Laura Poitras’ intense, powerful documentary The Oath takes us inside the minds of two ex-jihadists, Abu Jandal Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, and Salim Hamdan, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay Prison and the first man to face the controversial military tribunals. Abu Jandal left bin Laden’s before the attacks on the USS Cole and was arrested and jailed in Yemen. His brother-in-law, bin Laden’s driver and mechanic, was the first of bin Laden’s staff arrested after 9/11.
Abu-Jandal was released from prison after going through a rehabilitation program called The Dialogue which uses the Koran and economic incentives to redirect jihadists into society. We see him discussing jihad with Yemeni youths, but instead of advocating violence, he is–on camera–urging them to get educated and fight for Islamic supremacy through knowledge.
Abu Jandal’s movement away from al-Qaeda is seen by some as a traitorous act. He is at risk of assassination by younger al-Qaeda members who he feels lack the discipline and understanding of his generation, while viewing him as an infidel.
While in prison, he was interrogated by the FBI about 9/11 within days of the attack. Abu Jandal–who believed in direct warfare rather than terrorist attacks and was disappointed that bin Laden gave his oath to the Taliban, reveals fresh information–without the use of torture–which is considered significant enough to delay the invasion of Afghanistan. Earlier in the film, however he explains that the goal while being interrogated is to hold out for at least 72 hours in order to allow the jihadist cells to disperse, so I kind of wondered if his giving up of information wasn’t part of a ploy which allowed targets–-like bin Laden–a chance to disappear.
Whether that is the case or not, the information Abu Jandal supplied, including identifying the 9/11 hijackers, proved instrumental to the United States. And during Senate testimony, his interrogator points out that more and better information can be gained without the use of torture.
Meanwhile Salim Hamdan is imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial by military tribunal, his letters home providing his narrative. After the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld settles in his favor, Congress passes a new law “providing material aid for terrorists” and charges Hamdan under that. His defense attorney maintains that Hamdan was only bin Laden’s driver and knew nothing of about any terrorist plans. In Yemen, Abu Jandal implies that Hamdan never took the oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda, the oath he himself may have betrayed when he left the organization for his family.
This is a powerful, intense film, giving the audience insight into the complexities of Islam and jihad and serving as a strong statement against the use of torture.