilians, but he believes in fighting on the battlefield.

GROSS: Which makes him, I'm sure, a very ambiguous figure you and for us, the viewers, because on the one hand, there's something really sympathetic as we're watching him in the movie. He's charismatic. He's very articulate, very persuasive, very energetic. He has a kind of almost a comic gleam in his eye sometimes. He really engages with people. He has a warmth about him. He's renounced bin Laden's tactics. At the same time, he still believes in jihad, as you just said, it should be on the battlefield.

Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm. I mean, as a filmmaker, I mean, that was what was really interesting about this person. I mean, it felt that he was really conflicted. We wanted the audience to sort of be drawn into his charisma, because that's how, you know, this is a guy who ran a guesthouse, you know. And so - and he's, you see in this film for...

GROSS: For bin Laden. Yeah.

Ms. POITRAS: For bin Laden in Afghanistan, and now he greets - young men seek him out for teaching. So he receives these young men and they sort of sit around, and there's these sort of teachings that happen. So we want the viewer to sort of be drawn into, you know, he has this sort of a kind of power, and he actually talks about it, you know, the art of influencing people. We showed that he's also a very good liar and that he's very media savvy. And so there's a bit of a push-pull between, you know, drawing you in and also giving you clues of, you know, don't always trust what you're hearing and also make you, you know, question what you're listening to.

GROSS: Well, if you don't mind my bringing this up, the scene I think you're referring to when you talk about him lying, you've basically put a camera in his taxicab. He's a professional taxicab driver during the making of your documentary, and you have a camera in there so we can see him interacting with his passengers.

Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he's always trying to bargain them up so that they pay more...

Ms. POITRAS: Correct.

GROSS: ...and so on. And, but there's one scene where somebody gets in and says well, what's this camera for? Like, why are you filming me? What's this about? And tell us what he says in response.

Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm. So, you know, a passenger gets in, and he's talking about the camera. And he's just like, oh well, this is, you know, there's an American company making a film about the economic plight of Yemenis and the camera's not - it's not on, and the lie goes on. He's like, it's not rolling. You know, the batteries died. And he does it, you know, this lie is so seamless, and it's so protracted that it's this moment where like we're telling the viewer, okay, we're turning here and we're asking you to question what it is that you're going to hear.

And it's an important part of the film and it's, you know, it's really -I mean, although the film deals with, you know, some of these big issues, it ultimately, in the end, is a psychological, you know, portrait or mystery, you know, inside of the mind of this man who, you know, is driving a taxicab.

And what Jonathan Oppenheim - the editor - and I were very interested in is, you know, we were very aware that the audience is constantly questioning him, right? Like questioning, you know, why is he speaking? You know, why is he getting this access? You know, how is it possible that this guy is free? I mean, there's so many sort of subtexts that are constantly running throughout this film. So that's really part of the story is sort of shaping that, you know, the journey into this man's world.

GROSS: Well, you show the ease with which he can lie. But I'm wondering why the passenger was in that position in the first place?

Ms. POITRAS: Actually, the way that it worked is that there's a camera that's mounted in the cab, and it's focused only on him. So you don't see the passenger. So we just told him to drive and do his job, and then I would go in and, you know, set focus and...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Hang on. Hang on.

Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You're talking about Yemen, where, you know, there are so many terrorists and there's such suspicion that people are spies or terrorists and you've got a camera planted in a taxi without any real explanation. You're just telling the cabdriver to...

Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...yeah just like tell - I mean, you're almost setting him up to lie. What's he going to do? Tell the truth to the passengers that you're making a documentary about somebody who was interrogated by American intelligence and gave up the information about who the 9/11 hijackers were? I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POITRAS: Well, right. You know, I actually, you know, I didn't tell Abu Jandal to lie or not to lie. I told him just do your job. And then we find out he tells - you know, as we sort of saw the tapes later -that there are many different stories. There's another story where he says they're making a film about Guantanamo and they want to get public opinion about - from Yemenis about what's happening in Guantanamo. So each story is different. I mean, I should say that this was a risky film to make and had to be made pretty much under the radar. So Abu Jandal, you know, he's concerned about his safety from the younger generation of al-Qaida. And so for him to be driving through the streets of Yemen, you know, with a small camera in his cab I think, you know, made him a little nervous.

But, you know, it was fascinating to see how he, you know, he handled each situation. I mean, these interactions with his passengers are quite fascinating. You know, they're oftentimes negotiations about fares, you know, whether or not he's getting, you know, what he thinks is the right amount, and then also this telling of the story of why the camera's there.

GROSS: But is it really a tipoff of who he is, then, if you've put him in a position where he basically has to lie?

Ms. POITRAS: Oh, actually, I do think it's a good tipoff of who he is, because I think it shows that he's very good at...

GROSS: He knows how to do it.

Ms. POITRAS: He knows how to do it. And I think that that is actually quite revealing.


TERRY GROSS: So I'm wondering what it was like for you to film in Yemen. I mean, the women in Yemen that we see are wearing, you know, full burqa. All you see is their eyes. So there you are, a Western woman, doing a documentary about a man, Abu Jandal, who some young jihadis would like to assassinate, even though Abu Jandal used to be very close to bin Laden. So what was it like for you to get around in Yemen?

Ms. POITRAS: Well, I mean, I made a film earlier about the war in Iraq, and that was a very dangerous place to work. And Yemen had its dangers, as well, but I felt I had more freedom of movement. The way that I work in the field is I work alone. So I do my own camera and sound work, and I was renting a house. And I would, you know, I would go to the market. I would take taxis and film.

GROSS: Wearing what? Wearing Western clothes?

Ms. POITRAS: Well, yeah. I would dress conservatively. But you didn't have to cover. It's not like Saudi, where if you're not covered, you know, you'll be stopped on the street. But I would tend to be relatively conservative. It seemed to be, you know, respectful. And I tried to stay away from too many, you know, Western establishments because they're, you know, foreigners are targeted. Being an American, you're, you know, you're targeted. And so I tried to stay under the radar. And it was -you know, of course, I worried, you know.

I mean, I remember the first time that I went to film in his house, and we were going - I was going to film. There's a prayer scene where he -it starts at 4:30 in the morning, so that was a situation I needed to be there the night before. And I remember being quite nervous getting into his car. Like, what am I doing? You know, how am I going to this house and filming this? And you can't - I couldn't not be worrying about those things. And yet, you know, I also felt that being a journalist gives me some kinds of protections in terms of doing this work.

So - but in terms of being a woman, what I find is that, as a Western woman, you can kind of move - it's a very gender-segregated society, but as a Western woman, you get to move between the two worlds. Most of the film is mostly men, so I would be in those situations and I'd be allowed in them because I was Western. But then I also can hang out in the house and be with the women. And, you know, the thing that I couldn't do was film their faces, which was sad. I would've liked to - them to be a larger presence in the film, but that wasn't possible because of - but, you know, when I'm at their house, they're not covering. It's when the camera comes out that women are - have to cover their faces.

GROSS: Laura Poitras, thank you very much for talking with us, and good luck with the film.

Ms. POITRAS: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Laura Poitras directed the new documentary "The Oath." You can see several clips from "The Oath" on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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