The Long and Winding Road

The World According to Lisa

Hate, the road to misery.

Path of Blood, a documentary directed by Johnathan Hacker, is a montage of footage from the Saudi security forces and Al Qaeda’s own rough videos of their boot camps and atrocities.

It opens with a group of young guys, strangely familiar in their mannerisms and attitude that are the trademark of youth.

Carefree as twenty – year olds should be, they laughed, joked and goaded each other mischievously, and wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a British city centre on a Saturday night.

But this was no ordinary group of twenty – somethings.

It was a cell of jihadi extremists based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and their mission was to kill in a spectacular and gut – wrenching manner.

The most joyful was the one who knew that in two hours his own life would be snuffed out prematurely as a suicide bomber.

The titles read “Shot by Al Qaeda” and without being embedded in the organisation it would be difficult to get a more intimate view of it.

Led by Osama bin Laden, the mission for Saudi cells in the early 2000’s was to destabilise the Al Saud ruling family in a bid to replace them with a hard line, less Western friendly regime.

I had lived in Riyadh for some years by the time this campaign was in full swing, and I remember vividly how dramatically life changed, and quickly.

Admittedly, life in the Kingdom had already required a massive adjustment to cope with rules that, for many, would be impossible. But nonetheless, I’d felt totally safe walking around the shopping centres alone, during Ramadam in the early hours of the morning.

One of my favourite trips was to take a cab to the old quarter around Musmak fort and the souk, wandering through the mesmerising myriad of alleyways, shaded from the blistering sun by huge Bedouin canopies.

I enjoyed many a pidgin Arabic conversation with wizened old men who looked as though they had been there since time began, chewing ghat and setting the world to rights, occasionally rewarding me with a toothless grin.

Sure, most Westerners lived in walled compounds, but the gates were “soft” borders and I spent many a blissful mid – summer, late night stroll with my dog around the wadi that surrounded my compound. It was the only time of day when the temperature just about allowed for a walk.

I enjoyed my time in Saudi. It gifted me the greatest cultural education in the whole of my life, and I reflect on it fondly and gratefully in many ways.

But the day the World Trade Centre came down signified the start of a new and uncomfortable era for those who at the time called the Kingdom home.

The cheery Philippino who snoozed in the gatehouse was replaced by armoured cars and soldiers with Kalashnikovs, implementing an immediate ban on leaving the compound on foot.

For women, loose clothing or an abaaya (black cloak) were no longer adequate when going to the malls, as it was now deemed essential to cover the hair too. Some non – Muslim women I knew even took to wearing niqab to ensure greater anonymity.

But unaccompanied trips were now “at your own risk”, and my cherished strolls around the old quarter were very much consigned to the past.

Vehicles were screened before entering compounds, hotels and social facilities, and we were advised to check beneath our own cars when they had been parked on a public highway or car park.

The shift in mood and the pervading sense of fear were almost palpable, ramped up with each new atrocity committed. Many families packed up altogether, unable to deal with the increasingly edginess.

So, watching the Path of Blood and seeing the aftermath of bombs decimating compounds that were once my own neighbourhood was difficult.

But although the sight of corpses and body parts scattered around a bomb scene are deeply distressing, what disturbed me the most was the normality of the perpetrators.

One scene showed them having a wheelbarrow race in the desert, reminiscent of school sports day with one competitor complaining that he’d been cheated out of first place.

In another the men laugh controllably as they wade through torrents of rain, washing out the camp where their para military training is conducted.

And then there was the lack of preparation as, en route to the oil terminal target, one vehicle in the convoy radios that they are running out of petrol and need to fill up.

It’s a surreal moment when, after being told to pull over at the next gas station they reply: “Have you got any money?”

There’s more than a passing similarity with the incompetent wannabee terrorists in Four Lions. But this is not satire, and when two young boys dressed like Action Man with toy guns practise their combat rolls, with the admiring voice over of their fathers, it’s chilling.

Paul Marshall Johnson was a American engineer in al Khobar when he was taken captive by Al Qaeda operatives in 2004.

The viewer is spared the graphic scenes of his brutal torture and beheading. But what we are shown is horrific in the extreme, and the words “Bring the head” followed by a child saying “That’s my Daddy knife” leave the viewer rigid with shock.

No nationality or religion has been spared the misery of jihadist atrocities.

When the Muhaya compound was attacked most of the victims were Muslims, and my own Saudi friends were weighed down by what was happening in their country to people whom they saw as their guests.

They were dark times, but while the cells have all but been eradicated by a concerted effort on the part of the Saudi security forces, it would be foolish to presume that they have gone forever.

To put faces to the horrific events in Riyadh in the early 2000s felt eerie but it was mixed with sadness too, because these were normal blokes corrupted to carry out the most horrifically abnormal acts.

The reasons for that are many and complex, but while they cannot be absolved of their responsibility, in another time and another place the potential that many of these young men had might not have been wasted in such misery – making.

The shredded bodies of innocent victims at the scene of bombs and assassinations is heart – breaking. The image of an innocent helicopter engineer being murdered by terrorists to make a political statement, is heart-breaking.

But the twinkle in the eye of a young man joking with his friend, two hours away from his own planned, violent death is a demonstration of how pointless he felt his life was.

That too is deeply sad.

 

 

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