The Looming Documentary: HBO's My Trip to Al-Qaeda

HBO continues to provide a valuable service to subscribers via its original programming slate, filling a glaring gap left by other media outlets.

My Trip to Al-Qaeda, the channel’s new documentary, reveals the face of the Western world’s enemy in a way that will haunt viewers.

The film, inspired by the off-Broadway show of the same name by author turned actor Lawrence Wright, details al-Qaeda’s philosophy in ways that feel fresh and frightening.

Sure, Wright brings a liberal’s gimlet eye for blaming America to the proceedings, something likely advanced by noted Bush-bashing director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side).

The film’s far bigger takeaway involves a death culture eager to prey on vulnerable populations.

Al-Qaeda, debuting this month, uses Wright’s one-man show as a vessel to tell an expanded version of the terror group’s roots and realities.

It isn’t a simple case of “why do they hate us?” -- an inane question that emerged post-9/11. It’s more about why they hate their own lives and how a supposedly noble death as a suicide bomber is often their only escape.

Gibney wisely opens up the show to include footage taken from Middle Eastern countries, returning to the stage play for occasional close-ups of Wright’s face.

He’s a crack storyteller, and he speaks in an easy cadence that reminds one of actor Owen Wilson. But the messages behind Wright’s stories are hardly comforting.

Wright, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, has been interviewing radical and reasonable Muslims alike for years. His stories are told in sometimes illogical order, but he keeps the narrative in one piece by showing how each brushes up against al-Qaeda.

He draw out the roots of the modern terrorist movement from Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat signing a peace treaty with Israel -- akin to signing his death warrant, Wright argues -- to the Egyptian prisons which tortured those responsible for Sadat’s death.

Consider al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, a doctor who spent time in an Egyptian jail for his role in the assassination.

“He entered prison a surgeon. He came out a butcher,” Wright says.

My Trip to Al-Qaeda offers few solutions on how to deal with the terrorist organization, nor does Wright complete thoughts about his own role studying their behavior. How should he respond if he snared an interview with Osama bin Laden himself? Does he stab the militant with the nearest sharp object, or simply record his thoughts like any responsible journalist might?

“I begin to wonder, ‘who am I when I’m talking to al-Qaeda?’” he asks himself.

Wright also co-wrote The Siege, the 1998 thriller that took a prescient look at terrorists attacking on U.S. soil. The movie feared the loss of civil liberties if a terrorist attack hit our shores, and Wright believes that’s precisely what happened after 9/11.

He conflates the degradations at Abu Ghraib with America in toto, and cries in horror to learn the U.S. waterboarded several al-Qaeda members to glean more information about future attacks.