Watching a jihadist video that surfaced on Wednesday, which was apparently recorded by Faisal Shahzad before his attempt to bomb Times Square in May failed, it is impossible not to notice that several small flaws undermine the tape, which was presumably intended to impress and terrify viewers.
To start with, the speaker stumbles through his message, flubbing several of his lines and rambling into a dead end of incoherence at one point, forcing the tape’s editor to rescue him with a sudden cut to a later take. Barely 25 seconds in to the screed, which was clearly filmed outdoors — perhaps at the end of Mr. Shahzad’s five-week crash course in guerrilla tactics with the Pakistani Taliban in January — a gust of wind turns the pages of a Koran in his hand, and he appears confused when he looks down to read from it. Another emergency edit ensues. Just a minute later the same thing happens again.
That tape was released the same day officials in Pakistan banned a new Bollywood comedy about a Pakistani journalist who stages an interview with an Osama bin Laden impersonator, because of fears that mocking Al Qaeda’s leader would lead to revenge attacks.
Watching the promotional videos for the banned film, “Tere Bin Laden,” back to back with what appears to be Mr. Shahzad’s amateurish video explanation of his ultimately botched attack brings to mind the ideas of Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism expert who has advocated “mockery as a potential approach to combating Al Qaeda.”
In a post on his blog last month, Mr. Brachman explained:
The [counterterrorism] establishment has proven itself to be of limited use in countering the ideological movement. Yes, we are now highly effective in targeting individuals and organizations, but where the [U.S. government'] efforts are weakest is in countering the movement. Despite the millions of dollars and the countless conferences on the topic, more Americans have sought to go operational in the past two years than ever before.
Mr. Brachman also posted a video remix of jihadist training films intended to make the recruits look silly — it stressed all the hugging that goes on and played looped footage of a training exercise in which trainees walk around with other adult men on their shoulders — and discussed an article in the July issue of The Atlantic called “The Case for Calling Them Nitwits.”
In that article, Daniel Byman and Christine Fair describe the Taliban’s apparent difficulty in attracting competent suicide bombers in Afghanistan, and note that bungling of recruits like Mr. Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, “the Nigerian ‘Jockstrap Jihadist’ who boarded a Detroit-bound jet in Amsterdam with a suicidal plan in his head and some explosives in his underwear.” Taking note of these failures, they argue:
Current U.S. public diplomacy centers on selling America to the Muslim world, but we should also work to undermine some of the myths built up around our enemies by highlighting their incompetence, their moral failings, and their embarrassing antics. Beyond changing how the Muslim world perceives terrorists, we can help ourselves make smarter counterterrorism choices by being more realistic about the profile and aptitude of would-be attackers. More and more, as we work to disrupt training efforts, the jihadists we face are likely to be poorly prepared, and while that won’t always ensure a bungled attack, it suggests that terrorists are likely to select targets that are undefended and easy to hit.
It is true that otherwise serious documentaries telling the tales of failed militants do seem to be shot through with moments of unexpected comedy. In “Generation Jihad,” a BBC documentary about young wannabe jihadists — Mr. Brachman calls them “jihobbyists” — we learn that Syed Haris Ahmed, a former Georgia Tech student who was convicted in 2009 of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists for videotaping Washington landmarks, was rejected by a recruiter for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba because he traveled to Pakistan for his training course wearing combat fatigues.
While Pakistani film officials decided to ban a film that might seem like an affront to Al Qaeda, a comedy called “Four Lions” about a bungling terrorist cell won positive notice in Britain when it was released in May. The film, described as “wickedly funny” by the BBC, was written and directed by Chris Morris, an English satirist who perfected darkly comic satires of television news programs years before Jon Stewart arrived at The Daily Show.
In an interview on the Green Cine Daily podcast, after the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Mr. Morris explained that his comedy was inspired by extensive research into the lives of real plotters who failed to pull off their schemes.
Update: Some technical problems kept us from getting comments for a while this afternoon, but one reader reminds us that Charlie Chaplin gave Hitler the comic mockery treatment in “The Great Dictator,” in 1940.
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